The Rule of Saint Benedict

“Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart.”

Benedict of Nursia lived in Italy during the collapse of the Roman Empire and during his life, the empire was in constant battle with barbarian tribes.  Leaving his home in Nursia, in the region of Umbria during the reign of the barbarian king, Theodoric, Benedict arrived in Rome to attend school but, disgusted with the paganism and dissolution that he witnessed, he eschewed worldly cares, taking residence in a cave at Subiaco, thirty miles east of Rome.

Saint Benedict (circa 1437-1446)
Fra Angelico
source Wikipedia

During three years in his cave, Benedict became admired for his spiritual devotion, and when an abbot in a nearby monastery passed away, Benedict was convinced, against his inclination, to take his place.  But twice, monks envious of Benedict attempted to poison him, from which he was saved by miracles.  He eventually took some disciples and founded a monastery on the mountain above Cassino, located eighty miles south of Rome.  As his fame spread, even the great king of the Goths, Totila, sought out an audience with him.

Benedict called his Rule, “a little book for beginners,” and he covers such disciplines as obedience, humility, contemplation and living in community.  Yet he first introduces us to four types of monks, the cenobites (belonging to a monastery and serving under an abbot), the anchorites or hermits (having lived in a monastery for a long time and their zeal for the monastic life has cooled), the sarabites (detestable monks who have “a character as soft as lead”, and are captured by worldly delights, a law unto themselves), and gyrovagues (drifters who are captives to their own selfish desires).  His rule is to assist the first class of monks.

Some specific areas Benedict covers are church songs and readings, excommunication and re-entry, working hours and manual labour, personal gifts, community rank, etc.  The importance of humility was highly emphasized:

The Rules of Humility

  1. Keep the fear of God always before your eyes
  2. Love not your own will but the Lord’s
  3. Submit to your superior in obedience
  4. In obedience, submit to unjustice and difficulties with endurance
  5. Do not conceal (from the abbott) any sinful thought or wrongdoing
  6. Be content with low or menial treatment
  7. Admit with not only your tongue, but with your heart, of your inferiority
  8. Do only what is endorsed by common rule in the monatery
  9. Control your tongue and be silent unless asked a question
  10. Be not given to ready laughter
  11. Speak gently, seriously and with modesty
  12. Manifest humility in bearing, as well as in heart

There were a number of interesting revelations in the rule, which I found rather interesting.  Benedict states that the Lord usually reveals what is best to the younger monks, yet still the abbot has the final decision.  This is a fascinating merging of both older and younger wisdom in a hierarchical framework which is designed to work best for all parties.

Totila and St. Benedict (1400-10)
Spinello Aretino
source Wikipedia

While Benedict’s rule is, in many ways, strict, I was actually surprised at the flexibility within it.  There is grace for those who stumble and understanding of human weaknesses, as is evidenced by the description of abbots and their moral duties:

“……. He must hate faults but love the brothers.  When he must punish them, he should use prudence and avoid extremes; otherwise, by rubbing too hard to remove the rust, he may break the vessel.  He is to distrust his own frailty and remember not to crush the bruised reed.  By this we do not mean that he should allow faults to flourish, but rather, as we have already said, he should prune them away with prudence and love as he sees best for each individual. Let him strive to be loved rather than feared.”

Apparently prior to Benedict’s rule, the theological view was that each person was struggling towards God, and spiritual direction had a very personal aspect to it.  Benedict’s rule signified a turning point in perception, eventually making the process more regimented than personal.  The Rule has further reaching implications as well, being the forerunner to the rule of law and written constitutions, assisting in the shaping of medieval ideas.

Benedict’s abbey at Monte Cassino was severely damaged by Allied bombing during World War II, having to be rebuilt afterwards.  A bit of trivia:  author Walter J. Miller was part of the bombing raids on Monte Cassino and was severely affected by them.  His dystopian book A Canticle for Leibowitz has echoes of both the monastery and his struggles to come to terms with his part in its destruction.  It’s a great book, if anyone is looking for a recommendation.

Rebuilt abbey of Monte Cassino
source Wikimedia Commons

14 thoughts on “The Rule of Saint Benedict

  1. St. Benedict: Rules of Humility have stood the test of time. This sounds like a wonderful book for a pensive mood. Trivia: I did not know about the connection to Walter J. Miller, thanks!

  2. My kids and I just finished reading about Thomas Aquinas, who came long after St. Benedict; however, we read that it was under the care of the Benedictines at Monte Cassino where he grew up and studied for awhile.

    (P.S. In my next life, I want to live at a monastery or abbey.)

  3. Very interesting! I really like the tolernace and love that goes behind the absolute subservience to authority. A very interesting balance! P.S. where do you find these books???!!!!

  4. Humility is something that really needs to be cultivated and practiced. Oh, to be naturally humble! 🙂 For a very short book, it has many good precepts packed into it!

  5. That's interesting trivia that I didn't know. I really have to read some Aquinas one day, but he's one author who scares the daylights out of me.

    I would love to live in a monastery or abbey too! So peaceful! We have one close to us where you can do a retreat. Maybe one day!

  6. There is balance to it and an obvious note of caring towards their fellow monks. However, I kind of prefer the Desert Fathers, some of whom were temperate and soft and kind, and others of whom were a little crotchety and brusk. They allowed for people's different personalities within their common faith.

    These books? I find them here, I find them there, honestly I find them everywhere ….. (don't I sound like Dr. Seuss?) But Jean finds tons more eclectic books than me. Really! The Anchoress Rule!?

  7. You are right about the desert fathers. I especially loved their description that John Julius Norwich provides of their character and behavior – with their eccentricities and madness and sheer undiluted joy! You do sound like Dr. Seuss! Hahhhaaaa…I agree…The Anchoress Rule takes the top prize!

  8. The Rule of Saint Benedict is definitely one I need to get to in the next year. That and Imitation of Christ. The Rule, though written for men, was the basis for most if not all female cloistered communities in the Latin West. Heloise writes to Abelard that aspects are just not suitable for women.

  9. That's very interesting, Fariba. Was it ever adjusted to be more suitable for women?

    The Divine Comedy is up next for me, but I may skip it because I've read it reasonably recently, which means that The Cloud of Unknowing is next. I'll have to decide ….

  10. I'd never heard of this, but definitely want to read it now. I could add it to my Greek / Roman challenge… Thanks for blogging about this 🙂

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