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Exploring the Rule of Saint Benedict - 2

Updated on February 11, 2011
Saint Benedict writing the Rule, painting 1926 by Hermann Nigg (1849-1928)
Saint Benedict writing the Rule, painting 1926 by Hermann Nigg (1849-1928)

Exploring the Rule of Saint Benedict - 2

In one of my other hubs I wrote in general terms about the Rule of Saint Benedict (RB).

All orders of monks and nuns will follow a structure, a routine – a rule. RB has been in existence for 1500 years. Benedict was influenced by other early religious figures; Saint John Cassian (c360 - 435); Saint Augustine of Hippo and an anonymous source known only as 'The Rule of The Master' are the principle figures.

RB is set out in 73 short chapters, with a prologue. It can be found in a chaptered version or broken into sections for daily reading. Some versions contain a commentary by each section.

Much is devoted to the practical daily running of a monastery; some is devoted in turn to the types of monks, discipline and the daily offices. But at the rule’s core is obedience and humility.

Its middle ground strikes a balance between the enthusiasm and zeal of the individual and the tight institutionalism and structure of monastic life.

It is accepted and used as a central inspiration for communities, as they adapt it to the living conditions of today.

woodcut by Gabrio Tosti
woodcut by Gabrio Tosti

I’ll begin with the final words of the prologue......

'And so we are going to establish
a school for the service of the Lord.
In founding it we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome.'

The prologue itself really sets the scene

'Let us arise, then, at last,
for the Scripture stirs us up, saying,
"Now is the hour for us to rise from sleep" (Rom. 13:11).'

'Having our loins girded, therefore,
with faith and the performance of good works (Eph. 6:14),
let us walk in His paths
by the guidance of the Gospel,’

From here the chapters flow through the order of the daily offices; Psalms; readings and reverence in prayer.

The Spirit of silence, reverence in prayer, humility and obedience are key chapters. Benedict uses the metaphor of a ladder to illustrate how we can ascend to the ultimate place in god’s love. Chapter 7 on humility is an inspiring chapter.

Image of St Benedict with a cross from 1415
Image of St Benedict with a cross from 1415

Benedictines are famed for their hospitality. Chapter 53 is devoted to the welcoming of guests. The rule is very clear;

'Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ,
for He is going to say, "I came as a guest, and you received Me" (Matt. 25:35). And to all let due honour be shown, especially to the domestics of the faith and to pilgrims.'

Guests are to have food prepared in their own kitchen, along with the Abbott's food - showing how much importance was placed on hospitality. Two brothers are appointed for a period of one year to this work. This section also directs that when things are slack, the two brothers are to find useful work elsewhere – no sitting in the kitchen with a cuppa and chatting!

There is a rather charming urban legend about a disputed section of the rule – where it is advised that should guests be ‘contumacious’ (stubbornly perverse or rebellious; wilfully and obstinately disobedient.) then they should depart the monastery – however, if they are reluctant ‘two stout monks’ are to explain it to them! Some mischievous postings by students at the University of California Berkeley faculty club may explain this particular urban legend!

Daily work is a key part of monastic life ‘Idleness is the enemy of the soul' we are told. Benedict recognises the value of work in the monastic tradition. Chapter 16 tells us;

'For then are they truly monastics
when they live by the labour of their hands,'
as did our Fathers and the Apostles.'

But he recognises the differences in the community when he adds;

'Let all things be done with moderation, however,
for the sake of the faint-hearted.'

The Rule was one of the first written manuscripts which embodied a rule of law, social structure and order. It also brought manual labour to an honoured level – recognising it not only as work to the glory of God, but work to give pride and dignity to those who labour anywhere.

St Benedict  - from a fresco by Fra Angelico (c. 1395  February 18, 1455)
St Benedict - from a fresco by Fra Angelico (c. 1395 February 18, 1455)

The measure of food and drink is also subject to the rule. Monastic life is a quite vegetarian affair, however, in chapter 39 Benedict says

‘Except the sick who are very weak, let all abstain entirely
from eating the flesh of four-footed animals.’

Benedictine kitchens have quite a reputation in some parts and attract visitors far over and above pilgrims! But Benedict warns of overindulgence;

'Above all things, however,
over-indulgence must be avoided
and a monk must never be overtaken by indigestion;'

No Alka Seltzer or Rennies in Benedict's time!

Compassion for the weak and the sick is a golden thread throughout Benedictine life. A chapter is devoted to the care of the sick. Whilst every care is to be taken of them, Benedict goes on to say;

'But let the sick on their part consider
that they are being served for the honour of God,
and let them not annoy their sisters who are serving them
by their unnecessary demands.'

Even those in monastic life are not expected to have the patience of a saint all the time!

The Cellarer is a fairly senior function in the monastery. The rule tells us that;

'As cellarer of the monastery
let there be chosen from the community
one who is wise, of mature character, sober,
not a great eater, not haughty, not excitable,
not offensive, not slow, not wasteful,
but a God-fearing man
who may be like a father to the whole community.'

Responsible for its provisions and ‘utensils’; one particular task involves the kitchen equipment, it is passed on each week to the monks who rotate to catering duties. It’s a kind of monastic spoon counting!

So – we have a flavour of Benedictine life – its structure, rhythm and management. This rule has been an important thread and basis for developing civilisation throughout Europe. The Benedictines are one of the leading orders in the monastic family.

As you browse through the chapters you will see its structure and form; words of kindness laced with firmness and a no nonsense approach.

There are successful groups of lay people who follow the rule as closely as they can in their daily lives. They are known as Oblates. Many monasteries have a ‘properly formed’ Oblate group attached to them.

The rule can provide inspiration, encouragement, stability and direction. It’s a good read whatever your faith or none; I commend it to you for its meaning, humour and spiritual strength.


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    • itakins profile image

      itakins 8 years ago from Irl

      Lovely hub-Good old St Benedict.Beautifully written.