Introducing the Holy Rule


Preferring Nothing Whatever to Christ


Having taken something of a whistle stop tour of the life and times of our Holy Father, St Benedict, we need to spend a little time considering what is, as far as we know, the only document which he left to posterity.  It’s not simply that it is, in many ways, Benedict himself speaking, but rather that the Rule has exerted an extraordinary influence in european matters since Benedict drafted it, although it’s authority took a little time to become established.  In any case, to begin to work our way into the Rule we have to, so to speak, get introduced to this personality.

The Origins of the Holy Rule

In the first instance, it’s important to note that Benedict’s Rule was not the only monastic rule or authoritative text which was at the disposal of monks in the early middle ages.  Indeed, Benedict continually acknowledges his own sources by his language, phrasing, and straight quoting of other authors.  So, perhaps somewhat contrary to what Gregory the Great says of Benedict at the beginning of his account of his life – that he left Rome “wisely unknowing and unknowingly wise” – Benedict demonstrates not only a very wide familiarity with available monastic texts but also the ability to manipulate them, reshape them, and give them his own very particular stamp and flavour.  He indicates a little of this in Chapter 73:

“But for anyone hastening on to the perfection of the monastic life, there are the teachings of the holy Fathers, the observance of which will lead him to the very heights of perfection.  What page, what passage of the inspired books of the Old and New Testaments is not the truest of guides for human life?  What book of the holy catholic Fathers does not resoundingly summon us along the true way to reach the Creator?  Then, besides the Conferences of the Fathers, their Institutes and their Lives, there is also the rule of our holy father Basil.”

RB 73

In a few words, Benedict directs our attention to some of his sources: the fathers of the Church, and especially, although he doesn’t name him but shows throughout the Rule that he knows his work, St Augustine.  Then he specifically cites the Catholic fathers – here, Benedict is showing, for all to see, that, in a time of doctrinal uncertainty and outright heresy, he places himself in the line of descent from those who promote the orthodox teachings about the faith, and aligns himself with them.  But then he reveals himself as the great pragmatist that his Rule shows him to be – in citing the Conferences and Institutes Benedict indicates one of the major sources for his Rule – the works of John Cassian.  This great bridge between Egyptian desert wisdom and european monasticism becomes a pillar for Benedict in his Rule – but he cannot name him.  Cassian, not long dead, had been hammered toward the end of his life by supporters of Augustine, who saw Cassian as semi-Pelagian, and so not in line with Augustine’s teaching on grace and free will.  But still withall, Benedict knows Cassian’s value, and it is a value which has been newly opened for us too in recent decades especially.  Lastly, Benedict points to the great monastic master of the east, Basil the Great, one of the three Cappadocian fathers.

In addition, Benedict probably knew something of the monastic traditions of the desert fathers and mothers, communicated through their Lives and the collections of stories which incarnate their wisdom.  So, we see that he has at his fingertips a healthy resource from which to glean material.

But above all, Benedict is a man who is immersed in Sacred Scripture.  In the few words above he holds out that every passage and page of Scripture is the truest of guides for human life.  There is no selection here, no acceptance of these passages and rejection of those – every part of Scripture provides this guide.  And if we are to pinpoint the most influential source for Benedict as he drafts this Rule it must be Sacred Scripture: in terms of the front runners, he quotes the book of Psalms some 51 times; then Proverbs follows in popularity with 9 quotations.  In New Testament terms, the letters of St Paul are quoted 29 times, the gospel of Matthew some 15 times.  Frequently, Benedict does not quote directly but alludes in his own way to Scriptural words: so, in terms of totals for both testaments, 141 direct quotations are taken from the Old Testament, but he makes 232 indirect allusions; from the New Testament he quotes 64 times, but uses 135 allusions.  This makes for a startling observation – in the first place, Sacred Scripture forms the spine of the text of the Rule; in the second page, Benedict’s knowledge of and love of Scripture is wonderful to behold!  And, of course, as we shall see, he expects his monks to develop a similar knowledge and love.

The “Rule of the Master”

We can’t speak about Benedict’s Rule unless we make reference to another rule which he obviously knew – obviously, because Benedict uses very significant portions of this other rule in his own, but in a very definite and personal way.  This so-called Rule of the Master (Regula Magistri) seems to have been written in Italy some decades before Benedict wrote his rule, and the identity of its author is unknown.  However, because of the similarity to Benedict’s Rule, it has been suggested, and this by one who was the foremost authority on the Rule of St Benedict in the latter part of the 20th century, Fr Adalbert de Vogüé, that the author may in fact have been the young Benedict.

The Rule of the Master (RM) is about three times as long as RB, and has a certain and different orientation.  It is more strict in its language, observances, and the discipline to be meted out for faults; it elevates the abbot to a very exalted position, and makes him the undisputed authority in all matters; and the monks themselves must vie for his approval, even to the extent of who should succeed him when that time comes.  It has been suggested that RM’s more rigorous content and character may just reflect the zeal and idealism of a younger man.  We should remember, of course, that Benedict’s young man experience of cenobitic monastic life was far from positive – unruly and lazy monks and those who wanted to poison him!  So, he might, if drawing up a rule with that as his experience, err towards the strict.

In any case, when Benedict came to write the Rule which we now have he had mellowed somewhat in his life and experience – it is the product of much reflection, much personal insight and prayer, and a life lived searching for God who does not punish in the first instance but loves and asks for love in return.  But from the Master Benedict brings much into his Rule – great monastic virtues like obedience, silence, humility, asceticism, patience and perseverance, the art of spiritual warfare, the primacy of prayer, the abbot as spiritual teacher.  To these he adds his own very special monastic traits – the fraternal love which the monks must have for one another, a wonderful sense of the dignity of each person, the art of mercy seen in the forgiveness which is stretched for those who commit faults and who are given every opportunity to reform, and great sensitivity towards those who are weak and have needs which must be seen to.  In many senses, if the RM and the RB are indeed by the same author they demonstrate a marvellous personal journey and maturation in what constitutes sound monastic living and the basis of human community leading to communion with God.

Above all, however, Benedict stamps his Rule with its centring on Christ.

Christ in the Holy Rule

From the very outset Benedict leaves us in no doubt that the Rule reflects a relationship between the monk and Christ.  We know that this seeks to establish a doctrinally sound basis for Benedict’s monastic spirituality and theology, although it’s doubtful that he would have seen it through those lenses particularly.  God calls from the beginning so that the one who hears him will serve and do battle for Christ, the true King and Lord; it is he who shows us the way of life, which is the Gospel; it is against him as rock that we should dash all tempting thoughts which afflict us; it is his school of service in which we learn to run on the road that leads to salvation; and sharing in his patience and sufferings we will also deserve to share his kingdom also.

And this is only the Prologue to the Rule!

Christ is the true leader in the monastery – the abbot holds the place of Christ in the midst of the brethren.  This is important – Christ-centredness also allows for the abbot, or superior, to be in the middle, at the centre, rather than ruling from above.  This is a model of Church which is demonstrated to us 1500 years before its formal recognition!  Christ must be the object, and only object, of our love – the love of Christ must come before all else (Chp 4); and crowning the Rule, in a sense, (Chp 72) those who live in the monastery and under an abbot and a rule must prefer nothing whatever to Christ  – consider, for a moment, the richness of those phrases if one has to discuss the positive choice which is chastity, or celibacy!

And should we think that Christ will only be encountered in the strong, Benedict reminds us that it is particularly in the weak and the sick that Christ is served (Chp 36); and he is met not only in the monastery but in those who come to the monastery – guests are to be welcomed as Christ (Chp 53).

If we were able to take one thing from the Rule, learn one way of behaving, change one way of perceiving the world around us, it might be that we should acquire Benedict’s eyes and his inner sense – to see Christ everywhere, in all situations, in everyone we meet, to welcome him thus, serve him, lean upon him – what a difference that would make to how we live for ourselves and one another!

The Structure of the Holy Rule

Benedict adopts the layout of the Rule from the model presented by the Rule of the Master, but also shows himself adept enough to change what he feels needs changing.  Having set out his stall, as it were, in a fairly hefty but rich Prologue, he goes on, over the course of a further seventy three chapters, of varying lengths, although mostly short, to outline key aspects of the monk’s life and some of the virtues which should be one’s aim in the monastic way – obedience and silence rank high, as one would expect, but it is perhaps in his chapter on the acquiring of humility that Benedict first shows his deep awareness of the process of inner growth that a monastic strives to achieve (Chp 7). 

As one would expect, Benedict spends a considerable amount of time outlining how the community prayer – called the Work of God, or Opus Dei – is to be performed.  That said – and it is provided with significant detail – he leaves the superior free to amend and alter his scheme for the psalms and readings if that person sees a way which better suits his own community.  And that is, it’s worth saying, another characteristic of Benedict’s Rule – he allows for necessary discernment and pragmatism to answer practically lived monastic situations – this is a Rule which has its feet planted in the soil of experience, not gasping for breath because the head is in the clouds!

Then, almost balancing the work of prayer in the oratory, Benedict lays out the discipline for the blessings to be received at table.  The common meal and the refectory are times and places of special community consecration for Benedict – there are prayers, sacred reading, silences, blessings, and a fraternal communion which is hallowed.  Here is a man who knows that we accompany one another in many and varied ways, and none of them should be despised or taken for granted.  The nourishment which we receive through our communion with one another and God in prayer is mirrored in the mundane, but nonetheless essential, communion which we experience when sharing meals, thanking God for food, being part of a fraternity gathered at the table, just as Christ himself did while he was on earth.

After this, Benedict addresses various practical considerations in monastic life – the reception of new brothers, the work which is to be done each day, what happens when a brother goes out on a journey (what should happen when he gets back!), the sort of clothing which the monastic should receive, the election of an abbot, and other appropriate matters.  In all of this, too, we can note an air of simplicity and frugality – the community are to be circumspect and discerning about how they use the materials given them, needs are to be generously identified and wisely accounted for – this should be a community which lives with an acute awareness that all which is needed for life is given in the monastery, and seeking after other things becomes superfluous and a distraction.  The Rule it would seem, received an addendum at some stage – the last few chapters seem to address situations which may have come up and which he had not written about, and so it ends twice, if you like.  But the last chapter – 73 – allows that not everything is included in this present Rule.  And indeed the Rule can’t be said to be an exhaustive treatment of daily monastic life, as it stands.

One of the more interesting lacunae in the contents of the Rule is the absence of a so-called disciplinary code – the details of how faults are to be corrected.  On a good number of occasions Benedict indicates that, for faults and for the recalcitrant, punishments are to be applied, but more often than not these are not specified and simply we are told that it is to happen “according to the Rule”.  So, the possibility arises that either Benedict intended to add a code outlining penances or another rule or code needed to be referred to.  This latter might very well be the case – it would be wrong to imagine that Benedict’s Rule was the only one known in monasteries of his time, and certainly it is possible, and probably, that other rules and codices lent something to daily life in a monastery.  And this applies to the one punishment which Benedict does name – excommunication.  Canonically we have a very definite notion of what this very weighty and exceptional censure is today, but for Benedict it could not have been as sweeping a punishment.  Rather we see, as far as we can, that excommunication did mirror the fact that the erring monastic had, by his actions and repeated refusal to reform, put himself little by little out toward the fringes of the community,and this is reflected in punishment – gradual exclusion from the two essential fraternal actions of a monastic day, prayer and common meal.  But it is of the greatest importance to note again how compassionate Benedict is towards the offender – every opportunity, practically and spiritually, is created to allow for rehabilitation and reintegration.

The Aims of the Rule – Why did Benedict Write It?

It’s good to say that Benedict didn’t see himself as a great european legislator, setting in place the solid building blocks of western monasticism.  This is a view which belongs to the retrospective view of history and monastics and scholars, and the development of the Rule and it’s almost blanket application – with Benedict of Aniane at the beginning of the ninth century – would have been unknown to Benedict of Nursia.  Rather we see Benedict writing for his own community, probably at Monte Cassino, and the other monasteries in some way associated with that one.  So, Benedict, as we have already hinted, isn’t writing a monastic treatise here – he’s thinking about the day to day survival of a community of like-minded men who have a desire which sets them apart and calls them apart.  In fact, the Rule would be fairly nonsensical if it didn’t have a practical context in which to acquire flesh and bones.

That said, Benedict is clear from the outset that the Rule is about going beyond this world and attaining the rewards of the next – it’s about getting to heaven, and not wasting your time getting there either!  In the Prologue he continually hammers home that the Christian life, and the life of a monastery, has an urgency about it – we are to hasten to listen to and obey God’s voice and invitation addressed to us.  Towards the close of the Prologue, perhaps fearful that what he has already said might fall on deaf ears, he uses two exquisite phrases:

“We must, then, prepare our hearts and bodies for the battle of holy obedience to his instructions.  What is not possible to us by nature, let us ask the Lord to supply by the help of his grace.  If we wish to reach eternal life, even as we avoid the torments of hell, then – while there is still time, while we are in this body and have time to accomplish all these things by the light of life – we must run and do what will profit us forever….  Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation.  It is bound to be narrow at the outset.  But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.”

And that running, so emblematic of the Prologue, is balanced out in the very last chapter, Chp 73:

Are you hastening towards your heavenly home?  Then with Christ’s help, keep this little rule that we have written for beginners”.

There is a charming but important point made here, and this is not false humility but a very great show of truthfulness – we are all beginners in the art of the spiritual craft and the spiritual life; none of us can say that he has it all under control, that we have learned all there is, that there is nothing more to be gleaned from the good example of others and above all from the Word of Truth himself.

The Rule, then, exists to provide a tool and structured way of life to persons who feel the call to this life of complete renunciation, and that includes above all renunciation of self for the sake of the Gospel, to be able to undertake that Gospel work.  From this point of view it still breathes deeply and so is a living tool – we might even say that the Rule has a personality, and not just Benedict’s – since it grows from the Word of God in Sacred Scripture it is a vehicle by which the Holy Spirit moves to accompany us.  He is rarely mentioned in the Rule – but crucially he is the one who is the main protagonist in the work of humility:

“Now, therefore, having ascended all these steps of humility, the monk will quickly arrive at that perfect love of God which casts out fear.  Through this love, all that he once performed with dread, he will now begin to observe without effort, as though naturally, from habit, no longer out of fear of hell, but out of love for Christ, good habit and delight in virtue.  All this the Lord will by the Holy Spirit graciously manifest in his workman now cleansed of vices and sins”.

RB 7

So, the Spirit, who is Christ’s Spirit and the Soul of our souls, is the life-giver proper here – he is the one who, as bond of love between the Father and the Son, gives life by becoming the only principle which we need to find life – unfettered Gospel love which plants our feet firmly in Truth.  Thus there can be no other purpose to the Rule than the purpose of monastic life – to achieve conformity with Christ, to really be able to set aside the false selves which so hampers us in our love, and to embrace the true self who makes Christ present.  In this sense, the medieval idea of an in-between coming of Christ, between the first in the flesh and the last at the Judgement, and which was a key-note theme in our early Cistercian fathers – Guerric of Igny in particular – is held out to us: Christ makes himself present in our lives when we live the Gospel completely, thus making his life and virtues ours, as we become other Christs present to the Christs we find around us.

-Part of our ‘The Holy Rule of St Benedict’ series-

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