THE HOLY RULE OF ST BENEDICT
Preferring Nothing Whatever to Christ
SETTING OUT YOUR STALL – ST BENEDICT’S PROLOGUE
The Prologue, or introduction, which begins the text is not in fact, according to the author, part of the Rule itself – that begins formally with Chapter 1. But it nonetheless forms a weighty, and comparatively lengthy, foreword, which cannot be skipped. Benedict lays out for us his fundamental notion of what monastic life is and why someone should want to become a monastic – it’s important enough to require this preamble, which, in a magisterial way, sets the tone for everything that will follow. So, we begin by allowing Benedict to set out his stall for us, and get a grip on some of his fundamental notions.
“Listen carefully, O Son, to the instructions of the Master, and attend to them with the ear of your heart”.
The very first verse of the Prologue sets the scene and disposition for the rest of the Rule. No progress will be made in this life without listening – for Benedict, it is the fundamental and formative disposition by which we enter into the single relationship which will transform us, the relationship with Christ. It’s a deep listening – an act of the heart, and so happens in the most intimate part of our being, the place, or perhaps better, state, in which the encounter with the already indwelling God takes place. This is a listening which waits to receive something important. So, the words and guidance which Benedict offers us are intended to be drawn deep within us – they are not empty, patronising or offered lightly; rather, they are intended to bring us to the fullness of life, and eventually eternal life.
There is also a textual link here to the so-called Wisdom literature of the Old Testament, which Benedict values immensely – the books of Psalms and Proverbs above all. Wisdom literature is a rather broadly cast group of writings, and embraces a very long timeline in terms of its being written down. But it is given a peculiar unity by being centred in a very practical voice – while it seeks to dwell in the very mind of God, God’s divine and creative Wisdom, it nevertheless is always rooted in the experiential. The speaker in this literature is always concerned with God’s word and instruction alive in our lives now, and wants to see life changed by the reception of the gift of Wisdom. Wisdom literature is always about how to live a better and fuller life now, by becoming always more aware of the God who continually instructs. And this holds good for Benedict’s Rule and the kind of life he wants us to lead – God speaks to us, seeking us, inviting us to conversion, giving us every opportunity to relearn, so that we can be transformed now.
So, Benedict sets himself up to speak as a father who loves those who listen, and by extension makes this the loving father who is God in Christ.
Verse 2 loses no time in bringing to the fore one of the key ideas of Benedict’s monastic living – obedience. He will devote a chapter specifically to his teaching on it (Chapter 5), but the Rule continues to be peppered with it, suggesting that obedience is a structural plank in our lives. We shouldn’t be surprised – obedience is dependent upon listening (the Latin word obedientia is derived from the Latin word for listen, audire). To obey is to listen deeply to another, to receive what is being said to us, to give it time to take shape within us, and then to respond deeply ourselves. Not for nothing will Benedict soon mention Christ, the Lord and true King – he contrasts obedience here with disobedience, and almost certainly wants us to know that Christ is the one who obeys (we should read St Paul’s Letter to the Phillippians at this point, 2:5-11) in contrast with Adam, who disobeyed. Adam’s disobedience led to sin, fall and death; but Christ’s obedience to the Father’s will led to forgiveness, resurrection and life. So, Benedict begins to introduce us to the contrast in our own lives – by obeying the will of God for us, we embrace conversion and life, and leave behind sin and death.
One of the central tenets of obedience is precisely that, in this deep listening and response, we bring our own often wayward self will into harmony with God’s will for us.
So, the Rule and the monastic life are about learning obedience – we haven’t got it yet, we still tend to go our own way, we have a lot of voices clamouring for our attention, in our ears and in our hearts – but Benedict is asking us if we want to make a beginning. In doing so, he says, we choose to fight with Christ and under his leadership. St Ignatius of Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises, will develop this precisely as the meditation on The Two Standards, where “standards” are to be treated as emblems or flags: it is a fundamental discernment for the disciple to begin by choosing to fight under Christ’s standard, and not that of the world. And this is precisely what Benedict asks of those who would follow the guidance of the Rule.
For Benedict, life isn’t worth living if it’s not filled with Sacred Scripture! He doesn’t tell us this precisely, but he shows us it abundantly. Hardly a section of the Rule goes by without some quotation from or allusion to Sacred Scripture. Very often Benedict uses Scripture in what is known as the “accommodated sense”, in other words, he allows it to apply itself directly to his life or what he is trying to say, rather than it being treated absolutely literally. This isn’t twisting Scripture to make it mean what you want it to mean – that would be quite contrary to the Spirit who is Scripture’s ultimate author and interpreter. Rather, this is truly a lectio divina, since Benedict shows us that he has read and come to know the sacred texts, and the text has read him and his life and knitted itself into the fabric of his relationship with God. In this sense, Scripture really is the true rule of the disciple’s life.
Benedict makes this explicit in verse 21 of the Prologue: “Clothed then with faith and the performance of good works, let us set out on this way (the way of life which the Lord shows us), with the Gospel for our guide, that we may deserve to see him who has called us to his kingdom”.
The Gospel here is not simply the four texts in the New Testament which bear that particular title, but rather all of Sacred Scripture which proclaims Christ and his Good News – and all of Sacred Scripture, as St Jerome tells us, speaks to us of Christ. So, this above all is our true rule of life and our guide through this life. In this sense, the Rule of St Benedict is an interpretive key, a hermeneutical tool, which helps those who find that the call to this form of monasticism is their specific vocation in life. But, of course, it is not just for them!
The Rule teems with a wisdom which readily finds a place in all walks of Christian life and discipleship, and so becomes a Gospel tool for whoever would have it.
This is vitally important – above all we follow the one Teacher and Law Giver who is Christ – Benedict, by his gift of the Rule and teaching, offers a way which leads us to him!
This rather peculiar word – to us, at any rate – occurs only in the Prologue of the Rule, but 4 times in all (vv22, 23, 24, and 29). The Latin tabernaculum, which is what Benedict uses here, will have been full of resonance for the ancients. For us who may wish to reflect on the pivotal journey – both geographical and spiritual – which the People of Israel made from Egypt to the Promised Land, the great exodus, the term remains central to our idea of monastic life and Christian experience. The tent is the place which God chooses to have among his wandering people during those forty years of traversing the desert, and so becomes the focal point indicating his Presence. It is here that the Ark will be housed when the people make their stops along the way. And it is in the tent that Moses, the first Law Giver, approaches the Lord and, in his Presence, speaks with him, as a friend speaks with his friend.
When Israel finally finds peace in the unity given her by David, it will be David’s son, Solomon, who builds a new and more permanent tent – the Temple – and consecrates it. The exultant texts which deal with this (Chronicles 5:22 and following) leave us in no doubt that Israel knew what it was to have a God who made his home among them. This was a people like none other, and a place like none other, and a God like none other. And of course, the People are already a consecrated nation by means of the covenant which sealed this relationship right back at Sinai in the desert. The Tent and the Temple are about a God whose permanence is indisputable, and who accompanies his people at all times.
So, when we come to the New Testament, it should be no surprise that the Temple occupies a central part in Jesus’ discourses and experience. In a sense he takes possession of it quite explicitly – he is presented there, he is found there, he teaches there, he clears it of the stalls and money changers tables, he heals there. And in John’s Gospel, above all, he is identified with it. Right from the moment of John’s Prologue, the opening 18 verses of his Gospel, this identification becomes clear: The Word became flesh, he lived among us… Not just lived here but “tabernacled” – the Incarnate Word is Tent, and Tabernacle, and Temple. And it is this holy dwelling place, this tent of the kingdom, to which we now hasten for Benedict. Above all, of course, Jesus is the Temple in which the new covenant is made, a covenant which is our salvation, and which we seek to enter by means of the ascetical life. This becomes the whole point of our Christian-monastic conversion – to become one with the mystery of Christ. Christ, then, is the rock against whom he dash all those things and thoughts that would prevent our entering into the tent of the kingdom (v. 28), and he is the rock upon which we build our own tent with stability (v. 34).
A School for the Lord’s Service
In many ways, this is the whole point of the Rule: Benedict, by offering these regulations, establishes (a very formal word, indeed; “found” or “constitute” might do just as well for the Latin: Constituenda est ergo nobis) a school which has the declared purpose of training those who are there in the service of the Lord. We might remind ourselves, for a moment, of the stirring words which Benedict wrote near the opening of the Rule: if you are ready to give up your own will, once and for all, and armed with the strong and noble weapons of obedience to do battle for the true King, Christ the Lord (v. 3).
So, this service which we are about to undertake has a military ring to it! This will not have been foreign to Benedict’s first hearers and readers and followers – the Roman army was still very much a force, and more than that, entering the army was entering upon a way of life, often undertaken for one’s lifetime. Those who retired from long military service – the veterans of many campaigns – were given land, traditionally, to farm and pass the rest of their days. To belong to the Roman army was to share in a binding oath which brought together those who took it into an unbreakable bond of fellowship. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that this is what St James had in mind when he wrote in his Letter about pure, unspoilt religion (James 1:26-27) – he has in mind the re-ligio, the oath which binds together into community, an oath which was taken by every Roman soldier. In the same way, those who take the true oath, who practice the same religion, are bound together forever.
Undoubtedly, Benedict had some idea of the combat which was undertaken by his esteemed predecessors in the desert of Egypt. The notion that we enter into a battle has been somewhat lost, and yet it is well established in Christian wisdom and teaching. It does not, by any means, seek to glorify war – nothing should ever be allowed to do that – but it does recognise that those who take the life of Christian discipleship seriously will have a fight on their hands! And, by and large, on many different levels, and against many different opposing forces, we do. So, the proposition of a school of the Lord’s service is not just about learning how to deliver this service – it is about recognising that we are joined in a school with others. This notion is contained in the Latin term schola – it’s not just about a place in which we learn. Schola is an already established group. A Schola Cantorum is not a place where people learn how to sing music for the liturgy – it simply means the “group of singers”, established and formed as such to provide that function. And so here, undoubtedly – the school of the Lord’s service is a school already founded, already in existence, where we join with others, who are of like mind with ourselves, and who wish to serve in this way.
And the service is the very life. Benedict reminds us that, during Lent, we should add to the usual measure of our service (servitutis nostrae) by undertaking some extra good work – private prayer, a little more abstinence from food, or drink, or talk, or sleep, or whatever might be deemed appropriate and proportionate. And the service by which we daily take up the tools of our trade are our prayer together and our work, our obedience and our silence, our humility and the other tools which Benedict outlines in Chapter 4.
While saying that the establishment of the school of the Lord’s service is the very point of the Rule we might qualify this by saying it is the most immediate purpose. Nothing else can take the place of the call to and our desire for eternal life.
“Is there anyone here who yearns for life, and desires to see good days?” Benedict has the Lord say to us (vv.14-15) Then he goes on immediately to interpret it: “If you desire true and eternal life….” (v.17). And I suppose we might ask: Who doesn’t desire it? Benedict is speaking here to the very central motivating force in the life of the one who follows Christ: we want to be with him for eternity, and that is why he came in the flesh: to make this eternal life a reality and possibility for all who would accept it. The Rule, again and again, returns to this point – as we shall see, it is often by contrasting the possibility of eternal life and blessedness with the equally real possibility of hell and damnation that Benedict drives this home. He wishes us to realise that the work that we must undertake must be done today – hence the great urgency which flavours the Prologue itself, and which lies always under the surface for the rest of the Rule: “Run while you have the light of life, that the darkness of death may not overtake you” (v.13); “if we wish to dwell in the tent of this kingdom, we will never arrive unless we run there by doing good deeds” (v. 22); not a day is to be lost in this work: “the Lord waits for us daily to translate into action, as we should, his holy teachings” (v. 35); “If we wish to reach eternal life, even as we should avoid the torments of hell, then – while there is still time, while we are in this body and have the time to accomplish all these things by the light of life – we must run and do now what will profit us forever” (vv. 42-44); and finally, “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”.
Benedict wants us to start this work now, without further delay. He is consumed by the conviction that we must seize the present moment which has been given to us and live it as fully as possible, without distraction, without falling into fault and temptation and sin, using the tools which are given us – abundantly and freely – and allowing ourselves to be shaped by Christ’s love for us and our love for him, lived out in our love made real in community.
As a plan for action, as a vision to motivate and give impetus to our decisions, the Prologue to the Holy Rule is a piece far beyond its time, and immensely appealing to us in ours, who would take our lives in hand and allow our discipleship to be redeeming.
-Part of our ‘Holy Rule of St Benedict’ series-