THE HOLY RULE OF ST BENEDICT
Preferring Nothing Whatever to Christ
WHAT KIND OF CHRISTIAN AM I – BENEDICT’S KINDS OF MONKS
If we ever thought that the Rule which Benedict writes is just for monastics, then, interestingly, Chapter 1 of his Rule should dispel that notion. He calls it “The Kinds of Monks”, but he might well have said “The Kinds of Disciples”, or indeed “The Kinds of Christians”. Wrapped up in the categories which he presents for our consideration are a great many of the virtues – and the vices, of course – that we associate with growing in perfection in living the Gospel, or choosing the broad and easy road that leads away from eternal life in the kingdom and on to perdition. So, in this piece let’s look at those types which Benedict sketches for us, and see, firstly, where we’d like to be and secondly, what we’d like to avoid.
Right at the opening of the chapter Benedict gives us notice of the type of monk that he’s going to spend the rest of the Rule talking about. And in his little title to the Rule, which precedes the body of this chapter text, he tells us that it’s a rule because it regulates the life of those who obey it. “Regulate” is directly taken from the Latin for rule – “regula” – which in turn is related to the word in Latin for king or ruler – “rex”. So, a rule is something which helps govern or provide good order in life and behaviour. This is the same for this Rule – it seeks to provide an orderly way of life which, ultimately, benefits both the individual and the community. This is important to note from the outset – a body of law cuts two ways – both for the individual and for the society to which the individual belongs. Essentially this is what Thomas Aquinas says law is for – something based in reason and directed to the common good. Being directed to the common good it also has the intention of establishing order. Thus, lawlessness can never be an acceptable way for groups or individuals within society to behave, because they strike, in the first instance, at the common good by attacking the order within society which stands at the service of the common good.
This isn’t, of course, a useless tangential comment. The cenobites, or community monks, choose quite deliberately to live under a Rule and a superior – so they choose from the beginning of their life in the monastery to recognise the benefit of an ordered way of life, and hopefully live accordingly. But, a little like Benedict himself, we can leave the cenobites to the end of this article.
Benedict holds out for our consideration a second type of monk who we know as anchorite or hermit. He has quite a bit to say about the hermit monk, and all of it is good. Indeed, he holds the hermit monk up to be a paragon of monastic living. But this is not a life into which one can rush. We know that Benedict is speaking from experience here: Gregory the Great, in his Dialogue about Benedict’s life, tells us that Benedict first left the world to live as a hermit, but, finding that it was not yet the way to God for him, gravitated toward the community way of monastic living. Benedict will have known the example of the Egyptian monks and hermits, beginning with Anthony the Great. In fact, the great desert settlements in Egypt were still very much in existence in Benedict’s day, and attracted those who wished to flee the city for the solitary and detached life. Benedict is clear, however – the solitary life is a life which is a pinnacle, a life which lies at the end of a process of transformation by grace. One has to acquire first the tools of the spiritual life in order to be able to enter into what he calls “single-handed” combat. However, we should read carefully what he teaches – the anchorite, or hermit, still battles with the vices of body and mind – what we might call the afflictive thoughts – and cannot do this without God’s help. We never, at any stage in this life, no matter our perceived spiritual perfection or how others perceive us , can live without the assistance of grace. Holiness remains the great goal for all of us, be it in community or in the desert.
Again, it’s important to note that the anchorite has reached this point where he or she is ready to be alone with the help and guidance of others. The anchorite’s life and curriculum vitae will read like a manual for community monastic living! They have spent already a long time in community, being tried and tested. They have passed through the first fervour of monastic life, and so have become, in a sense, emotionally purified and reached a degree of tranquillity which gives true rest to their lives. In pointing this out, Benedict insists that we must give ourselves over to the care and direction of others; the support, encouragement, correction (and Benedict mentions correction quite a few times in the Rule) and love, above all, that they offer us, and that we accept from them, prompts our growth and progress. The great sin in our lives is believing that we can do everything by ourselves and without the help of others – it means ultimately that we dispense with community living, and then that we dispense with the true living community which is, first and foremost, the Triune God. In that sense also the one who is a solitary is never alone – they are also always acutely in God’s presence!
The two negative portrayals on wayward monks which Benedict offers us at this point in Chapter 1 are especially useful from a monastic perspective, but they also throw an extraordinary amount of light on our Christian discipleship in whatever way we are called to live it. Both are almost caricatures, pen portraits meant to make us laugh to a certain extent and yet,when the giggles have faded away, we can’t help but wonder why these figures are so threatening and out of kilter with what Benedict proposes.
The term “sarabaite” is not one that we are going to come across every day, and its origins indicate that it was not always intended to be a pejorative term. That said, he is a fairly detestable character. They are people who pretend to be monastics but in fact are utterly tied to the world and all that it promises them and delivers for them. So, the contrast that Benedict makes between their tonsure – the specific cut of the crown of the hair on the head which immediately identified a religious and was the usual haircut for those in religious male congregations up until the Second Vatican Council – and how they live must be taken seriously. The tonsure should indicate their religious profession – that they have renounced everything in order to follow the Gospel in a particular vowed way of life. It should be the outward indication of an interior disposition. And this is vital for Benedict, a point which will hold good throughout the Rule, and which holds good for us today – how we behave, how we speak and what we say, how we live out our relationships with others, is a mirror for our interior attitudes, thoughts, and even beliefs. Of course, we need look no further than Christ’s teaching for this to be made clear to us – in Matthew’s Gospel he reserves his most stinging criticism for those who oppose him, the Pharisees, by contrasting what they do with what lies inside them (Matthew 23). And this is a common piece in Christ’s teaching.
It’s interesting that Benedict notes that the sarabaites have no experience to guide them. But, what experience could he mean? Almost certainly, the experience of living in a formative community, which has received a monastic tradition, been shaped by it and shaped it with discernment, and passed it on as a wisdom treasure. Our communities are often the first and most formative tool that many of us will know – consider the influence of family on our growing up, maturing, our receiving attitudes and beliefs, and consider how a difficult family environment or lack of family can have often devastating effects for those who are so scarred or displaced. Consider the formative – or sometimes deformative – influence of a local community: in Church terms, parish or diocese, and those groups which are associated with their growth and work and apostolate – they give us a sense of identity, of who we are, and of where we belong, a sense of security and sharing with others things and rituals which are important and even life-giving. And just as easily, community can be deformative – consider sectarianism, prejudice and suspicion which are allowed to foment and indeed are often encouraged in some social groups which thrive on throwing into stark negative relief differences which we experience, be they religious, political, racial, or cultural. We have a part in belonging to many communities, each of which communicates its own identity and cultural flavour to us, and contributes to the complexity of our own characters and personhood.
So, the book of experience and being able to read it, interpret it and apply it is a crucial tool for Benedict, and for us. The sarabaites lack it in their Christian monastic discipleship, and so lack also essential contexts for developing, sustaining and owning their own identities.
The sarabiates have no rule to try them, says Benedict – and so he lets us know that the Rule that he is now giving us is crucial to our own growth! In fact, the Latin suggests that they have no rule to prove them – in a much broader sense than we have, proving something is to stretch it to its potential, not just to put it to the test. So, a rule in monastic life (any life, in fact) exists not just to sets limits and boundaries which appear to hem in, but to constantly invite the one who lives by the rule to grow and expand personally – the rule, then, is a tool which is positive, not a strait jacket to restrain. But we remember here that one of the great protests against such law is that “I know what’s best for me” – so, just a few lines later, Benedict says something very similar – these guys, huddling together in little groups, and even alone, make what they like to do their law! That’s just about as self-centred and destructive as you could get! And it’s a very fickle way of living – my opinion on a matter could change by the day, and so the law which governs how I live will change with it. When I become the arbiter of all that affects me then chaos will surely follow – I have nothing external to myself to refer, nothing which gives me an anchor point, except myself – and we know how unstable we can all be from time to time!
Lastly, we should note that these sarabaites live without a shepherd – that’s to say, they don’t choose to live under a superior. It shouldn’t be too hard to see that they fly in the face of everything fundamental that the community type of monk, the cenobite, desires, since those who come to community choose to live under a Rule and an abbot. The sarabaite chooses to live under neither rule nor abbot. Benedict wants the contrast to be sharp for us and unmistakable – from the outset he asks us to consider that both a rule of life and the capacity to live under a superior are important aspects to our discipleship. And both will continually be held up to us as this Rule progresses. Whether we are monastic, lay person, religious brother or sister, or priest; whether we are single or married, in a committed relationship or trying to establish one, we ignore Benedict’s teaching at our peril: our lives, always lived in relationship to one, a few, to many, globally, ask to be ordered in different ways, so that all of us can achieve that growth which allows us to become more fully the persons that we are. It’s almost a choice between reality and illusion!
Having dealt with the unfortunate sarabaites, and established for us the importance of a regulated life and obedience, Benedict goes on to demonstrate the centrality of stability in our lives. The gyrovagues are exactly what their name says they are: persons who wander about the place. Again, let’s recall that exterior behaviour mirrors interior disposition – their physical wandering indicates the instability of their interior lives and characters. There appears to be an aimlessness to their wandering – so, these gyrovagues have no short term or long term goals which give direction and purpose to their lives. Hence their practice of spending a few days here, a few days there, dropping into monasteries to enjoy the hospitality offered but being sure not to stay long enough to have to put down roots! In ancient monasteries – and in fact still in monasteries for the most part today – a monk who came visiting, after a few days to settle himself and become used to the environment, was expected to engage in the life and discipline of the community, including the common prayer and work. The gyrovagues avoid this by moving on – they steadfastly refuse to be drawn into the fabric of a community’s life-giving regimen.
This is a pretty pathetic lifestyle, truth be told. For the great monastic writer John Cassian, whose work Benedict knew – probably both Cassian’s Institutes as well as his Conferences – we all have two goals in this life, and they should be typified especially in the monk’s life: the short term goal which is to achieve the purity of heart of which Christ speaks in the Beatitudes, and the second, long term goal, to get to the kingdom of heaven. In a sense the gyrovague, who runs away from any purposeful living, seems also to run from these.
Stability, of course, is one of the vows which the new brother makes when being received into the community (RB 58). It’s not just about place, although that is very important – to feel a physical rootedness gives us all a sense of security and blessing. Stability has the sense that we put down roots among other people and with them – stability is first and foremost about the fixity in community which I vow – that I belong to these like minded people and they belong to me; we are not all the same, but we desire the same thing; we can’t get there by ourselves, so we have to rely on one another to pull us to that place and that goal. To be unstable, to experience instability, is something to be feared and lamented – to say that someone is “unstable” is to speak not about their physical balance but about their very wellbeing, emotional, mental, psychological, and to want to provide the means which will give necessary stability back to them. For Benedict, to choose stability as one of his three determinative vows for persons living in community was extraordinarily prescient – we are dealing here with a characteristic which expresses both one of our deepest human needs and one of our deepest sources of strength.
Need we say that our own society today is more than ever characterised by extreme mobility accompanying instability? With greater possibilities to travel, change house, car, phone, and, of course, spouse or partner, stability has been both sidelined and yet probably has never been more desired. It’s characteristic of our age that you can have whatever you want – virtually – in almost no time, and change it just as quickly. This makes us physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual gyrovagues – we flit from notion to notion, getting a brief taste before moving on. Think, for a moment, about the photographic phenomenon which characterises our use of the phone – capturing experience after experience after experience, in an image, without much of substance to say what that experience did for us. It was something tasted for a moment, captured on a phone, specifically so that I could move on to the next experience.
Spirituality has become a gyrovaguing lifestyle also. The sense of belonging in any kind of a definitive manner to a formative religious group has become almost anathema in the West and the Developed World. Now people use the very empty double speak of describing themselves as “spiritual” but not really “religious”. To most, in practice, that means that they do want they want to do, and, as with many things today, design their own spiritualities, usually a hodge-podge of quasi-religious rituals, with more than a hint of superstitious content, allied with imagined eastern philosophies. They want to construct their own pseudo-spirituality without the commitment of belonging to any established religious group. In effect, many who say they embrace “spirituality but not religion” are living a sort of neo-paganism. And one would have to say that the attempted marriage by many of Christianty and the practice of yoga slips into this category as well.
St Augustine’s well-turned phrase, found at the opening of his autobiographical reflection The Confessions, comes to mind once more: You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. Yes, every human person is characterised by a restlessness which means that our life is a constant searching. But the committed Christian who is a serious seeker will fix his gaze on God and so give impetus, direction, and goal upon goal to his actively dynamic search. The one who only seeks himself will end up going around in circles; the one who seeks God will encounter a God who both accompanies and waits for us.
So, dispensing with these unfortunates, Benedict tells us he is now going to concentrate on the community type of monk, the cenobite. He describes the cenobitic monks as the “strong type” – in fact, “very strong”, in the Latin. Why? Briefly, because they recognise that, given the human condition and our propensity to slip up and make a hash of things, we need, at all stages along the way, the support of others, and that support resides in a community which has direction, sets goals, and is founded on a shared faith and trust in Christ. This really can never be forgotten at any stage in the Rule, and in monastic – and Christian! – life: Christ stands firmly at the centre; nothing is worth undertaking unless he is the one who provides the grace and motivation. We undertake what we do in life out of love for Christ. The cenobite, living in the community, recognises that all things are held in common and the common Christ-centred life is itself life-giving. Always for the ancient monastics, and right through our Cistercian Fathers, the image of that early Christian community in Acts of the Apostles 2:42 stands out- the group of believers held all things in common. It’s a term, in Greek, which has resonated through the ages, becoming almost synonymous with monastic living: koinonia. This term, meaning fellowship, or community, or communion, comes from the Greek koine, which just indicates the common thing, the thing that is shared, that is everyone’s property and common to all. The monastic koinonia expresses just this: a commonality which is transformed by Christ into a new type of sharing: communio, the most exalted sharing we could imagine!
-Part of our ‘Holy Rule of St Benedict’ series-