Saint of the Week: Benedict of Nursia – The Rule & Its Legacy

If you do a Google Blog search for ‘Benedict of Nursia’, you will get approx. 33,800 hits. A search of Everything gets you 221,000. St. Benedict is one of the most popular saints of western Christianity, unlike the other Italian notables covered by Pope St. Gregory’s Dialogues — so popular even in his own century that, rather than receiving a mere chapter in a Dialogue, he received an entire Dialogue devoted to his life.

Nonetheless, I have a feeling that Benedict’s popularity comes not just from his holiness of life and his miracles but mostly from his Rule, composed for the monks of Monte Cassino and the other monasteries under his care and used by the Carolingian Church as the monastic rule when they sought to regularise and standardise monasticism, a movement that went beyond the Frankish Empire and as far afield as Jarrow.

This Rule is, I believe, a fairly flexible one yet with definite structure, which is why the Carolingians chose it and why the Cistercians and their related order the Trappists (Cistercians of the Strict Observance) chose it as well. It is also used today by individual Eastern Orthodox monasteries, although they are not and have never been organised into religious orders as western monasticism.

The Rule of Benedict is so popular that I can think of seven translations off the top of my head, only one of which does not come with Latin text, as well as this online one. It is, then, one of what I like to call the “overtranslated” texts, such as Augustine’s Confessions or the Iliad or the Bible. There is so much to be said about it that the Sources Chretiennes edition is something like five volumes, despite the small size of the Rule itself.

So, what is this Rule all about? Why is it so popular?

When we consider the Rule, we have to remember that it is not born in a vacuum. Unlike Shenoute’s rule or the rule of the angel as told by Cassian, Benedict’s Rule was not the result of direct intervention from the heavenly realms. It is the product of generations of monastic life, (generations including rules by Pachomius, Augustine of Hippo, Basil of Caesarea, and the anonymous Rule of the Master as well as important monastic literature in the West, especially John Cassian’s Conferences and Institutes both of which are recommended by Benedict) combined with years of monastic experience by Benedict as anchorite and abbot.

The Rule distills much of this tradition and experience into a compendium for how to run a monastery and live in community. From the Prologue to ch. 7 (less than 1/3), Benedict discusses spiritual matters, while the rest of text is about the practical application of spiritual ideas in the monastery. Such weight of space for practical matters is not uncommon; how can one begin to explain the road to contemplation? Indeed, is not the road to Christ, holiness, and visions of glory found in the daily existence of the life of prayer and work?

This is what Benedict provides. The times and pattern for communal prayer are set out, as also are the times for work. Benedict’s monks are not like some of the other ascetics of the fifth and sixth centuries who settled on their country estates and lived the ascetic life in the villa spending all their time reading books and talking to their friends (Paulinus of Nola comes to mind). Benedict follows in the tradition of Cassian who was harshly opposed to this sort of monastic life which he viewed as soft and not a true renunciation. His monks leave behind the world, submit in utter obedience to their abbot, and live lives of hard work and hard prayer. Work is prayer and prayer is work.

A good distillation and application of the Rule‘s wisdom for today’s Christian is found in Esther de Waal’s book Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict. She invites the reader to join her and Benedict by looking the themes from the Rule about listening, stability, change, balance, material things, people, authority, and praying. The Rule helps us look at all of these things.

It also, as I learned in my first encounter with the rule in a course on Mediaeval Society at the University of Ottawa, lays down for the monks how much beer they can drink, and that wine is to be consumed only sparingly, for “too much wine can make even the wise go astray.” Even at its most practical, in those moments about shoes and tunics and drinks and food, the Rule can produce for us a brief glimpse of spiritual wisdom. Praktike and theoretike, to use the terms of the Evagrian system, are never fully divorced as we continue our lives.

Here is an example of praktike and theoretike meeting in Chapter 36, “On Sick Brothers”:

Care should be taken for the sick before all and above all, so that they should be served as indeed Christ would be, because he said himself, “I was sick and you visited me”

Even while the monks eat, they are to encounter the spiritual as they listen to readings. After Compline, when they have finished the toil of the day, they are to listen to a brother read from Cassian’s Conferences or from the Desert Fathers. The goal of the monastic life is purity of heart sought through prayer and meditation, and the Rule of Benedict provides a structure for such a life.

The legacy of the Rule is great. People really liked it, and other monasteries adopted it in the years following Benedict’s death, although there were about two dozen others in active use. As I mentioned above, due to its versatility and popularity, it was chosen by the Carolingians in the eighth century to be the basis for a standardisation of the monastic movement. It has inspired other monastic orders over the centuries and has brought spiritual benefit to those of us completely unconnected to monasteries of any sort.

As the years continue, the Rule shall continue to provide spiritual direction for those seeking an ordered life and a way of meeting Christ in the everday.

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