Blogging Benedict: A School for the Lord’s Service

I invite you as you read these posts to read the corresponding sections of the Rule of St Benedict. I will be quoting throughout the translation of Carolinne M. White, The Rule of Benedict, from Penguin (I used the £2 Little Black Penguin, but there is also a full-size edition). My friend Andrew has digitised another English translation available at Project Gutenberg.

Before moving on to the first chapter of the Rule, I want to pause for a moment to consider this phrase and what it might mean for us today — our understanding of discipleship and our worshipping, witnessing communities.

Constituenda est ergo nobis dominici scola servitii.

The idea of the Christian community as school should help us shift our thinking about what the worshipping community is up to. For example, a few months ago a friend expressed his displeasure at a post that had done the rounds on his Facebook feed all about why Millennials aren’t going to church anymore. And, even if some of the criticisms were valid, the entire spirit of the piece was, ‘We don’t go to church because church isn’t doing things for us/the way we like it.’

Elsewhere, you’ll read about church growth tactics, using coffee bars to lure people back. Or manipulating emotions with lighting during worship (this is a thing I read in a catalogue from a supplier of church electronic equipment). We are told to make church relevant to the (felt) needs of congregants. To make worship an unforgettable, subjective (emotional) experience.

For monks, all of this is meaningless.

What do I know about what is good for me? Have I not sacrificed my temporal pleasure and temporal good for the Kingdom of Heaven? I have forsaken all to gain everything in St Clare’s Laudable Exchange. The monk has given up all rights to earthly materials, earthly goods, family, inheritance, social position. St Antony the Great made sure his sister had enough to live on, then completely abandoned his inheritance, giving it all to the poor.

Aren’t we supposed to be like that guy in the parable, who found a treasure in a field, so he sold everything and bought the field?

Forsaking everything for Christ means opening ourselves up to suffering. It means looking at church not as a place where we go to feel good or to have our needs met, but to encounter the risen Christ. It means enrolling in a school of the Lord’s service.

After all, Jesus’ followers in the New Testament are called disciples — an English word from the Latin discipulus, a learner, a student, an apprentice, translating the Greek mathetes. I remember how it startled me to recognition about the word in a Bible study with a Greek Cypriot friend who kept calling the disciples Jesus’ students.

What if all of the inward-focussed church programmes (so not evangelism or serving the wider community) took themselves seriously as a school for the Lord’s service — a school where we learn to serve the Lord Jesus Christ? I think that our churches would look different. And healthier.

And maybe, for a while, smaller.

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Blogging Benedict: A Wake-Up Call

I invite you as you read these posts to read the corresponding sections of the Rule of St Benedict. I will be quoting throughout the translation of Carolinne M. White, The Rule of Benedict, from Penguin (I used the £2 Little Black Penguin, but there is also a full-size edition). My friend Andrew has digitised another English translation available at Project Gutenberg.

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

The Prologue to the Rule of Benedict is not so much a setting out of what will follow as it is a call to wake up, although it does touch on one of the most important themes of the Rule, one that is distasteful to our modern ears: obedience. Let us begin with the wake-up call (avoiding Petra references).

“Let us open our eyes to the divine light and listen carefully to what the divine voice tells us to do…” (p. 2 English)

As the verse says (Ro. 13:12), “The night is far spent, and the day is at hand.” Or, as my mother felt the Lord say once, “Life is not a dress rehearsal for eternity.” What are we doing now about salvation? Christianity is not an exercise in passivity. It is a matter of finding the truth and living it.

For Benedict, the truth is found in the Scriptures, it is found in Christ, it is found the writings of the Fathers. We cannot be slack or lazy or put off to tomorrow the holiness to which we are called today. Christians in many (all?) ages have been tempted in two ways: cheap grace or legalism. Sometimes (for example) I think it is easier to be a teetotaller or someone who drinks to excess than it is to drink in moderation. Benedict will read to many people like legalism, even though he is far more lenient than some of his contemporaries. And the thing that we will chafe under most is obedience.

Very quickly, it is worth here reminding ourselves of the modern notion of freedom as the pure, unrestrained activity of the will of the human individual. Or nation-state, at a higher level. Anything that conflicts with my desires is seen as necessarily bad. This vision of freedom is in direct contrast with the pre-modern West, where true freedom was found by living according to your own nature, or the nature of the universe (Stoicism); it was found by seeking the summum bonum (Aristotle, Anselm, Aquinas), or the beautiful (Plato’s Symposium) and then living in accord with that. It is choosing to restrain our wills to something bigger and better than the fleeting pleasures of a moment.

What we tend to consider ‘freedom’ today is really just slavery to the passions. We should instead seek to be freed from the passions, or seek to rule them and guide them in accordance with nature, reason, the greater good. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few — or the one (Spock, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). If we do not control the passions, do not subvert them to the greater good, we are not free, for we cannot choose rightly.

While many Christians would agree with all of this, there are still concerns about obedience as Benedict lays it out. The Benedictine monk is to give absolute obedience to the abbot. This, in fact, is common to many Late Antique ascetic/monastic texts, whether in Sinai with John Climacus, Egypt (Palestine?) with Mark the Monk, Luxeuil with Columbanus, Monte Cassino with Benedict.

Our concern about giving any human such obedience is not ungrounded. We live in the age after Jonestown, after all. We have seen what personality cults can do in a less murder-suicide manner, anyway. Nevertheless, for Benedict, responding to the call to holiness starts with obedience.

Here, in the Prologue, obedience is first and foremost to Christ. Let us keep that in our mind when we consider other parts of the Rule and the rest of obedience. Christ is the Good Shepherd, not the abbot. But our disordered wills should perhaps submit to the wisdom of our elders in the faith. Otherwise, is it not like undergraduates determining pedagogy, as though 18-22-year-olds know what’s best for them, how best to educate themselves?

At the root of both ethics/morality and discipline lies the reality of God as creator and sustainer. He knows best because he is best. He is Aristotle’s summum bonum, as discussed by Anselm’s Monologion. Therefore, we willfully submit to God’s will and God’s commands in order to flourish. Our lives, as St Paul says, are not our own. We were bought at a price. Let us ever keep scriptural obedience in mind in our reading of Benedict.

We find God’s commands in Scripture. We also, sometimes, add disciplines. There is an important difference between discipline and morality. Discipline is the voluntary activity in which we engage to grow spiritually, but it is, morally, optional. Ivo of Chartres makes this important distinction in the prologue to his canonical collection around 1100.

Discipline is askesis, the word for training an athlete. We need to train ourselves for the fight for holiness in our lives, against the passions and the demons and the external temptations of life.

And so, as we steer clear of the Scylla of cheap grace, which is what Benedict’s Prologue is calling us to do, we feel like perhaps we are veering into the Charybdis of legalism or what Presbyterians call ‘works righteousness’. But what about ‘work out your salvation with fear and trembling’ (Phil. 2:12)? The sheep and goats of Matthew 25? Faith without works is dead — the epistle James. Holiness is a calling that we pursue. God acts in us as we act for him.

The ancient and medieval ascetics are thus helpful for us in our simultaneous fear of cheap grace and legalism. They sought to radically train themselves to live in holiness. Even if we are saved by grace, holiness usually seems to arrive after some effort. I saw this as an Anglican, thinking beyond the ancients to Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living or William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. I’ve blogged on the latter before. Both of these writers, without denying the necessity of grace, believe in the disciplined life. One of the points made by Taylor, and reproduced as an appendix in Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, is the fact that specific disciplines are not necessary to all Christians — that each of us needs to train for holiness in the way that works for our soul.

And so, finally, when we think on obedience and discipline and the serious call to holiness, we cannot forget grace. St Benedict believes in grace, intimately united to duty:

Those who fear the Lord and do not allow themselves to become proud because of their good works realize that the good that is in them does not come from their own abilities but from the Lord. (p. 4)

Brothers, we have questioned the Lord about the person who lives in his tabernacle, and we have heard his instructions about living there, but it is for us to fulfil the obligations of those who live there. And so we must prepare our hearts and bodies to fight by means of holy obedience to his instructions. If our natural abilities do not allow us to do something, we must ask the Lord to grant us his grace to assist us. (p. 5)

All the great ascetic writers acknowledge the union of grace to our effort — that we cannot be holy without God making us so, that we cannot even performs virtuous acts of ascetic labours without grace. This union of God’s grace with our discipline is found in Theophan the Recluse (19th c. ), Prosper (On the Call of All Nations), Augustine (variously), Mark the Monk, and Cassian (Conference 13) in the fifth. Mark the Monk writes:

First of all, we know that God is the beginning, middle and end of everything good; and it is impossible for us to have faith in anything good or to carry it into effect except in Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit. -‘On the Spiritual Law’, 2, in The Philokalia, Vol. 1, p. 110.

Some without fulfilling the commandments think that they possess true faith. Others fulfil the commandments and then expect the Kingdom as a reward due to them. Both are mistaken. -‘No Righteousness by Works’, 18, in The Philokalia, Vol. 1

In ‘No Righteousness by Works’, St Mark goes into this discussion more extensively. He also has high expectations of his ascetic readers.

We have been called out of the darkness and into the light. We have been shown by the Scriptures what holiness looks like. Christ and the apostles fasted and prayed. The apostles searched the Scriptures. They performed acts of mercy. They called us all to obedience to God as well as mutual submission to one another.

“And so, clothed in faith and the performance of good works, let us set off along his path using the Gospel as our guide.” (p. 3)

Introducing the Rule of St Benedict: Contexts

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

The rabbit hole that led from Atheist Delusions to The Benedict Option has now, unsurprisingly, led me to the Rule of St Benedict itself. I’ve decided to write a series of posts looking at the Rule, its meaning, and perhaps what it means today. Mostly it will be my own musings, and not scholarly work on sixth-century Latin monasticism. Out of laziness, I shall sometimes use the abbreviation RB to refer to it.

RB was written around the year 540 in south-central Italy by Benedict of Nursia, abbot of the monastery of Montecassino. All that we know about St Benedict’s life we get from St Gregory the Great (saint of the week here) several decades later in Dialogues, Book 2. This is not to say that Gregory is not accurate. It is just a fact worth establishing.

As I’ve said on this blog ad nauseam, Benedict’s Rule was not an immediate best-seller or ‘success’. A good example of that is the fact that, as R. A. Markus argues in Gregory the Great and His World, St Augustine of Canterbury and his fellow monk-missionaries of the 590s were not Benedictine, even though Gregory was a big fan of St Benedict. So let’s start with some foundations in ecclesiastical history, ca. 500-604.

Ecclesiastical and Monastic History in the Sixth Century

The monastic and ecclesiastical world into which the Rule was born was not centralised. There were no monastic orders to organise the various monasteries. You did not need authorisation from the local bishop to become a monk or a hermit. There was certainly a monastic and ascetic tradition in Latin Christianity, of course. Benedict draws on that, especially The Rule of the Master and (St) John Cassian (variously on this blog; start here). But monasticism was looser, simply a group of likeminded persons and institutions with no formal relationship, whether following the Rule of St Caesarius of Arles (who died in 542, around the time Benedict wrote the Rule) or, later on at Luxeuil and Bobbio, St Columbanus (who died in 614).

Although most people did see the Bishop of Rome as head honcho number one, this did not mean he actually had any active jurisdictional powers outside of his own Metropolitan area of Suburbicarian Italy. Thus Kathleen G. Cushing, Reform and the Papacy in the Eleventh Century sums up what I have also observed about Gregory:

Gregory clearly was convinced that the pope was the jurisdictional as well as the spiritual head of the Church; yet it is evident from the letters in his Register that he understood this chiefly in terms of the Roman Church being the final court of appeal rather than as an executive authority. More important for Gregory was the pontiff’s pastoral role, which obliged him to have cura animarum (care of souls) for all the churches under his headship. This was not, as has often been argued, a claim for ‘absolute’ authority. Rather, Gregory understood papal primacy in terms of defending and extending the faith, along with securing ultimate appellate jurisdiction in ecclesiastical matters. (58)

This is important to establish. Simply because the bishop of Rome was not yet the high medieval papacy that developed in the course of the eleventh and twelfth centuries does not mean that the Late Antique and Early Medieval Christian West was disunited. Monks, priests, bishops, kings, saw themselves as part of one big, happy Christian Church, united with Rome and with each other, even if they disagreed about things like the date of Easter or the role of the Bishop of Rome, or if they differed from place to place in matters of liturgical or monastic observance.

That is, I reject the retrojection of 16th-century Gallicanism into 6th-century Gaul.  I also reject the idea that Insular (aka ‘Celtic’) Christianity was in opposition to its continental brethren. Things were looser back then, and even the pope knew it. Gregory was willing for his missionary-monks to keep local Christian observances where they found any and not seek to completely Romanise all the customs. Some centralising tendencies did exist amongst the Roman missionaries, it is true. Ecclesiastical history is rarely black and white.

Other tendencies in the sixth century include some of the first large canon law collections that survive for us. This is part of a wider cultural phenomenon of synthesis, encyclopedism, codification, and establishing a tradition to pass along, and we see it in Boethius as translator and commentator on Aristotle as well as philosopher in his own right, Cassiodorus’ Institutions, the Justinianic  legal corpus, and, in a century, the works of St Isidore of Seville.

Anyway, Benedict wrote his Rule for his own monastery at Montecassino, and he did so as part of a wider cultural world of Latin monasticism, whether in Ireland, Gaul, Spain, or Italy. He sought to make something that would be easily followed and not especially burdensome compared to some other rules. He drew on the wider ascetic tradition, as already noted above. And, like most early Christian monastics, he established a rule of prayer for his monks centred on the Psalter, something in common with the fourth-century Egyptians and contemporary Irish.

Sixth-Century Italy

540, the approximate date of RB, was five years after Belisarius invaded Italy to ‘reconquer’ it from the Goths on behalf of Justinian. There is so much that could be said about Italy in this century, as well as about Justinian, as well as about the papacy and the Goths, the papacy and Gaul, Gaul and Constantinople, etc, etc. If such things float your boat, I’ve written on sixth-century history on my other blog. Start with The Sixth-Century West, which links to the others.

What I think we should note is that the Byzantine-Gothic war lasted for decades and ruptured the cultural and economic fabric of Italy. It is thus important for Italy’s transition from ‘late Roman’ to ‘medieval’. Campania, where Benedict lived, was one of the areas of campaign. Perhaps, in a small way, he was trying to do what Rod Dreher and others say, and provide an anchor in a stormy sea. He never notes it explicitly, though; his Rule could just as easily have been written a century before or a century after (NB: some say it’s actually seventh-century Anglo-Saxon, but we’ll avoid that discussion here — see the relevant portions of Gert Melville, The World of Medieval Monasticism for a refutation).

Before the coming of Belisarius, Italy had been stable. The Goths ruled pretty much as the late Romans had. Maybe better? Hard to judge. After Justinian’s victory and the Pragmatic Sanction of 554, there was only a brief interval before the coming of the Lombards who started taking over so much that Justinian had gained. The sixth century was not Italy’s best.

But it gave us Benedict, Boethius, Cassiodorus, Arator of Liguria, Ennodius, Venantius Fortunatus, Columbanus, and Gregory the Great. It also gave us some spectacular mosaics in Rome, Ravenna, and elsewhere. Political instability and economic decline do not always equal cultural stagnation.

In a very short space, this is the world of Benedict. A united but diverse world, where things have been going well but are starting to go poorly.

In the series that follows, my thoughts on RB will start with the Prologue and draw in various strands of thought. There are no guarantees where I’ll draw from, but it seems that it may be best to ponder how the Rule might be adapted for us today, and then reflecting with my own thoughts and connections to Late Antique/Early Medieval monkery and to later forms of Benedictine monachism (which will include not just the Order of St Benedict but Cluny and the Cistercians as well; other orders that use RB are the Tironensians and Camaldolese, while Trappists are technically the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, so also use RB).

Benedictine Work and Human Dignity

Besides some excerpts from the Rule in history class, my first introduction to St Benedict was Esther de Waal, Seeking God: The Way of St Benedict. Taking up the theme of work from yesterday, here is a quotation from that book where the Benedictine belief in the worthiness of all work — manual, intellectual, spiritual — feeds into daily life:

The respect for people and the respect for the work they do and the things they handle interconnect and deepen each other. … The implications of this in modern terms are quite far-reaching. My own preference is for books rather than for petrol, to take an absurd example, which I am sure many others would reverse. And if I am totally honest with myself it means that I have, perhaps quite subconsciously, a greater respect for a writer or lecturer than for the man or woman who manages a garage and sells me petrol. If I take the Rule seriously, it frees me to notice this, and if I am trying to live by it, it forces me to re-think my attitudes. (p. 118)

Early Monastic Rules

In my discussions of The Benedict Option, the question of possible contenders with Benedict for adaptation today has come up, and rightly so. My argument is that, if we survey them all, we may very well find something more well-suited to our situation(s) than the Rule of Benedict — well and good for us as individuals. But more widely, Benedict’s will win for a few reasons, and I think that’s okay.

But if you were interested in other ascetic rules for living, where can they be found? Here are some English translations of some of them (I’ve not read all of these; I stumbled upon some in the library at work) that you might consider. Many are from Cistercian, whose monastic ressourcement I approve. I note alongside whether these were considered by St Benedict of Aniane in his Codex Regularum of the 800s. He was a fan of rigorist rules, but opted for Benedict on the grounds that its moderation would be more achievable.

Early Monastic Rules: The Rules of the Fathers and the Regula Orientalis, trans. C.V. Franklin, I. Havener, J. A. Francis.

This includes five monastic rules associated with the fourth- and fifth-century Desert Fathers of Egypt. They are all quite short, so may be flexible according to today’s needs. They are in Benedict of Aniane.

The Rule of St Basil in Latin and English by Anna M. Silvas

This is the fourth-century Rule of St Basil of Caesarea. In Benedict of Aniane.

Pachomian Koinonia, Volume 2, by Adalbert de Voguë

This includes the earliest rule for monks living in community, from fourth-century Egypt.

The Rule of the Master, trans. Luke Eberle.

This is a longer, more rigorous rule than Benedict’s, generally believed to have been used by Benedict as a source. It is probably from early sixth-century Italy. In Benedict of Aniane.

The Celtic Monk: Rules and Writings of Early Irish Monks, trans. Uinseann Ó Maidín

The rules of Ailbe, Comghall, Colmcille, Ciarán, the Grey Monks, Cormac Mac Ciolionáin, Carthage, Céli Dé, and Tallaght as well as an incomplete fragment and a selection of other short texts. The translator tells us the security of these attributions as well as probable dates of composition.

Columbanus, The Monks’ Rules, trans. G. S. M. Walker

The above links to an online version of Walker’s translation that was also published as a parallel translation with the Latin text of all of Columbanus’works. A new translation is forthcoming from Cistercian in a couple of weeks. Written by an Irishman living on the Continent around the year 600. In Benedict of Aniane.

Leander of Seville, A Book on the Teaching of Nuns and a Homily in Praise of the Church, trans. John R. C. Martyn

This is everything Leander (d. 601) wrote that survives. The former is his rule. In Benedict of Aniane.

The Canons of Our Fathers: Monastic Rules of Shenoute trans. Bentley Layton

This is the first attempt to gather Shenoute’s rules in one place. Coptic with English translation. Shenoute is possibly the greatest Coptic writer; he lived in the 400s.

There are others that have been translated into English, I have no doubt. But these would certainly make more than a good start for the curious.

What’s an Augustinian ̶c̶a̶n̶o̶n̶ friar? Wasn’t Luther a ‘monk’? (revised)

St Augustine, by Philippe de Champaigne

So you’ve probably heard it said that Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk at some point in the last few days. Except from me! My own academic pedantry prevents it. And you may even have heard it from Luther himself, who seems at some point to have used the German equivalent of the word ‘monkery’ to refer his activities as a member of a religious order.

This is, of course, a matter of terminology, but precision in these matters can help us see the diversity within medieval Latin Christian religious life. Like the Dominicans and Franciscans, Martin Luther’s Augustinians are friars. I thought they were canons, but they weren’t. There are Augustinian canons, though, so we’ll get into them first.

As early as the Carolingian Renaissance/Reforms of the late 700s, there were two main visions of the consecrated, religious life in western Europe. One was that of monks —monachi in Latin — and the other was that of the canons — canonici. Monks live in monasteries or priories, closed off from the world. Their main duties, historically, are to pray and to engage in work that will keep them alive, like gardening, and, according to the Rule of Benedict, to read the Bible and meditate on it.

By the end of the Carolingian Reforms, the Rule of Benedict was the ascendant monastic rule of western Europe and England.

Canons, on the other hand, are a different kettle of fish.

Canons are clerics who live together in community but, like the secular clergy (those who do not live according to a rule), they have duties beyond their own community’s enclosures. They are meant to engage in acts of mercy, in preaching, and in public liturgy.

In the High Middle Ages, the ascendancy for canons was gained by the Rule of St Augustine. There are a few versions of this document, and they all seem to descend from two different things St Augustine of Hippo (d. 430) produced. For canons, then, the vita religiosa, the religious life, was ordered according a fairly brief set of rules, intentionally flexible to allow them to engage in their duties beyond their community’s enclosures. St Augustine developed his rule explicitly for priests to live in community together, so it makes sense that canons would adopt and adapt it for their local situations.

At some point, there emerged a religious order of Augustinians. Any Luther scholars out there can correct me if I’m wrong, but I imagine that he was a member of the order. You may think, ‘Was there no order of Augustinians in the 700s?’ No — there was not even an Order of St Benedict.

The first order as such was the Cistercians, although the Cluniacs experimented in widespread centralisation. An order means that all the members and member houses of a particular group of people living according to a rule have a central administration and are ordered by constitutions. There are monasteries, canonries, or friaries that watch over their sister and daughter houses, as well as administrators over regions who make sure that the different religious houses are not falling into various abuses. The heads of the major houses and regions will meet to deal with the business of the order at prescribed times. They are bound together in a mutual society of give-and-take, regulation, and, in theory, fraternal love.

In the eleventh century, there arose a number of movements for the reform of the religious life. These coalesced monastically in the Cistercians in the next century and, at a much higher pitch, the Carthusians who are technically hermits who live in community. The living paradox of the monastic ideal.

Various groups of canons were also being founded and organised during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, usually, even if they began with their own charismatic leaders, finding themselves under the Rule of St Augustine in the long run.

In the thirteenth century we see the rise of the friars. Friars are most associated with the Franciscans and Dominicans, two preaching orders committed to poverty, preaching, and cities. They are mendicant, which means that they are meant to beg for survival, and not live off rich benefices the way many medieval monasteries did.

During the rise of the friars, the hermits were also doing their thing in Italy, and were inspired to move into the cities to be able to pursue the contemplative life and to engage in acts of mercy. Those who were granted recognition by the papacy adopted the Rule of St Augustine, and they eventually coalesced and organised into a mendicant order of friars alongside the Franciscans and Dominicans.

Thus, by the middle of the 1200s, we have three major forms of ‘religious’ life in western Europe. We have the monks proper, the canons (usually Augustinians), and the friars. There were also, of course, hermits and anchorites, but just monks, canons, and friars will always be few, so hermits and anchorites will always be fewer. All of these groups sought to lead lives of poverty and chastity, of prayer and asceticism, pursuing holiness according their respective rules in community.

The problem that rears its head throughout the history of Christian asceticism is the idea that the asceticism or the penance is actually what saves you. This is the chief temptation of the rigorous righteous. Cassian fights it. Benedict fights it. Evagrius fights it. Augustine fights it. Again and again, monks, friars, and canons need to be reminded that they are not saved by their ‘monkery’, as Luther called it.

And I would argue that the time for reading set aside in the Rule of Benedict and the amount of study Augustinians like Luther did ought to have helped balance them out, for it is rich in the tradition of asceticism, this battle against trusting in the asceticism itself rather than God himself.

But, alas, it is too easy to trust our own works than simply rest in the grace of God, isn’t it?

(Not that I’m one of those, ‘Ah, those poor, benighted medieval papists and monks who needed Luther to rediscover the long-lost true Gospel for them!’ types.)

The Benedict Option, Chapter 3: A Rule for Living (and Norcia!)

This is my fifth post blogging through The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher. In Chapter 3, Dreher brings us into contact with both the content of Benedict’s Rule and the Benedictine community that currently inhabits Norcia (ancient Nursia), St Benedict’s home town. The monastery at Norcia first opened its doors in the Central Middle Ages. Napoleon closed them in 1810, and they were reopened in 2000 with an American abbot and an international community of monks.

I was hoping for more descriptions of what life looks like for the monks at Norcia than Dreher provided; he rather uses interviews with the monks to scatter their own personal experience throughout Dreher’s discussion of some of the more important features of the Rule of St Benedict for us today. I am glad he did this, since it gives the Rule something of a personal touch. It’s not just a 1500-year-old document, but a way of life that still impacts people today.

The Benedictine virtues that Dreher picked out are order, prayer, work, asceticism (mostly fasting), stability (perhaps the most countercultural for my generation), community, and hospitality. Each of these is ordered in Benedict’s Rule to direct us Godward into holiness. We must learn in community to bear with each other’s burdens. We must learn in hospitality to find Christ everywhere. We learn from stability how to face our problems and live through them, rather than running away.

Reading this chapter, it struck me that most of these virtues could easily be taught from most of what we might call ‘mainstream’ Late Antique ascetic and monastic writings — actually, even ones associated with extreme movements such as Messalianism and Encratism. This draws me to a question that Bill asked in the comments on my second post of the series — what other monastic rule would I put forward for the 21st century?

I still don’t have a great answer; I’d have to revisit the others. But I think in any such conversations with the wider church, unless you run in circles that are still vigorously promoting ‘Celtic’ (Insular) Christianty or you are Eastern Orthodox, the Rule of St Benedict is going to win. There are two reasons.

First, as I said above, there is very little that is unique to this Rule. I imagine that Dreher knows this; he is a former Roman Catholic, now Eastern Orthodox. From his concerns and writing styles, besides the fact that he admits to having changed denominations twice, I suspect he is a former evangelical. Anyway, given the neo-Patristic bent of contemporary Eastern Orthodoxy, as well as the ongoing Philokalic renewal, and the fact that Dreher wrote a book about Dante, I think he’s decided that the focus should be on RB.

It’s a lot shorter than a lot of other texts. I think the Cassian Option might be nice, but the Institutes are already much longer and more rigorous than Benedict’s Rule, let alone the Conferences that are twice as long again or more. It’s a third the length of the Rule of the Master but less rigorous. Also less rigorous than either of Columbanus’ Rules.

The Rule of St Benedict is not the easiest read for the modern mind, but it easier than Evagrius Ponticus or most authors in the Philokalia or John Climacus. If we want to see a spiritual renewal that people can actually engage with, Benedict is actually a more realistic option than most of his near-contemporaries. In fact, its great promoter of the 810s, St Benedict of Aniane, came to this conclusion. He preferred some of the other rules, but felt that RB was just a more realistic option for most monasteries.

Second, it is more accessible. RB exists online in multiple places. There is a Penguin Classics translation, as well as the very cheap RB 1980 translation. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library has a translation with Latin text for $35 (USD). Availability helps. It is also accessible in terms of familiarity. Everyone at least recognises St Benedict’s name. But who ever heard of St Hesychios the Priest?

RB is a document people recognise, can get there hands on, and can rally around. It is a powerful cultural touchstone for western Christianity, being the foundational document for monastic life from the 800s onwards. The Order of St Benedict is not the only monastic order to use it; it is the rule of life for the Cistercians and others as well.

Thus, even once I think of a different text I may prefer, I don’t think any other text will be as successful. Besides, the Rule of St Benedict has time for reading Late Antique ascetic texts built in, anyway. So those who wish to see other texts in the mix should get them. In a couple of chapters, Dreher does recommend the Church Fathers more broadly.

Coming back to Dreher more precisely, this chapter is a good one, a soft introduction to the Rule and its living legacy in Norcia, discussing its relevance for today.