Some notes on the life of Saint Benedict and on his Rule
Life of St Benedict
Benedict of Nursia (c.480-547) is often called the ‘Father of Western Monasticism’, even simply the ‘Father of Monks’. We owe our knowledge of his life particularly to the biography of him written by Pope Saint Gregory the Great (540-604). As a student in Rome, Benedict became disgusted and disillusioned with how his contemporaries were living. He decided to abandon everything, his studies, his home and his inheritance, in favour of a life devoted to God. He went to Subiaco, in the mountains north of Rome, and lived in a cave there. His fame grew, however, and with it the number of people coming to be near him and to learn from him. He had to follow the stages of the spiritual life as we see them in the life of Antony and his companions in the desert: ascetic purgation, spiritual warfare, spiritual fatherhood.
Finally a group of monks asked Benedict to be their abbot. He agreed but his experience resembled that of Pachomius: the first group found it too difficult to remain under his authority – Benedict was taking the task more seriously than they had anticipated. But eventually groups of monks persevered under the guidance and authority of Benedict and he was able to establish a number of monasteries, each with its own abbot. Benedict’s sister, Scholastica, also dedicated herself to the monastic life and the two were buried together at the great monastery of Monte Cassino.
Gregory tells us that Benedict also composed a rule for monks. This Rule of Saint Benedict became the most popular of the monastic rules in the West. It replaced all other rules – those of Basil, Augustine, Cassian, and Columban – and is an essential source for understanding not only monastic life but the whole of medieval Christian civilization. From its opening sentences Benedict’s Rule sets the theme of obedience as the way to progress in the spiritual life:
Listen, my son, and with your heart hear the principles of your Master. Readily accept and faithfully follow the advice of a loving Father, so that through the labour of obedience you may return to Him from whom you have withdrawn because of the laziness of disobedience. My words are meant for you, whoever you are, who laying aside your own will, take up the all-powerful and righteous arms of obedience to fight under the true king, the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Rule of Saint Benedict, Prologue).
Themes from the Rule of Saint Benedict
Being with Christ – the purpose of the monastic life is to bring to completion in the lives of those called to be monks the life of faith that began when they were baptised. The monk strives to be a Christian, following Christ as closely as possible, and the rule and disciplines of the monastic way of life are intended to guide him towards this goal. The monastery is then a ‘school of God’s service’ in which, Benedict hopes, there is nothing harsh or oppressive.
The Abbot – in Benedictine monasticism the Abbot (from Abba, ‘father’) has a key role. This continues the tradition of the desert ‘fathers’, those experienced monks who were in a position to guide others in asceticism and prayer. The Abbot represents Christ for the monks and their willingness to obey him is the concrete sign of their desire to remain close to Christ. The Abbot is accountable to God not only for his own life but also for those of his ‘subjects’: his primary responsibility is the spiritual formation and growth of the monks committed to his care. The Abbot also oversees the temporal, material needs and activities of the monastery. Many of the monasteries were to become powerful social, cultural, economic and political institutions and some Abbots became powerful figures in Church and society. This sometimes led to their function as spiritual fathers being taken on by spiritual directors and confessors while the Abbot was occupied completely with the temporal and material life of the monastery.
Stability – Benedict is contemptuous of wandering monks, ‘gyrovagues’, who cannot observe the stability that he believed a good monk ought to have. The stability of the monks was a crucial part of their way of life and helped to make the monasteries dependable and reliable places of refuge, learning, comfort, and encouragement for countless others who came to have contact with them. In the 13th century the orders of mendicant friars represented a significant departure from monastic tradition since for them mobility rather than stability was a virtue: they were to be free and ready to move in the service of preaching the gospel. We see how different forms of religious life serve different spiritual and pastoral needs of individuals and of the Church as a whole.
Lectio Divina – recent years have seen a significant revival of the monastic practice of lectio divina, a prayerful meditation on the Scriptures which does not neglect a critical and scholarly understanding of them but which is keen to go further, uncovering and appreciating the spiritual and theological riches of the Scriptures for speaking to the needs of individuals and communities in the present moment. This way of prayerfully reading and meditating on Scripture was a key tool of monastic spirituality, the monks dedicating time each day to prayer (oratio) and reading (lectio), with a view to meditation (meditatio) and contemplation (contemplatio).
Opus Dei – the hours of prayer already observed in Judaism became part of Christian spiritual and liturgical practice from the beginning as we can see in the Acts of the Apostles. The injunction of Saint Paul that Christians ought to ‘pray without ceasing’ was believed to be fulfilled in the practice of praying at all the crucial moments of the day, its cardinal points: morning, evening and night, during the night and at dawn, and at the key hours of 9.00am, noon and 3.00pm. A whole day was sanctified if the key hours of the day became hours of prayer. The main content of this prayer – again following Jewish precedent, the example of Jesus, and the practice of the Apostles – was the Psalms. The whole range of human need and experience in relation to God is expressed in the Psalms – thanksgiving, adoration, lament, repentance, petition, anger, sadness, joy, and so on. For Christians, the Psalms can all be placed on the lips of Christ just as they can be placed on the lips of the Church. This continues to be an essential part of the Church’s spiritual life, the Liturgy of the Hours, or Divine Office, recited by all priests, deacons and religious, and often celebrated communally in religious and parish communities.
Humility – Benedict gives great importance to the virtue of humility (see chapter seven of the Rule). For many this was the Christian ‘cardinal virtue’, an attitude or disposition encouraged by the example and teaching of Jesus, that was not to be found among the pagan virtues. Of course it can be distorted and lead to strange forms of self-hatred and neglect but properly understood humility is simply an acceptance of the truth about ourselves and about our situation. Someone once said that the humble person compares himself only with God and thereby knows his own nothingness and his own greatness. Comparing ourselves with other people is always a bad idea leading either to pride, because we judge ourselves superior to them, or to depression, because we judge ourselves inferior to them. The truth about us is seen in the light of Christ, his holiness compared with our sinfulness, his call to us to share the glory that the Father has given him. The term ‘humility’ comes from the Latin word humus, meaning ‘ground’ or ‘earth’. Rather than allowing ourselves to be treated like dirt (in the way of Uriah Heep’s mock humility, for example) it means allowing ourselves to be ‘ploughed back’ into the field of God’s harvesting, to be sown once again by the wise Husbandman, the gardener of our souls, who will do great things for those who trust Him and entrust themselves completely to Him. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux later wrote a commentary on Saint Benedict’s twelve steps of humility. Saint Thomas Aquinas defines humility as truth, a calm and honest acceptance of the truth about ourselves, and he warned against a vice that he called ‘pusillanimity’, what we might term ‘humility gone mad’.
Obedience – it is obedience rather than humility that is the key monastic virtue for Saint Benedict. This is because obedience is the key virtue of Our Lord, his attitude and disposition towards his Father, obedience to the Father’s will originating in love and ensuring the salvation of the world. We see this obedience operating in Christ’s agony in the garden where he expresses his desire that the cup should pass him by, but he expresses at the same time his love for the Father and his acceptance of the Father’s will: ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will but what you will’ (Mark 14:36). In Christ are fulfilled the words of Psalm 40, of a servant who honours God not through animal sacrifices but through his obedience and the offering of himself: ‘When Christ came into the world he said, ‘sacrifices and offering you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me … lo I have come to do your will, O God’ … and by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once and for all’ (Hebrews 10:5-10). He learned obedience through what he suffered (Hebrews 5:8) and through that obedience the world is saved as Saint Paul teaches: ‘for as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous’ (Romans 5:19). Jesus tells us this about himself in the Gospel of John: ‘he who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him’ (8:29). To share the life of Christ and to participate in his relationship with the Father as adopted sons and daughters of God requires that we enter into Christ’s obedience to the Father, his trust in the Father’s word and his entrusting of himself completely to the Father’s will. This is what the Christian life is about: baptism brings us into the obedience of faith as we receive light and love from the Father through Christ. The monastic and other forms of religious life in the Church remind all Christians of this fundamental attitude and disposition of anyone who seeks to be a follower of Christ.