THE RULE OF BENEDICT
Preliminary Guidance, provided by Timothy Wright.
1. I am a Benedictine monk and have been so for some half a century. The Rule by which I live was put together, edited, by a man called Benedict of Nursia, an Italian who abandoned his university education in Rome in the late 5th century ce, and sought solitude and prayer in caves in the hills behind Rome, at a place called Subiaco. Later he was called out of his solitude to be the spiritual leader of a community of monks, probably not more than 20, at Monte Cassino, some 50km away.
2. There around 500ce he wrote the now famous Benedictine Rule. It was a guide for him and his monks in that monastery on that hill.
3. There were already several monastic rules circulating in Egypt, Middle East, Turkey and in parts of Italy. Benedict knew of them and composed his own based on the insights of others, but bringing with it his own humanity and common sense which have enabled his Rule to endure to this day.
4. It was not till the 10th Century ce that there was a demand that monasteries should follow the same Rule and Benedict’s was chosen. The word ‘Benedictine’ means one who followers that Rule.
5. It is not a long document, the version I use below is about 100 pages A5 paper. The longevity of the Rule is due to its flexibility and the responsibility it puts on the superior, Abbot/Abbess, to decide how to interpret it for the needs of his/her community.
6. Fundamentally it is not about ‘what Benedictines should do’ but ‘who Benedictines should become’. It is a document of formation within a community, made up of men or women of diverse age, temperaments and skills, but animated by the same desire: to get ever closer to God.
7. Over the centuries a great variety of Benedictine communities have been founded, they manage schools, hospitals, pastoral centres or parishes; some are farmers or live self-supporting lives within their ‘enclosure’ or property. They focus on their obligation to pray and form community. At particular moments this life lost its ‘rigour’ and needed reform. One such in the 13th Century ce were the Cistercians who sought a stricter, rural life. They are distinctive in their habit in contrast to the Benedictine habit which is black.
8. Each community is self-supporting and elects its own superior, either for a limited period – 8 or 10 years, or for life, which usually now means 75 years of age. In the monastery the Abbot/Abbess is the key person, he/she controls the life of the community and the roles of individuals.
9. The following notes to which I will speak give an outline of some of the main elements in the formation of a Benedictine community, a formation which has one purpose, ever closer intimacy with God Who Is Love. The work of the community is secondary, however important it might be as the means by which the community earns its living and as a contribution to the life of the Christians in their area.
10. Today there are Benedictine communities in every continent: Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, North and South America. There are about 5,000 male monks, 11,000 female nuns or sisters, and about 23,000 lay oblates attached to Abbeys, who seek guidance for their life ‘in the world’ from the Rule.
11. The Benedictines are found in the Latin Roman Catholic Church; Eastern or Orthodox Churches have their own forms of monastic life. There are some followers of the Rule in Reformation Churches.
ABBOT/ABBESS AS GUIDE AND FORMATOR IN A BENEDICTINE COMMUNITY
Translation Patrick Barry 1997 (Ampleforth Abbey Trustees)
Listen, child of God, to the guidance of your teacher. Attend to the message you hear and make sure that it pierces to your heart, so that you may accept with willing freedom and fulfil by the way you live the directions that come from your loving Father. It is not easy to accept and persevere in obedience but it is the way to return to Christ, when you have strayed through the laxity and carelessness of disobedience.
…This, then, is the beginning of my advice: make prayer the first step in anything worthwhile that you attempt. Persevere and do not weaken in that prayer. Pray with confidence, because God, in his love and forgiveness, has counted us as his own sons and daughters. Surely we should not by our evil acts heartlessly reject that love. At every moment of our lives, as we use the good things he has given us, we can respond to his love only by seeking to obey his will for us.
… He calls to us in another way in the psalm when he says: Who is there with a love of true life and a longing for days of real fulfilment. If you should hear that call and answer: ‘I’. This is the answer you will receive from God: If you wish to have the true life that lasts for ever, then keep your tongue from evil; let your lips speak no deceit; turn away from wrongdoing: seek out peace and pursuit. If you do that, he says, I shall look on you with such love and my ears will be so alert o your prayer, that, before you so much as call on me, I shall say to you: here I am. What gentler encouragement could we have, my dear brothers and sisters, than that word from the Lord calling us to himself in such a way!
…. Well then, brothers and sisters, we have questioned the Lord about who can dwell with him in his holy place and we have heard the demands he makes on such a one; we can be united with him there, only if we fulfil those demands. We must therefore prepare our hearts and bodies to serve him under the guidance of holy obedience.
…With this in mind what we mean to establish is a school for the Lord’s service. In the guidance we lay down to achieve this we hope to impose nothing harsh or burdensome. If, however, you find in it anything which seems rather strict, but which is demanded reasonably for the correction of vice or the preservation of love, do not let that frighten you into fleeing from the way of salvation; it is a way which is bound to seem narrow to start with. But, as we progress in this monastic way of life and in faith, our hearts will warm to its vision and with eager love and delight that defies expression we shall go forward on the way of God’s commandments. Then we shall never think of deserting his guidance; we shall persevere in fidelity to his teaching in the monastery until death so that through our patience we may be granted some part in Christ’s own passion and thus in the end receive a share in his kingdom. Amen
CHAPTER 2: GIFTS NEEDED BY AN ABBOT OR ABBESS
…..It is the place of Christ that the superior is understood to hold in the monastery by having a name which belongs to Christ, as St Paul suggests when he writes: You have received the spirit of adopted children whereby we cry abba, Father. That means that the abbot or abbess should never teach anything nor make any arrangement nor give any order which is against the teaching of the Lord.
…. They (Abbots/Abbesses) should not select for special treatment any indiviaul in the monastery. They should not love one more than another unless it is for good observance of the Rule and obedience.
… They (Abbots/Abbesses) should reflect on what a difficult and demanding task they have accepted, namely that of guiding souls and serving the needs of so many different characters: gentle encouragement will be needed for one, strong rebukes for another, rational persuasion for another, according to the character and intelligence of each.
…. However many the souls for whom they are responsible all superiors maybe sure that they will be called to account before the Lord for each one of them and after that for their own souls as well.
CHAPTER 3: CALLING THE COMMUNITY TOGETHER FOR CONSULTATION
When any business of importance is to be considered in the monastery, the abbot or abbess should summon the whole community together and personally explain to them the agenda that lies before them. After hearing the advice of the community the superior should consider it carefully in private and only then make a judgement about what is the best decision. We have insisted that all the community should be summoned for such consultation, because it often happens that the Lord makes the best course clear to one of the youngest. The community themselves should be careful to offer their advice with due deference and respect , avoiding an obstinate defence of their own convictions. It is for the abbot or abbess in the end to make the decision and everyone else should obey what the superior judges to be best. To get the balance right it should be remembered that, whereas it is right for subordinates to obey their superior, it is just as important for the superior to be far-sighted and fair in administration.
CHAPTER 4 GUIDELINES FOR CHRISTIAN AND MONASTIC GOOD PRACTICE
…Renounce your own desires and ambitions so as to be free to follow Christ, Control your body with self-discipline; don’t give yourself to unrestrained pleasure; learn to value the self-restraint of fasting…
….the way to become holy is faithfully to fulfil God’s commandments every day …… by praying in the love of Christ for those who are hostile to us, be seeking reconciliation and peace before the sun goes down whenever we have a quarrel with another, and finally by never despairing of the mercy of God.
CHAPTER 5 MONASTIC OBEDIENCE
The first step on the way to humility is to obey an order without delaying for a moment. That is a response which comes easily to those who hold nothing dearer than Christ himself.
… No one can doubt that they have as their model that saying o the Lord: I came not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.
…. obedience must be given with genuine good will, because God loves a cheerful giver.
CHAPTER 6 CHERISHING SILENCE IN THE MONASTERY
… So important is it to cultivate silence, even about matters concerning sacred values and spiritual instruction, that permission to speak should be granted only rarely to monks and nuns although they may themselves have achieved a high standard of monastic observance.
CHAPTER 19 OUR APPROACH TO PRAYER
God is present everywhere – present to the good and to the evil as well, so that nothing anyone does escapes his notice; that is the firm conviction of our faith. Let us be very sure, however, without a moment’s doubt that his presence to us is never so strong as while we are celebrating the word of God in the oratory.
CHAPTER 20 THE IDEAL OF TRUE REVERENCE IN PRAYER
…. Our prayer should, therefore, be free from all other preoccupations and it should normally be short, although we may well on occasions be inspired to stay longer in prayer through the gift of God’s grace working within us. Our prayer together in community, on the other hand, should always be moderate in length.
CHAPTER 27 THE SUPERIOR’S CARE FOR THE EXCOMMUNICATED
… The Abbot or abbess….. should be well aware that they have undertaken an office which is more like the care of the sick than the exercise of power over the healthy…. They should follow the loving example of the Good Shepherd who left ninety-nine of his flock on the mountains and went off to look for the one sheep who had strayed.
CHAPTER 33 PERSONAL POSSESSIONS IN THE MONASTERY
….Those in monastic vows should not claim any property as their own exclusive possession – absolutely nothing at all, not even books and writing materials.
CHAPTER 34 FAIR PROVISION FOR THE NEEEDS OF ALL
…Above all the evil of murmuring must not for any reason at all be shown by any word or gesture. Anyone found indulging in such a fault must be subjected to really severe discipline.
CHAPTER 48 DAILY MANUAL LABOUR
Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore all the community must be occupied at definite times in manual labour and at other times in ‘lectio divina’.
CHAPTER 58 THE RECEPTION OF CANDIDATES FOR THE MONASTERY
The entry of postulants into the monastic life should not be made too easy, but we should follow St John’s precept to make trial of the spirits to see if they are from God. If, then, a new comer goes on knocking at the door and after four or five days has given sufficient evidence of patient perseverance and does not waver from the request for entry, but accepts the rebuffs and difficulties put in the way, then let a postulant with that strength of purpose be received and given accommodation in the guest quarters for a few days.
…. When the decision is made that novices are to be accepted, then they come before the whole community in the oratory to make solemn promise of stability, fidelity to monastic life and obedience.
CHAPTER 64 THE ELECTION OF AN ABBOT OR ABBESS
… While they must hate all vice, they must lover their brothers or sisters. In correcting faults they must act with prudence being conscious of the danger of breaking the vessel itself by attacking the rust too vigorously. They should always bear their own frailty in mind and remember not to crush the bruised reed.
CHAPTER 66 THE PORTER OR PORTRESS OF THE MONASTERY
At the entrance to the monastery there should be a wise senior who is too mature in stability to think of wandering about and who can deal with enquiries and give whatever help is required….
CHAPTER 72 THE GOOD SPIRIT WHICH SHOULD INSPIRE MONASTIC LIFE
… there is a good spirit which frees us from evil ways and brings us closer to God and eternal life. It is this latter spirit that all who follow the monastic way of life should strive to cultivate, spurred on by fervent love. By following this path they try to be first to show respect to one another with the greatest patience in tolerating weaknesses of body or character. They should even be ready to outdo each other in mutual obedience so that no one in the monastery aims at personal advantage but is rather concerned for the good of others. Thus the pure love of one another as of one family should be their ideal. As for God, they should have a profound and loving reverence for him. They should love their abbot or abbess with sincere and unassuming affection They should value nothing whatever above Christ himself and may he bring us all together to eternal life.
CHAPTER 73 THIS RULE IS ONLY A BEGINNING
The purpose for which we have written this Rule is to make it clear that by observing it in our monasteries we can at least achieve the first steps in virtue and good monastic practice. Anyone, however, who wishes to press on towards the highest standards of monastic life may turn to the teachings of the holy Fathers, which can lead those who follow them to the very heights of perfection. …. We, however, can only blush with shame when we reflect on the negligence and inadequacy of the monastic lives we lead. Whoever you may be, then, in your eagerness to reach your Father’s home in heaven, be faithful with Christ’s help to this small Rule which is only a beginning. Starting from there you may in the end aim at the greater heights of monastic teaching and virtue in the works which we have mentioned above and with God’s help you will then be able to reach those heights yourself.
Continuing our series of the teacher-discipline relationship, Abbot Timothy Wright shared with us his personal experience as a monk and Abbot in the Benedictine tradition. After introducing us to the tradition by providing background material covering the history and key terms connected with the Benedictine monastic tradition and lifestyle, he led us through a reading of extracts from the Rule of Benedict, which governs life in hundreds of communities around the world.
The lesson began with a section from the prologue focusing on the reasons why a person may seek a monastic life and what their key attitudes should be: listening to God, prayer and discipline. We then proceeded to some of the qualities of the Abbot or Abbess and his or her relationship to the community s/he leads.
Themes touched upon included the gifts needed by an abbot or abbess: the ability to love all members of the community, the ability to ‘become Jesus’, the ability to sustain their own spiritual life while serving to guide that of others. Other themes were about good practice in the community, especially the role of the community in decision-making, discipline and proper attitude in prayer, obedience to the community norms, the place of silence, renunciation of personal property and the need to avoid idleness.
In speaking of the role of the Abbot or abbess, we learnt that s/he ‘should be well aware that they have undertaken an office which is more like the care of the sick than the exercise of power over the healthy’ and the need to be able to minister to those who have strayed spiritually.
While the Abbot or Abbess is a spiritual guide to all in the monastery, each member will have their own spiritual guide.
Another important role for the community is the Porter. S/he mediates between life inside the monastery and outside it. The person holding such a role is ‘a wise senior who is too mature in stability to think of wandering about and who can deal with enquiries and give whatever help is required’.
The Benedictine rule is only a framework for the path to spiritual fulfilment. For some this search for personal spiritual fulfilment may take them out of the community to seek God alone, always with a guide they consult from time to time.
A fascinating question-answer session followed in which Timothy drew strongly on his personal experience.
He was asked by Alon to consider how the role of the Abbot or Abbess was actually ‘mentor’ or ‘teacher’ like the models we have been examining and Timothy recognised that there were some limitations to the parallel. First, the role of the Abbot/Abbess will include administrative functions alongside their function as ‘teacher’; second, the fact that those who enter the monastery are obliged to have their own spiritual guide, based on their individual needs. Nevertheless, the Abbot/Abbess has the final say on the direction of the community’s life and the role of each individual within it.
Piotr made a pertinent point suggesting that the entire community, as community, was both ‘formator’ and ‘mentor’ to each member both by living the norms of the community (each will have important but often subtle differences) and by inspiring one another to remain faithful to the life.
In response to Peta’s question, Timothy also explained that each person, not just the Abbot, aims to be transformed into ‘Jesus’, following the ways laid down in the Gospels and living them within a contemplative community. Indeed this is the ideal of each Christian following Jesus’ teaching in daily life. It enables each Christian to recognise the Jesus in their fellow human beings, whatever their faith or philosophy of living.
Timothy was asked by Haviva about diversity in the Benedictine communities, relating to a point he had made in his presentation about choice and expectation of different paths for members. After outlining various models of Benedictine life, some being purely contemplative, others engaged in active work, education, farming, hospitality, hospitals and parishes, alongside their community life together with its silence and prayer. The Benedictine seeks God, is formed in a tradition, but also remains the unique person s/he is.
Further in the discussion, Timothy reflected on the responsibilities of the Abbot. the larger the community the greater the stress and the importance of good management, involving access to much lay expertise. A large community such as his own, requires considerable care and in organisation, adapting to the needs of a variety of personalities, both members of the Community and those lay people who assist in the smooth running of affairs. With these responsibility he must also not neglect his own spiritual life and growth; he listens carefully to his personal adviser. In that way, serving the community which elected him as best he can, while ensuring he becomes an ever-more appropriate model for its members. As the Rule indicates, in accepting the office of Abbot/Abbess s/he knows the eye of God is watching and an account will have to be given in God’s time.