St. Benedict and his holy rule - the spiritual foundation of society.
In a few days, July 11th marks the feast of the translation of the relics of St. Benedict, a feast held in Benedictine monasteries but not widely kept elsewhere in the traditional calendar. The occasion is an excellent opportunity to take a brief look at the incredible manner in which the order which he founded formed the world. What follows is the first half of a brief examination of the great blessings which the Benedictines gave to the world.
In establishing the Benedictine order and writing his holy rule of monastic life, St. Benedict became the channel of many graces for civilisation and for Christendom. The monasteries conveyed the saint’s spirituality to each successive generation, affecting everyone with whom they came into contact. Every action of the Benedictine monk has its roots in the Benedictine rule which is his guiding principle. Therefore, the development of Western Christendom can be traced back to the profound yet simple words and spirituality contained in the pages of the Benedictine rule.
It was in the midst of a changing world, when the previous constructions of the Roman Empire in the west were in the process of breaking down under the spread of the barbarian armies throughout Europe, that Benedict of Nursia (Norcia) was born. He was born “in the district of Norcia of distinguished parents, who sent him to Rome for a liberal education”.(1) Once established in the former imperial city, he became acutely aware of the decadence that was present in his fellow students and society. Thus he abandoned the urban life, “turned his back on further studies, gave up home and inheritance and resolved to embrace the religious life”.(2) After spending some time in hermetical isolation, he was discovered by other monks seeking a life of holiness who elected him to join them as their abbot. However, due to their stubborn opposition to his strict rule, St. Benedict left the monastery and returned to his solitary lifestyle for a short time. Yet again his sanctity attracted many to him, “many of them had forsaken the world in order to bring their hearts under the light yoke of the Saviour” and so he established a monastery, first at Subiaco and then later at Monte Cassino where he wrote his famous rule.(3) He remained here governing his monastery in an exemplary manner, accompanied in the spiritual life by his sister Scholastica, who was living with her community of nuns not far from Monte Cassino. She died in 543, having spent a day and night in saintly conversation and prayer with her brother but three days prior to her death. It was shortly after this that St. Benedict himself died, having given the command for his tomb to be opened six days prior to his death. He died having just received Holy Communion and was buried in the same tomb as his holy sister. St. Benedict, by his holy life and saintly death gave an example not only to his monks but also to all those who study his life or even are in anyway connected to Benedictine spirituality. St. Bernard is quoted as saying that “Benedict’s glorious death is a pledge of the glory to be attained by the whole of his Order”, yet not just his order but all those who follow the holy abbot.(4)
St. Benedict's life is marked by the key aspects of his spirituality. These aspects are found enumerated and expounded in his great Monastic Rule or Regula Benedicti (RB). In this rule the true St. Benedict can be discovered, for here are displayed the characteristics and sanctity of the man who is rightly invoked as patron of Europe. Indeed, to truly understand St. Benedict, one must look at his rule: to understand his rule one must thoroughly examine his saintly life. As Pope St. Gregory states about the holy abbot, “Anyone who wishes to know more about his life and character can discover in his Rule exactly what he was like as abbot, for his life could not have differed from his teaching”.(5) The rule is strikingly simple upon a first glance, being very specific with regards to the instructions of the daily life of the monks. However, when one looks at the rule in the light of the spiritual life, one can see that St. Benedict’s rule is almost the blueprint for the development of Catholic Europe and a true manual for attaining personal sanctity. At the heart of the Monastic Rule is the intent of the saint to compose a system by which one might seek to draw ever closer to a more intimate union with and imitation of God. Since the Rule became the principle of government of every Benedictine community, the words of St. Benedict became the guiding light of successive generations of faithful monks and saints, who, each in turn, worked to spread the joy of the Gospel. Fr. Lechrich describes the Benedictine rule thus:
"as one of labour and difficulty, by which man regains, through obedience, that which he had formerly lost through disobedience. He [Benedict] says that it is a military service under the standard of Christ, the monk to be clad in the strong armour of obedience. He compares it to a race in the the arena. He depicts it as a life of spotless purity and fidelity; and lastly as a school, in which is taught and practices the most sublime of all arts, how to serve God perfectly”.(6)
The rule is founded upon a few key virtues or pillars: obedience, silence, humility and prayer. The principle of obedience is placed first, since the saint was aware of the innate tendency of man to prefer his own will over another’s and the subsequent spiritual danger which this consequently placed man in. The obedience proffered to the abbot or superior is obedience given to God. All of the monks’ work should be performed in a holy silence, for the saint realised that “those who seek after perfection shall be rarely allowed to talk”.(7) The virtue of humility was considered such a great work, that St. Benedict outlined twelve chronological steps for attaining it. By the time the monk has reached the twelfth step of the journey to humility, he is able to live his day in such a prayerful manner that he can “imagine himself already present before the terrible judgment-seat of God”.(8) Due to this level of union with God, the monk will not find the practice of virtue hard, but rather pleasing and joyful. With this grounding then, St. Benedict moves onto the final pillar, that of prayer, and it is here that he prescribes the detailed life of the monk as being centred around daily and almost constant prayer. He takes all of thirteen chapters to set out the strict plan of life for the monks, knowing that the life of prayer is the spiritual food which nourishes each. The day is broken up by regular prayers in order that man might learn how to draw closer to God according to the order of the Psalm, “Seven times a day I have given praise to thee” (Psalm 118). It is these four pillars which contain the entirety of the Benedictine monastic rule. In but a few words, his life and spirituality can be summarised in the phrase, Ora et Labora, prayer and work. This is essentially what his monastic rule is - a life of prayer, contemplation and sacrifice combined with physical labours, all offered to God as a humble gift, the life of a monk being completely orientated to union with the Divine Godhead. St. Benedict ensures that when built upon obedience, silence, humility and prayer, “the monks’ daily life in the monastery flows gently on in beautiful order and harmony”.(9)
The Regula Benedicti as practiced by the followers of St. Benedict, is the text which came to be the guiding text for medieval Europe. St. Benedict’s spirituality as found in the RB was first effected in his monasteries, and thence through the centuries came to form the villages and towns which developed. In every act of the Benedictines, whether it is their private life of daily prayer, or in the actions relating to others, such as teaching and singing, the RB is always found as the basis for action. The Benedictines organically grew into such an extensive and socially influential order that scholars recognise that, “in many regions of Europe it was the early monasteries that shaped the very patterns of settlement, land use and trade which determined the distribution of cites and towns, markets and places of worship”.(10) The RB had a slow dissemination into the monasteries of Europe, since it was not the first monastic rule to be proposed, nor was there a widespread practice of monasteries adhering to one rule only. However, the RB spread and became so dominantly popular, not due to any radical differences to what was extant, but “because it could be readily assimilated into existing monastic practice”.(11) The Rule became increasingly used in various monastic communities, its spirituality obviously appealing to many, since in 802, the first Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne, decreed that the RB should be the only religious rule used by all communities in his territories of the Frankish peoples.(12) During the tenth century, the monastic reform was underway, led by the great congregation at Cluny, which acted as a “catalyst for many of the new monastic settlements that carried the RB further into the eastern and northern territories of Europe”.(13) During this era, other rules of religious life were sidelined, whilst the RB was elevated “to become the principal monastic code in Europe”.(14) The effect that this was having upon Europe is vital: the RB was no longer a code for monastic life followed by a handful of monasteries but was blossoming with life, as it was practised throughout the length and breadth of Europe, meaning that the society that grew beside and because of the monasteries, was imbued and formed by the self-same Benedictine spirituality.
The RB ensured that the Benedictine life was intensely prayerful, being structured around the seven hours of the office alongside the night office of Matins. Above all else, the spiritual life of the monk was crucial and the RB outlines that the other pursuits of man are ordered to assist the spiritual. From the very first day of the noviciate, the monks are accustomed to “forsaking their own will…so as it were at the same instant the bidding of the master and perfect fulfilment of the disciple are joined together in the swiftness of the fear of God”.(15) In his prologue to the RB, St. Benedict describes the monastic community as a school, whose only aim is the “amendment of vices or the preservation of charity” in order that “we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ, that we may deserve to be partakers of His kingdom”.(16) In this spirit of genuine filial devotion to God, the monk attends to his daily routine content that his every action is an offering to God. Even between their duties of manual labour or whilst to and from the recitation of the Divine Office, the rule prescribed that the monks pray the psalms, in order that no time be wasted in idleness.(17) This manner of life was evident in everything: for example, when the monastery was to receive guests, a mini liturgical ceremony was performed. The RB prescribes that the guest should be received by the community and then the body en masse should “first pray together, and then associate with one another in peace”.(18) Afterwards, the guest is accompanied by the Superior or his delegate to another period of prayer followed by the reading of the “law of God”, then the Abbot washes the hands of the guest, recognising Christ in him.(19) The Benedictine hospitality, about which history teaches, is founded upon this chapter of the RB, instructing the monk to follow the principles of the Gospel and treat his neighbour as Christ.
1 Pope Gregory I, Gregory the Great - Dialogues, translated by Odo John Zimmerman, (Fathers of the Church Inc, New York, 1959) P55
2 Pope Gregory I, Gregory the Great - Dialogues, 56.
3 Pope Gregory I, Gregory the Great - Dialogues, 70
4 Fr Lechrich, Life of St. Benedict, (Burns and Oates, London, 1900) P237
5 Pope Gregory I, Gregory the Great - Dialogues, translated by Odo John Zimmerman, (Fathers of the Church Inc, New York, 1959) P107
6 Fr Lechrich, Life of St. Benedict, (Burns and Oates, London, 1900) P78
7 Lechrich, Life of St. Benedict, 80-81
8 Rule of St. Benedict, translated by D. Oswald Hunter Blair, (Icthus Publications, Middletown, 2018) 30
9 Lechrich, Life of St. Benedict, 83.
10 James G. Clark, The Benedictines in the Middle Ages, (The Boydell press, Woodbridge, 2014) Page 131
11 Clark, The Benedictines in the Middle Ages, 27.
12 Clark, The Benedictines in the Middle Ages, 36.
13 Clark, The Benedictines in the Middle Ages, 52.
14 Clark, The Benedictines in the Middle Ages, 50.
15 Rule of St. Benedict, 23.
16 Rule of St. Benedict, xiii
17 Clark, Benedictines in the Middle Ages, 94.
18 Rule of St. Benedict, Chap 53, p67
19 Ibid, 67.