Review of two recent books about the Rule

By Abbot Andrew Marr OSB

Benedict’s Rule: A Translation and Commentary
By Terrence G. Kardong, O.S.B. Collegeville, Minnesota:
Liturgical Press, 1996. xviii, 641p. $49.95 (cloth)

Cherish Christ above All: the Bible in the Rule of Benedict
By Demetrius Dumm, O.S.B.. Mahwah, N.J
Paulist Press, 1996. 163p. 12.95 (paper)

One can’t even glance at the text of the Rule of St. Benedict without noticing the great number of quotations from the Bible within it. In a calm, readable style, Demetrius Dumm, a monk of St. Vincent’s Archabbey in Latrobe, PA, explores Benedict’s use of the Bible with reference to standard monastic topics such as obedience, poverty and communal living. These reflections are peppered with little anecdotes from his experience of living the monastic life. Most touching of all is Dumm’s stress on the importance of love and compassion in the Rule of Benedict. For those with responsibility in the monastery, such as the abbot or the cellarer (who has charge of the goods of the monastery), compassion is particularly important. Authority exercised without love is tyrannical. Dumm says that if we attend to the importance of love, then “how a work is done is as important as that it is done.” (Dumm, p. 103) In the Christian life, informed by scripture and the Rule, Dumm says there is no room for sacrificing human beings to a task that needs to be done.

Throughout, Dumm shows us how Benedict enjoins the reader to be personally involved with the scripture. “‘For the scriptures rouse us when they say'” (Prolog 8 quoted in Dumm, p. 20.) For example, the baptism of Jesus is not just about Jesus, it is about the need for us to hear God’s call through baptismal grace. Dumm also points out that we pray the psalms so as to participate in the “spirit of David.” This spirit is contrasted with that of Saul, who failed to trust God in the midst of the turmoil and sinfulness of his life. David trusted in God’s love for him enough to take charge of his life, while Saul abdicated such responsibility. Dumm says it is the spirit of David in the psalms that will gradually wean us “away from that immature tendency to blame others for [our] problems, to indulge in self-pity and allow negative sentiments to gain more and more control over [our] lives.” (Dumm 126-7)

A commentary on the Rule of Benedict by Terence G. Kardong, universally recognized among Benedictines as the leading American scholar on the Rule, is a major event. This book includes the Latin text of the Rule, a new English translation by the author, line-by-line commentary and overviews on individual chapters or clusters of chapters. In his commentary, Kardong covers all relevant levels. He analyzes the grammar of problematic passages in the Latin (of which there are many), explicates quotes from Scripture, discusses the historical background to show where the material is coming from, explores Patristic sources, and offers comments on where he sees the Rule’s relevance for today, and where he doesn’t. Constant references to other important modern commentators on the Rule inform the reader of important viewpoints besides his own.

Kardong shows detailed attention to the relationship between the Rule of Benedict and the Rule of the Master, an anonymous monastic rule now believed to pre-date Benedict’s Rule by roughly half a century. Large portions of Benedict’s text are lifted straight out of the earlier document, particularly in the early chapters. Although this extensive borrowing disappoints those who would like to see in Benedict a creative genius, close comparison of the texts has proven to be an extremely valuable tool in getting at Benedict’s own point of view. A telling example comes at the end of the Prolog of the Rule where Benedict adds four verses to the Master’s material that he was copying. It is precisely here that Benedict writes of how, as we progress in the monastic life “our hearts will swell with the unspeakable sweetness of love.” (Prolog 49, quoted in Kardong, p.5) Kardong points out that if you read the Master’s text without Benedict’s addition, “it is clear that the Mater’s schola is primarily a school of suffering, where one learns how to carry the cross after Christ.” (Kardong, p.32.) It is Benedict who balances the sacrifices of the monastic life with experiences of deep happiness here and now through the love of God.

In commenting on the chapters on punishment, which can be quite painful for the modern reader, Kardong is quite touching when he compares Benedict’s use of the parable of the lost sheep with that of the Master in the parallel passage. Benedict “enhances Luke (15:4-6) with deft brushstrokes while the Master virtually squanders the same parable.” (Kardong, p. 254) Kardong stresses Benedict’s concern that one in authority care for those who must be disciplined when he concludes: “To enter into discipline with someone is to get involved, and that is what we least like to do.” (Kardong, p. 255) Far from being a case of scholarly hair-splitting, close attention to the relationship between these two texts leads to important matters of spirituality. It is easy for anyone devoted to living the Rule of Benedict to stress the edifying aspects of that document so much as to make the reader forget that even Benedict shows some warts. Many popular books on Benedict, including Dumm’s, tend to have this effect. Since Benedict has much to teach us, we don’t want to lose that wisdom by debunking him, but a comprehensive commentary such as Kardong’s has to face up to the warts and come to terms with them. Not the sort of person to shrink from such a task, Kardong faces it head on. Kardong shows, in his analysis of 46:1, which deals with unintentional faults, that the sentence structure twists around in a “paroxysm of frantic concern to close up all possible loopholes to his legislation.” (Kardong, p. 368) This, by the way, is a trait usually attributed to the Master. Chapter 65, on the Prior of the monastery is so ill-tempered that some commentators try to absolve Benedict of having written it. Kardong uses his comments on Chapter 46 and elsewhere to suggest that, unfortunately, Benedict seems to have had a fearful and ill-tempered side and he could have written that chapter. But there is evidence that Benedict grew in his spirituality. In his overview of Chapter 72, Kardong outlines a comparison made by Andr‚ Borias between that chapter and Chapter 7 “On Humility.” For all of the insight in the earlier chapter, it is the later one, almost certainly a later addition, that shows an even deeper vision of Christian love. The emphasis moves from an individualistic quest for God to a clearly communal one:

Whereas RB7 presents the life of monastic humility as one that leads from fear to love, RB72 has no such progression from one virtue to another. True, this chapter begins with zeal, but we soon learn it is just another way to speak of love. (Kardong, p.601)

Anyone interested in meditating on Benedictine spirituality as a way of living the Christian life will benefit from Dumm’s book. Kardong’s commentary is indispensable for all who live the conventual life inspired by the Rule of Benedict. Devoted associates and friends of religious orders and communities should also find this book valuable in furthering their understanding of the Rule.

Abbot Andrew Marr, OSB

This article was originally published in the Anglican Theological Review.