The Rule of St. Benedict as a guide to Catholicity

By Abbot Andrew Marr OSB

The Rule of St. Benedict is an important document in the Catholic tradition of Christianity, a document that informs a communal tradition that remains alive today. Not only do many monks and nuns follow the Rule, but many non-monastics are today finding in the Rule fresh inspiration for living the Christian life. Given this importance, an exploration of how the Rule contributes to a vision of Catholic community in our time will be a fruitful endeavor.

Essential to a sense of Catholicity is the realization that individual contributions are part of a communal effort. This joint effort is most clearly embodied in liturgical worship where it is the actions of the whole community that comprise the liturgy, however important are the contributions of each individual. Christian writers are constantly making use of those thinkers who have gone before them in creating their personal visions of the Catholic mystery.

St. Benedict’s Rule illustrates this interdependence in that, far from creating monasticism from whole cloth, it represents a distillation of the church’s monastic experiences prior to St. Benedict’s time. For example, St. Benedict expressly notes the importance of the writings of St. Basil of Caesarea and St. John Cassian for understanding his vision of monasticism. Scholars have traced many expressions in the Rule to these two writers and to many others as well. In contrast, one source St. Benedict does not mention had a much more direct effect on the text than any other. This is the Rule of the Master, an anonymous monastic rule now believed to have been written thirty to fifty years before St. Benedict produced his. The large overlap of text between the two rules allows for interesting comparisons between St. Benedict’s attitudes and those of the Master. The comparisons offer evidence that St. Benedict reflected carefully on the writings of his monastic forbears, thus developing his own vision through the corporate vision he had inherited. Thus, the Rule provides a significant image of the corporate nature of Catholicity in an abbot using earlier material that he thought good to present his very different point of view.

Accordingly, an examination of some of these differences can provide a significant understanding of St. Benedict’s view of Christian community. The development of sound theology is, for instance, rightly considered an important element of Catholicity. Although there is no reason to doubt that St. Benedict did consider right belief important, there is nothing in the Rule that explicitly touches on doctrinal issues. A comparison with the Rule of the Master suggests that St. Benedict’s reticence may be intentional. Much of chapter four in the Rule of St. Benedict, “The Tools of Good Works”, is copied from chapter three of the Rule of the Master. The Master begins his chapter:

This is the holy art: first to believe in, to confess and to fear God the Father and the son and the Holy Spirit, one God in Trinity, and three in one, three in the one divine nature and one in the threefold power of his majesty. (RM 3:1)

St. Benedict, on the other hand, omits this sentence entirely and begins with a statement of the Great Commandments:

First of all, love the Lord God with your whole heart, your whole soul and all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself (Mat. 22:37-39; Mk. 12:30-31; Lk. 10:27) (RB 4: 1-2)

The Master also states the Two Great Commandments, but it is much less effective after his complex opening statement. Stylistic considerations aside, the comparison gives a strong indication that St. Benedict’s heart is with the concrete communal relationship with God and neighbor rather than with abstract theological descriptions of that relationship. Once alerted to St. Benedict’s emphasis, one will find throughout the Rule statements pointing to the importance of the Christian’s inner attitude and conduct towards God and neighbor.

To this end, the opening statement in the Prologue to St. Benedict’s Rule makes a strong appeal to the inner disposition of the listener and reader:

Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. (RB prol. 1)

The phrase “ear of your heart” suggests that one does not really hear what has been said unless those words enter the heart, the seat of the will. As St. Benedict goes on to develop the theme of obedience over against disobedience, it becomes clear that one hears with the “ears of the heart” only if one actually carries out the teaching that has been spoken.

Likewise, Chapter 20 (along with chapter 52) is the closest St. Benedict comes to offering instruction for inner prayer. Unlike many writers, he omits any discussion of techniques and zeroes in on the importance of the attitude towards God with which we pray:

Whenever we want to ask some favor of a powerful man, we do it humbly and respectfully, for fear of presumption. How much more important then, to lay our petitions before the Lord God of all things with the utmost humility and sincere devotion. We must know that God regards our purity of heart and tears of compunction, not our many words. (RB 20: 1-3)

St. Benedict is suggesting that if we approach God with “purity of heart and tears of compunction,” our prayer will more or less fall in place. Without that attitude, nothing we do will avail. St. Benedict does not expect this inner attitude of compunction to occur easily. We need, for example, the season of Lent to “wash away…the negligences of other times…by devoting ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and self denial.” (RB 49: 3-4) The acts of holy reading and abstinence are similarly valuable only insofar as they foster this inner attitude of compunction before God.

It is important to note that the implied instruction for inner prayer found in chapter 20 follows directly on the chapters outlining the schedule of liturgical prayer. Specifically, that is the inner attitude enjoined by chapter 20 is to be developed through the physical an mental discipline of the Divine Office. Therefore, there are pointed comments in these liturgical chapters making it clear that St. Benedict expects the external act to strengthen the right interior attitude towards God. Thus, during the singing of the Gloria Patri, “all immediately rise in reverence.” (RB 12:3) In the same vein, when the Gospel is read, the worshippers “stand with respect and awe.” Most important, St. Benedict emphasizes that “the divine presence is everywhere….But beyond the least doubt we should believe this to be especially true when we celebrate the divine office.” (RB 19:1-2)

In so stating, St. Benedict does not enjoin us to figure out how God can be present everywhere and yet more present at some times and places. Rather, we should be attentive to the fact that we are always in the presence of God. Hence, the first step of humility is that we “Keep the fear of God always before [our] eyes and never forget it.” (RB 7:10) The following steps of humility outlined in this chapter further makes us mindful of the presence of other human beings besides ourselves. The exhortations to obedience in the third step an fourth steps, sometimes “under difficult, unfavorable, or even unjust conditions” may be hard to accept, but they remind us that, like it or not, we have to adjust to the people around us and be obedient to their reality. Although the third step of humility specifies obedience to a superior, every superior learns the need to practice obedience to the other members of the community. Clearly we should cultivate the same respect and humility before our fellow humans that we cultivate before God.

Over an over again, St. Benedict urges his reader to an attitude of deference to human beings that become an extension of the deference we should feel before God. St. Benedict expresses this concern with human relations when he stresses the importance of reciting the Lord’s Prayer with special attention to the phrase “Forgive us as we forgive” because “thorns of contention are likely to spring up.” (RB 13:12-13) In a similar manner, the monks are each required to take turns serving at table because “such service increases reward and fosters loves.” (RB 35: 2) Likewise, guests are to be greeted not only with “all the courtesy of love” but also with prayer. (RB 53: 3-4) As the liturgical actions in church affect the inner attitude towards God, the actions of serving in the dining hall and greeting guests has a corresponding effect on the inner attitude towards other people.

In chapter 20, St. Benedict started with the respect we feel for a powerful man from whom we need a favor to lead us to the respect we should feel before God. Following the movement between the relationship with God and relationships between people, one begins to see that the respect shown to a powerful man should be shown all the more to God and to all other people, whether they have power over us or not.

St. Benedict says that the abbot, the sick, and guests should be regarded as Christ. (RB 2, 36, 53) The community is admonished to show “great care and concern” for the poor because “in them more particularly Christ is received; our very awe of the rich guarantees them special respect.” (RB 53: 15) Here, the analogy of prayer with petitioning a “powerful man” receives a further twist. The identification of the abbot with Christ is often understood by commentators as enjoining obedience to the abbot’s authority. That is true, but the needs of the sick and the guests also command obedience. Moreover, St. Benedict requires that the abbot show a similar respect and obedience to his monks by “distrusting his own frailty” and pruning the faults of the monks with “prudence and love as he sees best for each individual.” (RB 64:13-14) In short, everybody is to be treated as Christ.

Much of the material in chapters 23-27 on excommunication makes painful reading. However, broken relationships do happen in community, that brokenness is painful, and something must be done about it. It is noteworthy, however, that St. Benedict does not overlook the importance of showing respect even to a serious offender. Thus, the abbot is initially instructed to send mature monks to the excommunicated member “who, under the cloak of secrecy, may support the wavering brother, urge him to be humble as a way of making satisfaction, and console him lest he be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.” (RB 27: 3) In these chapters, St. Benedict has copied much material from the Rule of the Master. However, there is a telling contrast in the text just quoted in that, for the Master, every aspect of discipline is public with no room for confidential dialogue. Unlike the Master, St. Benedict makes a point of providing space for inner privacy and the dignity of the wavering monk. Even more important, St. Benedict reminds the abbot to act in the spirit of the parable of the lost sheep.

St. Benedict’s attitude towards others offers a strong contrast to the Rule of the Master, which generally shows an attitude of suspicion. The Master’s greatest preoccupation in dealing with the sick is making sure they are not faking the illness to avoid worship and work. (RM 69) Guests, in the same way, must be watched day and for fear that they might be thieves or prone to getting into mischief. (RM 79)   A monk new to the monastery should either not be entrusted with the tools of the monastery or be closely watched by others is he is so entrusted for fear he will run off with them. (RM 87)

For all his emphasis on relating to God and neighbor with humility, St. Benedict does not overlook the importance of relating to ourselves with the same humility. St. Benedict makes it clear that tasks should be done conscientiously and well when he says that “brothers will read and sing, not according to rank, but according to their ability to benefit their hearers.” (RB 38: 12) However, the reader at meals also prays that “God may shield him from the spirit of vanity.” (RB 38:2) There is likewise no reason to believe that St. Benedict hopes for less than excellent work from the artisans of the monastery, but he sees a great danger to the artisan’s soul if he becomes “puffed up by his skillfulness in his craft and thinks he is conferring something on the monastery.” (RB 57: 2) In such a case, the craft is to be taken away from the artisan until he becomes more humble. The practice of a craft should cause gratitude to God for the gift rather than over-attention to one’s own accomplishment.

The cellarer of the monastery is intended to be a model of respect both to people and to things. Moreover, he should also be a model for showing both competence and humility. The cellarer “must not be wasteful or extravagant with the goods of the monastery.” To remind us that the care we take with the liturgy should extend to caring for everything, St. Benedict requires that the cellarer “regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar.” (RB 31:12, 10) The cellarer’s treatment of people should always be respectful, so that if he cannot meet a request, he can at least “offer a kind word in reply.” (RB 31: 13)

For all of the importance of a right inner attitude to God, neighbor, and self in St. Benedict’s vision of the Christian life, there is no allowance for this attitude becoming possible outside of the context of certain actions. The fundamental practices that St. Benedict enjoins are worship, work, study, silence, and charitable interaction with community and guests. “The Lord waits for us daily to translate into action, as we should, his holy teachings.” (Prol. 35) These actions, however, are not to be performed with presumption on our part. Like the artisans, we should not “become elated over [our] good deeds; [we] judge it is the Lord’s power, not [our] own, that brings about the good in [us].” (Prol. 29) Here, St. Benedict thrusts us into the heart of the paradox where we are required to make strenuous efforts at worship and work while deriving our inner strength solely from God. “What is not possible to us by nature, let us ask the Lord to supply by the help of his grace.” (Pro. 41)

The teaching that we must cultivate the right inner attitude towards God and neighbor through the practice of worship and work did not originate with the Rule of St. Benedict, and it has been stated many times since. But then St. Benedict was concerned with faithfulness to God rather than originality for its own sake. Even so, the Rule of Benedict has crystallized this fundamental teaching in a way that has been effective for many Christians over the past fifteen centuries. Given the intensity with which his ethical and theological issues continues to be debated in all the churches today, the importance of cultivating this inner attitude cannot be over stressed.

I pointed out early in this paper that St. Benedict shows little overt concern for doctrinal statements. It is clear, however, that there were Christian doctrinal statements in which he believed. The stress on respect for people and the material goods of the monastery implies a strong doctrine of God’s creation. St. Benedict’s identification of Christ with other people similarly amounts to a Christological statement. More to the point for St. Benedict, however, is the teaching that how we express our views in exchange with others in the church is itself important. Right thinking in doctrinal and ethical issues is not enough. For one thing, presumption in right thinking is a vice worth fearing. Moreover, though, the right thinking is simply not credible when it is not lived and expressed through the right conduct of humility and respect towards God and neighbor. In sum, St. Benedict affirms the importance of free exchange of opinions, but also gives advice for this exchange that we all need to hear again and again; that we are called always to “express [our] opinions with all humility, and not presume to defend [our] own views obstinately.” (RB 3:4) Only then will our discussions reflect God and enable us to find “our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.” (RB Prol 49)

All quotations from the Rule of the Master are taken from The Rule of the Master, trans. by Luke Eberle. Kalamazoo, 1977. RM=Rule of the Master.

All quotations from the Rule of St. Benedict are taken from RB: 1980, ed. Timothy Fry, O.S.B. Collegeville, 1981. RB=The Rule of Benedict.

This article originally appeared in the
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