Christian Devotional Classics: The Rule of St. Benedict

Benedict of Nursia (480 – c. 547), author of a “Rule” (referred to as The Holy Rule of Saint Benedict) containing precepts for his monks.

If time permits, I offer to you The Holy Rule of Saint Benedict for your consideration on this day of rest and through the coming week. Note: As the Christian Devotional Classics series builds chronologically, be sure you have at least given the first part of Thomas Merton & the Desert Fathers a look before reading further. Also, you may have interest in exploring the larger question of What is a Christian Devotional Classic? Finally, as I have already mentioned, please share your insights so that we can improve the material. Yes, please consider this a “work in progress” which can be enjoyed along the way :) To God be the glory!

Benedict of Nursia

On the Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) we read an excellent brief biography of Benedict of Nursia:

Benedict of Nursia (born in Nursia, Italy c. 480 – died c. 547) was a founder of Christian monastic communities and a rule giver for monks living in community. His purpose may be gleaned from his Rule, namely that “Christ . . . may bring us all together to life eternal” The Roman Catholic Church canonized him in 1220.

Benedict founded twelve communities for monks, the best known of which is his first monastery at Monte Cassino the mountains of southern Italy. There is no evidence that he intended to found also a religious order. The Order of St Benedict is of modern origin and, moreover, not an “order” as commonly understood but merely a confederation of congregations into which the traditionally independent Benedictine abbeys have affiliated themselves for the purpose of representing their mutual interests, without however ceasing any of their autonomy.

Benedict’s main achievement is a “Rule” containing precepts for his monks, referred to as the Holy Rule of Saint Benedict. It is heavily influenced by the writings of St John Cassian (ca. 360 – 433, one of the Desert Fathers) and shows strong affinity with the Rule of the Master. But it also has a unique spirit of balance, moderation, reasonableness (epieikeia), and this persuaded most communities founded throughout the Middle Ages, including communities of nuns, to adopt it. As a result the Holy Rule of St Benedict became one of the most influential religious rules in Western Christendom. For this reason Benedict is often called “the founder of western Christian monasticism” (Accessed 8/9/2013).

View of the Monte Cassino abbey at dusk by Radomil. Note: first monastery founded by Benedict of Nursia

To provide a larger context for Benedict of Nursia, I add . . .

      • With regard to a broad sweep of history, Benedict lives in the transition from “Classical Antiquity” (8th–7th century BC to AD 600) to the “Middle Ages” (AD 600–1600).
        • Although 476 is considered the official date for the fall of Rome, the capital of the Western Roman Empire had been sacked in 410 by the Visgoths and in 455 by the Vandals. In the decade afterward the last remnants of the Western Roman Empire were defeated and endeavors by Emperors from the Eastern Roman Empire could not free the lands.
          • This defeated and fragmented culture is the one into which Benedict was born, raised, and extended redemptive influence upon through the cenobetic monastic movement which exists to this day. A vision for the relationship of Christ and culture had been passed on by Augustine’s City of God (413–426), written in response to the corruption of the empire which he saw as leading to the sacking of Rome by the Visgoths (410).
      • As to monasticism, at the time of Benedict, the Desert Fathers and inspired hermits in the “West” lived separate lives (i.e., eremitic monasticism) from the corruption of culture and the church (i.e., wealth, power, and social structure in the church). Benedict was significant in the movement to gather “the religious” to live in community under the authority of a rule and an abbot (i.e., cenobitic monasticism).
        • When writing the rule which was to become the foundation of Western cenobitic monasticism, Benedict drew from the nearly contemporary Rule of the Master and the earlier Ascetica. The Ascetica, by St. Pachomius (c. 298 – 348) with the assistance of Basil of Caesarea, became the foundation for Eastern Orthodoxy’s cenobitic monastic system. Basil’s advocacy of the “philosophical life” stemmed from Mt. 22:37-40 and Acts 2:44.
        • Although a loose Augustinian order and other gatherings of religious existed in the West before the labors of Benedict (e.g., Martin of Tours established a monastery in Gaul in 360 and John Cassian established one in Marsaeille in 415), the effective nature of his leadership “by the rule” — and heirs who kept renewing his system, e.g., Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 – 1153) — led him to be considered “the founder of western Christian monasticism.”
      • In the broader church a number of councils wrestled with doctrine (Donatism, Manichaeism, and Arianism) and power.
        • In 451 the Council of Chalcedon (the fourth ecumenical council) declared Jesus Christ as one divine person in two natures.
        • As for major figures in the Church, the writing/labors of Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430) had the most significant influence in the Western Church at the time of Benedict’s birth (c. 480).
          • Recommended reading for a quick glimpse on the Augustine and the doctrinal battles with Manichacism, Donatism, and Pelagianism: Fighting Isms and Schisms (Christianity History. 7/1/1987).
    • c. 480: Benedict of Nursia is born.

      Saint Scholastica (c. 480 – 542) was the twin sister of Benedict of Nursia and the founder of the women’s branch of Benedictine Monasticism. Once a year she would visit with her brother near his abbey in order to worship and discuss spiritual concerns. From the San Luca Altarpiece.

    • 500: Benedict leaves the wealthy family of a Roman noble in Nursia, Italy, in the midst of his education to get away. He did not live completely on his own. Over time a mixed band of followers gathered. After failure (and almost losing his life by poisoning), he created a cenobitic monastic movement for the Lord’s service not just for men, but also later for women — overseen by his twin sister Saint Scholastica (c. 480–547).
    • 525: Anno Domini era calendar, based on the estimated birth year of Jesus Christ, created by Scythian monk Dionysius Exiguus.
    • 529: Benedict founds the monastery of Monte Cassino in Italy
    • 530: The Holy Rule of Saint Benedict
      • “St. Benedict was the first one to develop a rule of life, to help monks who were living in community to order their days very simply around three key elements of their life in God: prayer, study and work. St. Benedict’s Rule, like any rule of life, is simply a pattern of attitudes, behaviors and practices that are regular and routine and are intended to produce a certain quality of life and character” — Ruth Haley. Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation.  Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006.147.
      • Benedict’s rule focused upon the founding and sustaining of a cenobitic monastic school for the Lord’s service under the authority of an abbot. Benedict weaves together accountability, healthy obedience (even submission), humble character of godly leadership, lectio divina, prayer, reading of the saints, service to those in need, silence, and structure toward the goal of godly communal life, work, and worship.
      • A great example of the balance giving the balance between the spiritual and administrating a community with such a passion is offered by The Holy Rule of Saint Benedict is in Chapter 18: In What Order the Psalms Are to Be Said: “We especially impress this, that, if this distribution of the psalms should perchance displease anyone, he arrange them if he thinketh another better, by all means seeing to it that the whole Psalter of one hundred and fifty psalms be said every week, and that it always start again from the beginning at Matins on Sunday; because those monks show too lax a service in their devotion who in the course of a week chant less than the whole Psalter with is customary canticles; since we read, that our holy forefathers promptly fulfilled in one day what we lukewarm monks should, please God, perform at least in a week.”
        • “Finally, Benedict implies very clearly in this chapter on the order of the psalms that a full prayer life must be based on a total immersion in all the life experiences to which the psalm are a response. The order of the psalms is not nearly so important to Benedict as the fact that the entire 150 psalms are to be said each and every week. The Benedictine is not pick and choose at random the psalms that will be said. The Benedictine is not to pick some psalms but not others. The Benedictine is to pray the entire psalter in an orderly way, regardless of mood, irrespective of impulses, despite personal preferences. Anything other than regular recitation and total immersion in the psalms is, to Benedict’s way of thinking, spiritual sloth. Ours is to be a full spiritual palate. Readings may be shortened if situations warrant but the psalms, never. We are to tap into every human situation that the psalms describe and learn to respond to them with an open soul, an unfettered heart, and out of the mind of God” — Joan Chittister. The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century. New York, NY: Crossroad, 2010, 128 – 129.
        • The practice of praying the psalms, even by some in the context of a community, continues to be a great a blessing and is underscored by 20th and 21st contemporaries such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Walter Brueggeman, Stanley Jaki, Scot McKnight, Thomas Merton, Kathleen Norris (in The Cloister Walk), and James W. Sire. Note: A subject of a future series. Stay tuned.
    • 541-542: First pandemic of bubonic plague in the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine)
    • 547: Benedict dies. His labors lead him to be honored by the Anglican Church and the Roman Catholic Church (which canonized him in 1220) as the patron saint not only of Europe, but also students. As noted above he is often called “the founder of western Christian monasticism.”
      • Although there is much commend with regard to the Benedictine rule of life, and it has been picked up by some outside the order (adapted by Puritans and Evangelicals into daily life including practices such as “the Daily Quiet Time”), it is not without it’s critics. Dallas Willard writes in Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (1988): The Benedectine rule, the model for the entire monastic movement, contained nothing of the more violent methods of penance and “discipline,” such as self-flagellation, wearing the hair shirt, or inclusio (lengthy confinement of monks to very narrow cells, caves, or huts) [of earlier monasticism].  From the twelfth century on, however, ascetic practices increased in number and severity, and efforts were made to extend such excessive practices to the church as a whole, not just to those who might voluntarily seek them. There were epidemics of self-flagellation, involuntary dancing, and stigmatization – this later especially falling upon the rival orders of St. Francis and St. Dominic” (143). Note: A subject of a future series. Stay tuned.
    • 554: Byzantine liberation and unification of Italy.
    • 570: Birth of Mohammad, founder of Islam.

Now there is no doubt more to consider, some of which is woven into the below devotional series drawn from the series which ran on the Emerging Scholars Network Facebook Wall.

What does The Holy Rule of Saint Benedict have to say to us today?

The Holy Rule of Saint Benedict (530) by Benedict of Nursia (480 – c. 547).

1. Listen. “O my son, to the precepts of thy master, and incline the ear of thy heart, and cheerfully receive and faithfully execute the admonitions of thy loving Father, that by the toil of obedience thou mayest return to Him from whom by the sloth of disobedience thou hast gone away.” — Saint Benedict in the Prologue to The Holy Rule of Saint Benedict.

For Deeper Reflection: Honestly I find it hard to get past the first line. Am I ready to listen to the precepts of a human master, let alone obey our loving heavenly Father? How apt to reflect upon The Holy Rule of Saint Benedict as we consider what it means to be an Emerging Scholar in the context of modern higher education, still heavy influenced by (some would say “stemming from”/”rooted in”) cenobitic monasticism. Did cenobitic monasticism save “western” civilization and spirituality?

2. Joining a “school” for the Lord’s service. “We are, therefore, about to found a school of the Lord’s service, in which we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome. But even if, to correct vices or to preserve charity, sound reason dictateth anything that turneth out somewhat stringent, do not at once fly in dismay from the way of salvation, the beginning of which cannot but be narrow. But as we advance in the religious life and faith, we shall run the way of God’s commandments with expanded hearts and unspeakable sweetness of love; so that never departing from His guidance and persevering in the monastery in His doctrine till death, we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ, and be found worthy to be coheirs with Him of His kingdom.” — Saint Benedict. Prologue to The Holy Rule of Saint Benedict.

For Deeper Reflection: In the first devotional I shared how hard it was for me to get past the first line of the Prologue. In my second day of reading I only reached the last line of the Prologue. Largely this had to do with my surprise at how difficult I now find it to place myself in the context of cenobitic monasticism — whether at the time of Benedict of Nursia (c. 480 – 543 or 547) in central/southern Italy or today in one of the communities found across the globe (e.g., Order of Saint Benedict, http://www.osb.org/osbsitemap.html).

When younger, I thought I was capable of entering such a “school” no matter the era or the geography. If accepted, maybe so. But today I doubt whether I could continue in such a school. Yes, the grace of God is extraordinary, but in my case maybe the extraordinary grace was to preserve me from such a rash decision and grant me the opportunity of marriage and family.

How do you understand your vocation? Do you sense a call to a particular structure, dare I say ‘order’ (discipline and/or school) in the academic world? Have you connected not only with a campus fellowship of some form and a local assembly, but also a Christian Professional and Academic Society, http://esn.intervarsity.org/resource/christian-professional-and-academic-societies for guidance and/or to offer encouragement/equipping to others? If you’re looking for assistance in finding a mentor and/or a Christian Professional and Academic Society, please let me know.

May we spur one-another on in embracing the narrow way of salvation, running the way of God’s commandments with expanded hearts and unspeakable sweetness of love; so that never departing from His guidance and persevering in the Body of Christ in His doctrine till death, we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ, and be found worthy to be coheirs with Him of His kingdom. To God be the glory!

3. “The Instruments of Good Works: (1) In the first place to love the Lord God with the whole heart, the whole soul, the whole strength…(2) Then, one’s neighbor as one’s self (cf Mt 22:37-39; Mk 12:30-31; Lk 10:27).” — Saint Benedict. The Holy Rule of Saint Benedict. In chapter 4.

For Deeper Reflection: In a previous piece, I asked, “How do you understand your vocation?” Taking a step back, how do we embrace our call? By loving the Lord God with our whole person and loving our neighbor as one’s self. Do you find, Late Have I Loved You with your whole person? May we press on as Instruments of Good Works in the hands of God and take up the practical life of good works through the overflow of loving God with head, heart, and hands as part of the people God Head, Heart & Hands: Fragmented Faith and Fragmented People (Intro/Chapter 1).

May we spur one-another on in embracing the narrow way of salvation, running the way of God’s commandments with expanded hearts and unspeakable sweetness of love; so that never departing from His guidance and persevering in the Body of Christ in His doctrine till death, we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ, and be found worthy to be coheirs with Him of His kingdom. To God be the glory!

4. No murmuring. “This obedience, however, will be acceptable to God and agreeable to men then only, if what is commanded is done without hesitation, delay, lukewarmness, grumbling or complaint, because the obedience which is rendered to Superiors is rendered to God. For He Himself hath said: ‘He that heareth you heareth Me’ (Lk 10:16). And it must be rendered by the disciples with a good will, ‘for the Lord loveth a cheerful giver (2 Cor 9:7).’ For if the disciple obeyeth with an ill will, and murmureth, not only with lips but also in his heart, even though he fulfil the command, yet it will not be acceptable to God, who regardeth the heart of the murmurer. And for such an action he acquireth no reward; rather he incurreth the penalty of murmurers, unless he maketh satisfactory amendment.” — Saint Benedict. The Holy Rule of Saint Benedict. In Chapter 4.

For Deeper Reflection: Murmuring and complaining have recently come to my attention . . .

Stevns, Niels Larsen, 1864-1942. Zacchaeus, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54227 [retrieved August 10, 2013]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Niels_Larsen_Stevns-_Zak%C3%A6us.jpg.

1. In reviewing the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) with one of my children over the past several days.

2. During the summer, when a local pastor over-viewed Jerry Bridges’ Respectable Sins: Confronting the Sins We Tolerate (NavPress, 2007) for the Christian Medical Society (CMS)/CMDA of the Penn State College of Medicine, I was struck by how easily accepted, practiced, and even encouraged murmuring and complaining are in the academic context.

3. On Saturday one of our 13 year old girls made a self-challenge to go 24 hours without complaining. I have no idea of the inspiration, but it ‘caught on’ and was a blessing to the whole family. I think that we may have an idea for summer vacation (beginning at the end of today’s 1/2 day) — filling the vacuum of murmuring/complaining with gratitude (beginning today with expressing thankfulness to the Father for the new day, the creation, family, friends, the opportunity to serve with the Emerging Scholars Network), love of neighbor, encouragement, celebration . . . Ready to join me in picking up this challenge and to encourage others on your campus, in your discipline, in your fellowship, where you live?

May we spur one-another on in embracing the narrow way of salvation, running the way of God’s commandments with expanded hearts and unspeakable sweetness of love; so that never departing from His guidance and persevering in the Body of Christ in His doctrine till death, we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ, and be found worthy to be coheirs with Him of His kingdom. To God be the glory!

5. “Of Silence. Let us do what the Prophet saith: “I said, I will take heed of my ways, that I sin not with my tongue: I have set a guard to my mouth, I was dumb, and was humbled, and kept silence even from good things” (Ps 38[39]:2-3). Here the prophet showeth that, if at times we ought to refrain from useful speech for the sake of silence, how much more ought we to abstain from evil words on account of the punishment due to sin. Therefore, because of the importance of silence, let permission to speak be seldom given to perfect disciples even for good and holy and edifying discourse, for it is written: “In much talk thou shalt not escape sin” (Prov 10:19). And elsewhere: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Prov 18:21). For it belongeth to the master to speak and to teach; it becometh the disciple to be silent and to listen. If, therefore, anything must be asked of the Superior, let it be asked with all humility and respectful submission. But coarse jests, and idle words or speech provoking laughter, we condemn everywhere to eternal exclusion; and for such speech we do not permit the disciple to open his lips.” — Saint Benedict. The Holy Rule of Saint Benedict. In Chapter 6.

For Deeper Reflection: One way to address murmuring and complaining* is to keep silent. One morning this summer my eight year old daughter shared over devotions her desire to “pull out” the rude words from her mouth. Her hand motion of “pulling out” and “casting aside” rude words from her mouth is one that I hope to bring to my mind when unhealthy words and jests come to my mind at home, on computer, and on campus. At the close of devotions we prayed for God to fill the place of rude thoughts/words with ones that are a blessing to others — to love God and love our neighbor (even family members as school let out and everyone was home for summer).

As one who is a verbal processor and at times never stops talking, I was reminded by this selection from The Holy Rule of Saint Benedict that at times the greatest blessing or all parties in a community is establishing that one is truly present, attentive listening (how apt we are to disregard our elders/parents in our culture — a topic also raised in family devotions this morning), and the sharing of appreciation in an appropriate manner. Praying for each and every one of us to have discernment as we face challenging situations not only in our work, but also in the times when we seek ‘rest’/refreshment — including time on social media :0

May we spur one-another on in embracing the narrow way of salvation, running the way of God’s commandments with expanded hearts and unspeakable sweetness of love; so that never departing from His guidance and persevering in the Body of Christ in His doctrine till death, we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ, and be found worthy to be coheirs with Him of His kingdom. To God be the glory!

6. “If a Brother Is Commanded to Do Impossible Things. If, perchance, any difficult or impossible tasks be enjoined on a brother, let him nevertheless receive the order of him who commandeth with all meekness and obedience. If, however, he see that the gravity of the task is altogether beyond his strength, let him quietly and seasonably submit the reasons for his inability to his Superior, without pride, protest, or dissent. If, however, after his explanation the Superior still insisteth on his command, let the younger be convinced that so it is good for him; and let him obey from love, relying on the help of God.” — Saint Benedict. The Holy Rule of Saint Benedict. In Chapter 68.

For Deeper Reflection: Ever been asked to do impossible tasks? I wonder if we’re able to confess such in the academic world, especially in the United States. Since my radiation treatment over a decade ago and the resulting difficulties, I have come to embrace that all things are impossible except by the very grace of God. I offer by God’s grace what I can each day in a number of areas including in the impossible area of Evangelical campus missions. Only by God’s grace does the ministry of Emerging Scholars Network (ESN) “see students and faculty transformed, campuses renewed, and world changers developed.”

May we spur one-another on in embracing the narrow way of salvation, running the way of God’s commandments with expanded hearts and unspeakable sweetness of love; so that never departing from His guidance and persevering in the Body of Christ in His doctrine till death, we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ, and be found worthy to be coheirs with Him of His kingdom. To God be the glory!

7. “Of the Artists of the Monastery. If there be skilled workmen in the monastery, let them work at their art in all humility, if the Abbot giveth his permission. But if anyone of them should grow proud by reason of his art, in that he seemeth to confer a benefit on the monastery, let him be removed from that work and not return to it, unless after he hath humbled himself, the Abbot again ordereth him to do so. But if any of the work of the artists is to be sold, let them, through whose hands the transaction must pass, see to it, that they do not presume to practice any fraud on the monastery. Let them always be mindful of Ananias and Saphira, lest, perhaps, the death which these suffered in the body (cf Acts 5:1-11), they and all who practice any fraud in things belonging to the monastery suffer in the soul. On the other hand, as regards the prices of these things, let not the vice of avarice creep in, but let it always be given a little cheaper than it can be given by seculars, That God May Be Glorified in All Things (1 Pt 4:11). — Saint Benedict. The Holy Rule of Saint Benedict. In Chapter 57.

For Deeper Reflection: What a joy to see the emphasis on the value of humble “skilled workmen,” i.e., artisans, to the whole community! How often art is lost for the sake of academic pursuit, spirituality, and/or utility instead of humbly offered/received as a blessing pointing us to our Creator, the Great Artisan. What would it look like for your discipline, the Emerging Scholars Network, InterVarsity’s Campus Fellowships (http://arts.intervarsity.org/), and the larger Body of Christ to be richly blessed by artisans with a passion for God? Any artisans who are Christ-followers in the academic sphere with a desire to periodically share with ESN their own work and/or that of others?

May we spur one-another on in embracing the narrow way of salvation, running the way of God’s commandments with expanded hearts and unspeakable sweetness of love; so that never departing from His guidance and persevering in the Body of Christ in His doctrine till death, we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ, and be found worthy to be coheirs with Him of His kingdom. To God be the glory!

Added Fighting Isms and Schisms: 8/11/2013, 6:52 PM.

Changed the Kathleen Norris title from Dakota to The Cloister Walk. Thank-you to my editor friend for catching this! 8/11/2013, 10:52 PM.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Tom Grosh IV

Enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa, four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he hosts the Christian Scholar Series), on campus as part of InterVarsity Graduate & Faculty Ministry (serving fellowships such as the Christian Medical Society/CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine), online as the Associate Director of the Emerging Scholars Network, in the culture at large, and in God's creation.

More Posts - Website

Leave a Reply