The rule of St Benedict: Bringing order out of chaos

St.Benedict of Nursia is a key figure in early Roman Catholic Monastic tradition.  He founded a total of twelve communities for monks in and around Rome, before moving to Monte Cassino for the later years of his life.  St. Benedict’s main contribution to Christian theology was his prescription of the ‘Rule’, which laid out a set of precepts for the monks to follow.  Strongly influenced by the ideas and teachings of John Cassian and taking inspiration from the Rule of the Master, Benedict’s Rule was both of practical and spiritual use.  Key concepts that define the work are balance, moderation and reasonableness.  As a result, the Rule convinced many religious communities in the era following the collapse of the Roman Empire to embrace it. The depth of moral deprivation that was witnessed during period in history can be gleaned from the Prologue to The Rule.

“And the Lord seeking His workman in the multitude of the people, to whom He proclaimeth these words, saith again: “Who is the man that desireth life and loveth to see good days” (Ps 33[34]:13)? If hearing this thou answerest, “I am he,” God saith to thee: “If thou wilt have true and everlasting life, keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile; turn away from evil and do good; seek after peace and pursue it” (Ps 33[34]:14-15)….” (www.ccel.org, 2011)

The Rule may be taken for a simple set of rules at first.  But actually, this important piece of Christian theology contains seventy-three compactly and crisply written chapters.  Within it is wisdom of two varieties.  First, it contains several passages that talk of elevated spiritual practices and deliberates on the role of Christianity to our planet.   Second, it is comparable to Confucius’ work on efficient and just administration, in that it sets out methods and principles by which a monastery could be run smoothly. Fitting the didactic nature of the work, it explains the merits of such qualities as humbleness and obedience to the lord and his representatives.  It also offers practical suggestions on how to bring wayward members of the religious community into proper decorum and discipline. There are autocratic elements as well, especially Benedict’s views on managing monasteries.  Opus Dei (which stands for the work of God) is discussed in detail too.  The role of the abbot, especially his pastoral duties are prescribed in the Rule.  All these facets of the Rule helped it pull Europe out of disaster during the early Middle Ages.

Coming to the relevance and historical significance of St. Benedict and his Rule, we have to consider the chronology of events surrounding the saint’s life.  Born during the early Middle Ages, St. Benedict inherited a culture and civilization that was chaotic, decadent and low on spiritual values.  Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, most of Europe fell into power struggles between regional dominions.  It was at this time that St. Benedict issued his Rule to monasteries and monks across Europe, especially Western Europe.  The dictates of the rule helped establish discipline and order among Christian communities and helped restore Western civilization back on its feet.  At a time when lawlessness was the norm, The Rule brought back first semblance of civilization to uprooted populations. Because of the broad range of practical and spiritual topics covered by the Rule, it has established itself as an integral part of the Christian literary canon.  In this context, John Chittister, a member of the Order of St. Benedict, explains the lasting appeal of the Rule and its prescriptions to the modern reader:

“Even at the end of his Rule, Benedict does not promise that we will be perfect for having lived it. What Benedict does promise is that we will be disposed to the will of God, attuned to the presence of God, committed to the search for God and just beginning to understand the power of God in our lives…..Benedict wants “good deeds” but he does not want pride. We do what we do in life, even holy things, the Prologue teaches, not because we are so good but because God is so good and enables us to rise above the misery of ourselves. Even the spiritual life can become an arrogant trap if we do not realize that the spiritual life is not a game that is won by the development of spiritual skills. The spiritual life is simply the God-life already at work in us.” (Chittister, 2011)

1 2