Saturday, January 5, 2008

The Holy Rule of St. Benedict

I've always wanted to read The Rule of St. Benedict as it has been not only the basis for most of monastic life since the sixth century but also because it has been of such great impact on church history and doctrine. The problem is that most book editions of The Rule are chock full o' commentaries by various wise people. Now, I have nothing against commentaries; in truth, I think they're usually of immense help in reading a work as long as the one commentating is trustworthy. But I've been wanting to read The Rule without any commentary -- I just wanted to read IT and then go on to commentaries.

So I found a copy online that I could just print up. (If you Google "The Rule of St. Benedict," I printed the third one down on the first page.) And over the past few days, I highlighted most of those 28 pages. Yes, I know that highlighting everything means that nothing stands out, but I've also found that for me, the act of underlining or highlighting aids my understanding and retention. So after drying out one highlighter on The Rule, I finally got through it.

One reason that I've been desiring to read The Rule is that it apparently applies to family life as well as monastic life. My dear friend from church, Kitty, has a cousin who pastors a Presbyterian Church in the Portland area, and he has written a book called The Family Cloister which is subheaded: "Benedictine Wisdom for the Home." David Robinson's book has been sitting in my teetering stack of books "To Be Read" for at least two years, and I'm thrilled to be finally getting to it. I'll let you know how helpful it is in the practicality of our family's life.

Now back to The Rule. Coming from a time when the ascetics were the most admired of the monastics, when wearing hair shirts to "mortify the flesh" was supposedly a sign of great religious commitment, St. Benedict's Rule seems almost relaxed. But it's the plain ol' simple common sense of St. Benedict's Rule that has caused it to endure. The life of the monastery is laid out in an organized fashion that gives time for worship around the concept of the Daily Hours as well as set times and guidelines for divine reading, physical labor, eating, and sleeping. Uncomplaining and cheerful obedience is the mark of St. Benedict's Rule, and the virtues of silence, humility, and reverence are also of great importance.

In the Rule, St. Benedict calls for a certain kind of man to be an Abbott, or leader of the monastery, and he also distinguishes what kind of men the monks should be. St. Benedict also discusses in detail how and when worship is to be given to God, how the Psalms are to be read aloud during mealtimes so that all of the monks heard the entire 150 Psalms every single week. He also names disciplinary infractions and how such faults are to be dealt with, mercy, love, and prayer always being at the forefront. Benedict's monks were to own no personal possessions, not even a pen of their very own as all items were to be held in common; even letters from home were to be approved by the Abbott before the monk could receive them. He also organizes the various work of the monastery such as who is to have kitchen duty and how much physical labor is to be done according to the time of the year. How to receive guests and new monks is described in the latter portions of The Rule, as well as how to elect an Abbott and Prior, how to select a porter to open the door (at all hours of the day and night) and how the porter was to deal with travelers, the poor, etc.
As The Rule closes, being obedient to each other is stressed, as is the "virtuous zeal" that the monks should have in Christ.

Throughout The Rule of St. Benedict, the author quotes Scripture to explain or fortify his mode of organization for the monastery, keeping in mind human frailty and sin but also remembering that mercy and love and obedience are the hallmark of a life devoted to Christ. In fact, Scripture makes up a considerable amount of The Rule itself, and it is in the reading and obeying of Scripture that St. Benedict's Rule is most helpful to me. I'm looking very much forward to see how David Robinson's book mentioned above will utilize The Rule of St. Benedict in the life of the ordinary Christian family.

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