Gathering a Community in the Spirit:
Introducing St. Benedict and His Rule
[Chapter from Tools for Peace introducing St. Benedict as dialogue partner with René Girard]
Benedict and His Time
Benedict wrote his Rule in the first half of the sixth century. He did not compose it placidly in a serene environment. By Benedict’s time, the Roman Empire had collapsed in Europe, and Gothic rulers held sway over the Italian peninsula. In 525, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I made the situation worse by launching an invasion on the peninsula to win it back for the empire. The result was a civil war that lasted over twenty years. For Benedict and his monks, it must have been a bit like living in Vietnam during the conflict there. Moreover, the many times Benedict had to suggest ways of coping with serious difficulties in community make it clear that not even the monastery was entirely peaceful. These considerations suggest that Benedict’s Rule may well be relevant to us in our conflicted time.
Considering the impact that Benedict has had on Western civilization, it is both astounding and strangely disconcerting that we know almost nothing about him. The only document that has ever claimed to offer biographical information about Benedict is Book Two of the Dialogues attributed to Pope St. Gregory the Great. Unfortunately, there are many reasons for doubting that this document gives us any reliable information about Benedict. The miracle stories recorded in the Dialogues are so fanciful and archetypal that even a person with a firm belief that miracles do happen can be forgiven for not believing in the miracles attributed to Benedict in this document.
More important is the radical difference between the personality we glean from the Rule and the charismatic wonder worker portrayed in the Dialogues. In the Dialogues, Gregory tells his deacon, Peter, that the man who performed these miracles “was also very well-known for his words of doctrine” and that Benedict’s Rule is “remarkable for its discretion and elegant in its language.” This Rule reveals the “life and habits” of Benedict, because “the holy man could not possibly teach other than as he lived.”1 The Rule is indeed remarkable for its discretion. The author is accurate to that extent. Unfortunately, there is nothing else in the Dialogues that betrays any knowledge of Rule of Benedict whatsoever. Moreover, it is hard to credit that the practical, sober-minded author of the Rule would spend most of his waking hours wreaking havoc on the laws of nature for the convenience of his monks and the astonishment of his neighbors. A comparison between two corresponding chapters in the Rule of Benedict and the Rule of the Master strengthens this dichotomy. In chapters 4 (“On the Tools of Good Works”) and 7 (“On Humility”), Benedict copied most of his material from The Rule of the Master. Where the two differ significantly is that the Master capped both of his corresponding chapters with long-winded descriptions of heaven, but Benedict pointedly omitted both of these passages. Much as Benedict believed that eternal life in heaven with God was the ultimate goal of the monastic life, he clearly had no room for fanciful speculations about it. The Benedict of the Dialogues, on the other hand, is constantly meddling with the hereafter when he isn’t redefining the natural laws of this world.
In spite of these problems, long recognized by Benedictine scholars, there has been an understandable tendency to hope that the second book of Dialogues does give us a bare outline of Benedict’s life: that he was a sixth-century dropout, that he lived in a cave as a hermit, that he accepted the invitation of the monks at Vicovaro to be their abbot only to have them attempt to poison him, and that he founded a monastery on the ruins of a pagan temple on Monte Cassino. Unfortunately for this biographical sketch, the research of Francis Clark has discredited the Dialogues as a legitimate historical source even to this minimal extent. Clark makes a very strong case for attributing (or blaming) the authorship of the Dialogues to an anonymous cleric working in the Vatican archives during roughly the mid-seventh century.2 Among many strong arguments in favor of this conclusion, one of the strongest is the total lack of a cult of St. Benedict until the middle of the seventh century.3 Clark’s reasoning is that if Pope Gregory had written the Dialogues in 593, as has been claimed, then it would have had a high circulation from the start as did the works known to be composed by this Pope, and Benedict would have been highly acclaimed as a saint starting from that time. Moreover, there are no references to this work that can be safely dated to the late sixth century to indicate that it was known by anybody at the time.4 Clark also undermines the claim in the Dialogues that Benedict founded a monastery on Monte Cassino by demonstrating that there is no other historical evidence that anyone built a monastery there during the sixth century, nor is there any archaeological evidence for such a thing.5 I cannot go further into the highly-detailed arguments that Clark puts forth in this book, but I am sufficiently convinced of his conclusions to feel that prudence and intellectual honesty require that we not rely on the Dialogues of “St. Gregory” as a likely source of information about Benedict.
What we are left with is a monastic rule attributed to Benedict that was most likely written, almost certainly in stages, sometime during the first half of the sixth century. The many references to known Roman liturgical practices in Benedict’s outline of the Divine Office suggest that Benedict and his community were probably located in or near Rome. The references to farming in the Rule suggest that they were far enough from the urban center to have farmland around them. Beyond that, we have only the Rule itself to shed any light on the kind of person Benedict was. For that reason, I will use only the Rule of Benedict for the purposes of comparing Benedict with René Girard. There are some narrations in Book Two of the Dialogues that are ripe for a Girardian analysis, but that will have to be a separate project for another day.
Benedict had inherited two centuries of monastic tradition by the time he wrote his Rule. He respected the radical asceticism of the eastern Desert Fathers who ate very little, slept very little, maintained strict silence, usually lived alone, and prayed nonstop in their cells. However, Benedict felt that the communal life with its more moderate asceticism, which other monastic figures developed, was more realistic for those who aspired to the monastic life in his time and place. With this focus, Benedict says specifically that he wrote his rule for followers of the cenobitic life. What Benedict means by that term is a community whose members “serve under a rule and an abbot” (RB 1:2). It is not enough, then, to define the monastic life as a vocation to prayer. Rather, the monastic life is a vocation to a community of prayer. Central to the community’s structure is the abbot. The abbot is elected by the community, but, once elected, he holds much authority in the exercise of that office. In representing Christ to the community, the abbot has a strong claim of obedience upon the monastics under him. Representing Christ, however, also means acting like Christ. That is, the abbot should live a sacrificial life devoted to nurturing others.
Benedict is quite clear that community life is best fostered by a moderate middle way between radical asceticism and a life of indulgence: Monks should eat adequate amounts of food, but not too much; they should have adequate amounts of sleep, but not too much. Another example of Benedict’s sense of balance is his stress both on quality relationships in community and solitude. Most important, Benedict demonstrates an uncanny balance between a realistic appraisal of human behavior and an idealistic hope for what people can become by the grace of God. He knew that even those who choose to devote themselves to a life of worship will have their foibles, and any change for the better will take many years of struggle. Benedict did not urge his monks to storm heaven and win salvation in a day. Rather, he enjoined an asceticism more relaxed than that of the early monks, an asceticism that prompted one to take a gradual but inexorable journey to God in which one never loses sight of the goal. The practice may be moderate, but its direction is inexorable.
The three vows that a Benedictine makes at profession are stability, obedience, and fidelity to the monastic life (conversion). These vows give us a strong indication of how communally-oriented Benedict’s monastic vision is. (The famous triad of vows—poverty, chastity, and obedience—are a twelfth-century innovation by other religious orders.) The vow of stability is a promise to stay in the monastery of one’s profession, the vow of obedience promises just that to both abbot and community, and the vow of conversion is a promise to persevere in faithfully living the monastic life. One can see that these three vows are nearly synonymous. All three are also oriented to life in community rather than to individual virtues such as fasting or personal prayer. Each of these Benedictine vows will be discussed more fully in the pertinent chapters below. It will also be seen that the explicit vows of poverty and chastity that came later in the tradition of religious orders are implicit in the Benedictine vows.
Overview of the Rule of Benedict
Benedict absorbed so much of the monastic tradition he inherited that his Rule is a less original document than it was once thought to be. Of particular importance is an anonymous monastic Rule known as The Rule of the Master. Many long passages in The Rule of Benedict are identical with portions of The Rule of the Master. Many of these passages, in turn, were borrowed heavily from the writings of the monastic writer John Cassian (360–435). It was assumed for some time that the Master cribbed from Benedict and did a bad job of it. Since then, research has demonstrated that Benedict cribbed from the Master and did a great job of it. Although we have had to renounce any romantic notions that Benedict was an original genius, a renunciation after Benedict’s heart, comparison of the two documents has proven to be a vital exegetical tool for understanding Benedict’s monastic vision. Observing what Benedict copied from the Master and what he did not copy and noting where the two works differ gives us many valuable clues as to Benedict’s personality and outlook.
The Rule of Benedict is, for the most part, a practical document that gives directives and recommendations on what the members of the community should do to live a communal life grounded in Christ. The prologue and the first seven chapters deal with fundamental virtues of monastic spirituality such as obedience and humility, but even here Benedict refers to concrete practices that cultivate these virtues. There is some emphasis on the inner work required of the individual to become humble and obedient, but this inner work is clearly placed in a communal context. The two peaks in this section, the chapter on the abbot and the chapter on humility, put personal cultivation in relationship with the structure of communal obedience. The rest of the Rule is devoted to specific directions in areas such as the structure of the Divine Office, disciplinary procedures, food and clothing allowance, and hospitality to guests. Many of these chapters are sprinkled with brief, didactic comments in which Benedict packs a powerful punch in just a few words. There is no more powerful way to demonstrate the importance of trivial everyday activity for achieving the deepest and most advanced level of spirituality than to embed deep spiritual teaching in discussions of mundane affairs as Benedict does.
Worship provides the structure of the day in Benedict’s timetable. A night office before sunrise is followed by seven offices spaced throughout the day, ending with compline at the day’s end. This sacred time is woven into everything else a monastic does throughout the day with the result that each day becomes a tightly woven garment held together by prayer. Here we have a reversal of the way time is usually structured—in fact, has to be structured—in non-monastic settings. Most of the time, no matter how much we may prefer prayer to everything else, work controls the day, and prayer is worked around these commitments. The monastic schedule reminds all Christians of the true priorities, even when their daily timetables simply cannot (and ought not) embody them.
A life of worship of itself is not Benedict’s ideal, however. His ideal is that worship and work together form a unified life devoted to God and neighbor. Work is not a distraction from prayer. On the contrary, prayer must be grounded in concrete acts of work that keep us in touch with the reality of the material world. Keeping in touch with the material world, in turn, keeps us in touch with the Creator. Moreover, putting work in the context of a life of worship changes our perspective on work. In this perspective, we work for the sake of doing the job itself rather than primarily from ulterior motives such as making money or making a name for ourselves. Taking care in our work and in the way we handle tools has a salutary effect on our interiority, which opens the way to deeper prayer.
Study is a fundamental practice that adds further balance to worship and work. In the Benedictine tradition, however, the perspective on study is quite different from what we normally experience in academic institutions. Benedict envisions study as a means of growing close to God rather than as something we do just to get a diploma. Reading and meditating on scripture and the classic texts on Christian spirituality are fundamental to monastic study. Such reading feeds the mind, but more importantly, it feeds the heart so that we get a feel for the love of God revealed in scripture and in the writings of God’s most faithful servants. The deeper our feeling for this love, the better we can judge how deeply God’s love has been captured by other writers. Given this foundation, there is a wide variety of reading that can also draw us closer to God, ranging from insightful novels to historical studies to books on nuclear physics.
Work, study, and prayer may seem to be disparate activities that tend to pull away from each other. There is, however, a fundamental ascetical practice that unites these three activities and many others besides: attention. Work, study, and prayer all require attention if they are to be done well. What a person must pay attention to differs with each activity, but the need for attention is the same. What is demanded of us is that we become attentive people. The best way to deepen our prayer life while working is to concentrate on the work. The more we pay attention to the work we do, the more attentive we become. The more attentive we become in our work, the more attentive we will be at study and prayer as well.
Simone Weil articulated the importance of attention in a valuable essay with the cumbersome title “Reflection on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God.” As the title implies, Weil wrote this essay to help students understand how their studies cultivate attention, but the opening sentences point to much broader applications:
The key to a Christian conception of studies is the realization that prayer consists of attention. It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God. The quality of the attention counts for much in the quality of the prayer. Warmth of heart cannot make up for it.6
Weil goes on to insist that even an academic subject that has no practical use for a pupil is still valuable for what it teaches in the discipline of attention. This is true of many other undertakings that seem dull and of little value to us.
One might think that practicing attention is easy. The reality is that it is a stiff challenge, a challenge in which we fight evil. Weil warns us of the challenges:
Something in our soul has a far more violent repugnance for true attention than the flesh has for bodily fatigue. This something is much more closely connected with evil than is the flesh. That is why every time we really concentrate our attention, we destroy the evil in ourselves.7
In fighting evil with attention, we must also seek truth with equal passion: “Above all our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to penetrate it.”8 When it comes to directing attention to human beings, it becomes an instrument of charity. “Not only does the love of God have attention for its substance; the love of our neighbor, which we know to be the same love, is made of this same substance.”9 Weil goes on to say that what the most unhappy people in the world need most is for someone to give them the gift of attention:
The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it. Warmth of heart, impulsiveness, pity are not enough.10
Attention is not important only for living out the Rule of Benedict. When we look at René Girard’s mimetic theory, we shall see that the discipline of attention is of great importance for living out the implications of his principles. Giving attention to the things of the world, to other people and to God fosters a deep respect to all, which blossoms into love.
One of the constant dangers in monasticism is the trap of over-achieving. Benedict was sufficiently aware of this problem to temper his idealism with a realistic view of human nature. In a time when so much idealism has broken down under the weight of harsh realities, we can take heart from Benedict’s sober realism that never loses sight of high ideals. Benedict knew that neither personal nor communal problems can be solved with the wave of a magic wand. There is no substitute for grinding away at our foibles day in and day out. When we become frustrated from trying “instant solutions” that don’t work, Benedict’s conviction that we can become better people in the long run if we are patient with ourselves and with others will strengthen us for the long haul.
There are many statements in his Rule where Benedict makes it clear that he does not expect his monks to become automatically perfect the moment they are clothed in the monastic habit. On the contrary, he often gives the impression that he expects things to go wrong. When the signal is given to rise for morning prayers, the monastics need to encourage one another “on account of the excuses of the sleepy.” Benedict goes on to say that a monastic is late for the morning office only by coming in after the Gloria of Psalm 95, for which reason “we want it said very slowly and with pauses” (RB 43:4). Here we see Benedict giving his monastics some slack while also making it clear that tardiness is not acceptable. This is one of many examples of Benedict’s acceptance of human limitations even as he goads his monastics on to do better.
Just as monastic history has its ups and downs, the most conscientious monastics experience the same rhythm of fervor and lassitude in their observance. A monastic vocation is not a fantasy life of serene prayer that overlooks our common humanity. That would hardly be a strong witness to the Faith. Rather, it is a monastic’s struggle to live rightly and to become ever more open to God’s grace, which gives the monastic something to share with others in the Church and the world.
It is impossible to truly seek God without affecting other people as well. Service to God is invariably redirected by God to the rest of God’s people. The act of prayer itself is a ministry to the Church and the world as much as it is to God. I once had the opportunity to reflect on the significance of our prayer as ministry when a guest asked me why there was so little overt intercessory prayer during the Office. Part of my answer was that we solicit requests for intercessory prayers in our newsletter, and these prayer intentions are distributed among the community so that we can pray the office for those intentions. Moreover, the comprehensiveness of the Psalter in its various moods ranging from despair to joy suggests that in the Divine Office we are praying the Psalms for the whole people of God. A deeper point is the mystery that we do not, and ought not, know what God does with our acts of prayer. We pray with the conviction that prayer is, in itself, a good thing to do and that it pleases God. The value of prayer cannot be measured by practical considerations any more than the value of a deep friendship can be measured by what we hope to “get out of it.” We pray with the trust that God will use our prayers for the benefit of others in whatever ways God sees fit.
The one apostolate to people outside the community that is mentioned in the Rule, but one given a strong emphasis, is ministry to guests. Except for a detailed description of how to greet a guest, Benedict says little of how his monastics should minister to guests during their stay, except to say that they should be treated “as Christ” and “proper respect should be shown to all” (RB 53:1–2). Benedict probably did not give them retreat addresses. Perhaps he offered counsel to some. Such pastoral work is quite common in monastic guest houses these days. No matter what a community does for its guests, the most important feature of its guest ministry is offering them the opportunity to share in the worship of the community. Worship is in itself a teacher that offers a new perspective on the burdens one carries in life. So it is that any words of counsel from a monastic will be deepened greatly by prayer with the community. Guests also have the opportunity to have quiet time for study, prayer, and reflection that they often do not get in their usual environments. With the help of their personal reflections, many guests discover that workaholism is a problem that has been cutting them off from the depths within themselves where God would speak with them.
The Benedictine life is not utopian in the sense that it posits an ideal social structure that will automatically solve human problems once people adopt that structure. I pointed out above that St. Benedict starts with monastics where they are, and then encourages them to change for the better in the Lord. The same principle applies to society. Many people, even people deeply committed to the economic structure of this country, may yet feel the need for an improved society. A different lifestyle, such as one lived in a monastery, will not give the rest of the world all the answers, but the attempt to live the monastic life does offer society alternate cultural values, some of which may suggest possible changes in the way we live. As monastics, we may not necessarily set a good example for others to follow, but our own struggles to live with ourselves and with each other may foster the hope that, with the grace of God, change for the better is possible for individuals and for society. Perhaps the greatest use for a monastery is that, because it does not make sense in worldly terms, it points to the reality of eternity that governs all our lives whether we acknowledge it or not.
Benedict for Today’s Laity
When Benedict wrote his monastic rule, it could not have occurred to him that fifteen centuries later numerous non-monastics would study his Rule and ponder its applications for their lives. There was some precedent for some non-monastics applying the Rule to their lives in medieval times when monastic leaders encouraged their noble patrons to devote as much time to praying the Divine Office and attending Mass as they possibly could. The modern development is different. When Esther De Waal was living in the cathedral close of Canterbury Cathedral, a place redolent with Benedictine history, she began to study the Rule of Benedict and reflect on it. At the time, she was serving her family as wife and mother. Many teachings in the Rule resonated with her experience of communal dynamics in her family, and she began to study the Rule systematically for the insights it might give her in her state of life. As a result of her study, she organized a program called “The Benedictine Experience,” where non-monastics could experience a Benedictine rhythm of worship, work, and study, the latter fueled by her own meditations and lectures by a Benedictine monk or nun. De Waal’s writings on Benedict’s Rule have received much acclaim from laypersons, parish clergy, and Benedictines. The modest movement she started remains a significant presence in many churches today. Many other able writers have added to the literature on Benedictine spirituality for laity. One of them is Joan Chittester, who, although herself a Benedictine sister, shows a knack of discussing the Rule for non-monastics. More recently, Kathleen Norris has written about Benedictine life and spirituality with much insight and sensitivity. It is in the spirit of De Waal, Chittester, and Norris that I have approached the Rule of Benedict, hoping that the dialogue with Girard’s mimetic theory will strengthen the vision and practice of Benedict’s lay disciples today. It is also my hope that the sons and daughters of Benedict who live in monasteries will also gain new insights into the Rule through this dialogue.