St. Benedict delivering the Rule
THE FIRST WORD OF BENEDICT’S RULE is, “Listen,” and what’s more, “Listen carefully.” The admonition is to listen to God, of course, but also to abide by the “master’s instructions” and “to attend to them with the ear of the heart.” It is through obedience to the will of God and the teachings of the master that one comes to renounce one’s own will. Benedict quotes scripture in the Prologue (and throughout the rule) many times to both admonish and encourage.
The Kinds of Monks
The first chapter of the Rule is Benedict’s description of four types of monks. His purpose is to draw attention to the acceptable type, the cenobite, who leads a stable life in a community under a rule and an abbot.
Qualities of the Abbot
The abbot is believed to hold the place of Christ in the monastery. He is advised to rule not so much by decree and command as by example, patience and understanding.
Summoning the Brothers for Counsel
In important matters, the abbot calls the community together, explains the business and listens to the advice of the brothers. The final decision is the abbot’s.
The Tools for Good Works
“Tools,” in this instance, are standards of behavior aimed at disciplining oneself and humbly interacting with others in the community. Admonitions from scripture are bountiful.
This quality is clearly very important to Benedict and could be called the foundation upon which his Rule rests. It is the source of humility and service and is to be given not only to superiors, but to brothers as well. It should be given willingly and not halfheartedly.
Restraint of Speech
Here is the core teaching on silence for which monastic tradition is known. In general, restraint is urged. In the community, one speaks by permission.
This much studied Chapter is perhaps the heart of the rule.
Benedict outlines twelve steps of humility: 1. Live ever in the presence of God, 2. Seek not your own will or desires, 3. Be obedient to superiors, 4. Endure obedience under unpleasant conditions with fortitude, 5. Do not hide a troubled heart from the abbot, 6. Be content with insignificant tasks, 7. Be convinced in your heart that you are of small importance, 8. Do only what is endorsed by the rule of the monastery and the example of the superiors, 9. Remain silent, 10. Avoid easy laughter, 11. Speak gently, modestly and quietly, and 12. Manifest humility in manner and posture.
These chapters outline the structures and times for the Divine Office, the set times for community prayer. Specific Psalms are suggested for each of the Hours.
The Discipline of Psalmody
Psalms are to be sung reverently.
Reverence in Prayer
Pray with devotion and humility, purity of heart and honest emotion. Prayer in community is to be brief.
The Deans of the Monastery
In very large monasteries, deans are appointed to supervise groups of ten brothers. They work closely with the abbot in supervising their groups.
Monks sleep in separate beds, all in one place, in their clothing and belts (knives should be removed to avoid accidental injuries).
Brothers who are Excommunicated
These chapters cover the treatment of brothers who are excommunicated from the community. The extent of this punishment depends on the nature of the misdeed. Other brothers may not associate with the miscreant (a kind of shunning), and the abbot is expected to make a special effort to return these brothers to the fold. If the offending brother refuses to amend his ways, he may be removed from the community altogether.
Readmission of Brothers who Leave the Monastery
A brother who has left the community may petition for return up to three times.
The Manner of Reproving Boys
At the time of Benedict’s Rule, young boys were admitted to the monastery. This Chapter deals with disciplinary methods.
Qualifications for the Monastery Cellarer
The monastery Cellarer is subordinate to the abbot, but he is responsible for all the physical needs of the community. Everything bought or sold goes through him. He is to be generous, humble, and to regard all utensils and goods of the house as he would the sacred vessels of the altar.
The Tools and Goods of the Monastery
Tools, clothing, etc. are entrusted to particular brothers by the abbot. He is to keep a list of what is used and handed back and what is needed for any assigned task.
Monks and Private Ownership
Individual brothers are to have no personal possessions. Everything the brother needs is provided by the monastery and held in common.
Distribution of Goods according to Need
Without favoritism, and with consideration for weakness, the brothers should be provided for according to their needs.
Kitchen Servers of the Week
This Chapter outlines duties in the kitchen. No brother should be excused from this.
The Sick Brothers
Care of the sick is very important. They should be housed in a separate room, and dietary regulations may be relaxed for them.
The Elderly and Children
Consideration is to be made for the weakness of elderly members and children.
The Reader for the Week
In Benedict’s Rule, meals are always accompanied by reading. All are silent and attentive to the reading. Brothers read and sing according to ability, not seniority.
The Proper Amount of Food
Two kinds of cooked food are recommended with the possible addition of fresh fruit or vegetables and bread (one pound for the day!). Except for the sick, all are to abstain from the meat of any four-footed animal.
The Proper Amount of Drink
Except for the sick, the brothers should not receive more than half a bottle of wine a day. Personal restraint is encouraged.
The Times for the Brother’s Meals
This Chapter sets out the times of day for meals. These times vary with seasonal observances.
Silence after Compline
Silence is recommended as a general rule, but it is to be strictly observed at night after the Office of Compline. This Chapter also suggests a reading attended by the brothers before the final Office.
Tardiness in Choir or at Meals
Here, punishments for lateness at meals or the Divine Office are specified.
Satisfaction by the Excommunicated
In this Chapter, Benedict suggests the manner in which those accused of serious faults are to be returned to the community.
Mistakes in the Oratory
Anyone who makes a mistake during the singing of an Office must make satisfaction before the community.
Faults Committed in Other Matters
Anyone who commits a fault (breaks or loses something, ignores the customs of the house, etc.) is to come forward on his own and make satisfaction before the community. If the reason for the mistake lies in a personal problem, the brother may make it known to the abbot or a spiritual elder.
Announcing the Hours for the Work of God (The Divine Office)
Times for the Divine Office should be clearly made known to all. Those who read or sing should do so humbly, seriously and reverently.
Daily Manual Labor
All the brothers should have specified times for manual labor and for prayerful reading. These times and tasks will vary according to the locale and season.
Observance of Lent
Benedict advises that for the monk his entire life should be one continuous Lent. Since not all have the strength for this, let the brothers increase their austerity beyond the usual practice during the season. No one is to undertake any action, though, without the express permission of the abbot.
Brothers Working Away, or Traveling
Those whose work is at a distance from the house should observe the hours of the Office where they find themselves. Likewise, those traveling are to continue this practice as best they can.
Brothers on a Short Journey
A brother sent on a short, one-day journey must not eat while outside the monastery, even if invited.
The Oratory of the Monastery
The Oratory, or Chapel, should be respected as such and not be used for any other purpose. Silence is to be maintained. Brothers may enter the Oratory for private prayer.
The Reception of Guests
All guests are “to be welcomed as Christ.” Guests are received with prayer and generosity with special care afforded the poor and pilgrims.
Letters or Gifts for Monks
Monks are not allowed to receive letters or exchange gifts with those inside or outside the monastery unless it is approved by the abbot.
The Clothing and Footwear of the Brothers
Clothing depends on local conditions and should be made of material available locally at reasonable cost. It should fit well and be in good repair. In addition, this chapter specifies a mat, blanket and pillow for sleeping and extra clothing for traveling.
The Abbot’s Table
The abbot generally eats with guests, but may invite some of the brothers if no guests are present.
The Artisans of the Monastery
Craftsmen in the monastery may practice their arts but with humility.
The Procedure for Receiving Brothers
Entrance to the monastery should not be easy. A senior adept at caring for new arrivals supervises the progress of the novice, and the rigors of monastic life must be made plain. After an appropriate time, the novice comes before the whole community promising stability, fidelity to monastic life and obedience. The new entrant relinquishes any personal possessions and is clothed in the habit of the monastery.
The Offering of Sons by Nobles or by the Poor
Nobles and the poor may offer their sons to the community, but with the promise that they will not support the boy with income or possessions of any kind.
The Admission of Priests to the Monastery
Ordained priests may enter the monastery, but under the same conditions and expectations of any person entering. Their priesthood does not afford them any special privileges.
The Reception of Visiting Monks
Visiting monks are welcomed as guests and are expected to accept the conditions and customs of the house. If the visitor has shown himself to be of a good and humble character, he may remain in that house as a new member of the community. A visitor from another known monastery can be accepted permanently only at the consent of the visiting monk’s abbot.
The Priests of the Monastery
Members of the monastery can be ordained as priests. Such a brother must maintain all humility in his new position and retains his previous rank based on seniority.
Rank in the community is based on the date of entry of the brother. The abbot may adjust the ranking to his liking but should adhere whenever possible to the order of date of entry. Age alone does not determine rank. Younger monks (according to this ranking) are to respect their seniors and seniors to love their juniors.
The Election of an Abbot
The abbot is elected by the community. “Goodness of life and wisdom in teaching” are the criteria. The newly elected abbot must bear in mind the responsibilities of his office. He must admonish, reprove and encourage, being careful that in “rubbing too hard to remove the rust, he may break the vessel.” The abbot must himself keep the rule in all its particulars.
The Prior of the Monastery
Only if necessary to complete all the many tasks in a monastery, the abbot may appoint a brother as prior. The prior’s authority extends from the abbot and he is responsible to the abbot in all things. In no way should the appointment be a cause for pride or conceit.
The porter of the monastery is a kind of gatekeeper and greets visitors and pilgrims. In this chapter, it is also mentioned that the monastery should contain all it needs (water, mill, garden) within its walls, if at all possible, so that the brothers do not need to leave the monastery unless by necessity.
Brothers Sent on a Journey
Brothers sent on a journey obtain the blessing of the community before leaving and prostrate themselves upon returning for their faults. Returning brothers may not share with any member of the community, other than the superiors, the details of the journey.
Assignment of Impossible Tasks
If a brother is assigned a task he cannot do, he should accept it humbly nonetheless. He may quietly present the reasons for his difficulty in performing the task to the superior but is expected to do his best if the superior determines he can.
The Presumption of Defending Another Monk
No monk may defend another in the monastery.
The Presumption of Striking another Monk at Will
No monk may strike or excommunicate another unless authorized by the abbot.
Obedience is a virtue to be proffered to all, not just the abbot. Juniors, however, are expected to respect and obey seniors.
The Good Zeal of Monks
Benedict warns of a “wicked zeal” which separates from God and a “good zeal” that separates from evil. Each is to support his brother patiently and with understanding regardless of weaknesses. No one seeks solely what is best for himself but instead addresses the needs of others. “Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ.”
This Rule only a Beginning of Perfection
In this chapter, Benedict calls his rule, “this little rule that we have written for beginners.” For further edification, he recommends the Old and New Testaments, Conferences and Institutes of the Fathers (Cassian), the writings of other Church Fathers as well as the Rule of Basil. For those “hastening toward your heavenly home,” this Rule and these other writings show the way. ✜