Brief Outline of ‘The Rule’ by Benedict
These first chapters deal with the kinds of Monks (Cenobites, Anchorites, Sarabaites, Landlopers), and provides an introduction to Monk life. Beyond Monks, Benedict lays foundational truths that expound upon qualifications and authority as it pertains to the Abbot. Chapter IV outlines 73 ‘instruments of the spiritual art’, as initial guidelines for Monk life. Following these instructions, the last three chapters explicitly exegete the desirable qualities of obedience, silence, and humility (which has 12 degrees).
In this section Benedict outlines specific rules as it pertains to the practices of Monk life, and the ‘divine office’. These rules relate to the amount, posture, execution, and even times of Monk activities. Benedict even provides guidelines for how the Psalms are to be sung, what order they are to be sung in, and the proper manner of reciting and praying through Psalms.
This section begins with a brief description of the Dean as sharing in the burden of oversight with the Abbot. After establishing the authority of the Dean, Benedict expounds on issues that protect the purity of Monk life, specifically excommunication, association with the excommunicated, correcting, and receiving back into the fellowship those who have been disobedient.
This section, like the last, begins with the work of the Cellarer as providing oversight to the care of people and vessels of the Monastery. While not allowing Monks to own anything of their own (considered a ‘vice’), there were tools and goods available for use. Benedict argues for an ‘equal measure-equal work’ environment which thrives off ‘the necessary’ and shuns excess. Benedict makes clear the expectations of work, lent, travel, and oratory (prayer).
While the last section primarily dealt with Monks lives within the monastery, this section deals with how Monks should receive people and/or things from outside the monastery. Beginning with the reception of guests Benedict outlines proper procedures for Monk charity and communication. Benedict also provides guidelines for clothing and bedding. After dealing with a description and purpose of the Abbot’s table Benedict continues to explain procedures for admitting and ministering to outsiders, children, poor, strangers, and even priests.
The last section is devoted to ‘order within the Monk community’, knowing that all will give an account to God for their lives. Benedict writes instructions for the election of the Abbot, Prior, and even the Porter (door keeper). The following three chapters deal with Monk relations such as defending, striking, and being obedient to one another. Benedict argues that all Monk’s should have ‘Virtuous Zeal’ which leads to life everlasting. Lastly, it is charged that this ‘Rule’ provides the foundational moral guidelines for Monastic life.
While the Rule of Saint Benedict does not provide a Biblical model for living in its entirety, there are certain insights that would be well applied to those who seek to honor Christ with their lives. There are two main reasons Benedict’s arguments do not provide a Biblical model. First, The Rule seems to emphasize works as the means to salvation, “If we desire to dwell in the tabernacle of His kingdom, we cannot reach it in any way, unless we run thither by good works.” Benedict develops this theme throughout this writing as if the conditions of dwelling with God lie in fulfilling certain duties. Secondly, The Rule assumes an escapist lifestyle as the only necessary foundation for personal and communal holiness. Benedict argues that there is no need for Monks to ever venture outside the monastery walls “because it is no good for their souls.” In fact, if any Monk need to journey outside the monastery it is argued that “no one presume to relate to another what he hath seen or heard outside.” While one can admire the intention of such guidelines put in place to protect the community so that “no chance be given to the devil”, the degree to which this is applied becomes questionable when a Monk may not even receive one letter from family or friend. The two initial concerns mentioned are enough in themselves to conclude that The Rule is not fit to provide a Biblical model for life in its entirety, only the Bible fulfills this requirement. Moreover, The Rule itself demands strict obedience “without delay”, failure to do so would call for strict punishment. It becomes problematic when detailed instructions to certain guidelines walk the line of legalism; it often promotes self righteousness if unchecked. Therefore, outside of monastic life ‘The Rule’ does not translate well.
With that said, it might be beneficial to discuss those things which can be learned and applied from The Rule outside of a monastic life. Benedict’s desire that Monks would “advance in religious life and faith” is quite evident and admirable. A healthy fear of God is displayed throughout this work, consistently repeating similar phrases that point to the fact that all will “give an account to God of all his judgments and works.” Maintaining this serious tone, Benedict argues that each one should subject themselves to their authorities as unto the Lord, and even obey one another for “it is better to serve than to rule.” Along with a high value of community, Benedict desired order and stability within the Monastic life. The Rule provides great examples of a high view of prayer and reading, and a balanced life of work and rest which could be translated to the everyday Christian disciplines. More than that, the high expectations of those seeking the name Abbot would be well considered by any Christian leader, he should show himself “all that is good and holy by his deeds more than by his words.” The chapter on “Instruments of Good Works” seems to be a clear and merited charge to those who desire a diligent and faithful walk. Paired with the chapter “Of Humility”, Benedict provides a good reminder of the different areas of life this virtue touches. While these two chapters may be the most transferable outside of monastic life, a clear reminder of Benedict’s works centered slant is clear, “Having, therefore ascended all these degrees…the monk will presently arrive at the love of God.”
Benedict elevates this extra-biblical document beyond its place, as if those who keep these commands become “cleansed from vice and sin.” While it is true that nothing need to be “preferred to the Work of God”, it takes a work of God to bring about this attitude. Purity is not a ‘self willed’ action in and of itself. On the other hand those who have experienced the grace of God should joyfully engage themselves in His work, ‘restraining from all vices, devoting themselves to prayer, and to reading and computation of heart’.