Surveying the long prologue prefixed to his Rule by Benedict, the modern reader gets a surprise. Because this is legislation intended for monks wishing to be perfect disciples of Christ, he would expect to see it introduced by something of a distinctly christian coloring. Yet we must admit that this christian character does not manifest itself with all the evidence we might wish. Christ is named here and there, certainly, notably at the choice places at beginning and end. Certainly, too, the Gospel is mentioned several times, and the words of the Apostles are reproduced, implicitly or explicitly. But these New Testament references are less numerous and less apparent than the Old Testament ones. Anyone seeking the leading thread will soon see that this closely woven web of scriptural texts has for its warp two passages from the psalms (Ps 33:12-16 and Ps 14:1-5). The principal design of the author from the beginning of his text to its end is manifestly to introduce these quotations from the psalms, to present them, to gloss them, to connect them to each other, to draw a conclusion from them. There is, therefore, at the center of our Prologue a double borrowing from the Old Testament, not to mention the many citations or occasional reminiscences from the psalter, the wisdom books and the prophets. This predominance of the pre-christian is astonishing. Should monks base their obedience to Christ chiefly on the Old Testament?
Adalbert de Vogüé. The Rule of Saint Benedict. A Doctrinal and Spiritual Commentary.Kalamazoo, Michigan; Cistercian Publications, 1983. 9.
Father de Vogüé begins his discussion of Saint Benedict’s Prologue by pointing out the paucity of Christian references. The reason for this is that Benedict’s Prologue is what Dom David Tomlins calls “a cut and paste job” (Introducing Benedict’s Rule 23): he simply lifted it from the Rule of the Master, radically reducing the length of the Master’s Introduction in the process.
The Rule of the Master consisted of a four-part introduction comprising a prologue, the parable of the spring, the commentary on the Lord’s Prayer and the commentary on the Psalms. In this longer introduction Christian imagery certainly had a prominent place, for the commentary on the Psalms followed the parable of the spring in which Christ’s call in Matthew 11 (“Come to me, all you who labour … my yoke is easy and my burden light.”) had pride of place and was explicitly related to baptism. The commentary on the Lord’s Prayer flows from this and views Christ as our Father and the Church as our Mother. It is in this context that we should see the commentary on the Psalms as “a program of life that is specifically christian.” (10) It is possible that these themes mirror certain rites of baptismal catechesis and the Master uses a poetic and veiled language to describe the Christian journey and to evoke our response.
… sinful humanity is represented by a caravan of exhausted travellers, the Gospel by a voice ringing out unexpectedly, and baptism by a spring discovered to the right of the road. And although it deals with entry into the monastery from that point on, the Master refrains himself from writing the name quickly. It is only after a long explanation of the Lord’s Prayer and the psalms, in which monastic life is everywhere envisaged by barely suggested, that he decides, in the act of concluding, to release the word monasterium. (11)
However, Saint Benedict, having inserted the first four verses of his own Prologue, sees fit to simply take over the Master’s commentary on the Psalms. According to de Vogüe, his reason for doing so lies in the climax of the Master’s entire discourse: “We must therefore establish a school of the Lord’s service.” (verse 45)
At this point he interrupts the Master’s phrase to insert a long gloss on its first member. He says that in this school which he is going to establish, he hopes to impose nothing painful, nothing overwhelming; yet there will perhaps be some observances that are a little strict; a person should then not run away; but take courage! Only the beginning of the road is narrow; afterward love expands the heart and we advance with pleasure, running. … It makes no difference that this optimistic gloss harmonizes ill with the end of the Master’s phrase, where the reader passes on to the austere prospect of continual sharing in the sufferings of Christ by persevering in the monastery until death. What interests us here is that Benedict underlines with a consistent commentary the proposition in which the Master mentions ‘the school of the Lord’s service’. Nothing shows more clearly the importance which Benedict attaches to that sentence. Surely for him, as for the Master, it is the key phrase of the whole section and the reason he thought he should recopy the piece from end to end. (13)