When we have restored to Benedict’s definition the fullness of its meaning and significance, thanks to the Master, we can ask ourselves what it means for us today. Let us confess that at first sight it disappoints our expectations. Avid as we are for fraternal communion and charity, we experience some surprise at not finding these values explicitly proposed as the principal element of a rule for the common life. Just as the way in which Augustine, Basil and the Four Fathers began their work seems proper to us, so the ways of the Master and of Benedict leave us perplexed and unsatisfied. In spite of the plural which predominates in their introductions, we feel that their appeal is addressed more to the individual than to the group, and that this was viewed as a necessary means rather than as a good in itself.
On the other hand, if their invitation to listen to the word of God touches us by its biblical resonances, it seems to us too general to be the foundation for the particular kind of life they are proposing. What Christian with an eye on eternal life cannot, and should not, enrol himself in Christ’s school, whether he is in the world or in the cloister? The question is the more pressing because entry into this school implies leaving the world, and therefore a restriction of charity’s sphere, a break with human society, if not with the Church herself, and this raises a problem.
Finally, we do not see clearly the benefit to be derived from an institution conceived chiefly as a teaching establishment. What has this school to teach us? With what superior knowledge are its masters provided that they can teach us all our lives long? The Gospel is simple, clear, ready for being lived wherever one is, and it seems that a person will progress better in the knowledge of Christ by living it simply and intensely in the concrete condition where he is.
This sketch of our objections as moderns, to which each reader can easily make his own additions, does not really call for a reply. Rather than devising a section refuting objections, which would convince no one, we would do better to substitute the astonished, respectful attention of a person confronted with a way of thinking which in part remains alien to him. We do not have to banish this voice coming to us from ancient monasticism with the noise of our familiar themes, nor do we have to force it into unison with them, but rather let its original, irreplaceable sound resonate in us in all its purity.
Adalbert de Vogüé. The Rule of Saint Benedict. A Doctrinal and Spiritual Commentary. Kalamazoo, Michigan; Cistercian Publications, 1983. 34-35.
Father de Vogüé concludes his introductory chapter on the Prologue by addressing the disillusionment and disappointment that a reading of Saint Benedict’s Prologue against the background of the Rule of the Master can cause, for such a reading does not sit easily with the comfortable appropriations of the Rule that are influenced by our own contemporary presuppositions. In addition to the points mentioned above, one can also mention the vertical nature its coenobitism (as “paternal” rather than “fraternal”) and its orientation to a future life.
We can, nevertheless, learn something from such a reading which jars with our assumptions. De Vogüé suggests that the Master and Saint Benedict can serve to remind us that Christianity is a serious thing, that
The christian law has a moral and ascetic content which is not encompassed at the first glance; its spiritual demands are far-reaching. To receive this teaching in its fullness and to put it into practice requires nothing less than a life wholly consecrated to the task. … This demands both the direction of qualified masters, capable of helping a man see clearly and reform himself, and an appropriate framework to life which makes it possible for him to attend continually to God and to his will. (35)
Moreover, such a commitment required separation from the world, or, as Saint Benedict phrases it “To become a stranger to the world’s ways,” (4, 20) a commitment which both the Master and Saint Benedict trace back to the Gospel, for
Our authors considered their monastery, separated from the world, as a simple consequence of the teachings of Christ and his apostles. In no way was monasticism to their eyes a universal religious phenomenon, originally independent of Christianity, which Christianity had assumed as best it could. On the contrary, according to them, monastic conversion replies purely and simply to the Gospel; the monastery is connected only with the baptistery; the school of the Lord’s service can be compared only with the Church. (36)