Rule of St Benedict


These are some thoughts that I’ve had going through my head for some years, and I was finally motivated to write them down a couple of months ago in the context of certain discussions I heard concerning the Great and Holy Council. I shared them on Facebook then, but am posting them here now in order to have them more readily accessible.

When I was a Cistercian novice many years ago, I learnt an important lesson about order in the Church that I have been reminded of recently and that I suspect may have broader relevance.

As some may recall, the Rule of Saint Benedict states that the rank of the monks in the monastery is dependent on their date of entrance, irrespective of their age or social standing. Therefore, “someone who came to the monastery at the second hour of the day must recognize that he is junior to someone who came at the first hour.” Likewise, when a priest enters the monastery, his rank is based on “the date of his entry into the community, and not that granted him out of respect for his priesthood.” This rank orders the daily life, so that “when the monks come for the kiss of peace and for Communion, when they lead psalms or stand in choir” they do so in order of their entry into the monastery. While the abbot may make changes to this rank based on the virtue of their lives, he cannot allow this to be based on worldly considerations.

All this talk of rank may sound alien to our supposedly egalitarian world, but there is something crucially important going on here. Saint Benedict acknowledges and insists that a healthy community needs order. But, by basing that order on something relatively arbitrary, such as the hour of entry into the community, he is also explicitly ruling out an ordering of the community based on age, social distinction, wealth, or other worldly means of exercising power.

I didn’t pay too much attention to any of this initially when I was a novice. Like anyone else who enters a community, I was last in rank for a while, with those ahead of me being both younger and less educated than I was, but I never really bothered about it. But then somebody entered after me who had previously been in another community and who had great difficulty in having to be last in rank. That, and the way she had to work through it, made me realize that there was actually something very significant going on. I realized that it is precisely the arbitrariness of the rank that is a great gift, for it asks us to lay aside all our other identities and power games and accept the truth of who we are in real humility. What matters is not our rank, but our willingness to obey and accept the place given to us – and it is precisely this willingness to obey that indicates spiritual maturity.

I have been reminded of this as I witness some of the rather distressing power play going on in the Orthodox world at present. Like the Rule of Saint Benedict, the Church also has an order that she has inherited from her formative years, in which the ancient patriarchates have a certain rank and are expected to follow a certain order. And yet we now hear voices arguing that certain patriarchates should no longer be accorded primacy because they no longer have worldly might, while others that boast great wealth and power should be accorded a greater rank.

There is no doubt a certain logic to this, but I suspect that it is the logic of my fellow-novice (who was perhaps only articulating what all of us feel in some way) and not the logic of the Gospel, or of the Rule, or of the Church’s order. For this logic is based, not on our achievements or worldly power, but on our willingness to lay aside our own agendas and accept the place that is given to us in real humility. And it is precisely the arbitrariness of that place that is the greatest gift. For it allows all to submit to an order that is already given, rather than one that expresses our own will to power that constantly seeks to reassert itself.

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I mentioned quite a while ago that I had been listening to Father Thomas Hopko’s series on the Divine Liturgy, Worship in Spirit and Truth. It’s been a somewhat disrupted listening, but then it is a rather long – albeit worthwhile – series and it took him thirty podcasts to get to the beginning of the Liturgy! Anyway, having just listened to his podcast on the opening words of the Divine Liturgy, I was struck by what he had to say about the words that we use in worship, and in our own personal prayer. I have touched on this before, having quoted Father Florovsky’s words about the point of the prayers of the Church being to teach us to pray. And I have also noted how I have been struck that it is those religious traditions that are most insistent on the use of the right words in prayer – and theology, for that matter – that are, seemingly paradoxically, also most aware of the limitation of words.

I can’t help being aware that this goes rather against the grain of what many people in our society consider prayer to be, and what I was brought up to see it as. Yet I am also aware that, growing up in an Evangelical Protestant home, I was often profoundly uncomfortable with the expectation that prayer was primarily speaking to God in one’s own words. Without wanting to offend anyone, it somehow sounded, well, trite, projecting, and somehow banal, although that sounds like a terribly judgmental thing to say. However, listening to Father Hopko this afternoon, I was able to understand some of my discomfort more. Prayer is a training, as Saint Benedict tells us, to put our mind where our mouth is. Words train us and form us. They form the heart and the mind. And it therefore matters what words we use in prayer. This is an extract from the transcript of Father Hopko’s podcast, and the rest is found here:

The animals and the plants worship God just by their very being. The animals worship God just by their very nature, whereas the human being, who is a free being, has to open their mouth and their lips and show forth God’s praise through their speech. We have speech, and Christian worship is logike latreia, the worship of those who speak; those whose words and sounds have a content to them.

Now, it’s very interesting here to note that when we’re calling on God to open our lips and to put the words into our mouth, we have to really pay attention to the fact that we are praying in the words that are given to us by God. These are words given to us by God. Worship is not done in our own words, certainly not in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. We do not pray in our own words, so to speak. We pray in the words God gave us to say.

St. Benedict, a great monk of the Western Church; very much influenced by the Eastern Tradition, says that in liturgical prayer, in the Church’s worship, we do not put our mouth where our mind is. We put our mind where our mouth is. In other words, we don’t say what comes to our mind. The words are first put on our mouth, our lips. They are given to us by God, and then we put our mind on what we are saying, and we’re saying it because God has commanded us to say it. He has inspired us to say it.

As Saint Anthony the Great said, “In the worship of the Christian Church, God gives His own words for His own glorification.” He puts His words into our mouth. And that’s very important, because in traditional Biblical worship when the Kahal Israel, the People of God, the People of Israel, the Ekkli̱sía tou Theoú, the Church of God, the Church of the Lord gathers, the words of the Lord are provided by God. We don’t make them up. We don’t express what’s on our mind and heart when we go to Church.

Now, when we pray privately, we even then don’t begin in our own words, at least in the Eastern Orthodox Church. We begin private, personal prayers in our room; in our heart in the words God gave us. We say, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace.” We say, “Holy God. Holy Immortal. Holy, Holy, Holy.” We say, “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name.” Those are words that God gives us.

We say the words of the Psalms, which are the words that are inspired in human beings by God. They are the words of God in human words. But they are ultimately God’s words. They are inspired words. They are the Holy Spirit praying within us. Now, we begin with those words that God gives, and then in our private devotion, we can move in several directions.

We can move where, taking those words that God gives, we somehow use them as a formation or a pattern for what we ourselves might personally wish to say. So sure, we can pray in our own words or fill our own content with these words, but we never do that publicly in the Eastern Orthodox Church. We always use the words together. We use the same words, and these words are primarily those inspired by God; given to us by God.

But then also, the words of prayer, both in our heart, in our room, in our closet, and the corporate worship of the Church can lead human beings into the wordless prayer; into the silence from which God’s words emerge and into which God’s words lead us. So in the Orthodox Tradition, the hesychastic prayer, the prayer of silence, is deeply connected to the prayer of words.

But you begin with words. You don’t begin with silence. You are led into the silence through the words. And the words lead us deeper into a meaning, which even the words themselves cannot really contain, limit and totally express. So there is a communion with God in silence that is beyond and above words, the wordless prayer of the heart.

St. Isaac of Syria and St. Seraphim or Sarov even say that there’s a condition beyond worship. There’s a condition beyond petitionary prayer where you are just one with God. The Holy Spirit is in you totally, so to speak, and you are in communion with Christ; in communion with God; in a love relationship; a union of love that’s beyond words.

And we know that really love is always beyond words, even the best of words. All the best of words are limited and in some sense, if taken too literally, are misguiding. St. Gregory of Nyssa said, “When it comes to words, even the words inspired by God, every man is a liar, because this reality so transcends words.” But they are words, to use the expression of St. Gregory the Theologian now, theoprepic. In other words, they are appropriate to God. They are true words, or to use the line of the Psalter, they are pure words.

 Well, perhaps not exactly trivia (at least not the first) but a couple of points that I’ve picked up about Father de Vogüé’s approach to the Rule elsewhere:

There has been a vigorous controversy between the Benedictine scholars Jean Griboment and Adalbert de Vogüé on Benedict’s attitude to the solitary life, and, indeed on the whole question of Basil’s influence on Benedict. De Vogüé lists the traditional witnesses to this movement from the cenobitic to the eremitic life and implies that Basil was out of step with Tradition. Gribomont, on the other hand, says that the Rule of Saint Benedict has a very strong bias to the cenobitic life, and that de Vogüé’s emphasis on Cassian in interpreting Benedict effectively eliminates Pachomius, Basil, Augustine and Eugippius from Benedict’s ‘Great Tradition’. The two also come to blows over the weight to be given to Benedict’s words ‘our holy father Basil’ in the final chapter of his Rule, with de Vogüé tending to minimise their importance. (145)

  • While glancing through an old copy of the bulletin of the Alliance for International Monasticism (it’s amazing what one comes across when moving house), I found a book list for monastic formators compiled by an abbot of the Congregation of St. Ottilien. While Father de Vogüé’s books were described as useful for providing additional background for formators, they were “not recommended for general reading by novices, especially since the author’s concept of Benedictine monasticism is quite different from the tradition of the Congregation of St. Ottilien.” (A.I.M. bulletin, 2005, No. 83, p. 72) Given that the St. Ottilien Benedictines are missionary monks, I can just imagine that they wouldn’t want their novices getting eremitical aspirations! However, the author does mention another much simpler book by de Vogüé that I wasn’t aware of: Reading Saint Benedict: Reflection on the Rule (Cistercian Publications, 1994). Does anyone know it?

This feeling for, and respect of, persons is generally one of Benedict’s distinctive traits in comparison to the Master, but it is particularly interesting that he makes it a special duty of the abbot. In this way he replies to one of the chief criticisms addressed in our days to authority as it seems to have been exercised traditionally in the religious life. Superiors are much reproached for having ignored the graces and personal needs of their subjects, who are sacrificed to collective interests and to an inhuman concept of obedience. These complaints seem motivated in large part by an aspiration for a new statute concerning the religious superior, who would henceforth be placed ‘in the center of the community and in no way above it’.

We scarcely need to say that this new image of authority is alien to our rules and the efforts made recently to find it in primitive Pachomianism have turned out to be quite vain. But if the abbot of the monastic tradition is decidedly above the community, this fact, which can in no way be changed, does not prevent an extreme sensibility on the part of the legislator – as we see in Benedict – to the needs and weaknesses of individuals, a sensibility which he seeks in every way to communicate to the abbot. In this way the Benedictine Rule offers a permanent remedy to what seems to be one of the chief causes of the present uneasiness. (72)

In this third chapter of his The Rule of Saint Benedict. A Doctrinal and Spiritual Commentary, Father De Vogüé continues to develop a theme that he has touched on previously, namely the importance of spiritual paternity in the Rule of Saint Benedict and the priority of the master-disciple model of community over and against that of a community of brothers.

Unlike the Augustinian or Basilian rules, both Benedict and the Master give priority to the abbot.

‘What sort of man should the abbot be?’ This is the first question which our authors pose. Nothing takes precedence over the abbot in their description of cenobitism, which they have just located on the map of the monastic world. The primordial place which they thus recognize in the abbatial office contrasts with the last place which Augustine assigns it in his directory for a superior. What came first in the Augustinian Rule was the union of hearts and the community of goods, of which our rules say nothing at the outset. The two perspectives are thus clearly distinct: on one side, Augustine’s communion, and on the other, the Master’s and Benedict’s school. And this school, as is right, has nothing more important than its teacher, the abbot. (66)

What is interesting, however, is that De Vogüé also identifies the Pachomian tradition with this emphasis on spiritual paternity (against scholars who have argued otherwise) and thus speaks of a common Egyptian tradition, whether eremitical or coenobitical, that has influenced both the Rule of Saint Benedict and that of the Master.

Central to both the Master and Saint Benedict is the question of the identity of the abbot and what it means to see him as the representative of Christ in the monastery. This concept was widely accepted in the Church of their day and

The Master therefore is not innovating in making the abbot the vicar of Christ in the monastery and the homologue of the bishop. His chief originality lies in explicating and systematizing thoughts which had remained till then more latent than formulated, more lived than reflected upon. The concept of ‘teacher’, the successor of the apostles, helps him thus integrate the abbatial office into the Christian hierarchy, alongside the episcopate. …

The abbot therefore is the successor of the apostles as ‘teacher’ (doctor), and the representative of Christ as abbas. … Christ’s scola should have as its doctor who holds the place of the one and only Master. (70)

While Saint Benedict sees the abbot in substantially the same terms as the Master does, he gives a more personal interpretation to the question ‘How should the abbot behave?’ and it is here that we see his development of the sensitivity that the abbot should have and his respect for the diversity of his subjects. Moreover, while the Master had only made a veiled allusion to the Rule,

With Benedict it appears as the supreme norm which should absolutely dominate every consultation of the monks and every decision of the superior. Doubtless this recourse to the Rule is related to the difficulties of the moment which we have just glimpsed, namely, that the law should both sustain the authority of the leader, and contain it. But the reminder has a permanent significance. At all times and especially in periods of universal decline, the community and the abbot have no better safeguard than a religious respect for an untouchable rule. An abbot is nothing without a rule. (73)

***

I’m aware that there are issues emerging in this reading that could be engaged and perhaps contested, or at least clarified, or that in any case raise interesting questions (e.g. what about abbesses?!) but I’m leaving them floating around at the back of head for the time being (in the hope that I may read some other perspectives too) and may or may not come back to them at some point…

Like their source, this section only aims at establishing the primordial necessity of the common life. The celebration of the anchorites is itself, after all, only an element of this demonstration. Not that there is room to suspect its sincerity, but if our authors admit with Cassian that the anchorite is great and admirable, this is precisely because they see in him a perfect cenobite, capable of doing without cenobitic discipline after having fulfilled it to perfection.

Perhaps the chief interest of this account of anchorites is that it places mercilessly before us an embarrassing fact; the Master’s cenobitism, like Cassian’s, regards the common life as a means and not as an end. We made this remark when commenting on the definition of the monastery as a school. We verify it here again. The most important thing in the cenobium does not seem to be the fraternal union in itself, but the struggle against the common enemy. When a member of the ‘battle line of brothers’ becomes capable of fighting alone, the monks admire his assurance and let him display his skill in solitude, with the help of God. Doubtless the Master gives cenobitism a more communitarian aspect by the Leonine touches of which we have spoken, but this community is a community of action, turned towards a well-defined goal and one exterior to itself, so to speak. We would dare call it an open cenobitism, both because it can empty out into a further eremitical stage and because, far from taking itself as an end point, it is ordered to a purification of consciences which is each person’s business.

Thoroughly ascetic and individualist, such a concept presupposes that the monk takes very seriously ‘the struggle against the vices of the flesh and of thoughts’. Monasticism, under its two valid forms, pursues this enterprise methodically. It has a task to accomplish which it holds as sovereignly important and absorbing. It is not by chance that the paragraph on hermits ends with the warlike formula we have just cited. The same formula is found equivalently at the end of the chapter on the abbot and on humility. It expresses a constant thought, a definite design. The purification of man, the elimination of ‘vice’ – that is indeed the great business of monastic life.

Adalbert de Vogüé. The Rule of Saint Benedict. A Doctrinal and Spiritual Commentary. Kalamazoo, Michigan; Cistercian Publications, 1983. 57-58.

In his second chapter on “Common Life and Solitary Life,” a commentary on the first chapter of the Rule of Saint Benedict, which discusses the four types of monks, Father de Vogüé returns to themes that he had raised in his previous chapter. His discussion serves to situate Saint Benedict’s perspective on eremitical and coenobitical life against the backdrop of its sources and to show its function in relation to the whole Rule.

Saint Benedict’s teaching on coenobites and hermits has received different interpretations and emphases, with some emphasising his preference for coenobites and others emphasising his praise for hermits as the fulfilment of coenobitical life. However, both presuppose that this chapter is intended to introduce the coenobitical legislation of the rest of the Rule, something that de Vogüé questions by returning to Saint Benedict’s sources. As with the Prologue, Benedict took this chapter over from the Master although reducing the sections on sarabites and gyrovagues. More importantly, however, he omits the Master’s presentation of the abbot as teacher and

removes what was in the Master’s eyes the very reason for the whole chapter. In the Master this chapter aimed only to introduce the one ‘On the Abbot’. Its real object was not to describe the various kinds of monks, or even to situate cenobitism among them or give it a definition, but to present the ‘teacher’ of the monastic scola, that is, the abbot. (46)

Moreover, behind the Master’s text lies Saint John Cassian’s Conference 18, attributed to Abba Piamun, thus placing him firmly in within Cassian’s monastic doctrine which viewed the coenobium as a training ground for the eremitical life, a position that was by no means universally accepted. In fact he even omitted Cassian’s own reference to the apostolic origins of coenobitical life, just as he shows little interest in providing a scriptural or Hellenic basis for eremitical life. This is because the Master’s priority is to present the three fundamental realities of Rule, monastery and abbot in order to lead to the theme of the abbot as teacher.

Given that Saint Benedict omits this presentation of the abbot, he has effectively “removed the end towards which the whole discourse moved.” (48)

Since these elements no longer support the final segment, we are tempted to see them only as teething stones now unused, or the foundations of a ruined edifice. Yet when we consider the new edifice, the Benedictine Rule, we can still recognize a function and meaning in them, but the function and meaning have been profoundly renewed. (48)

This Benedictine renewal consists in the introduction of the element of the Rule alongside that of the abbot, making these “for the first time the two constitutive principles of cenobitism.” (49) Furthermore, Benedict’s phrase “Let us go on to organize the valiant kind, the cenobites” now signifies a transition to something new.

A break has thus been established between the chapter ‘On the Kinds of Monks’ and the rest of the Rule. The chapter seems a preamble to the presentation, no longer merely of the teacher, but of the entire Rule. As a result a new meaning is attached to the whole description of the different kind of monks. (49)

However, we cannot know to what extent Benedict consciously did this, hence the importance of reading him against the backdrop of the Master and of Cassian, who clearly viewed the coenobium not only as a training ground for eremitical life, but who also situated the purpose of monastic ascesis in inner individual purification and the removal of vice. It is in this context that de Vogüé sees Saint Benedict and the Master as treating community as a means rather than an end.

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)

Thus grace and divine love intervene as we advance in the monastic life, and lessen the initial impression of severity. The observance still remains objectively what it is, but the heart within is changed. In other words, Benedict relativized the concept of ‘narrow way’, drawing attention to the subjectivity of the man who follows it. The opposition between the ‘narrow way’ and the ‘sweet yoke’ is not suppressed for all that, but this way of interiorizing the problem makes it lose its sharpness. ‘Narrowness’ and ‘breadth’, difficulty and ease are measured less by the objective tenor of the ascesis imposed than by the inmost dispositions of the ascetic. These latter improve with time and by virtue of the ascesis itself, until one experiences something more than the ‘easiness’ and the ‘lightness’ announced by Jesus, namely a ‘sweetness’ that cannot be expressed because it proceeds from ‘love’.

Adalbert de Vogüé. The Rule of Saint Benedict. A Doctrinal and Spiritual Commentary. Kalamazoo, Michigan; Cistercian Publications, 1983. 32.

Having considered the background that the Rule of the Master provides to our understanding of Saint Benedict, and especially his understanding of the monastery as “school of the Lord’s service” Father de Vogüé now turns to Saint Benedict himself. He points out that the Master’s understanding of a school, both in the sense of learning and in the sense of service and suffering, are present in the Rule of Saint Benedict, and especially in his understanding of obedience. However, he also introduces a new note.

But it is especially in his final addition that he seems to have been preoccupied with this painful aspect of the ‘school of the Lord’s service’. He was invited to it by the Master’s austere conclusion: ‘to persevere until death … to share in the passion of Christ by patience’. This perspective of endless suffering here below visibly disturbed Benedict. By his addition he introduced into it a series of comforting touches, the chief of which is the promise of the expansion of the heart through love, and a sweet running in the way of God’s commandments once the initial tightness of the narrow way has been passed. The monk’s earthly life therefore is not a continual agony. Before the heavenly kingdom, it knows a certain happiness which Benedict even qualifies as ‘ineffable’.

Optimism, care to encourage the weak, interest in spiritual progress here below, an augustinian sense of the role of love in this progress, – many aspects deserve being picked out of this remarkable passage. But especially should be measure its impact on the notion of ‘the school of the Lord’s service’. Indeed, the only purpose of these lines is to brighten the sombre atmosphere in which the Master wrapped his scola. (30)

By declaring his intention to establish nothing harsh or burdensome, Saint Benedict alludes to the Gospel logion of Matthew 11:28-30 which the Master had used in his parable of the spring, but gives it a different interpretation by identifying heaviness not with sin but rather with the weight of observances. However, this does not mean that the Rule should not be demanding and so he introduces the image of the narrow way (Mt 7). Father de Vogüé suggests that Saint Benedict is playing with images here and that his purpose is to show that the way of salvation is only narrow at the beginning and becomes lighter as the heart enlarges and love takes over. Thus Benedict shifts the focus from the difficulty of the way to the transformation of the one who follows it.

This whole note therefore is an amendment to the sombre project of the scola laid down by the Master. The ‘Lord’s service’ will not be uniformly hard and painful. It will include restrictions, to be sure, but love will transform them into sweetness. And Christ does not reserve consolations for us only in his kingdom; even now he is for us both a lovable master and a companion in suffering.  (33)

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