Rule of St Benedict

Monastic life then appears as the natural development of the being who is ‘renewed’ by baptism and as the normal existence of the ‘risen’. It tends to conform the sons of God to him whose image they bear from their ‘rebirth’, and whom they dare henceforth to call ‘Father’. Consequently it consists in submitting to the divine law, and more precisely to the ‘Christian law’, the Lord’s commandments. In addition, since our reparation has been obtained by the cross of Christ, we can complete it only by sharing in his passion. Only the sharing of his sufferings will make us co-heirs of his glory.

Adalbert de Vogüé. The Rule of Saint Benedict. A Doctrinal and Spiritual Commentary. Kalamazoo, Michigan; Cistercian Publications, 1983. 18.

Having showed that The Rule of the Master uses the category of scola to connect the monastery to the Gospel so that one enters it in order to place oneself under Christ’s tutelage, Father de Vogüé proceeds to outline the Master’s perspective on monasticism’s intimate connection to baptism. Indeed, he does not seem to make much distinction monks and other Christians or – at least in places – to envisage the possibility of non-monastic Christians. The monastery simply forms the bridge between baptism and the Kingdom.

This sort of convertibility between monasticism and Christianity explains the at first sight the astonishing simplicity and indetermination of the long invitation to monastic life which forms the last part of the Thema. In order to move his reader along to his monastic ‘school’, the Master finds nothing to offer him but the prospect of the eternal ‘life’ and ‘repose’ which are proposed to every Christian. …

The scola of the monastery therefore plays in the Master’s thought a mediating role between the baptismal spring and the fulfilment of the kingdom. It allows passage from one to the other. After having been ‘re-created’ by the sacrament, one must ‘place oneself in the school’ of Christ in order to arrive at the ultimate ‘repose’ which he has promised. …

Thus the Christian or the monk – it is all one – is in a dubious position. Already the son of God, of the Church, and of the christian law, he remains nevertheless a son of folly, incapable of directing himself and subject to the fatal illusions of his self-will. The exact purpose of the monastery is to procure for him the sure direction which he cannot do without, while awaiting the day when alone he will perhaps be able to keep himself from sin, with the help of God. (18-19)

As a synonym of monasterium, which figures in the following phrase, the word scola makes the monastery the chief place where Christ teaches. The use of this term scola is laden with meaning. First of all, by means of it the monastery is connected to a word of the Gospel. Although neither the word monasterium nor even the idea of a monastery is found anywhere in the New Testament, indeed in the whole of Scripture, recourse to the word scola amounts to basing this new type of society on the word of God by making it seem like a response to the words of Christ, ‘Learn of me’.

Adalbert de Vogüé. The Rule of Saint Benedict. A Doctrinal and Spiritual Commentary.Kalamazoo, Michigan; Cistercian Publications, 1983. 17.

In a previous post we saw Father de Vogüé’s argument that Saint Benedict took over the Master’s commentary on the Psalms precisely because it ended with the intention to establish “a school of the Lord’s service.” For the Master, this imagery of a school is rooted in Christ’s appeal that he invokes in the parable of the Spring and which Benedict leaves out:

Take up my yoke upon you, and put yourself in my school, for I am meek and humble of heart, and you shall find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden light. (Mt 11: 28-30)

The Master sees this call as addressed to all human beings and thus monastic life appears as a prolongation of baptism. Moreover, he sees this call as containing two elements. In the first place, we are to turn away from sin – “Come to me … and I will refresh you” – which is identified with baptism. And in the second place, we are called to leave the world – “Take my yoke upon you and learn of me” – which is identified with the monastery.

The Master understands the burden of sin to which the Lord refers not as the weight of the law, but rather as “the torments and servitudes of sin.” (15) For those crushed by the consciousness of sin, the law of Christ represents a liberation. Thus he sees the contrast not so much as a contrast between Law and Gospel (as modern and even some patristic commentators do) but between sin and the renunciation of sin brought by baptism. This is in keeping with the logion of the two ways (Mt 7: 13-14) which the Master invokes in his Prologue.

This superficial antinomy between the ‘narrowness’ of the way and the ‘lightness’ of the burden resolves itself, if we with our author understand the second, not as the easiness of a rule that does not demand much, but of the interior liberation and relief procured by purity. Objectively the way is narrow, certainly, and Christ’s demands are formidable, but the deliverance from sin which is bought at this price gains the soul quiet, ease, and relief. The perspective opened by the Master is not very different from the views that Benedict was to expound in the final addition to his Prologue, when he spoke of the way of salvation, whose beginning seems narrow but whose sequel is only enthusiasm, love, and inexpressible sweetness. (15-16)


I really don’t intend posting things like this often (not that I have much of a chance anyway), but given that I’ve been posting on the Rule, and given that I’ve just allowed myself to be creative in rebinding a copy of the Rule (which may explain in part why I haven’t been writing more) I thought that I’d engage in a little showing off.

I don’t normally watch videos online – sort of an unofficial personal rule, after all, what’s the point of not watching television if one can simply go online and watch virtually anything? – but while searching (unsuccessfully) for an English translation of the Rule of the Master I came across this short (six minute) video of Father Luke Dysinger OSB speaking on the difference between the Rule of the Master and the Rule of Saint Benedict, particularly in their view of the abbot, which may be of interest to others.

On the topic of Fr Dysinger (whose work on Evagrius I’d really like to read sometime, but that’s a longer term project), he has made some useful resources available here.

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)

I’m afraid that I have a tendency to try and read too many books at a time. Anyway, seeing that I’m reading de Vogüé and that I haven’t focussed that seriously on the Rule before (I’m ashamed to admit it, but there are a number of important areas where I haven’t focussed that seriously before), and that we’ve recently acquired Introducing Benedict’s Rule by Michael Casey and David Tomlins (the prior and abbot respectively of Tarrawarra Abbey in Australia), I thought that I’d dip into it too as I proceed.

The first chapter addresses the issue I raised in my last post on Father de Vogüé’s book, namely the possibility and desirability of a literal following of the Rule today. This chapter  (written by Father Michael Casey) outlines the following six “Principles of Interpretation and Application” to guide a study of the Rule.

  • First principle: RB does not act directly upon community regimen, but on the minds and hearts of community members.
  • Second principle: Understanding RB is facilitated by appreciation of its historical cultural and linguistic characteristics.
  • Third principle: RB is part of a living tradition. Understanding the Rule involves an appreciation of the values and beliefs of both previous and subsequent tradition.
  • Fourth principle: Not all aspects of the thought of RB are worthwhile; having attended closely to the meaning of some sections, one may judge them to be inapplicable.
  • Fifth principle: Understanding RB is facilitated by a commitment to the program of which the Rule is part; participation in a living tradition gives “family access” to the texts which give expression to the tradition.
  • Sixth principle: The capacity of RB to enhance the consciousness of modern readers is grounded in the fact that it proposes an alternative perspective to that normally adopted by them.

 Perhaps his discussion of the last principle is worth quoting more fully.

The whole impact of an ancient text such as RB derives from the fact that it preserves a “memory” of a way of seeing and doing things which is not governed by contemporary ideology. The ancient approach is not normative; there is no question here of advocating neo-primitivism. It does have the effect of reminding us of the sheer relativity of many aspects of thought and conduct which we have come to think of as absolute. Too often we appear to accept uncritically beliefs and values which contribute little to the unfolding of a vocation; it does us no harm sometimes to be reminded of an alternative system. If it is true that we are not easily able to assess the impact of values which we have absorbed in the process of growing up – we take them for granted; they are self-evident – then it is also true that we have internalised beliefs and attitudes that work contrary to our vocations, but without knowing it. By allowing such presuppositions and prejudices to enter into dialogue some of their potential for harm can be voided. Out in the open we are able to asses them critically and either accept, modify or reject them. Such dialogue works best when it is transcultural, when we allow the views of one not reared in our culture to percolate through our awareness; then there is possibility of change. The very strangeness inherent in RB which at first seemed to be such an obstacle to its understanding, now appears as an asset. It is good to read something about monastic life that comes from another setting and from a different world. It may challenge us to re-examine aspects of our thought and practice; it may also confirm us in what we hold and do. In either case it will have impact only to the extent that it acts as an autonomous agent, piercing the habitual shell of our customary positions and causing us to wake up. (20-21)

As necessary as the investigation of the Fathers’ writings is to see the premises from which Benedict starts, to see what he means and where he is leading us, this investigation is still more necessary inasmuch as our times and culture are remote from theirs. For lack of knowing this context of patristic thought and primitive monasticism, we are liable to inject our familiar notions into his text and to reduce his discourse to our present-day mental categories.

This harm is felt especially in monastic circles. The monk is dedicated to hearing the Rule frequently, to venerating it and drawing from it a spiritual nourishment for his own life, and so he is particularly exposed to making Benedict his contemporary rather than making himself Benedict’s contemporary. The loss that results is not confined to the realm of knowledge. The monastic vocation itself suffers, for what we hear thus is less the provocative and fertilizing message of the Fathers than the echo of our own discourse as modern men.

Also, the discrepancy between present-day monasticism and the Rule will be strongly emphasized in this commentary. By so doing we wish to act not only as a historian but as a monk. While leaving to novice-masters and abbots the care of bringing the two terms together, we shall often place them in contrast. Our aim is not at all to invite the monks of today to estrange themselves from what remains of their Rule, but to suggest to them – and to ourselves as well – the effort that must be furnished if we will be faithful to it.

Adalbert de Vogüé. The Rule of Saint Benedict. A Doctrinal and Spiritual Commentary.Kalamazoo, Michigan; Cistercian Publications, 1983. 4.

As I said before, this book looks challenging! In his introduction Father de Vogüé distances himself from the widespread view that because of the historical and cultural distance between Saint Benedict and us, and the impossibility of literally observing the Rule today, we should focus on the spirit rather than the letter of the Rule and ask instead: “What would Benedict do today?” He sees such a response as nonsensical, for

The only reality we possess is the Rule such as we know it, together with the related documents which allow us to grasp it. This text is a given, which we can take or leave according to whether or not we feel ourselves concerned about its message. If we choose to expose ourselves to its influence, this influence will operate in the exact measure that we can conform ourselves to what it prescribes. Since it is a matter of a rule of life, fidelity to the spirit does not go without a certain observance of the letter. The way of true renewal can only be, we think, that of a literalism that is intelligent, prudent and enlightened by spiritual discernment. Our hope in offering this modest work to our brothers is to serve such a renewal. (6)

I find myself with rather mixed reactions, the various aspects of which may become clearer in the course of the book. I don’t know of any communities who follow the Rule of Saint Benedict literally, in fact I rather doubt that it is possible or perhaps even desirable to do so today, and I am not sure that this is what de Vogüé is arguing for. However, it is clear to me that it is all-too-easy to delude ourselves on such matters, hence the importance of discernment and in this the concreteness of the Rule is a valuable challenge.

As a not-entirely-unrelated aside: I once read a little book by Fr de Vogüé entitled To Love Fasting. Unlike his other books it was a very personal account of his own experience of fasting in which he basically argued for both the possibility and the desirability of keeping the traditional fasts, something that is virtually unheard of – and often even impossible – in contemporary monasteries following the Rule of Saint Benedict. This would seem to be one area in which I suspect that a certain level of contemporary cultural delusion is operative, and in which we perhaps do need to be challenged. (Please note that this does not mean that I am particularly good at any of this myself! But I am interested in the extent to which we are capable of deceiving ourselves.)

… all patristic thought is situated at the intersection of human experience and reflection upon the Bible…

Nothing is more enlightening than this search for the word of God underlying monastic maxims and observances. More than once it reveals the continuous chain that binds our Rule, through the writings of the Fathers, to the teaching of the New and Old Testament. In other cases the influence of Scripture is not exercised through a literary tradition but directly, with Benedict drawing on the treasure of the sacred books quite independently. But no matter how he approaches scripture, Benedict’s interpretation is rarely enclosed within the exact limits of the inspired text. His fidelity is not without liberty, and his dependence goes beyond the limits of the text. While monasticism bases itself upon Scripture, it makes its own building rise to another level. …

Sometimes a vestige of secular wisdom is perceived amid these traces of the Bible, but most often the author’s mind seems possessed only with thoughts coming from Revelation. In order to understand his language, we must search for its references, first of all, if not exclusively, in the concepts and institutions of the Christian faith: Church and sacraments, Scripture and tradition, teaching authority and hierarchy, divine word and grace, virginal consecration and martyrdom. The analogies of this monasticism with those of the pagan Orient, in which there is so much interest these days, should not let the author’s unconditional adherence to the Church of Christ be forgotten.

Adalbert de Vogüé. The Rule of Saint Benedict. A Doctrinal and Spiritual Commentary.Kalamazoo, Michigan; Cistercian Publications, 1983. 2-3.

I’m finally getting down to reading Adelbert de Vogüé, something that I should have done long ago. Aaron Taylor of Logismoi conisders him infallible. I can’t say yet whether he’s infallible, but he is certainly challenging.

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