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Monday, July 11, 2011

on the occasion of St Benedict's Feastday: Benedictine rule




Article taken from an excerpt in: Catholic Encyclopedia

1. Before studying St. Benedict's Rule it is necessary to point out that it is written for laymen, not for clerics. The saint's purpose was not to institute an order of clerics with clerical duties and offices, but an organization and a set of rules for the domestic life of such laymen as wished to live as fully as possible the type of life presented in the Gospel. "My words", he says, "are addressed to thee, whoever thou art, that, renouncing thine own will, dost put on the strong and bright armour of obedience in order to fight for the Lord Christ, our true King." (Prol. to Rule.)

Later, the Church imposed the clerical state upon Benedictines, and with the state came a preponderance of clerical and sacerdotal duties, but the impress of the lay origin of the Benedictines has remained, and is perhaps the source of some of the characteristics which mark them off from later orders.

2. Another characteristic feature of the saint's Rule is its view of work. His so-called order was not established to carry on any particular work or to meet any special special crisis in the Church, as has been the case with other orders. With Benedict the work of his monks was only a means to goodness of life. The great disciplinary force for human nature is work; idleness is its ruin. The purpose of his Rule was to bring men "back to God by the labour of obedience, from whom they had departed by the idleness of disobedience". Work was the first condition of all growth in goodness.

It was in order that his own life might be "wearied with labours for God's sake" that St. Benedict left Enfide for the cave at Subiaco. It is necessary, comments St. Gregory, that God's elect should at the beginning, when life and temptations are strong are strong in them, "be wearied with labour and pains". In the regeneration of human nature in the order of discipline, even prayer comes after work, for grace meets with no co-operation in the soul and heart of an idler. When the Goth "gave over the world" and went to Subiaco, St. Benedict gave him a bill-hook and set him to clear away briars for the making of a garden. "Ecce! labora!" go and work. Work is not, as the civilization of the time taught, the condition peculiar to slaves; it is the universal lot of man, necessary for his well-being as a man, and essential for him as a Christian.

3. The religious life, as conceived by St. Benedict is essentially social. Life apart from one's fellows, the life of a hermit, if it is to be wholesome and sane, is possible only for a few, and these few must have reached an advanced stage of self-discipline while living with others (Rule, 1). The Rule, therefore, is entirely occupied with regulating the life of a community of men who live and work and pray and eat together, and this is not merely for a course of training, but as a permanent element of life at its best.

The Rule conceives the superiors as always present and in constant touch with every member of the government, which is best described as patriarchal, or paternal (ibid., 2, 3, 64). The superior is the head of a family; all are the permanent members of a household. Hence, too, much of the spiritual teaching of the Rule is concealed under legislation which seems purely social and domestic organization (ibid. 22-23, 35-41). So intimately connected with domestic life is the whole framework and teaching of the Rule that a Benedictine may be more truly said to enter or join a particular household than to join an order.

The social character of Benedictine life has found expression in a fixed type for monasteries and in the kind of works which Benedictines undertake, and it is secured by an absolute communism in possessions (ibid. 33, 34, 54, 55), by the rigorous suppression of all differences of worldly rank - "no one of noble birth may [for that reason] be put before him that was formerly a slave" (ibid. 2). and by the enforced presence of everyone at the routine duties of the household.

4. Although private ownership is most strictly forbidden by the Rule, it was no part of St. Benedict's conception of monastic life that his monks, as a body, should strip themselves of all wealth and live upon the alms of the charitable; rather his purpose was to restrict the requirements of the individual to what was necessary and simple, and to secure that the use and administration of the corporate possessions should be in strict accord with the teaching of the Gospel. The Benedictine ideal of poverty is quite different from the Franciscan.

The Benedictine takes no explicit vow of poverty; he only vows obedience according to the Rule. The rule allows all that is necessary to each individual, together with sufficient and varied clothing, abundant food (excluding only the flesh of quadrupeds), wine and ample sleep (ibid., 39, 40, 41, 55). Possessions could be held in common, they might be large, but they were to be administered for the furtherance of the work of the community and for the benefit of others. While the individual monk was poor, the monastery was to be in a position to give alms, not to be compelled to seek them.

It was to relieve the poor, to clothe the naked, to visit the sick, to bury the dead, to help the afflicted (ibid., 4), to entertain all strangers (ibid., 3). The poor came to Benedict to get help to pay their debts (Dial. St. Greg., 27); they came for food (ibid., 21, 28).

5. St. Benedict originated a form of government which is deserving of study. It is contained in chapters 2, 3, 31, 64, 65 of the Rule and in certain pregnant phrases scattered through other chapters. As with the Rule itself, so also his scheme of government is intended not for an order but for a single community. He presupposes that the community have bound themselves, by their promise of stability, to spend their lives together under the Rule. The superior is then elected by a free and universal suffrage.

The government may be described as a monarchy, with the Rule as its constitution. Within the four corners of the Rule everything is left to the discretion of the abbot, the abuse of whose authority is checked by religion (Rule, 2), by open debate with the community on all important matters, and with its representative elders in smaller concerns (ibid., 3).

The reality of these checks upon the wilfulness of the ruler can be appreciated only when it is remembered that ruler and community were bound together for life, that all were inspired by the single purpose of carrying out the conception of life taught in the Gospel, and that the relation of the members of the community to one another and to the abbot, and of the abbot to them, were elevated and spiritualized by a mysticism which set before itself the acceptance of the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount as real and work-a-day truths.

6. (a) When a Christian household, a community, has been organized by the willing acceptance of its social duties and responsibilities, by obedience to an authority, and, further, is under the continuous discipline of work and self-denial, the next step in the regeneration of its members in their return to God is prayer. The Rule deals directly and explicitly only with public prayer.

For this Benedict assigns the Psalms and Canticles, with readings from the Scriptures and Fathers. He devotes eleven chapters out of the seventy-three of his Rule to regulating this public prayer, and it is characteristic of the freedom of his Rule and of the "moderation" of the saint, that he concludes his very careful directions by saying that if any superior does not like his arrangement he is free to make another; this only he says he will insist on, that the whole Psalter will be said in the course of a week.

The practice of the holy Fathers, he adds, was resolutely "to say in a single day what I pray we tepid monks may get through in a whole week" (ibid., 18). On the other hand, he checks indiscreet zeal by laying down the general rule "that prayer made in common must always be short" (ibid., 20). It is very difficult to reduce St. Benedict's teaching on prayer to a system, for this reason, that in his conception of the Christian character, prayer is coexistent with the whole life, and life is not complete at any point unless penetrated by prayer. .

(b) The form of prayer which thus covers the whole of our waking hours, St. Benedict calls the first degree of humility. It consists in realizing the presence of God (ibid., 7). The first step begins when the spiritual is joined to the merely human, or, as the saint expresses it, it is the first step in a ladder, the rungs of which rest at one end in the body and at the other in the soul.

The ability to exercise this form of prayer is fostered by that care of the "heart" on which the saint so often insists; and the heart is saved from the dissipation that would result from social intercourse by the habit of mind which sees in everyone Christ Himself. "Let the sick be served in very deed as Christ Himself" (ibid., 36). "Let all guests that come be received as Christ" (ibid., 53). "Whether we be slaves or freemen, we are all one in Christ and bear an equal rank in the service of Our Lord" (ibid., 2).

(c) Secondly, there is public prayer. This is short and is to be said at intervals, at night and at seven distinct hours during the day, so that, when possible, there shall be no great interval without a call to formal, vocal, prayer (ibid., 16). The position which St. Benedict gave to public, common prayer can best be described by saying that he established it as the centre of the common life to which he bound his monks.

It was the consecration, not only of the individual, but of the whole community to God by the oft-repeated daily public acts of faith. and of praise and adoration of the Creator; and this public worship of God, the opus Dei, was to form the chief work of his monks, and to be the source from which all other works took their inspiration, their direction, and their strength.

(d) Lastly, there is private prayer, for which the saint does not legislate. It follows individual gifts - "If anyone wishes to pray in private, let him go quietly into the oratory and pray, not with a loud voice, but with tears and fervour of heart" (ibid., 52). "Our prayer ought to be short and with purity of heart, except it be perchance prolonged by the inspiration of divine grace" (ibid., 20).

But if St. Benedict gives no further directions on private prayer, it is because the whole condition and mode of life secured by the Rule, and the character formed by its observance, lead naturally to the higher states of prayer. As the Saint writes: "Whoever, therefore, thou art that hastenest to thy heavenly country, fulfil by the help of Christ this little Rule which we have written for beginners; and then at length thou shalt arrive, under God's protection, at the lofty summits of doctrine and virtue of which we have spoken above" (ibid., 73). for guidance in these higher states the Saint refers to the Fathers, Basil and Cassian.

From this short examination of the Rule and its system of prayer, it will be obvious that to describe the Benedictine as a contemplative order is misleading, if the word is used in its modern technical sense as excluding active work; the "contemplative" is a form of life framed for different circumstances and with a different object from St. Benedict's. The Rule, including its system of prayer and public psalmody, is meant for every class of mind and every degree of learning.

It is framed not only for the educated and for souls advanced in perfection, but it organizes and directs a complete life which is adapted for simple folk and for sinners, for the observance of the Commandments and for the beginnings of goodness. "We have written this Rule", writes St. Benedict, "that by observing it in monasteries, we may shew ourselves to have some degree of goodness in life and a beginning of holiness. But for him who would hasten to the perfection of religion, there are the teachings of the holy Fathers, the following whereof bringeth a man to the height of perfection" (ibid., 73). Before leaving the subject of prayer it will be well to point out again that by ordering the public recitation and singing of the Psalter, St. Benedict was not putting upon his monks a distinctly clerical obligation.

The Psalter was the common form of prayer of all Christians; we must not read into his Rule characteristics which a later age and discipline have made inseparable from the public recitation of the Divine Office.
We can now take up again the story of Benedict's life. How long he remained at Subiaco we do not know. Abbot Tosti conjectures it was until the year 529. Of these years St. Gregory is content to tell no more than a few stories descriptive of the life of the monks, and of the character and government of St. Benedict. The latter was making his first attempt to realize in these twelve monasteries his conception of the monastic life. We can fill in many of the details from the Rule.

By his own experiment and his knowledge of the history of monasticism the saint had learnt that the regeneration of the individual, except in abnormal cases, is not reached by the path of solitude, nor by that of austerity, but by the beaten path of man's social instinct, with its necessary conditions of obedience and work; and that neither the body nor the mind can be safely overstrained in the effort to avoid evil (ibid., 64). Thus, at Subiaco we find no solitaries, no conventual hermits, no great austerities, but men living together in organized communities for the purpose of leading good lives, doing such work as came to their hand - carrying water up the steep mountain-side, doing the other household work, raising the twelve cloisters, clearing the ground, making gardens, teaching children, preaching to the country people, reading and studying at least four hours a day, receiving strangers, accepting and training new-comers, attending the regular hours of prayer, reciting and chanting the Psalter.

The life at Subiaco and the character of St. Benedict attracted many to the new monasteries, and their increasing numbers and growing influence came the inevitable jealousy and persecution, which culminated with a vile attempt of a neighboring priest to scandalize the monks by an exhibition of naked women, dancing in the courtyard of the saint's monastery (Dial. St. Greg., 8). To save his followers from further persecution Benedict left Subiaco and went to Monte Cassino.
Upon the crest of Monte Cassino "there was an ancient chapel in which the foolish and simple country people, according to the custom of the old Gentiles, worshipped the god Apollo. Round about it likewise upon all sides there were woods for the service of devils, in which, even to that very time, the mad multitude of infidels did offer most wicked sacrifice. The man of God, coming hither, feat in pieces the idol, overthrew the altar, set fire on the woods and in the temple of Apollo built the oratory of St. Martin: and where the altar of the same Apollo was, he made an oratory of St. John: and by his continual preaching he brought the people dwelling in those parts to embrace the faith of Christ" (ibid., 8).

On this spot the saint built his monastery. His experience at Subiaco had led him to alter his plans, and now, instead of building several houses with a small community in each, he kept all his monks in one monastery and provided for its government by appointing a prior and deans (Rule, 65, 21). We find no trace in his Rule, which was most probably written at Monte Cassino, of the view which guided him when he built the twelve small monasteries at Subiaco. The life which we have witnessed at Subiaco was renewed at Subiaco was renewed at Monte Cassino, but the change in the situation and local conditions brought a corresponding modification in the work undertaken by the monks. Subiaco was a retired valley away in the mountains and difficult of access; Cassino was on one of the great highways to the south of Italy, and at no great distance from Capua.

This brought the monastery into more frequent communication with the outside world. It soon became a centre of influence in a district in which there was a large population, with several dioceses and other monasteries. Abbots came to see and advise with Benedict. Men of all classes were frequent visitors, and he numbered nobles and bishops among his intimate friends. There were nuns in the neighbourhood whom the monks went to preach to and to teach. There was a village nearby in which St. Benedict preached and made many converts (Dial. St. Greg., 19). The monastery became the protector of the poor, their trustee (ibid., 31), their refuge in sickness, in trial, in accidents, in want.

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