The Holy Rule of St. Benedict

My friends do whatever they can to keep their options open. Whether it’s an invitation to come to dinner, attend a retreat or travel to New Orleans for spring break, the people I hang with don’t say yes quickly or easily. They delay and deliberate and wait until the last minute because – I assume – they want to see if a better opportunity comes along.  If I sound whiny, it is certainly because I behave exactly this way myself – I want to choose what to do and when to do it.

At the beginning of the 6th century, a young man named Benedict left his wealthy family and the debauchery of the academy, moved into a cave near Rome, and began to pray. He read the Gospels and began to write about the way of Jesus and how it contrasted with his life of private autonomy and personal privilege.  The invitation he heard was to “give up thine own will, takest up the strong and most excellent arms of obedience…”  Not a hint of keeping one’s options open.

His Little Rule for Beginners, which became the guide for Benedictines monks, describes a way of living that is shocking, countercultural and almost completely incomprehensible in places like Cambridge.  He lines out behaviors and logistics required of a community of sinners that have gathered to live and grow in Christlikeness together.

THINGS I LIKED

Benedict’s Rule contains invitations that ring as true and powerful today as they did 1500 years ago.  Here are a few:

1.  Humility – The pull is strong to hold onto my “rights” – to be the master of my own destiny (let alone my money, daily schedule, what I eat, etc…).  This is the fundamental issue (I think).  Am I willing to humbly yield control to someone else – God, for instance?  It’s ok if I say no.  It just means that I shouldn’t call myself a follower of Jesus.

2.  Silence – Of course my mind immediately jumps to the times when keeping silence is the opposite of pursuing humility.  Nevertheless this is a profound idea – that I would hold my tongue when I have something to say – even when it is true, helpful and (especially) clever.

The ninth degree of humility is, when a monk withholdeth his tongue from speaking, and keeping silence doth not speak until he is asked; for the Scripture showeth that “in a multitude of words there shall not want sin” (Proverbs 10:19); and that “a man full of tongue is not established in the earth.” (Psalm 139 [140]:12).  (p. 116-117)

In graduate classrooms at Harvard where students compete for “airtime” and are scored on how frequently and how well they speak, this discipline stands out.

3.  Speaking - It doesn’t take much imagination to discern what Benedict might have to say about other forms of speech (FaceBook, blogs, etc…)

The eleventh degree of humility is, that, when a monk speaketh, he speak gently and without laughter, humbly and with gravity, with few and and sensible words, and that he be not loud of voice, as it is written: “The wise man is known by the fewness of his words.”  (p. 118)

4.  Counsel – The Rule calls for the whole community to gather when making important decisions.  And in this context it is required that all pay special attention to the younger members of the community.

It is for this reason, however, we said that all should be called for counsel, because the Lord often revealeth to the younger what is best.  (p. 56)

Humility recognizes that God’s way may be seen most clearly through the powerless and (seemingly) insignificant.

5.  Obedience – This is one of the hallmarks of the monastic life envisioned by Benedict and envisions obedience to the Abbot as equivalent to obedience to God.

… not living according to their own desires and pleasures but walking according to the judgment and will of another, they live in monasteries, and desire an Abbot to be over them… This obedience, however, will be acceptable to God and agreeable to men then only, if what is commanded is done without hesitation, delay, lukewarmness, grumbling or complaint, because the obedience which is rendered to Superiors is rendered to God.  (p. 79-81)

I read those lines and wonder why, as crazy scary as they sounds, I am drawn to it.  Perhaps it is because it makes concrete the sort of obedience in my better moments that I want to offer to my God.  Certainly it is the sort of obedience I long for from my own children!

6.  Prayer – Benedict called for prayers to be short – another mark of humility.

And let us be assured that it is not in many words, but in the purity of heart and tears of compunction that we are heard.  (p. 179)

7.  Hospitality – My first experience with the Rule of Benedict came in 1983 on a retreat at Glastonbury Abbey in Hingham, MA.  All of us were warmly welcomed by the brothers to participate fully in the worship and life of the community.

In the greeting let all humility be shown to the guests, whether coming or coming; with the head bowed down or the whole body prostrate on the ground, let Christ be adored in them as He is also received.  (P. 325)

I don’t remember the brothers laying prostrate on the ground in front of our group of graduate students but their welcome to us was as they would have welcomed Christ.

8.  Eating – I can’t imagine what Benedict would say about the way those of us with money and access to an almost infinite variety of foods eat what we eat.

…we believe that for the daily meal, both at the sixth hour and the ninth hour, two kinds of cooked food are sufficient for all meals…  Let a pound of bread be sufficient for the day, whether there be only one meal or both dinner and supper.  (p. 257-258)

I remember reading somewhere that John R. W. Stott was known to never return for seconds at a meal – a practice he adopted so that he might be continually reminded of the privilege and blessing he had to be able to have enough food and water – something that many others around the world lacked.

THINGS I STILL NEED TO THINK ABOUT

1. Humor - Benedict may have been a very likable guy but (it seems) he was not a joker. At least he doesn’t express much of a sense of humor. Even more, he writes that speaking in a way that makes others laugh is forbidden.

The Instruments of Good Works [include]:  (54) Not to speak useless words and such as provoke laughter.  (55) Not to love much or boisterous laughter.  (p. 68)

But coarse jests, and idle words or speech provoking laughter, we condemn everywhere to eternal exclusion; and for such speech we don not permit the disciple to open his lips.  (p. 87-88)

He doesn’t really say why. Perhaps he is picking up on Paul’s admonitions against “coarse joking” (Ephesians 5:4) or the warnings in James (James 4:7-10). Maybe he is cautious because of the tendency of humor – especially the sort of snarky, cynical humor (did they have cynicism back then?) we know all too well today – to draw attention to oneself while it degrades and embarrasses others. The world is a serious place for Benedict – I just want to know, might this not be a place where the light of laughter could help?

2.  Nothing harsh or burdensome?

We are, therefore, about to found a school of the Lord’s service, in which we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome  (p. 23)

He has the best of intentions – to “preserve charity” and “correct vices” but his Rule seems quite harsh at times.  For example…

Whenever, therefore, boys or immature youths or such as can not understand how grave a penalty excommunication is, are guilty of a serious fault, let them undergo severe fasting or be disciplined with corporal punishment, that they may be corrected.  (P. 214-215)

Oh the other hand, I guess if you are convinced that the immortal souls entrusted to your care are in peril then even beatings start to seem acceptable.

3.  Personal ownership – I mention this instruction in this lower section not because I have questions about the instruction itself – it makes sense in the context of a monastic community.

The vice of personal ownership must by all means be cut out in the monastery by the very root…  Let all things be common to all, as it is written.  And let no one call or take to himself anything as his own (cf. Acts 4:32)

My question is whether/how this practice of the earliest followers of Jesus ought to be practiced by those of us on the outside.

The draw to keep ones options open is strong and living by a Rule can sound archaic and needlessly restrictive.  Clearly it isn’t the choice of most of my friends in Boston.  But what if it makes way for us to embrace what the Apostle Paul called, “the life that is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:19)?  Maybe the “Little Rule for Beginners” is worth a second look?

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About Jeff Barneson

Husband to Tara Edelschick Father to Zachary and Ezra Keeper of Bees Campus Chaplain Bicycle Racer Coffee Drinker Follower of Jesus View all posts by Jeff Barneson

5 responses to “The Holy Rule of St. Benedict

  • Kimberly June Miller

    We have a lot to learn from St. Benedict, but I really hope you don’t relinquish your wit, Jeff. I am still chuckling from the time you were leading a hike at Toah Nipi and asked us all to make sure we all had our pick axes. : )

  • Tout

    Thanks for writing this, Jeff. I resonate with 1 and 5 – the giving up of presumed rights and truly yielding to God, or in a more limited sense yielding to one another. This second aspect of yielding to one another is also important because the Christian life is often lived under the assumption that what matters is only between me and God, that I only have to yield to God and not to the people around me, because they probably are not getting it right anyway. Hidden in this stance, I think, is the destructive assumption of self righteousness.

    I wondered, too, about what Benedict says about laughter. I think one of the ways in which followers of Jesus can be counter-cultural in a shocking way is to be straightfoward with the truth, not to degrade others or to worship cleverness, but to be totally honest about reality. I’ve found, time and time again, that such plain statements of the truth often brings laughter, because it’s joyful, refreshing, and a relief to hear someone finally tell it like it is. It can be acknowledging an awkward interaction, or reflecting on failure, or uncovering a surprising solution to a problem… and the list goes on.

    I’ve often heard comments that it’s hard to extract the tone of voice from what Jesus says in the New Testament. What if Jesus uttered many of his most famous statements with a smile and a wink? =)

    • Michael Barr

      I am just reading this. I know it’s months ‘old’ in terms of blog life. At Bible Study last night we watched John Eldredge’s new book / video “Beautiful Outlaw.” He is committed to the idea that Jesus is often “playful,” and that we know his intimacy through such “playfulness.” A friend mentioned the well-known response to the Syro-Phoenician woman about it unbecoming to give the children’s bread to the dogs. His view was that this was said with a kind of “smile and a wink” as Tout replied. Like Jesus understood that people of her race are derided unjustly as dogs and he was showing a certain identification with not in judgment of her. Her bold response, I think, supports this interpretation.

  • Annie Wald

    “Am I willing to humbly yield control to someone else – God, for instance? It’s ok if I say no. It just means that I shouldn’t call myself a follower of Jesus.”
    That’s a powerful insight that people [i.e. me] often like to ignore. I’d like to weasel around surrender and still claim the benefits that come from it, such as grace and the Holy Spirit. But it’s hard to carry a cross while trying to manipulate the world.

    • Jeff Barneson

      Yes! Thanks Annie. Saying it that way, “it’s hard to carry a cross while trying to manipulate the world,” makes the point very sharp indeed. Ouch!

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