Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 228
The Rule of Saint Benedict or Regula Benedict was written by Saint Benedict of Nurisa, the patron saint of Europe. This work is a compilation of instructions for communal monks who live in monasteries presided over by abbots and detailed regulations for monks. These mandate the daily activities, expectations, and duties of men within a monastery.
It defines the four types of monks: Cenobites, Anchorites, Sarabaites, and Gyrovagues. Cenobites live within the confines of a monastery. Anchorites, or hermits, are monks who leave society to live an ascetic life devoted to prayer. Sarabites live alone or with two or three other monks. They have limited experience and do not serve under an abbot. Gyrovagues are nomadic monks who depend on charity to survive.
The book also lists the qualifications of an abbot, explains the importance of gathering the monks to council and discuss the affairs of the monastery, and provides a list of the 73 "tools for good work," the essential duties of all devout Christians.
Codes of behavior are also addressed, such as absolute obedience, and limited conversation and laughter. Chapter 7 lists the 12 divisions of humility: fear God, obey God's will, be obedient to one's superior, be patient, confess one's sins, accept difficult tasks, consider oneself inferior, follow a superior's example, do not speak unless spoken to, do not overindulge in laughter, speak modestly, and practice good posture.
Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1584
First transcribed: Regula sancti Benedicti, c. 540 c.e. (English translation, 1632)
Edition(s) used: RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in Latin and English with Notes, edited by Timothy Fry, O.S.B. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1981
Subgenre(s): Guidebook; handbook for living
Core issue(s): Daily living; humility; monasticism; obedience and disobedience; silence
Benedict was born in the region of Nursia, northeast of Rome; the traditional date of 480 cannot be far from the truth. He went to Rome to study and underwent a religious conversion that led him to renounce the world. He first joined some ascetics at Enfide, east of Rome, and then, for three years, lived in complete solitude at Subiaco. He was later joined by many disciples for whom he established twelve monasteries. Persecution led him to withdraw to Monte Cassino, eighty miles south of Rome, where he established what became a large, flourishing cenobium. He gained a widespread reputation as a holy man, endowed with special charisms. He died around the middle of the century.
The Rule is made up of a rather extensive prologue and seventy-three chapters, the last few of which seem to have been added to a completed text and show a somewhat different influence from that of the Rule of the Master, which seems to have been the main influence on the Rule. The influences of Basil the Great and John Cassian are evident, and they are referred to in the Rule, the latter implicitly.
The prologue is a paternal admonition, rich in spiritual teaching. Benedict writes the Rule for the one who wishes to return to God by the way of obedience. This calls for repentance and good works. Benedict seeks to establish a school of the Lord’s service that is moderate in its demands but that will lead to the heights: “As we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run in the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.” It is through patience that we share in the passion of Christ and merit to share in his kingdom.
In the first chapter the holy legislator speaks of the different kinds of monks: hermits or anchorites, who live alone; sarabites, detestable men who live in small groups and do their own will; gyrovagues, who spend their lives going from one monastery to another; and cenobites, who live in community under a rule and an abbot. These latter are the strongest, and for them Benedict writes his Rule.
Therefore, in chapter 2 Benedict immediately speaks about the abbot, the spiritual father who is believed to hold the place of Christ in the monastery and has supreme authority. He is, however, always to remember that he must answer to the Lord, and he is to seek constantly the advice of the brethren: “Everything is to be done with counsel.” The abbot is to be elected by the brethren. He, in turn, names his prior—his second in command—and a cellarer, who administers all the temporalities under the direction of the abbot.
Benedict next devotes four chapters to basic monastic spirituality. Chapter 4 is a concise catalog of the “instruments of good work,” going from the decalogue to the ultimate piece of advice: If you fail in everything else “never despair of the mercy of God.”
Humility is the Benedictine way, and obedience, which is the “first step of humility, which comes naturally to those who cherish Christ above all,” is treated extensively in chapter 5 and frequently comes up in the rest of the Rule. Silence also merits a chapter, as an expression and safeguard of humility, before Benedict begins his central chapter on the steps of humility. In these twelve steps the whole of Benedictine mysticism is summed up, from conversion, through interior purification and exterior expression, to the perfect love of God where all is now done no longer out of fear but out of love of Christ, good habits, and delight in virtue.
“Nothing is to be preferred to the work of God”—that is, the community prayer, which is drawn from the Church of Rome and unites the monk with the Church. The next eleven chapters (8-18) lay down its order, and then chapter 19 speaks of inner dispositions, giving a simple, all-embracing rule: “Let the mind be in harmony with the voice.” A brief but powerful chapter follows on personal prayer: “We must know that God regards our purity of heart and tears of compunction, not our many words.” He will return to this when he speaks of the oratory. Provision is made for reading to nourish this prayer, during the work of God, during meals, before the final service of the day, and in private during the day.
Before launching into a penal code, Benedict has a chapter on deans who will assist the abbot in a large monastery, and another on a very important element in the monk’s life that profoundly affects all others: his sleep. Eight chapters (23-30) lay down not only the penalties but the great pastoral care the abbot must exert in regard to the erring: “The abbot must exercise the utmost care and concern for the wayward brothers.”
After offering a chapter on the cellarer, who is to be like a father to the whole community, Benedict considers the temporalities and temporal services, always bringing in theological principles to ground his very practical provisions: “Regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar.” “Whoever needs less should thank God . . . whoever needs more should feel humble.” “To each according to his need.” “The brothers should serve one another . . . for such service increases reward and fosters love.” “Care of the sick must rank above and before all else, so that they may truly be served as Christ, for he said: ’I was sick and you visited me.’”
As Benedict says in concluding his summary list of monastic works: “The workshop where we are to toil faithfully at all these tasks is the enclosure of the monastery and stability in the community.” Benedict has a sense of the monastery as the monks’ place; therefore travel is carefully regulated, as is the reception of guests. Christ comes in these latter, especially when they are poor; therefore, they are due great honor and all humane care.
There is a detailed code concerning the admission of new members: “Do not grant newcomers to the monastic life an easy entry . . . test the spirits to see if they are from God.” Priests are esteemed, but as monks they are to find their place in the ranks of the brethren: “The monks keep their rank in the monastery according to the date of their entry.”
Chapter 72 is one of the most beautiful chapters in the Rule: “On Good Zeal”: “To their fellow monks they show the pure love of brothers; to God, loving fear; to their abbot, unfeigned and humble love. Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.”
In a final chapter, Benedict humbly protests that his Rule is but for beginners. For those who want to go further, he points to the Scriptures—“What page, what passage of the inspired books of the Old and New Testament is not the truest guide for human life?”—and to John Cassian and Basil the Great.
With its simple and practical application of Christian virtue to daily living, the Rule of St. Benedict became not only the most influential guide to monastic living in the West but also influential as a guide to general principles of Christian living, emphasizing the way of obedience. Obedience is the first step of humility, which comes naturally to those who cherish Christ above all. In the twelve steps of humility the whole of Benedictine mysticism is summed up, from conversion through interior purification and exterior expression to the perfect love of God, where all is now done no longer out of fear but out of love of Christ, good habits, and delight in virtue. It is through patience that we share in the passion of Christ and merit to share in his kingdom.
Sources for Further Study
- Benedict of Nursia. The Rule of the Master. Translated by Luke Eberle. Cistercian Studies 6. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1977. This more extensive and less balanced rule is considered to be Benedict’s most proximate source. A study of it brings out Benedict’s moderating wisdom.
- De Vogue, Adalbert. The Rule of Saint Benedict: A Doctrinal and Spiritual Commentary. Cistercian Studies 54. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1983. This concise commentary, written by the foremost scholar in Benedictine studies of his time, bases contemporary interpretations on the most solid scholarship and shares a depth of spiritual wisdom that can come only from a prolonged, serious living of the Rule.
- McCann, Justin. Saint Benedict. New York: Doubleday, 1958. A widely accepted, objective study of the life of Saint Benedict.
- Rees, Daniel, et al. Consider Your Call: A Theology of Monastic Life Today. Cistercian Studies 18. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1983. A large group of qualified scholars from the English Benedictine Congregation here collaborate to explore the living of the Rule.
- Wathen, Ambrose G. Silence: The Meaning in the Rule of Saint Benedict. Cistercian Studies 22. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1983. Beyond its value as a thorough study of a basic element of Benedictine spirituality, Wathen’s volume is useful for its comparative introduction to all the Western monastic rules that preceded Benedict’s.