Rule of Saint Benedict

[Click on image to enlarge] Quoting the beginning of Psalm 15, the Prologue to the Rule of Saint Benedict asks, "Lord, who shall live in Your kingdom? Or who shall rest on Your holy mountain?" The whole of the Rule is intended to teach how monasticism could be an answer to that question. Although Christian belief has always held that many paths lead to God, in the Middle Ages the monastic life represented, at least in theory, an ideal way of peace, brotherhood, and spirituality in a troubled world. The monastery and convent became pervasive religious and social institutions, organized to prepare for and to anticipate eternal life in the Lord's tabernacle.

Monasticism is, of course, not an exclusively Christian institution or ideal, but in the centuries of early Christianity it acquired an institutional character that in the first half of the sixth century was codified in the Rule of Saint Benedict, which, within another three hundred years, became the standardized rule of monasticism in the West. The origins of Christian monasticism can be traced back to hermits, most notably St. Anthony, and communities who lived in the Egyptian desert in the late third and early fourth centuries. In the fourth and fifth centuries, the Church Fathers, writing in both Greek and Latin, theorized extensively about the monastic life and several of them practiced it. St. Jerome, whose Latin translation of the Bible (called the Vulgate) became the standard text for the Middle Ages, was a great advocate of celibacy and monasticism; his polemical Epistle against Jovinian, which denigrates sex, women, and marriage, is a major source for the Wife of Bath's Prologue.

St. Benedict (c. 480-c. 547) inherited this already old tradition, upon which he drew extensively in writing a rule for the order he founded and established c. 529 on top of Mount Cassino, eighty miles south of Rome. Everything known about his life comes from Pope Gregory the Great (c. 540–604), who wrote a biography (594) of Benedict — presumably based on the recollections of Benedict's followers — portraying him as a saint. "Benedict," writes Gregory, "was eminent, not only for the many miracles that made him famous, but also for his teaching. In fact, he wrote a Rule for Monks, which is of conspicuous discretion and is written in a lucid style. If anyone wishes to know Benedict's character and life more precisely, he may find a complete account of his principles and practice in the ordinances of that rule; for the Saint cannot have taught otherwise than as he lived."

Gregory, who came from a patrician Roman family, had turned his ancestral home into a monastery before he was elected pope. It was he who dispatched the missionaries to convert the Anglo-Saxons (NAEL 8, 1.4). We do not know whether they brought Benedict's Rule with them. Probably it was first introduced in Britain in the seventh century; there it became standard, eventually supplanting the autonomous practices of Irish monasteries, which had not observed some of the traditions of the Roman Church. The oldest of the hundreds of surviving copies of the Rule of Saint Benedict was written in England around the year 700. Bede (see NAEL 8, 1.24-27) was a Benedictine monk. Transported by the English missionary St. Boniface, the Rule spread to Germany in the eighth century. When the Emperor Charlemagne visited Italy in 787, he was apparently shown what was said to be St. Benedict's autograph manuscript of the Rule and requested a copy to be sent to his capital whence it became the basis of monastic reform in the Carolingian Empire. The Rule of Saint Benedict was adapted to the different needs of different monastic communities, and, as the Middle Ages progressed, new orders — for example, the Cistercians — followed the Benedictines. But "this little rule that we have written for beginners," as Benedict modestly calls it in his conclusion, laid the foundation for monasticism throughout Western Europe.

The following excerpts indicate how the Rule is designed both as a hortatory guide to spiritual perfection and as a practical guide to the everyday life of the monks. The text is taken from the Rule of St. Benedict, translated with introduction and notes by Anthony C. Meisel and M. L. del Mastro (New York: Doubleday, 1975). The scriptural quotations are translated from Benedict's Latin and do not correspond to standard translations of the Bible.

From the Prologue

Listen, my son, and with your heart hear the principles of your Master. Readily accept and faithfully follow the advice of a loving Father, so that through the labor of obedience you may return to Him from whom you have withdrawn because of the laziness of disobedience. My words are meant for you, whoever you are, who laying aside your own will, take up the all-powerful and righteous arms of obedience to fight under the true King, the Lord Jesus Christ.

* * *

Let us encompass ourselves with faith and the practice of good works, and guided by the Gospel, tread the path He has cleared for us. Thus may we deserve to see Him, who has called us into His Kingdom.

If we wish to be sheltered in this Kingdom, it can be reached only through our good conduct. But let us ask our Lord (with the prophet): "Lord, who shall live in Your Kingdom? Or who shall rest on Your holy mountain?" (Psalms 15.1). >> note 1 Once we have asked this, listen to the Lord's response as He shows us the way to His Kingdom: "He who walks without blemish and works justice, he who speaks truth in his heart, who has not been deceitful in his speech, he who has not harmed his neighbor, nor censured him, shall dwell with me"(Psalms 15.2–3).

* * *

We have questioned the Lord, brothers, and have heard of the conditions for living in His kingdom; but we shall live there only if we fulfill these conditions. Therefore we must prepare ourselves, in body and soul, to fight under the commandments of holy obedience. And that which is less possible to us in nature, let us ask of God — to command the aid of His grace to help us. If, escaping the tortures of Hell, we wish to find eternal life, we must live what God wills in our lifetime, while we have the ability and chance.

We are about to open a school for God's service, in which we hope nothing harsh or oppressive will be directed. For preserving charity or correcting faults, it may be necessary at times, by reason of justice, to be slightly more severe. Do not fear this and retreat, for the path to salvation is long and the entrance is narrow. As our lives and faith progress, the heart expands and with the sweetness of love we move down the paths of God's commandments. Never departing from His guidance, remaining in the monastery until death, we patiently share in Christ's passion, so we may eventually enter into the Kingdom of God.

Chapter 1. The Different Kinds of Monks and Their Customs

There are four kinds of monks. First are the Cenobites, those who live in a monastery waging their war under a rule and an abbot.

Second are the Anchorites (hermits) who are not neophytes. They have spent much time in the monastery testing themselves and learning to fight against the devil. They have prepared themselves in the fraternal line of battle for the single combat of the hermit. They have laid the foundation to fight, with the aid of God, against their own bodily and spiritual vices.

Third there are the Sarabaites (the worst kind), unschooled by any rule, untested, as gold is by fire, but soft as lead, living in and of the world, openly lying to God through their tonsure (shaved heads). >> note 2 They live together in twos or threes, more often alone, without a shepherd in their own fold, not the Lord's. Their only law is the pleasure of their desires, and whatever they wish or choose they call holy. They consider whatever they dislike unlawful.

Fourth are the gyratory monks. All their lives they wander in different countries staying in various monasteries for three or four days at a time. They are restless, servants to the seduction of their own will and appetites, and are much worse in all things than the Sarabaites. >> note 3 It is better to be silent as to their wretched life style than to speak. It is better to keep silent than to speak of all these and their disgraceful way of life. Casting these aside, let us with God's help establish a rule for Cenobites who are the best kind of monks.

From Chapter 2. The Qualities of the Abbot

To be qualified to govern a monastery, an abbot should always remember what he is called (Abba = Father) and carry out his high calling in his everyday life. In a monastery he is Christ's representative, called by his name: "You have received the spirit of the adoption of sons, whereby we cry, Abba, Father" (Romans 8.15). >> note 4

The abbot should not command, teach or demand anything contrary to the way of the Lord. But his orders and teaching ought to be tempered by Divine justice. The abbot should always remember that he will be held accountable on Judgment Day for his teaching and the obedience of his charges. The abbot must be led to understand that any lack of good in his monks will be held as his fault.

* * *

The abbot shall not make distinctions among the people in the monastery. No one shall be loved more than others, except those who are found more obedient or observant in their faith. Unless there is good cause, the freeman should not be considered superior to the serf. If the abbot, after taking counsel with himself, finds such cause he may place the monk where he wishes in the order of precedence; otherwise let everyone stay in his own place for "whether bond or free we are all one in Christ" (Galatians 3.28; Ephesians 6.8) and are equal in the service of the Lord; with God there is no respecter of individuals (Romans 2.11). Only if we are found to excel in good works and humility are we preferred in the eyes of God as individuals. The abbot should love all equally, and let all be under the same standard of discipline according to that which each deserves.

In his instruction the abbot should always observe the apostolic rule: "Reprove, entreat, rebuke" (2 Timothy 4.2). As the occasion requires he should mix encouragement with reproof. He should show the sternness of a master and the love and affection of a father. He must reprove the unruly and undisciplined with severity, but he should exhort the obedient and patient for their own betterment. We warn him to reprove and punish the slothful and stubborn. He should not ignore the sinful offenders: but as soon as they appear and grow, he must root them out.

From Chapter 3. The Counsel of the Brothers

Whenever an important matter is to be undertaken in the monastery, the abbot should call the entire community together and should set forth the agenda. After hearing the various opinions of the brothers, he should consider all and then do what he thinks best. The brothers should give advice with humility and not presume stubbornly to defend their views. They should leave the question to the abbot's resolution so that they may all obey that which he decides is best. But as disciples should obey a master, the master should arrange all matters with consideration and justice.

From Chapter 5. Obedience

The first degree of humility is prompt obedience. This is necessary for all who think of Christ above all else. These souls, because of the holy servitude to which they have sworn themselves, whether through fear of Hell or expectation of eternity, hasten to obey any command of a superior as if it were a command of God.

* * *

But this very obedience will be deemed acceptable to God and pleasant to men only when the commands are carried out without fear, laziness, hesitance or protest. The obedience shown to superiors is, through them, shown to God, who said: "He who hears you, hears Me" (Luke 10.16). Orders should be carried out cheerfully, for "God loves a cheerful giver" (2 Corinthians 9.7). God will not be pleased by the monk who obeys grudgingly, not only murmuring in words but even in his heart. For even if he should fulfill the command, his performance would not be pleasing to God who listens to his complainings. Work done in such a dispirited manner will go without reward; in fact, unless he makes amends, he will suffer the punishment meted out to gripers.

From Chapter 6. Silence

Let us follow the prophet who says: "I have said: I will keep my ways so that I will not offend with my tongue. I have guarded my speech. I held my peace and humbled myself and was silent, even from speaking good things" (Psalms 39.2–3). Here the prophet demonstrates that if we are not to speak of good things, for the sake of silence, it is even more vital that we not speak of evil lest we sin, for we shall be punished for that as a sin. No matter how perfect the disciple, nor how good and pious his speech, he rarely should be given permission to speak for: "In much speaking, you shall not escape sin" (Proverbs 10.19). The master should speak and teach, the disciple should quietly listen and learn. No matter what must be asked of a superior, it must be done with humility and reverent submission. We always condemn and ban all small talk and jokes; no disciple shall speak such things.

Chapter 8. The Divine Office at Night

During winter — from November first until Easter — the brothers shall rise at the eighth hour of the night >> note 5 as is reasonable; thus having rested a bit more than half of the night, they will be refreshed. Any time left over ought to be used by the brothers to practice psalms or for reading.

From Easter until November first, the hour for Matins should be arranged so that, after a very short break for going to the toilet, Lauds, >> note 6 which ought to be said at daybreak, may follow immediately.

Chapter 22. How the Monks Are to Sleep

All the monks shall sleep in separate beds. All shall receive bedding, allotted by the abbot, appropriate to their environment. If possible they should all sleep in one room. However, if there are too many for this, they will be grouped in tens or twenties, a senior in charge of each group. Let a candle burn throughout the night. They will sleep in their robes, belted but with no knives, thus preventing injury in slumber. The monks then will always be prepared to rise at the signal and hurry to the Divine Office. But they must make haste with gravity and modesty.

The younger brothers should not be next to each other. Rather their beds should be interspersed with those of their elders. When they arise for the Divine Office, they ought to encourage each other, for the sleepy make many excuses.

Chapter 33. Private Ownership by Monks

The vice of private ownership must be uprooted from the monastery. No one, without the abbot's permission, shall dare give, receive or keep anything — not book, tablet or pen — nothing at all. Monks have neither free will nor free body, but must receive all they need from the abbot. However, they may keep nothing unless permitted or given them by the abbot.

All things are to be common to everyone for, "Neither did anyone say or think that anything whatever was his own" (Acts 4.32). If anyone is found with a predilection for this terrible vice, he is to be scolded twice. If he does not reform, then he is to be punished.

Chapter 34. The Apportionment of Necessities

"Distribution was made to everyone as was his need" (Acts 4.35). We do not mean by this that personal preference should play a part, but rather that individual weaknesses should be taken into account. He who has lesser need ought to thank God and not lament. He who has great need should show greater humility because of his weakness and not gloat over the allowance made him. Then everyone will be content. Under no circumstances should complaining be tolerated, no matter what the reason. Anyone found complaining should be subjected to most severe punishment.

From Chapter 48. The Daily Manual Labor

Idleness is an enemy of the soul. Therefore, the brothers should be occupied according to schedule in either manual labor or holy reading. These may be arranged as follows: from Easter to October, the brothers shall work at manual labor from Prime until the fourth hour. From then until the sixth hour they should read. After dinner they should rest (in bed) in silence. However, should anyone desire to read, he should do so without disturbing his brothers.

None should be chanted at about the middle of the eighth hour. Then everyone shall work as they must until Vespers. If conditions dictate that they labor in the fields (harvesting), they should not be grieved for they are truly monks when they must live by manual labor, as did our fathers and the apostles. Everything should be in moderation, though, for the sake of the timorous.

Chapter 68. When a Brother Is Asked to Do the Impossible

If a brother is requested to do something difficult or impossible, he should, at first, accept the command meekly and obediently. If he sees that the task is beyond his means, respectfully, calmly and humbly, he will tell his superior the reason for it. He will not be proud, resistant, or contradictory.

If the superior keeps to his decision despite the brother's reasons, the brother in charity will do as told, trusting in God's help.

Chapter 73. All Perfection Is Not Herein Attained

We have composed this Rule so that, through its observance in monasteries, we may know we have made some progress in pursuit of virtue and the commencement of a monastic life. For those who are hurrying to attain a truly holy life, there are the works of the Holy Fathers. The following of these will lead a man to heights of perfection. For what page or word of the Bible is not a perfect rule for temporal life? What book of the Fathers does not proclaim that by a straight path we shall find God? * * * Whoever you are, if you wish to follow the path to God, make use of this little rule for beginners. Thus at length you will come to the heights of doctrine and virtue under God's guidance. Amen!


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