Whatever a person’s place in life, Saint Benedict offers a “little Rule for beginners.” The principles of the spiritual life which he sets down put us down firmly in life right where we are. By paralleling family and monastery, today’s reader can glean simple yet practical wisdom for, as well as extraordinary insight into, the essence of everyday Christian living.
Benedict’s monasteries, in the vein of the sixth-century monastery, would have included men and boys, and their community would have been part of an extended agricultural community. As such, Benedict’s rules for living together offer simple guidelines and principles for any community, including the “domestic monastery” of the family.
Benedict says the Abbot is the father of the community. Indeed the word abbot comes from the term ‘abba’ which Jesus himself uses of his heavenly father. The abbot also speaks with authority. He may be an earthly father, but he speaks for the heavenly father. If Benedict’s abbot speaks with the Father’s authority he is also meant to rule the monastery with the heavenly Father’s compassion, self-sacrificial love, and service. Benedict’s abbot therefore presents modern Christian fathers with an excellent role model.
Benedict’s principles for discipline are always measured and loving. He writes, “disciplinary measures should be proportionate to the nature of the fault.” Even isolation must be moderate and restrained. Elsewhere Benedict says his rule lays down “nothing which is harsh or burdensome.” When somebody is punished the abbot “should carry out with the deepest concern his responsibility for the brethren who fall into sin.” He is to send another brother to console the one being punished in order to win him back in love. In every case the Abbot deals with discipline in a careful and solemn manner, always being aware of human weakness, “he must bear in mind that it is the care of sick souls he has undertaken, not a despotic rule over healthy ones.” This pattern of compassionate fathering may sound very modern, but it fits exactly with Saint Paul who wrote, ‘‘Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” (Eph. 6:4)
The Christian father, like Benedict’s abbot, must be flexible and loving towards each individual child. He “must adapt and fit himself to all… one to be encouraged, another to be rebuked, another persuaded, each according to his own nature.” “He must show the tough attitude of the master, and also the loving affection of a father.” In every detail, Benedict’s abbot is mature and balanced, always aware that he has a great responsibility. “The Abbot should always bear in mind what he is; and let him realize that more is demanded of him to whom more is entrusted.”
Some people say the devil is in the details, Benedict thinks the divine is in the details. His rule goes into great detail about how sixth century Italian monks lived. We learn about their footwear, their clothes, their eating and drinking habits, and how they should sleep. Beneath all the mundane matters Benedict is making the point that the mundane matters. The details of what we wear, what we eat, how we worship, and what we read are all connected to our Christian life. Benedict would agree that, “If Jesus Christ hasn’t got into our daily life then he hasn’t got into our lives at all.”
The details are important, but beneath them is a spirit of discretion and Christian dignity. From the rule we can draw conclusions that a Christian family should be well fed and clothed, with care and comfort, but not with vanity or greed. Benedict sees material things as sacred, so the principles of the Rule help us have proper respect for possessions and the natural world.
Benedict wants the monastery to be a secure and welcoming place. Every guest is to be welcomed as Christ. So too the Christian home is to be a place where the whole family lives together in abundant simplicity and looks outward with warm generosity. Modern Christian parents can look to the Rule of Saint Benedict for a sane and balanced approach to life; an approach which applies today, yet links them with a time-honoured tradition.
At the heart of Benedict’s wisdom is the assumption that the Christian family is a community of prayer. He gives detailed liturgical instructions, but, balancing all the rules, he speaks clearly about the need for prayer to be natural and from the heart. “Indeed we must grasp that it is not by using many words that we shall get our prayers answered, but by purity of heart… Prayer therefore should be short and pure.” The oratory is the prayer chapel of the monastery, and it should be kept free so “if a brother should have a mind to pray by himself, he will not be disturbed.” For a Christian family, it makes sense to have a special place in the home dedicated to prayer time. If it is decorated with an icon or some candles and flowers, all the better. Every family will be relieved to discover that Benedict disapproves of long prayers. Prayer is better short and sharp than lengthy and long-winded.
Whatever a person’s place in life, Saint Benedict offers a “little Rule for beginners.” The principles of the spiritual life which he sets down do not raise us to the esoteric heights of mystical speculation. They put us down firmly in life right where we are. Benedict believes we should bloom where we’re planted. God is to be found here and now, not there and then. He is found in the face of our husbands, wives, and children. He is found in the terrible moments of family life as well as the wonderful moments. Benedict helps us to cope with the reality of life just where we are, and that is why his wisdom remains as fresh today as it was the day it was written over one thousand five hundred years ago.
This essay originally appeared in the Catholic Herald and is republished with gracious permission of the author.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics as we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
Editor’s Note: The featured image is an icon of Saint Benedict of Nursia, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.