When St. Benedict founded the Benedictine monastic order, I believe he was attempting to establish religious utopian community. He may not have agreed with this idea, but he certainly established high standards of behaviour and conduct for his monks in order to achieve a community devoted to the pure pursuit of religious practice and contemplation.
Benedict’s monasteries were founded on the Holy Rule of St. Benedict, the manifesto, the central document of the Benedictine order and the basis for other Western European monastic orders as well. It was written around 530 A.D. and is still a vital part of modern Benedictine monasteries. A 1,580 year-old document that is NOW AVAILABLE to you … online here
It consists of 73 chapters and a prologue that set out the structure of the monastery, its administration and officers, the daily activities, the observation of silence, prayer schedules and contents, food and clothing allowances for the monks … even sleeping arrangements. The tone of the Rule is, on one hand, stern and regimentarian, especially where it enforces the rules of discipline, silence and poverty. Benedict is adamant, for example, that “murmuring” be dealt with swiftly and sternly:
Above all, let not the evil of murmuring appear in the least word or sign for any reason whatever. If anyone be found guilty herein, let him be placed under very severe discipline.
Other parts of the Rule are compassionate and forgiving; it acknowledges the rigours and hardship of the monastic life and offers advice to the abbott about how and when to be gentle with the brothers.
And let [the Abbott] follow the loving example of the Good Shepherd, who … went to seek the one sheep that had gone astray, on whose weakness He had such pity, that He was pleased to lay it on His sacred shoulders and thus carry it back to the fold.
The Rule’s enduring legacy has been attributed to the fact that it provides a moderate path between individual zeal and other overly institutional strictures of asceticism. Charlemagne liked it so much he had it copied and distributed throughout Europe to be used as a standard. It also incorporated a degree of democracy and dignified manual labor.
For my own purposes, the Rule of St. Benedict offers the best glimpse of how my medieval monks lived their lives, whether they were Benedictines or Cistercians. All of them, full initiates or lay brothers, were intimately familiar with the Rule, as they listened to segments being read to them in the Chapter House and in the Refectory as they ate their meagre meals. The Rule informed every moment of their lives — their work, their prayers, their worldly and spiritual views.
I’ve added a rather cool feature to this blog (well, I think it’s cool). “In the Chapter House,” located at the top of the right sidebar on each page, displays a different quote from the Rule each time the page is opened or refreshed. The “Next Quote” button underneath the excerpt allows you to cycle through all the quotations I’ve entered. Moving through all of the excerpts offers some great insights into the lives of medieval monks … not to mention the challenges and travails of my own monks.
Have you been murmuring, brother? Don’t you think you’d best be off to vespers?