Saturday, 25 January 2014

A Few Comments on the Rule of St Benedict

The Rule of St Benedict is one of the foundational texts of Western monasticism, and at only 70 pages long, I decided to give it a read. It is certainly insightful!

A few things struck me: first, I was reminded of the developed system of bishops and priests, something which my Protestant background keeps forgetting. Of course, bishops and priests are from the apostolic age, but the power and respect accorded to them is still surprising. Similarly, the Divine Office is already in full kick, and the liturgical calendar is well established also. Once again, as John Henry Newman remarked a couple of centuries ago, to be immersed in history is to cease to be Protestant. The ancient Church, at least in the West, is the Catholic Church.

At times, I was surprised by the emphasis on personal holiness and how it was to be attained - for whilst the rule has many Scripture quotations, I had never made a very strong connection between asceticism within the biblical corpus and holiness. The emphasis on punishment and obedience is probably more monastic than strictly biblical, however.

The passion St Benedict has for holy monasteries comes out frequently - the abbot is to be obeyed in everything, and yet the abbot is not the self-made leader, but the loving shepherd who will have to give an account to God for the state of his sheeps. He has a certain (amusing) disdain for other sorts of monks, as can be seen in the first chapter, where he shows he has no fondness for sarabaites or gyrovagues. The emphasis on loving relationships within the confines of the strictness of the rules gives for an interesting interplay, and I am curious as to how well it worked in practice.

There are a few sections which made me laugh, simply because of how seriously they described these matters, and I'll end by quoting them:

Chapter 22How the Monks Are to Sleep

"Let the brethren sleep singly, each in a separate bed. Let them receive the bedding befitting their mode of life, according to the direction of their Abbot. If it can be done, let all sleep in one apartment; but if the number doth not allow it, let them sleep in tens or twenties with the seniors who have charge of them. Let a light be kept burning constantly in the cell till morning.

Let them sleep clothed and girded with cinctures or cords, that they may be always ready; but let them not have knives at their sides whilst they sleep, lest perchance the sleeping be wounded in their dreams; and the sign having been given, rising without delay, let them hasten to outstrip each other to the Work of God, yet with all gravity and decorum. The younger brothers should not have their beds next to each other, but interspersed among those of the seniors. On arising for the Work of God, they will quietly encourage each other, for the sleepy like to make excuses."

Chapter 40: Of the Quantity of Drink

""Every one hath his proper gift from God, one after this manner and another after that" (1 Cor 7:7). It is with some hesitation, therefore, that we determine the measure of nourishment for others. However, making allowance for the weakness of the infirm, we think one hemina of wine a day is sufficient for each one. But to whom God granteth the endurance of abstinence, let them know that they will have their special reward. If the circumstances of the place, or the work, or the summer's heat should require more, let that depend on the judgment of the Superior, who must above all things see to it, that excess or drunkenness do not creep in.

Although we read that wine is not at all proper for monks, yet, because monks in our times cannot be persuaded of this, let us agree to this, at least, that we do not drink to satiety, but sparingly; because "wine maketh even wise men fall off" (Sir 19:2). But where the poverty of the place will not permit the aforesaid measure to be had, but much less, or none at all, let those who live there bless God and murmur not. This we charge above all things, that they live without murmuring."

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