St. Benedict wrote his Rule for Monks in the sixth century. Little could he have imagined that his Latin text would not only be translated into practically every language, but also that his guidance would remain the foundational text for monastic life and practice some 1,500 years later.
The Rule is essential to a monastic community’s – and an individual monastic’s – understanding of their vocation. The Rule offers not only a general philosophy of the cenobitic life, but also many of the specific ways and means Benedict considered essential for a community of monastics – a group always composed of different ages, backgrounds, temperaments, and talents – to live, pray, and work together in harmony.
Hence readers of the Rule – and more importantly, its practitioners – will find not only directives on humility, obedience, and silence, but also on the specific psalms to be said in choir, the qualities and attitudes of monastic officials, and safeguards for claustral peace and fraternal respect.
Studied especially in the first years of monastic formation, each chapter of the Rule is also read in most monasteries three times a year so that, as Benedict writes in his 66th chapter, “none of the brothers may make the excuse of ignorance.” Indeed, monastics celebrating a golden jubilee or beyond will have heard the Rule read publicly approaching some 200 times.
The Rule certainly urges monastics on to high ideals, but part of the genius of Benedict is that it also reflects a keen sense of human limitations. An example of the former we find in Chapter 4, in which Benedict specifies 73 “Tools of Good Works,” instruments that should be found and used daily in the monastic workshop.
We come across a delightful example of the latter in Chapter 40 as Benedict both expresses the ideal but also acknowledges the reality, writing that “although we read that wine is altogether not for monks, it is, however, impossible in our times to persuade monks of this. So let us at least agree to this: we should not drink to excess but more sparingly.”
Not only has the Rule, as noted, been translated into virtually every language, but many individual translations in each of those languages have been catalogued. Indeed, probably not too many years pass without another scholar, commentator, or linguist attempting in different words and phrasings to express the latest finds in monastic research. This is most appropriate since there are many who consult the Rule as the primary guide or as a supplement to their vocation as monastics, oblates, clergy, and “ordinary” lay men and women.
The longest chapter in the Rule is Chapter 7, in which Benedict lays out the “seven degrees of humility.” He would indeed have been humbled – no doubt also pleased – to have known of his influence upon so many communities and individuals over so many centuries.
Rt. Rev. Kurt Stasiak, OSB
Archabbot, Saint Meinrad Archabbey