Essay / Theology

Remembering Benedict of Nursia

Today is the feast of Benedict of Nursia. Details of Benedict’s life come primarily from the second book of the Dialogues of Gregory the Great and from Benedict’s own Rule for Monks. Born in 480 in Nursia, just outside of Rome, Benedict was educated in Rome before adopting a life of asceticism. He spent three years living as a hermit at Subiaco before becoming abbot of a nearby monastery. In time, Benedict learned that these monks, in Gregory’s words, were “mad with anger” at Benedict for his insistence on living a well-disciplined monastic life. After an attempt on his life, Benedict returned to his hermitage at Subiaco where he was soon joined by numerous disciples, organizing them into twelve monasteries. After this, Benedict retired to Monte Cassino with a number of disciples, founding there a true cenobitic monastery following his own monastic rule. Benedict died at Monte Cassino around 540 and since that time, he has garnered quite the following.

Literally thousands of monks and nuns over the past fourteen centuries have vowed to live their life according to Benedict’s rule. Even now, there are in the Roman Catholic Church’s Benedictine Confederation 21 congregations of men with approximately 8,000 monks along with 61 congregations and federations of approximately 16,000 Benedictine nuns. In addition to the Benedictine order within the Roman Catholic Church, there are also Benedictine monasteries in the Anglican Communion, the Lutheran tradition and several ecumenical Benedictine houses. Furthermore, there are many non-monastics, like myself, who strongly resonate with the Rule for Monks. This is likely the result of Benedict’s temperance in the rule. His monastic legislation is characterized by humility, an insistence on balance between prayer and manual labor and moderation. For Benedict, the monastery is a “school for the Lord’s service,” thus Benedict strove to legislate “nothing harsh, nothing burdensome” (Prologue). Furthermore, Benedict views his rule as “written for beginners,” assuming that those who desire greater discipline in the monastery will find in “the teachings of the holy Fathers, the observance of which will lead him to the very heights of perfection” (73.2), especially John Cassian and Basil of Caesarea. If you have read the rule, however, you will also recall that Benedict’s monasteries can also be places of strict adherence to liturgical and behavioral protocol, with Benedict legislating on more than one occasion that those who break some part of the rule are to be recipients of corporal punishment. Why? Because “the good of all concerned… may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and to safeguard love” (Prologue). Though we may disagree, Benedict envisioned that his strictness was good for the monks and surely, we can all use a good measure of strictness on occasion!

Regardless of any of its failures, the rule is a document loaded with commonsensical guidelines for practical Christian living. One does not need to be a monk or nun to live by the spirit of Benedict’s rule. Here are a few of my favorite passages:

In the first place, to love the Lord God with the whole heart, the whole soul, the whole strength. Then, one’s neighbor as oneself. Then the following: To deny oneself in order to follow Christ. To chastise the body. Not to become attached to pleasures. To love fasting. To relieve the poor. To visit the sick. To console the sorrowing. To prefer nothing to the love of Christ. Not to be proud. To put one’s hope in God. To keep death daily before one’s eyes. When evil thoughts come into one’s heart, to dash them against Christ immediately. To devote oneself frequently to prayer. (excerpts from Chapter 4: “The Tools for Good Works”)

The first degree of humility, then, is that a person keep the fear of God before his eyes and beware of ever forgetting it. The second degree of humility is that a person love not his own will nor take pleasure in satisfying his desires, but model his actions on the saying of the Lord, “I have come not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me” (John 6:38). The third degree of humility is that a person for love of God submit himself to his Superior in all obedience, imitating the Lord, of whom the Apostle says, “He became obedient even unto death.” The fourth degree of humility is that he hold fast to patience with a silent mind when in this obedience he meets with difficulties and contradictions and even any kind of injustice, enduring all without growing weary or running away. The fifth degree of humility is that he hide from his Abbot none of the evil thoughts that enter his heart or the sins committed in secret, but that he humbly confess them. The sixth degree of humility is that a monk be content with the poorest and worst of everything, and that in every occupation assigned him he consider himself a bad and worthless workman, saying with the Prophet, “I am brought to nothing and I am without understanding; I have become as a beast of burden before You, and I am always with You” (Ps:22-23). The seventh degree of humility is that he consider himself lower and of less account than anyone else, and this not only in verbal protestation but also with the most heartfelt inner conviction, humbling himself and saying with the Prophet, “But I am a worm and no man, the scorn of men and the outcast of the people” (Ps. 22:7). The eighth degree of humility is that a monk do nothing except what is commended by the common Rule of the monastery and the example of the elders. The ninth degree of humility is that a monk restrain his tongue and keep silence, not speaking until he is questioned. The tenth degree of humility is that he be not ready and quick to laugh, for it is written, “The fool lifts up his voice in laughter” (Eccles. 21:23). The eleventh degree of humility is that when a monk speaks he do so gently and without laughter, humbly and seriously, in few and sensible words, and that he be not noisy in his speech. The twelfth degree of humility is that a monk not only have humility in his heart but also by his very appearance make it always manifest to those who see him. (excerpts from Chapter 7: “On Humility”)

When we wish to suggest our wants to persons of high station, we do not presume to do so except with humility and reverence. How much the more, then, are complete humility and pure devotion necessary in supplication of the Lord who is God of the universe! And let us be assured that it is not in saying a great deal that we shall be heard (Matt 6:7), but in purity of heart and in tears of compunction. Our prayer, therefore, ought to be short and pure, unless it happens to be prolonged by an inspiration of divine grace. In community, however, let prayer be very short, and when the Superior gives the signal let all rise together. (Chapter 20: “On Reverence in Prayer”)

So, on this, Benedict’s feast day, let us remember this holy man of God, praying to God: God our Father, you made Benedict an outstanding guide to teach us how to live in your service. Grant that by preferring your love to everything else, we too may walk in the way of your commandments. Amen.

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