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7 Ways St. Benedict’s Rule penetrates the human psychology and spirit

St. Benedict's Rule

Public Domain

Thomas Salerno - published on 05/20/21

It's 1,500 years old, but full of ideas that can help us today.

The Rule of St. Benedict was composed over 1,500 years ago by St. Benedict of Nursia, considered to be the father of Western monasticism. While the strictures of the Rule could at times seem harsh or even unreasonable to contemporary readers, they actually illuminate timeless spiritual principles that can be of immense value today.

1Spirit of service

The Rule stresses again and again the importance of obedience and service. “Obedience is a blessing to be shown by all, not only to the abbot but also to one another as brothers, since we know that it is by this way of obedience that we go to God.” This principle is clearly meant to be in imitation of Christ, who said of himself that “the Son of man came not to be served but to serve.” (Matthew 20:28) Many of us are self-willed and jealous of our own time. The Rule recognizes this fact of human psychology and comments that, “obedience, however, will be acceptable to God and agreeable to men only if compliance with what is commanded is not cringing or sluggish or halfhearted, but free from any grumbling or any reaction of unwillingness.”

2Moderation in speech

The Rule is unequivocal in its proscriptions regarding speech. “Guard your lips from harmful or deceptive speech. Prefer moderation in speech and speak no foolish chatter, nothing to provoke laughter; do not love immoderate or boisterous laughter.” This may seem strict, but the point is to condemn vulgarity and gossip. How much of our speech today is of that kind? All you have to do is turn on the television or scroll through social media to see the answer for yourself.

3Discipline in prayer

Inspired by the Scripture passage “Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous ordinances,” (Psalm 119:164) the Rule details how the monks should gather for communal prayer seven times each day. This cycle is known as the Liturgy of the Hours or Divine Office. While the lay faithful are not bound to keep the Divine Office, every Christian should be disciplined in the practice of daily prayer. Morning and evening prayers or a daily Rosary are common devotions. No matter your what your personal prayer routine, consistency is important.

4Simplicity of life

The Rule stipulates that the monks, having taken vows of poverty, are to eschew personal possessions. “Without an order from the abbot, no one may presume to give, receive or retain anything as his own, nothing at all – not a book, writing tablets or stylus – in short, not a single item.” All goods were to be held in common by the monastic community. For lay persons living in the world, such radical poverty is not practical or prudent. However, all Christians can strive to cultivate a holy detachment from material goods, living simply with fewer extraneous possessions. 

5Temperance in Food and Drink

The Rule requires the monks to fast at certain times of the year and to regularly abstain from meat. Wine is to be drunk only in moderation. Even when not fasting, the monks’ meals are to be frugal, except during times of particularly strenuous work. Further, the Rule specifies that “no one is to presume to eat or drink before or after the time appointed.” Temperance in food and drink is important not only for health reasons but as a spiritual practice. Also, for Christians, fasting is an opportunity to imitate Christ, who fasted for 40 days in the desert before beginning his public ministry. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, and we should treat them as such. The Rule admonishes that “nothing is so inconsistent with the life of any Christian as overindulgence.” 

6Zeal for Christ

One of the last chapters in the Rule urges the monks to practice “good zeal” saying, “Let them prefer nothing to Christ, and may he bring all of us together to everlasting life.” When our lives are centered on Jesus Christ, everything else is placed in its proper perspective. 

7Lifelong Learning

It turns out that St. Benedict actually intended his Rule for beginners! The final chapter of the Rule stresses that keeping these ordinances are only the first steps on the road to spiritual perfection. Luckily, the Rule lays out a program for lifelong learning. First, study the Bible: “What page, what passage of the inspired books of the Old and New Testaments is not the truest guides for human life?” Second, read the Church Fathers and the Doctors of the Church: “What book of the holy catholic Fathers does not resoundingly summon us along the true way to reach the Creator?” This continuing education is not for its own sake, however, but is intended to help us as we strive to grow in virtue, holiness, and friendship with Jesus Christ.

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