The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter One, Why Cenobites Are the Best Type of Monks and Why the Others Are Terrible (According to Saint Benedict)

Today I will continue my analysis of The Rule of Saint Benedict. In this post, I want to focus on Chapter One of The Rule. Each of the chapters in The Rule is titled according to what it is about. This chapter is appropriately titled “Of the Several Kinds of Monks and their way of Life” (pg. 15). Needless to say, Saint Benedict spends this chapter describing the types of monks that exist during the time he’s writing. However, not all of these categories are equal in the saint’s eyes!

Who are the different kinds of monks? Saint Benedict categorizes them in the ways they operate, not their orders. The types of monks Saint Benedict describes are the Cenobites, the Anchorites/Hermits, the Sarabites, and the Girovagi. Each group worships God in their own way.


Monk leading hermit | BL Royal 10 E IV, f. 118v | Source:


Saint Benedict defines the Cenobites as “those in monasteries, who live under a rule or an Abbot” (pg. 15). This is the most description the Cenobites get in chapter one. Well, until the end when Saint Benedict makes his favoritism really known. He ends the chapter by calling the Cenobites “the strongest kind of monks” (pg. 16). A footnote in my copy of The Rule clarifies that the Latin words Saint Benedict uses are fortissimum genus. While fortissimum does mean “strongest” in Latin, he’s not exactly calling Cenobites the strongest monks. Instead, there is an implication that “cenobitical life consists in the perpetual and absolute submission to the will of another which that life entails” (pg. 16). This is certainly appropriate as Saint Benedict wants the Cenobites to follow and not stray from The Rule. In fact, The Rule was written specifically for Cenobites!

The Anchorites/Hermits are the second kind of monk. As the word hermit suggests, these monks go out into the wild to pray and worship on their own. However, not just anyone is allowed to be an Anchorite or a Hermit. Saint Benedict says that you cannot be “in the first fervor of religious life” (pg. 15) if you want to be one. It is only after a “long probation in the monastery” (pg. 15) will you be allowed to go out on your own. After all, going out by yourself “to fight against the devil” is not a great idea as you will be “without the support of others” (pg. 15). Even Christ was tempted by the devil when he was alone. If you are to be a hermit it’s vital for you to be able “to fight by the strength of their own arm” (pg. 15). Thus, if you are new to the monastic life you won’t have the tools you need to fight temptation. And the only way to gain these tools is “by the help and experience of many” (pg. 15).

The Sarabites are the third type of monk. Saint Benedict is not exactly fond of them. He describes them as the “most baneful kind of monk” (pg. 15). Sarabites have no abbot to rule them, nor do they have a community to support them. Instead, they go out “in twos or threes, or even singly, without a shepherd” (pg. 15). Because they aren’t part of a larger community, Saint Benedict claims that they are “shut up, not in the LORD’s sheepfolds, but in their own” (pg. 15). He also describes them as follows:

“Whatever they think fit or choose to do, they call that holy; and what they like not, that they consider unlawful” (pg. 15).

Saint Benedict lacks some self-awareness here as he’s basically doing the same thing with The Rule. Anyone who doesn’t follow it is unlawful and disobedient.

But if you think Saint Benedict hates Sarabites, he really hates Girovagi. Girovagi spend their lives “wandering” (pg. 15) and don’t stay in the same place for very long. They have “no stability” and they have “given up to their own pleasures and to the snares of gluttony” (pg. 15). Saint Benedict describes them as being “worse in all things than the Sarabites” (pg. 15). He hates them so much that he won’t go into further detail about them, saying that “it is better to say nothing than to speak” (pg. 15).


Main Source:

The Rule of Saint Benedict, With Explanatory Notes. Ichthus Publications.

(I bought my copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict on Amazon. A link to that is here.)

The Rule of St. Benedict: The Preface and Why You (the Monk Reading this Text) Should Actually Follow The Rule

I want to take a little bit of a break from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. For the next few weeks, I want to concentrate on The Rule of St. Benedict. The Rule is a fascinating primary source, documenting not only how monks (Benedictine monks at least) were supposed to live, but also documenting common problems within monasteries. Saint Benedict was obviously concerned with the way his monks were conducting themselves (why would he write a book about it otherwise?) and The Rule lets readers see his concerns. The text lets us travel back in time to a different culture and observe that culture’s worries about proper behavior. Or at the very least, it allows us to see a powerful man’s worries about proper behavior.


St. Benedict delivering his rule to the monks of his order | Source: Wikipedia


When reading The Rule, it’s important to keep in mind not every monk followed every rule all the time. I think popular culture has two ways of seeing monks: as perfect, holy men or as lecherous drunkards. The lecherous drunk monk was certainly a popular stereotype in the Middle Ages! There are many stories (both historical and fictional) about monks misbehaving. (Chaucer’s monk in The Canterbury Tales is a good example.) However, life isn’t black and white. Saint Benedict is aware that good monks may stray and bad monks have the ability to better themselves. This is the reason he wrote The Rule. (At least, this is the reason he explicitly tells his reader.)

The Rule is an extremely short text, but not counting the preface, it has seventy-three chapters.  Each chapter covers a different topic. All of these topics cover just about every aspect of monastic life. Today I want to talk about the preface in particular.

I believe Saint Benedict is aware that suddenly springing a bunch of new rules on people who haven’t had to follow them before is a bad idea because he spends the preface telling his reader (presumably a monk) why he should follow these new rules. Throughout the preface, Saint Benedict uses textual evidence in the form of biblical quotes. The preface is written similarly to a persuasive essay one learns how to write in high school. That’s not to say that it’s badly written. I simply find it fascinating that even fifteen hundred years later the formula for writing persuasive essays has not changed.

Our first paragraph is a literal introductory paragraph. Saint Benedict literally introduces himself to his monkish reader, referring to himself as “thy Master” and “thy loving Father” (pg. xi). By using these terms, Saint Benedict is reminding the reader that he is both in charge but he also wants to be kind. Saint Benedict acknowledges that his intended audience hasn’t been behaving properly, but the monk isn’t doomed (yet). There is still time for him to change and “thou mayest return by the labor of obedience to Him from whom thou hadst departed through the sloth of disobedience” (pg. xi). Saint Benedict gently reminds his reader that God isn’t “an angry father” who will “disinherit His children” (pg. xi). As long as the monks behave themselves, they can and will be saved from “everlasting punishment” (pg. xi). Essentially the first paragraph includes quite a bit of fear-mongering.


Part of an 8th-century copy of The Rule of St. Benedict | MS. Hatton 48 fol. 6v-7r | Source: Wikipedia


Despite this fear-mongering, Saint Benedict does offer his monkish reader a chance to save himself in the second paragraph. Here, Saint Benedict talks about how people can be saved by reading and following the bible:

“Let us then at length arise, since the Scripture stirreth us up, saying ‘It is time now for us to rise from sleep'” (pg. xi).

By talking about the “deifying light” (pg. xi) of the bible, Saint Benedict is indirectly making a reference to his own work. The Rule was intended to make the reader aware of how they should behave. Thus, they are coming out of the darkness of ignorance and into the light of knowledge. Even though Saint Benedict does not directly say that The Rule is like the bible (blasphemy!), the implication is clear. Saint Benedict wants his monks to ‘”harden not [their] hearts”‘(pg. xi) but listen to what he has to say.

In the third paragraph of the preface, Saint Benedict continues his argument on why the monks should follow The Rule. Here the saint quotes God again, saying that “God saith to thee: ‘…Turn from evil, and do good; seek peace and pursue it”‘ (pg. xii). It’s only after the monks follow God’s instructions of being good will God’s ‘”eyes…be upon you, and [God’s] ears will be open to your prayers”‘ (pg. xii). Saint Benedict goes on to argue that nothing “can be sweeter to us” than God “inviting” (pg. xii) his followers. Because The Rule is Saint Benedict showing his monks how to behave properly, he is once again implying that his work is the word of God.

The fourth paragraph is very similar to the previous ones in the sense that God wants his followers to be good. However, Saint Benedict does lightly return to fear-mongering. He reminds his monks that the only way to reach Heaven is by doing “good deeds” (pg. xii). That being said, it is important for the reader to remember not to get “puffed up with their own good works” (pg. xii). Basically, Saint Benedict doesn’t want his followers to become self-righteous because they are doing good.

After all, you should be good for the sake of being good (and to get into Heaven). You shouldn’t be good just so you can brag about it. (A good modern-day example of this are the people who film themselves giving things to homeless people or those who post about it on social media.) To prevent his readers from getting too big for their britches, Saint Benedict tells them that “good which is in them cometh not from themselves but from the LORD” (pg. xii). While I don’t necessarily agree with this sentiment, (I think people can be good on their own) I understand why Saint Benedict would tell people this.  People who are good just for the clout (for lack of a better term) aren’t really being good at all. Also, original sin.


My own copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict | Source: Viktor Athelstan


The fifth paragraph can be summed up with this quote:

“And the LORD in fulfillment of these His words is waiting daily for us to respond by our deeds to His holy admonitions. Therefore are the days of our life lengthened for the amendment of our evil ways” (pg. xiii).

The sixth paragraph continues to remind the readers that they must be obedient to God.   They must ask God “to supply by the help of His grace what by nature is not possible to us” (pg. xiii). This is another reference to original sin. Despite Saint Benedict’s belief that humans cannot be good on their own and that his monks have been very disobedient, “there is still yet time” (pg. xiii) for them to change their ways. As long as you “are still in the flesh”  you can still save your soul from “the pains of hell” (pg. xiii). This can be done by being good and obedient to God. 

In the seventh and final paragraph, Saint Benedict ends the preface like he began it: being self-aware that a bunch of new rules isn’t going to go over well at first. He tells his monkish reader that he hopes “to order nothing that is harsh or rigorous” and to follow The Rule “according to the dictates of sound reason” (pg. xiii). But he also reminds them that changing ingrained behaviors “cannot but be strait and difficult” (pg. xiii), especially at first. His readers should not “fly in dismay from the way of salvation” (pg. xiii). Instead, the readers should “share in the sufferings of Christ” (pg. xiii). After all, the best way to get into Heaven is by acting as Christ did. 


Main Source:

The Rule of Saint Benedict, With Explanatory Notes. Ichthus Publications.

(I bought my copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict on Amazon. A link to that is here.)


Augustine of Canterbury’s Ninth Question to Gregory the Great: Communion, Mass, and Sexual Dreams

For the past few weeks, I’ve been writing about Augustine of Canterbury’s letter to Pope Gregory the Great as documented in Bede’s An Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Today will be my last post about this letter as we’ve reached the final question:

IX. Augustine’s ninth question: May a man receive communion after a sexual illusion in a dream; or, if a priest, may he celebrate the holy mysteries? (Bede, pg. 81)


Devil tempting a sleeping monk | British Library Royal 10 E IV f. 221 | Source:


Like Gregory’s other answers to Augustine, this question also has several answers depending on the surrounding circumstances. Gregory tells Augustine that the cause of these dreams is the result of three types of actions: “over-eating…excess or lack of bodily vigour [sic], and…impure thoughts” (pg. 82). If the dream is the result of “bodily vigour [sic]” (pg. 82) then “it need not be feared”(pg. 82). Gregory says people shouldn’t worry about it because it’s not something that the person directly caused. Instead, these dreams are something that just kind of happens in the mind. However, this is not the case for the other two actions.

If the sexual dream was caused by gluttony then things should be taken a bit more seriously. Gregory says that “a greedy appetite” has the power to “run riot and overloads the repositories of the bodily fluids” and as a result, “the mind is to blame” (pg. 82). Even though Gregory has no problem saying that the priest caused these dreams because of his gluttony, he also tells Augustine that the priest is still allowed to say masses on feast days and “administer the sacrament” (pg. 82) if there are no other priests around to do it for him. However, Gregory does wish that the priest would be moved by “humility” and “refrain from offering the holy mysteries under these circumstances” (pg. 82). 


Communion of the newly ordained priests | BL YT 24, f. 76 | Source:


Interestingly, the priest can still receive communion as long as he hasn’t “been excited by impure thoughts” (pg. 82). Gregory goes on to explain that while some people have these sexual dreams they “are not mentally disturbed” (pg. 82) by them. He argues that even though the brain “remembers nothing that occurs during sleep” it still remembers “greedy appetites” (pg. 82). On the sinfulness scale, Gregory considers gluttony induced lust bad, but it’s still pretty low in terms of just how terrible it really is. 

But what if a priest is having sexual dreams because they are having sexual thoughts while awake? Well, according to Gregory that’s pretty bad, but it’s important to consider how the priest reacts to it. Are these sexual thoughts merely intrusive suggestions? Does he “take pleasure in it” (pg. 83)? Or does he “assent to it” (pg. 83)? Each scenario is caused by a different thing:

“Suggestion comes through the devil, pleasure through the flesh, and consent through the will.” (pg. 83)


Monk being carried off by a herd of demons | Source:


Once the priest knows what kind of impure thought he’s been having he can figure out how to move on from there. Gregory says that even though the devil may suggest a sin, “no sin is committed unless the flesh takes pleasure in it” (pg. 83). But if a person’s body takes pleasure in this action, “sin is born” (pg. 83). That being said, Gregory argues that it’s only when “deliberate consent is given, sin is complete” (pg. 83). 


Main Source:

Bede. A History of the English Church and People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin Books, 1970.

Augustine of Canterbury’s Eighth Question to Gregory the Great, Part 2: Menstruation and Sexual Relations

Today we are still focusing on Augustine of Canterbury’s letter to Pope Gregory, as documented in Bede’s An Ecclesiastical History of the English People. In my previous post,  I discussed the first half of Augustine’s eighth question to Gregory. As the question is extremely long (as well as Gregory’s answer), I am going to focus on the second half, starting with Augustine’s questions regarding menstruation. Here is the question in its entirety:

“VIII. Augustine’s eighth question: May an expectant mother be baptized? How soon after childbirth may she enter church? And how soon after birth may a child be baptized if in danger of death? How soon after child-birth may a husband have relations with his wife? And may a woman properly enter church a the time of menstruation? And may she receive Communion at these times? And may a man enter church after relations with his wife before he has washed? Or receive the sacred mystery of Communion? These uncouth English people require guidance on all these matters.” (Bede, pg. 76-77)

Despite Gregory’s opinions on breastfeeding, his opinions on menstruation are a bit more progressive. (Some of them, anyway.) Gregory tells Augustine that “the Old Law prescribed death for any man who approached a woman” (Bede, pg. 78) while she was menstruating. That being said, Gregory also argues that a person “should not be forbidden to enter church during these times” (Bede, pg. 78). His logic for this is the same reason why people should be allowed to enter a church after they give birth:

“[F]or the workings of nature cannot be considered culpable, and it is not just that she should be refused admittance, since her condition is beyond her control.” (Bede, pg. 78)


Christ healing a bleeding woman | Source: Wikipedia


Gregory reminds Augustine that Christ healed a woman who “suffered an issue of blood” (Bede, pg. 78) and if that woman was allowed to touch Christ, why shouldn’t someone who is menstruating not be allowed to go to church? And why should they “be forbidden to receive…Communion at these times” (Bede, pg. 79)? They aren’t doing anything “blameworthy” (Bede, pg. 79). After all, “the monthly courses of women are no fault, because nature causes them” (Bede, pg. 79). I find Pope Gregory’s acceptance of menstruating people into church particularly noteworthy because this wasn’t the case for all religions. For example, in a Jewish text “written in Palestine or Italy in the ninth or tenth century, a menstruating woman was forbidden to enter a synagogue, to come into contact with sacred books, to pray, or to recite God’s name” (Baskin, pg. 45). While it’s unfortunate that people might be forbidden to worship purely because they are menstruating, I understand why this might be the case before the invention of tampons or adhesive sanitary napkins. 

That being said, if a menstruating person chooses not to receive communion “out of a deep sense of reverence” (Bede, pg. 79), Gregory considers this “commendable” (Bede, pg. 79). However, at the end of the day, Gregory stresses to Augustine that “how can a woman who endures the laws of nature with a pure mind be considered impure?” (Bede, pg. 79).



Luxury and Lust: a couple of lovers; an old man reading, approached by a devil | Source:


Speaking of pure minds, Gregory moves on to impure ones when he answers Augustine’s question regarding men entering church after having relations with their wives. Right off the bat Gregory says that “it is not fitting” (Bede, pg. 79) for a man to come to church if he hasn’t washed or if he has. Gregory then clarifies that it’s not physical impurities that he’s particularly worried about, but spiritual ones. Gregory doesn’t regard men “as fitted to join in Christian worship until these heated desires cool in the mind” (Bede, pg. 80). He also wants men to think this way about themselves. After all, how can one worship God properly if they are still thinking about “wrongful passions” (Bede, pg. 80)?

The answer is that you can’t.


Harley 1527 f.104v
Babies being baptized | BL Harley 1527, f. 104v | Source:


However, like the rest of Augustine’s questions concerning sex and the human body, there are exceptions to the rule. Gregory is pretty clear with regards to when and why (married!) people should have sex:

“Lawful intercourse should be for the procreation of offspring, and not for mere pleasure; to obtain children, and not to satisfy lust.” (Bede, pg. 81)

So if you are a man who has had relations with your wife before you attend church, why did you do it? Was it strictly for pleasure? Or were you and your spouse trying to conceive? If you were strictly motivated “by a desire for children” (Bede, pg. 81), Gregory says that “he is to be left to his own judgement [sic]” on whether or not you should attend mass or receive communion. Similar to the choice a menstruating person must make in regards to worshipping, Gregory thinks that it is up to you as long as your intentions are pure.


Main Source:

Bede. A History of the English Church and People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin Books, 1970.

Other Sources:

Baskin, Judith. “Jewish Traditions About Women and Gender Roles: From Rabbinic Teachings to Medieval Practice.” The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe, edited by Judith Bennett and Ruth Karras, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 36–49.