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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)