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-from-bl-royal-10-e-iv-f-118v-68755f
Monk leading hermit | BL Royal 10 E IV, f. 118v | Source: Picryl.com

 

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.)