The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Forty-Three, What Will Happen if You (a Medieval Monk) Are Late

While Chapters Twenty-Three through Thirty in The Rule of Saint Benedict gives instructions on how to handle a monk’s grave faults, Chapters Forty-Three through Forty-Six deal with minor faults. Due to the chapter’s length, today I am only going to be discussing Chapter Forty-Three. I will discuss the other chapters at a later time as they are much shorter. (Forty-Four through Forty-Six make up approximately the same length as Forty-Three.)

The title is “Of those who come Late to the Work of God, or to Table” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58) and unlike the chapter on silence after Compline, this part of the text actually discusses what the chapter title says!

 

Harley MS 5431 f.70v chap. 43 of the rule of st benedict
The Beginning of Chapter Forty-Three in a Medieval Manuscript  | Harley MS 5431 f.70v | Source: The British Library

 

Saint Benedict starts off by instructing his monkish reader that “as soon as the signal is heard” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58) everyone is to drop what they are doing and head over to the oratory. The monks are to “hasten…with all speed” however, they need to do so “with seriousness, so that no occasion be given for levity” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58). Meaning that while a monk should hurry to Divine Office, he absolutely should not literally run to church. In Terrence G. Kardong’s translation and commentary of The Rule of Saint Benedict he explains that “monks ought to be eager to do what the Lord…requires in the moment” (pg. 354). Going to Divine Offices when called further enforces Saint Benedict’s never-ending quest for obedient monks.

The text goes on to state that “nothing…be preferred to the Work of God” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58). That being said, Kardong notes that there are some essential jobs that can’t be instantly dropped just so monks can go to church (pg. 353).

What happens if a monk puts something else before church? Especially for the Night Offices? What if a monk decides that a few more minutes of sleep won’t hurt? Then what? Luckily for him, Saint Benedict explicitly states that “the Gloria of the ninety-fourth Psalm…[is] to be said very slowly and protractedly” precisely “for this reason” (pg. 58).

But what if the monk sleeps for longer than he intended and by the time he reaches the oratory the Psalm is over? Well, late monks certainly are not allowed to “stand in his order in the choir” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58). Chapter Sixty-Three goes into this in more detail, but there is an important hierarchy in “traditional monasticism” (Kardong, pg. 355). Every monk has a place where he belongs. The fact that a late monk has to stand “last of all” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58) instead of his designated place in the hierarchy, is extremely significant punishment. However, Saint Benedict does give another option of where a late monk should go, and arguably it’s worse than just standing last in the order. If an abbot so wishes he can have a “place set apart…for the negligent” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58).

Whether he’s standing last in the choir or in the Late Monk Area of the church, the monk is there so “he may be seen…by all” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58). The text goes on to stress that is so a monk can make “satisfaction by public penance” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58) Saint Benedict argues that a bit of “shame” is “fitting for them” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58). After all, everyone else was able to make it to church on time. The late monk should “do what is necessary to regain a place in the good graces of God and the community” (Kardong, pg. 356).

It is vital that monks are allowed in the oratory during services no matter how late they are. Otherwise, they risk falling deep into sin:

“For, if they were to remain outside the Oratory, someone perchance would return to his place and go to sleep, or at all events would sit down outside, and give himself to idle talk, and thus an occasion would be given to the evil one.”

(Saint Benedict, pgs. 58-59)

To prevent this from happening, Saint Benedict insists on allowing latecomers to join the services. Even if a monk misses the first half, he doesn’t have to “lose the whole” (Saint Benedict, pg. 59). Besides, he can always make “amend for the future” (Saint Benedict, pg. 59). This is a lovely little snippet that reminds modern readers that medieval monks aren’t so different from us today. Even in the past, people indulged in oversleeping, sitting down where you aren’t supposed to, and spreading some juicy gossip.

As for day Hours, the rules are pretty much the same. They still have to sit last in place/in the late monk seats and they have to do penance later. That being said, there is one key difference between treating latecomers to day and night services. If a monk is late in the day he should “not presume to join with the choir…until he hath made satisfaction” (Saint Benedict, pg. 59). The text does not mention this punishment for night Hours.

However, there is an exception. (And if you have been keeping up with my analysis of The Rule of Saint Benedict I’m sure you’ve already guessed what it is!) A late monk is allowed to join in with the singing if “the Abbot shall permit him so to do” (Saint Benedict, pg. 59). (There are so many instances of the abbot being permitted to bend the rules that I’m going to start referring to this phenomenon as ‘The Abbot Exception.’) According to Kardong, this allowance would be communicated “by a nod of the head or some sign” (pg. 358). But just because the monk is given permission to sing, it doesn’t mean that he won’t “afterwards do penance” (Saint Benedict, pg. 59). 

So we’ve gone over what will happen if a monk is late to church. What happens if he’s late for a meal? (Late here meaning missing the verse and prayers with everyone else.) At first, nothing will happen. He will “be once or twice corrected” (Saint Benedict, pg. 59). If his tardiness becomes a reoccurring pattern that’s when things get serious. (But not as serious as it is in Chapter Twenty-Four when he had to wait three hours after everyone else ate!) A late monk is banned from the “common table,” has to eat alone, and doesn’t get his share of wine (Saint Benedict, pg. 59). Being banned from the common table might either mean not sitting in the refectory at all or in the refectory but separated from the other monks (Kardong, pg. 359). A monk who misses out on the ending prayers gets the same punishment. Sharing a meal together is supposed to be a community event (Kardong, pg. 359). And it can’t be a community event if no one shows up at the proper time. 

In the last couple of lines, Saint Benedict bans taking “food or drink before or after the appointed hour” (Saint Benedict, pg. 59). There are designated mealtimes for a reason and monks have to stick to them. Unless of course the monk is given an Abbot Exception. If a monk is doing “hard work” or is in the “summer heat” (Kardong, pg. 360) he’s going to need a bit of nourishment to hold him over. What happens is he refuses the snack at first but changes his mind later? Well, “he shall receive nothing…until he hath made proper satisfaction” (Saint Benedict, pg. 59). 

Or in other words, tough luck monk.

 

 

Main Sources:

  • Saint Benedict. Blair, D. Oswald Hunter, translator. The Rule of Saint Benedict, With Explanatory Notes. Ichthus Publications.

(I bought my copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict on Amazon. You can purchase my edition of it here.)

  • Terrence G. Kardong, OSB. Benedict’s Rule: A Translation and Commentary. Liturgical Press, 1996. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/book/46804.

(You can access it for free on Project MUSE during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Other Sources:

Wikipedia’s overview of The Rule of Saint Benedict to double-check my interpretations of the text. Link to that article here.