The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Two, How to be a Good Abbot

The second chapter of The Rule of Saint Benedict covers “What Kind of Man the Abbot ought to be” (pg. 16). The abbot is in charge of the monastery and all the people who live in it. As The Rule is both a guide on how to be a good holy monk as well as how to actually run a monastery effectively, finding an abbot who knows what he is doing is extremely important. After all, without a competent leader, a community can and often will fall into chaos. (And this applies not only to monasteries but any other community of people as well!) Saint Benedict was an abbot himself, so while his opinion on what makes a good abbot might be a bit biased, he does know what he’s talking about. He is considered the founder of Western Christian monasticism for a reason!

 

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A carving of Saint Benedict of Nursia | Source: Wikipedia

 

Saint Benedict’s guide on being an abbot is partially practical instructions and partially fearmongering. The chapter starts off with Saint Benedict reminding the reader that the abbot should always remember his place. He is supposed to “hold the place of Christ in the monastery” so he should “correspond to his name of superior by his deeds” (pg. 16). This means that the abbot should never “teach, or ordain, or command anything contrary to the law of the LORD” (pg. 16). The abbot is his flock’s primary example on how to act so he should behave accordingly. If he doesn’t, he will face the consequences in the afterlife. There God will judge him based on “his own teaching and…the obedience of his disciples” (pg. 16).

But what happens if an abbot tries his best, is holy and good, and his monks still misbehave? Well, all is not lost. God will certainly take the abbot’s effort into consideration. As long as the abbot “bestowed all pastoral diligence” and “employed all his care” into fixing his “corrupt” monks then he will be “absolved” (pg. 16). His monks, however, will not be. They will receive “the punishment of death” (pg. 17). Instead of getting into Heaven like their abbot will, they will not. This is a great example of the practicalness of The Rule. Saint Benedict acknowledges that even if an abbot is holy and good that does not mean his monks will follow his example. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

What if your monks aren’t necessarily bad, but just sort of stubborn? What can you do to prevent your monks from receiving eternal damnation? What can you do to encourage them to be good? Well, Saint Benedict recommends “a two-fold teaching” (pg. 17). He should tell “the intelligent among his disciples” and show “the hard-hearted and the simple-minded” how to act properly. In short, an abbot’s actions speak louder than his words. If he doesn’t practice what he preaches then he is a hypocrite. And no one is going to listen to a hypocrite, especially God. This hypocrisy also runs the risk of sowing discord among his monks.

 

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Abbot addressing monk | BL Royal 10 E IV, f. 249 | Source: Picryl.com

 

Hypocrisy isn’t the only way tensions may arise as a direct result of an abbot’s behavior. Saint Benedict stresses that it is extremely important to treat everyone in the monastery equally. An abbot shouldn’t “let…one be loved more than another” (pg. 17). Not even if a monk is “of noble birth” while another monk was “formerly a slave” (pg. 17). Everyone needs to be valued at the same amount. After all, “we are all one in Christ” (pg. 17). That being said, there is a minor exception to this particular rule: The only time the abbot can show some favoritism is if the monk is “found to excel in good works or in obedience” (pg. 17).

How should an abbot act if a monk isn’t excelling in good works or in obedience? Well, it depends on the circumstance. If a monk with a “good disposition and understanding” does something wrong an abbot “for the first or second time, correct only with words” (pg. 18). But if the monk is “froward and hard of heart, and proud, or disobedient” the abbot must be much harsher in his punishment. Saint Benedict recommends “chastis[ing] with bodily stripes at the very first offense” (pg. 18). Saint Benedict argues that ‘”The fool is not corrected with words” (pg. 18), so why bother talking to them about what they did wrong?

To prevent his monks from misbehaving in the first place, an abbot needs to show “the rigor of a master” as well as “the loving affection of a father” (pg. 18). He should “rebuke the undisciplined and restless” and “exhort the obedient, mild, and patient to advance in virtue” (pg. 18). To put it simply, an abbot needs to reward good behavior and punish bad ones. That also means that he shouldn’t turn a blind eye when monks do act up. Instead of ignoring misdeeds, “as soon as they appear, let him strive with all his might to root them out” (pg. 18).

 

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Abbot blessing monks | BL Royal 10 E IV, f. 224v | Source: Picryl.com

 

When running his monastery and disciplining the monks an abbot “ought always to remember what he is” (pg. 18). He is in charge of his flock, thus he must “[adapt] himself to many dispositions” (pg. 18). What works with one monk punishment wise might not work with another one:

“Let him so accommodate and suit himself to the character and intelligence of each, winning some by kindness, others by reproof, others by persuasion, that he may not only suffer no loss in the flock committed to him, but may even rejoice in their virtuous increase.” (pg. 18)

Saint Benedict ends this chapter by going into further detail with what he said in the beginning. An abbot shouldn’t concentrate too much on “fleeting, earthly, and perishable things” (pg. 18). He is in charge of and responsible for his monks’ souls, thus he should act like it. By saving these souls, “he will be himself cured of his own defects” (pg. 19).

 

Main Source:

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

(I bought my copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict on Amazon. You can find the book I’m reading here.)

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.

 

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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.)

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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.)