The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Forty-Seven, The Details Regarding Divine Office

Chapter Forty-Seven of The Rule of Saint Benedict is titled “Of Signifying the Hour for the Work of God” (Saint Benedict, pg. 62). This short chapter is split into two sections, each about a sentence long. The first section instructs the abbot on how he should call his monks for Divine Office (or the Work of God as Saint Benedict calls it in the chapter title). The second section explains other little practicalities that must be taken into account when singing the Divine Office.

The beginning of Chapter Forty-Seven of The Rule of Saint Benedict | Harley MS 5431 f.75r | Source: The British Library

The first section of the text begins by saying how it’s the abbot’s responsibility to call the monks for services, whether it’s day or night. Or if the abbot isn’t able to do this himself, he is to find a “careful brother” (SB, pg. 62) to do it for him. Saint Benedict stresses how important it is “that all things may be done at the appointed times” (SB, pg. 62). As The Rule of Saint Benedict was written long before the invention of alarm clocks, this may have been easier said than done!

However, Terrence G. Kardong argues that Saint Benedict isn’t really talking “about punctuality as he is about prompt response” (pg. 379). This wouldn’t be the first time Saint Benedict expects his monks to respond immediately when called. (In Chapter Forty-Three he stresses how important Divine Offices are and what happens to monks who are late.) In a time before reliable clocks, one really can’t argue whether or not they still have a few minutes before they truly need to be in a certain place. Now days you can look at your watch/phone/laptop/microwave/whatever and think, ‘Eh…I’ve got another minute before I need to go.’ But that isn’t the case for Saint Benedict’s monks. (At least not until they all got watches!) Instead, when the bells were rung (or a gong/wooden clapper was struck depending on what a monastery had) (Kardong, pg. 379) for Divine Office the monks were expected to show up when called.

The second section explains that the abbot should be the first one to begin singing the psalms and antiphons. Afterwards, the other monks can join in. But they can’t just start singing whenever they want! Instead, they are to sing “each in his order” (SB, pg. 62). Monastic communities were based on a hierarchical system. It wouldn’t be proper if someone lower in rank tried to sing before someone higher.

That isn’t the only case of Saint Benedict warning his monks to know their place in this particular chapter. He warns his monkish reader that “no one [should] presume to sing or to read” (SB, pg. 62) during Divine Office. This doesn’t refer to singing or reading in general. It refers to whoever is leading the service. However, it’s not as if an abbot would say ‘Who wants to lead today’s worship?’ as soon as everyone was at their place in the pews and monks would race to the pulpit. Monks were appointed to do so (K, pg. 380).

That being said, I find it within the realm of possibility that a monk may approach his abbot in private and request to lead the service. I can also imagine the abbot gently turning the monk down because he vastly overestimates his ability to do so in a way “that the hearers may be edified” (SB, pg. 62). After all, reading ancient manuscripts is not the easiest thing to do. Combined with the facts that the monk may not be completely literate, the prayers are in Latin—a language he may not totally understand—and the manuscripts have no punctuation (K, pg. 380), conducting services would be difficult to do without making more than a few mistakes. Again, I find it easy to imagine an over confident monk thinking he could do it successfully because he’s just started to become good at memorizing psalms. (And I’m sure we’ve all vastly overestimated our abilities to do something right, only to fail miserably. I know I have!)

Finally, this part of the text ends with this line:

“And let it be done with humility, gravity, and awe, and by those whom the Abbot hath appointed.” (SB, pg. 62).

By ending the chapter like this, Saint Benedict reminds his monks not only on how they should conduct services, but how they should act as monks in general. By being humble, serious, aware of their place before God, and by always obeying their abbot.

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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.)

(This version on Project MUSE was available to download for free in the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic. While it is no longer accessible to the general public, I’ve included a link to it in case you have access to it through a university account or some other way.)

Other Source:

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

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Forty-Six, What a Monk Should Do When He Commits a Minor Fault

Today’s chapter of The Rule of Saint Benedict is titled “Of those who Offend in any other Matters” (Saint Benedict, pg. 61). It describes what a monk should do if he does something wrong. This is the last chapter that focuses on minor faults. (I have discussed major faults here, how monks are to make satisfaction for their behavior here, and what a monk is to do when he messes up in church here.)

The Beginning of Chapter Forty Six of The Rule of Saint Benedict | Harley MS 5431 f.74r | Source: The British Library

As you can tell from the chapter title, in Chapter Forty-Six Saint Benedict explains what a monk is to do when he “commit any fault, or break or lose anything, or transgress in any other way” (SB, pg. 61). Unlike in Chapter Forty-Five, which just focuses on mistakes made in church, this part of the text is about every other place in a monastery where someone can misbehave. (Which is everywhere of course!) However Saint Benedict does give us some examples of places:

“…while at work in the kitchen or the cellar, in serving the brethren, in the bake-house or the garden, or at any other occupation or in any place whatever…” (SB, pg. 61)

In Terrence G. Kardong’s translation and commentary on The Rule of Saint Benedict, he points out how the language here is specifically used to close up any potential loopholes a monk may try to find to get himself out of trouble (Kardong, pg. 368). By being both very specific and incredibly vague, there are very few loopholes someone can find to get away with their behavior. If there are any at all!

So what is a monk to do when he does make some kind of transgression? Well, he’s certainly not supposed to hide his mistake, that’s for sure! Instead, a monk is to “come immediately before the Abbot and community” (SB, pg. 61) and confess. Though I will note that “immediately” is probably used more in a figurative sense. If a monk is working in the fields and his shovel breaks due to his carelessness it’s not exactly convenient for him to gather the entire community just to announce he broke a tool. Instead, it’s more likely Saint Benedict means that “one must wait for an opportune time, but not a time convenient to oneself” (K, pg. 369). After confessing the fault, the monk is instructed to “make satisfaction” (SB, pg. 61).

That being said, Saint Benedict is aware that not everyone is going to come forward freely and admit their mistakes. Some monks may try to hide it in hopes no one noticed or that their actions won’t be traced back to him. In case anyone thinks they can get away with this, Saint Benedict gives his monastic audience a harsh warning:

“…if [the wrongdoing] is made known by another, he shall be subjected to more severe correction.” (SB, pg. 61)

Not only will the monk be punished for his actions, but because he tried to hide it. It should be noted that at the daily chapter meetings, monks would have a chance to admit “their own faults and sometimes the faults of others” (K, pg. 369). Kardong wisely points out how it’s extremely easy for someone to go from reporting the wrongs of others to being a straight up snitch (K, pg. 369). I can imagine a petty monk falling into this habit! 

Despite the text’s harshness, Saint Benedict recognizes that not all mistakes and wrongdoings may be easy to confess to the entire community. Some wrongdoings are “hidden in [the monk’s] own soul” (SB, pg. 61). Or in other words, the bad thing he did might still just be a thought and not an action. Saint Benedict isn’t specific regarding these, but it’s easy to imagine that he could be referring to angry, jealous, mean, and lustful thoughts. (Among other negative emotions!) Because these sins have not directly affected the community but they do affect the monk’s spiritual health (K, pg. 370) it’s very important that the monk tells “it to the Abbot only, or to his spiritual seniors, who know how to heal their own wounds” (SB, pg. 61). Furthermore, it’s vital that the person whose advice is being sought “not disclose or publish those of others” (SB, pg. 61). 

Basically, Saint Benedict recommends that the monk with negative thoughts go to someone more experienced for counseling on how to deal with them and that the conversation remains private. It’s wise that Saint Benedict clarifies that a monk can go to someone other than the abbot for his problems. The abbot won’t be available at all times and he may not even be all that good at handling certain personal issues (K, pg. 370). For example, if a monk is having problems with gambling, it would be best to discuss it with a monk who grew up in the world and not an abbot who has lived in a monastery since the age of seven. And yes, there are records of medieval monks playing with dice and doing other not so holy things (Kerr, pg. 134)! It’s also wise that things are to be kept private. It would be very embarrassing if another monk blabbed to the community every little detail of Brother So and So’s struggles with lust!

 

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.)

(This version on Project MUSE was available to download for free in the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic. While it is no longer accessible to the general public, I’ve included a link to it in case you have access to it through a university account or some other way.)

Other Sources:

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

  • Kerr, Julie. Life in the Medieval Cloister. Continuum, 2009.

(This book can be purchased here. Some of it can be found here on Google books. It can also be accessed on ProQuest Ebook Central.)

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Forty-Five, What to do When a Monk Makes a Mistake During Services

I am going to be furthering my analysis of Saint Benedict’s guidelines on monastic discipline. I’ve talked about it previously here and here. Today I will be discussing Chapters Forty-Five of The Rule of Saint Benedict. This chapter is pretty short (only two sentences!) but there is a lot of interesting language use in the original Latin that I want to go into.

 

Harley MS 5431 f.73v Beginning of Chapter 45 of The Rule of Saint Benedict

Beginning of Chapter 45 of The Rule of Saint Benedict | Harley MS 5431 f.73v | Source: The British Library

 

Chapter Forty-Five is titled “Of those who make Mistakes in the Oratory” (Saint Benedict, pg. 60). It focuses on careless mistakes made during services. If a monk messes up when reciting “psalm, responsory, antiphon, or lesson” he is supposed to make “satisfaction there before all” (SB, pg. 60-61). Saint Benedict doesn’t go into detail how a monk should punish himself, but Terrence G. Kardong guesses that he means prostration. (Or in other words, laying face down on the floor.) Needless to say, throwing yourself down on the floor after you mess up a word or two is going to be rather distracting to the other monks. (Apparently nowadays, if a monk makes a mistake he just makes some kind of hand sign like touching the bench and then his lips with his fingers (Kardong. pg. 366).)

If the monk doesn’t admit his mistake, he is to be punished severely. However, he’s not necessarily being punished for saying a word wrong or minorly disrupting services. Instead, the monk is really being punished for digging his heels in, refusing to admit he did something wrong, and refusing to reform (K. pg. 366). If you are running a monastery and you’ve got a bunch of stubborn monks who are acting horribly on purpose and won’t do any sort of self-reflection, it’s only a matter of time before things escalate to a major disaster. It’s best to stop the bad behavior before things go too far.

So now we know how adults are supposed to be treated, but what about the children? What happens when an oblate messes up during services? Well, according to Saint Benedict the only solution is to whip them! Personally, I think beating a child for a minor mistake is a bit much. However, it was likely that the child was only beaten when he refused to admit he made a mistake and wouldn’t accept his punishment (K, pg. 366). It’s important to recall Chapter Thirty of The Rule of Saint Benedict when analyzing this part of the text. Saint Benedict is of the firm belief that anyone who is “unable to understand the greatness” (SB, pg. 47) of his wrongdoing is to be beaten. There’s no point in doling out punishments if you aren’t going to learn from it. (Though I will note during the medieval period many different religious figures had different opinions about the morality of corporal punishment. But that is a different article for another day.)

Now I want to focus on the language in this passage.

The Latin text uses different words when talking about the mistakes monks can potentially make. Each word has a different connotation. In the title, Saint Benedict uses the word “falluntur” when referring to a mistake. Here the text talks as though the mistakes are made “as the result of bad will.” Then the term “neglegentia deliquit” is used. This term refers to negligence. So we go from doing this on purpose out of hate to an accident due to carelessness. Finally, the text uses the word “culpa” when referring to the children’s actions. This word is extreme in its definition. It can mean fault, defect, blame, guilt, and even crime. It can even go as far as to refer to “morally reprehensible faults.” The fact that the children are the ones Saint Benedict uses the harshest language with is interesting to me. Especially when one takes into consideration that a child’s mistake is most likely to be due to forgetfulness or ignorance. (Depending on their personality and how long they’ve been at the monastery of course!) (Kardong, pgs. 365 and 375.)

 

 

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.)

(This version on Project MUSE was available to download for free in the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic. While it is no longer accessible to the general public, I’ve included a link to it in case you have access to it through a university account or some other way.)

Other Source:

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

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Forty-Four, What Bad Monks Have to Do to be Welcomed Back into the Community

Even though monks and nuns are supposed to be holy, they are still human. As a result, they aren’t perfect. Saint Benedict is well aware of this as he writes The Rule. In a previous article, I discussed how punishments should be dealt out if a person did something really bad. (See the Chapter Twenty-Five segment of that article for details.) Today’s article will focus on how a monk can get back into the good graces of the community after doing those bad things.

 

Harley MS 5431 f.72v start of chapter 44 rule of saint benedict

The beginning of chapter forty-four of The Rule of Saint Benedict |Harley MS 5431 f.72v | Source: The British Library

 

Chapter Forty-Four of The Rule of Saint Benedict is titled “Those who are Excommunicated, how they are to Make Satisfaction” (pg. 60). (I will note that here “excommunicated” doesn’t mean being thrown out of the monastery or the Church forever. Instead, it refers to being isolated from the other members of the community.) If a monk commits a grave fault, coming back into the community isn’t going to be an easy or instantaneous thing. It’s important that the wrongdoer is punished, is actually sorry for their actions, and that the rest of the community thinks the punishment is sufficient. If these things are not done and people are still resentful, there runs the risk of discord being sewn into the monastery again.

So what does Saint Benedict recommend as penance?

The text starts off by clarifying that this is supposed to be for “graver offences [sic]” (pg. 60). (Saint Benedict gets into penance for minor offenses later in the chapter.) Then it goes on to explain that the bad monk is not allowed to go into the church or join the other monks during meal times at the table. But that doesn’t mean the bad monk is allowed to wander while everyone else is at Divine Office! Instead, he has to silently “prostrate himself at the door of the Oratory” (pg. 60) during services. He has to lay there on the floor face first until everyone exits the building. This assures that the bad monk is attending services with the rest of the community, but he’s still isolated from the group in a humiliating way. He has to do this until the abbot thinks he is truly penitent for his sins.

However, the bad monk isn’t immediately accepted back into the community. There are still further penances to go through. Before the penitent monk is allowed to come into the church again, he has to throw himself at the abbot’s feet as well as the feet of everyone in the community. Everyone is to pray for him. Once again, this happens until the abbot thinks the point has gotten across. And once again, this is not the end of the penitent monk’s discipline!

After all this, the penitent monk is finally allowed back into the church with the other choir monks. However, the monk may or may not be allowed to sit in the same place as before. Monasteries followed a hierarchical system based on how long a person had been a monk, so losing your place in the hierarchy was a Big Deal. And just because the penitent monk was able to go to services again, it didn’t mean he was allowed to lead the community in reading or song. That was a privilege that needed to be earned back when the abbot thought it appropriate.

Despite being allowed back at Divine Offices, the penitent monk still had one more penance to undergo. When the service was over he was to lay prostrate on the ground. However, he wasn’t allowed to find a good place to do so. The penitent monk was to do this “in the place where he standeth” (pg. 60). I’m sure you can guess how long he had to do this for! (Until the abbot said otherwise!)

Now, these were the penances for monks who committed grave faults. What about minor faults? Let’s let Saint Benedict explain himself:

“But let those, who for lighter faults are excommunicated only from the table, make satisfaction in the Oratory so long as the Abbot shall command, and continue so doing until he bless them and say it is enough.” (pg. 60)

As you can see, a lot of what happened in the monastery happened at an abbot’s discretion. This chapter emphasizes the abbot’s power in a monastic community. (Well, an abbot who has control over his brethren at least.) In Terrence G. Kardong’s commentary on The Rule of Saint Benedict, he compares Saint Benedict’s treatment of penitent monks to another rule written a few decades before, The Rule of the Master. (A lot of people wrote their own guides on how to live a proper monastic life.) Interestingly enough, in The Rule of the Master penances are slightly different.

One such difference is the use of verbal apologies. The Master required the abbot and the penitent monk to recite prewritten speeches during the penances. Kardong argues that the use of these would just make things worse. It’s not really a true apology if it doesn’t come from the heart. He also argues that The Master wants to rush the healing processes while Saint Benedict takes things extremely slow. By taking things slow, it allows the community to genuinely heal from the collective distress the actions of the bad monk inflicted upon them.

 

 

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.)

(This version on Project MUSE was available to download for free in the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic. While it is no longer accessible to the general public, I’ve included a link to it in case you have access to it through a university account or some other way.)

Other Sources:

Christian Classics Ethereal Library’s translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict can be found here as a PDF. I used this to cross-check my translation. (You have to scroll down to see the text.)

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

 

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.

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapters Twenty-Three through Thirty, So You (a Medieval Monk) Have Been Really Bad. Now What?

Despite being men of God, monks didn’t always act holy. Saint Benedict knew that his monks were only human and that humans slip up and make mistakes. This post will be discussing chapters twenty-three through thirty of The Rule of Saint Benedict. While there are other chapters focusing on disciplining bad monks, they focus on minor faults. Today’s post concentrates on what a superior should do if a monk commits a grave fault.

 

ms. Roy.10.E.IV f.187r

A Monk and Nun in the Stocks | BL Royal MS 10 E IV f.187r | Source: The British Library

 

Chapter Twenty-Three is titled “Of Excommunication for Offenses” (pg. 43). Here Saint Benedict lists out what actions are punishable by excommunication:

“If any brother shall be found contumacious, or disobedient, or proud, or a murmurer, or in any way transgressing the Holy Rule, and contemning the orders of his seniors…” (pg. 43)

However, just because a monk does any of these things, it doesn’t mean he should be immediately excommunicated. (Which I will note isn’t necessarily kicking the monk out of the monastery, never to return. I’ll go into more detail about that later on in this post.) Instead, Saint Benedict allows the Abbot to give the monk a little bit of leniency. For the first offense, a monk should “be once or twice privately admonished by his elders” (pg. 43). When you speak to someone privately about their wrongdoings, you can avoid the anger and defensiveness that usually comes out when someone is called out publicly. It also allows the monk some time to reflect and correct himself.

If a monk keeps acting out despite being privately spoken to, “let him be rebuked in public before all” (pg. 43). Unfortunately, some people only change their ways after a bit of public humiliation. That being said, sometimes neither of these tactics work. If the monk is still misbehaving, then “let him be subjected to excommunication, provided that he understand the nature of the punishment” (pg. 43). What happens if a monk doesn’t get why excommunication is so bad? Well, Saint Benedict recommends that the monk “undergo corporal chastisement” (pg. 43).

Chapter Twenty-Four is titled “What the Measure of Excommunication should be” (pg. 43). Here excommunication is a way to isolate the misbehaving monk from the community at large. (Verses permanently throwing the man out on the street.) Saint Benedict reminds his reader that the punishment should fit the crime. Depending on “the gravity of the offence [sic]” how severe the punishment is “left to the judgment of the Abbot” (pg. 43). This is a wise way of going about things. Needless to say, if one monk murders another monk in cold blood, privately talking to him isn’t exactly an effective punishment. Letting an Abbot make his own judgments allows him to look at the surrounding circumstances of the original crime.

The text goes on to describe the proper punishment for “any brother…found guilty of lighter faults” (pg. 43). Saint Benedict recommends that the bad monk “be excluded from the common table” (pg. 43). Not only does he have to “take his meals alone” but a bad monk has to eat “after those of the brethren” (pg. 43). However, the monk can’t eat immediately after his fellow monks are done. He has to wait and be hungry for a good amount of time before he can eat too. So if the community usually eats “at the sixth hour” the bad monk will “eat at the ninth” (pg. 43). And if they usually “eat at the ninth” the monk has to wait to “eat in the evening” (pg. 43). This goes on “until by proper satisfaction he obtain pardon” (pg. 43).

Being excluded doesn’t just mean being left out at mealtimes. It also means being left out of other group activities. This includes worshipping as well:

“And this shall be the rule for one so deprived: he shall intone neither Psalm nor antiphon in the Oratory, nor shall he read a lesson, until he have made satisfaction.” (pg. 43)

 

monks-singing-2635cc

Monks Worshipping | Source: PICRYL.com

 

Chapter Twenty-Five is titled “Of Graver Faults” (pg. 44). Here Saint Benedict goes into detail for the punishments suitable for monks who really mess up. Not only is the monk “excluded both from the table and from the Oratory” (pg. 44) like he would be if he just committed a lesser fault, he is also excluded from the monastic community at large. Meaning that “none of the brethren [are allowed to] consort with him or speak to him” (pg. 44). The monk is isolated in all things. He is to “be alone at the work enjoined him” as well as “take his portion of food alone” (pg. 44).

Because he has committed a grave fault, the monk doesn’t just eat a few hours after everyone else. Instead, his food will be “in the measure and at the time that the Abbot shall think best for him” (pg. 44). This means that the abbot may limit the bad monk’s food portions and make him wait all day until he is allowed to eat. This type of control could either be an effective enough punishment or something that a power-hungry (pun unintended) Abbot would take advantage of to the extreme.

The bad monk’s complete isolation is added to with the last sentence of this chapter:

“Let none of those who pass by bless him, nor the food that is given him.” (pg. 44)

If the bad monk isn’t even allowed to be blessed, then that means he really screwed up. But what happens if another monk talks to him anyway? Well, Saint Benedict covers that in the next chapter!

Chapter Twenty-Six is titled “Of those who, without Leave of the Abbot, Consort with the Excommunicate” (pg. 44). This particular chapter is insanely short. It’s only one sentence. That being said, Saint Benedict really only needs to make his point in one sentence:

“If any brother presume without the Abbot’s leave to hold any intercourse whatever with an excommunicated brother, or to speak with him, or to send him a message, let him incur the same punishment of excommunication.” (pg. 44)

One thing I find particularly notable about this passage is how Saint Benedict closes up any potential loopholes. I can imagine a monk saying to his abbot, ‘I only sent him a letter, I didn’t actually talk to him’ in an attempt to avoid getting in trouble himself. It’s also interesting that Saint Benedict is sure to specify that monks are only allowed to talk to their punished brethren with the permission of their abbot. Even if a monk is shunned from the community, eventually there will need to be communication between the two parties. By giving the other monks permission through the abbot, Saint Benedict is relieving the anxiety a monk might have about being punished themselves.

Chapter Twenty-Seven is titled “How Careful the Abbot should be of the Excommunicate” (pg. 45). Here Saint Benedict argues that while an excommunicated monk is still in trouble, an abbot shouldn’t treat him so harshly that the monk gives up on being good forever. Instead, an abbot should “show all care and solicitude towards the offending brethren” (pg. 45). One tactic includes “sending some brethren of mature years and wisdom” to “secretly, console the wavering brother” (pg. 45). The older monks are to “comfort him, that he be not overwhelmed by excess of sorrow” (pg. 45). This section of the text certainly gives a lot more context to the loophole about receiving an abbot’s permission to talk to the fallen monk!

While no one is allowed to bless the bad monk or his food, Saint Benedict encourages “all pray for him” (pg. 45). An abbot needs to “use the greatest care…not to lose any one of the sheep committed to him” (pg. 45). After all, an abbot “hath undertaken the charge of weakly souls” (pg. 45). It’s his job to make sure those who stray come back to the righteous path. If he doesn’t, he’ll face the consequences on Judgment Day.

 

Royal MS 6 E VI:1 f.57r

Judgment Day | Royal MS 6 E VI/1 f.57r | Source: The British Library

 

Chapter Twenty-Eight is titled “Of those Who, being Often Corrected, do not Amend” (pg. 46). Here the text details what an abbot should do if the bad monk refuses to behave himself. These punishments should be given to a monk who “has been frequently corrected for some fault, or even excommunicated” (pg. 46). If a monk has been told not to do something and he keeps doing it, then it’s time for “the punishment of stripes” (pg. 46), or corporal punishment. And of course, during this time it is vital for the monk to say “his own prayers and those of all the brethren for him” (pg. 46).

But what happens if a monk is still bad even if you hit him? What if he keeps doing the things he’s not supposed to despite the community’s prayers? What if he “even wish to defend his deeds” (pg. 46)? Well, it’s important to note that excommunication and hitting the monk is supposed to be “the last remedy” (pg. 46). So, if you’ve done absolutely everything that Saint Benedict has recommended these last few chapters and the monk is still misbehaving then it’s time for “the Abbot [to] use the sword of separation” (pg. 46).  If an abbot doesn’t remove the problem monk then he runs the risk of “one diseased sheep…taint[ing] the whole flock” (pg. 46). However, kicking out a monk is only supposed to be the last resort.

Chapter Twenty-Nine is titled “Whether the Brethren who Leave the Monastery are to be Received Again” (pg. 46). This is another relatively short chapter. This part of the text explains how a community should handle a monk returning after he has either “through his own fault departeth or is cast out of the Monastery” (pg. 46). Not all monks/nuns who left their monasteries did so because they were kicked out. Some simply ran away! (The monastic life isn’t for everyone.) So what happens if a monk regrets leaving and wants to come back? He most certainly can, but there will be consequences for leaving in the first place.

The returning monk must “first to amend entirely the fault for which he went away” (pg. 47). After doing so, he will be welcomed back, but he will “be received back into the lowest place” (pg. 47) in the order of seniority. This is so “his humility may be tried” (pg. 47). This is to test the monk’s dedication to the monastic life. It’s important that the monk is returning for the right reasons and not just because he has nowhere else to go/is hungry/what have you. Monks leaving then coming back several times is implied to be an issue by the text. Saint Benedict specifically says:

“Should he again depart, let him be taken back until the third time: knowing that after this all return will be denied to him.” (pg. 47)

I think coming back three times is a reasonable amount. After three times, it starts to get a little ridiculous. Clearly, the monk isn’t returning for the right reasons.

 

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A Child Being Given to a Monastery as an Oblate |BL Royal 10 D VIII, f. 82v | Source: blogs.brown.edu

 

Our last chapter, Chapter Thirty is titled “How the Younger Boys are to be Corrected” (pg. 47). Once again, it is one of the shorter chapters in The Rule of Saint Benedict. Monasteries weren’t just full of men. Often times they had young children, called oblates, living there as well. Oblates were given to the monastery by their parents for various reasons. Here, it is explained how these boys should be punished.

The first sentence says that “every age and understanding should have its proper measure of discipline” (pg. 47). This is some good common sense. A five-year-old and a fifty-five-year-old should not be punished the same. Saint Benedict recognizes that if a child is “unable to understand the greatness of the penalty of excommunication” (pg. 47) he shouldn’t be excommunicated. However, Saint Benedict is also a product of his time and recommends that a naughty child “be punished by severe fasting or sharp stripes” so “they may be cured” (pg. 47).

 

 

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 purchase my edition of it here.)

Other Sources:

Wikipedia’s overview of The Rule of Saint Benedict to double-check my interpretations of the text. Link to that article here. (Accessed on February 16, 2020.)

Solesme Abbey’s translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict can be found here as a PDF. I used this to cross-check my translation.

Christian Classics Ethereal Library’s translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict can be found here as a PDF. I used this to cross-check my translation. (You have to scroll down to see the text.)

EDIT: In case you can’t access the Christian Classics Ethereal Library’s translation, the Wayback Machine has a screenshot of the PDF I used. That PDF can be accessed here.

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapters Twenty One and Twenty Two, Electing Deans and Sleeping in a Medieval Monastery

For my previous analyses on The Rule of Saint Benedict, I have gone over each chapter individually. Today I am switching things up. I’ve decided to combine chapters twenty-one and twenty-two into one post for two reasons. They are thematically similar and are each only one paragraph long. Theoretically, I could have done what I did for my last post and go in-depth with historical examples, but I want to keep today’s analyses brief.   This series is meant to (mostly) focus on Saint Benedict’s text itself. That being said, I am interested in sharing more historical anecdotes on this blog. (But not today.)

Chapter Twenty-One is titled “Of the Deans of the Monastery” (pg. 41). Saint Benedict describes how a monastery should choose superiors in their community. However, not all monasteries should have deans other than an abbot. It is only when “the community [is] large” (pg. 41) should deans be elected.

This chapter doesn’t specify what is considered a large community. However, according to a footnote for chapter seventeen in my copy of the text, a small community (or a Congregatio minor in Latin) “is usually interpreted to mean one consisting of less than twelve members” (pg. 38). Wikipedia offers a different interpretation, saying that there should be a dean for every ten monks. Whether a small community has ten or twelve members, Saint Benedict was wise when he decided that a small community doesn’t need a lot of superiors. After all, too many cooks spoil the broth.

So who gets to be a dean? Saint Benedict recommends “certain brethren of good repute and holy life, [be] appointed Deans” (pg. 41). To run any sort of organization smoothly, especially one dedicated to worshipping God, you want someone who is of good moral character. While you could have someone corrupt in charge that will cause unnecessary conflict (eventually). Saint Benedict also recommends that the superiors “carefully direct their deaneries in all things according to the commandments of God and of the…Abbot” (pg. 41-42).

An abbot must be careful when it comes to selecting superiors. Not just anyone can be a dean. The monk chosen must be a man that “the Abbot may safely trust to share his burdens” (pg. 42). Saint Benedict says that these monks should “not be chosen according to order” (pg. 42). Or in other terms, don’t choose a monk to be a dean just because he’s been there the longest or has been a monk for a while. A monastery’s deans must be selected due to “the merit of their lives and for their wisdom and learning” (pg. 42).

What happens if the dean ends up being bad at his job or is “found worthy of blame” (pg. 42)? What if the power goes to his head and he is “puffed up with pride” (pg. 42)? Well, Saint Benedict doesn’t want the dean to be let go immediately. He should be given a few chances to get back on track. But if he’s still acting poorly “after being thrice corrected” and he “refuse[s] to amend” then “let him be deposed” (pg. 42). Basically, it’s time to fire the dean and choose “one who is worthy [to] put in his place” (pg. 42).

Chapter Twenty-Two is titled “How the Monks are to Sleep” (pg. 42). Thematically, this is another section dedicated to the many practicalities of running a monastery. Saint Benedict has quite a few guidelines concerning a monastery’s dormitory. The chapter starts off with “Let them sleep each in a separate bed” (pg. 42). I like details like this as it implies in monasteries (or in other living spaces) people shared beds. Even if monks were to get separate beds, they still had to “all sleep in one place” (pg. 42). However, if there were too many monks and the dormitory was too small, they were permitted to be broken up into groups of “tens or twenties” and sleep “with the seniors who have charge of them” (pg. 42). Saint Benedict adds in the latter part of the chapter that the “younger brethren” should sleep “among those of the seniors” (pg. 42). According to the footnote in my copy of The Rule, a having common dorm “was strictly observed for many centuries” (pg. 42).

But separate beds and a common dorm aren’t the only things monks need/should do at bedtime. Saint Benedict recommends that “a candle burn constantly…until morning” (pg. 42). I assume this is the medieval equivalent of a night light so you can see when it’s time to rise for offices or in case someone needs to get up to use the privy. The text also says that a monk should not sleep “with knives at their sides, lest perchance they wound themselves” (pg. 42). This certainly implies that monks did sleep with their knives. I would speculate that there may have been a few incidents resulting in this rule to be written down.

In addition to not sleeping with sharp objects, monks were told to “sleep clothed, and girded with belts or cords” (pg. 42). This was so that the monks could “be always ready” and “rise without delay” (pg. 42). After all, being forced to find your clothes and put them on would “forestall” your fellow monks when it was time to go “to the Work of God” (pg. 42). Sleeping clothed also prevents any sinful immodesty.

Finally, Saint Benedict tells his monks that when it is time to wake up and go to services they should “gently encourage one another, because of the excuses of the drowsy” (pg. 42). Or in other words, you shouldn’t let your fellow monk use the ‘five more minutes’ request when it is time to worship the Lord.

 

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 purchase my edition of it here.)

Other Sources:

Wikipedia’s overview of The Rule of Saint Benedict to double-check my interpretations of the text. Link to that article here. (Accessed on February 16, 2020.)

Solesme Abbey’s translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict can be found here as a PDF. I used this to cross-check the translation.

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Twenty, Reverence at Prayer and Some Historical Examples of Clergy Not being Particularly Reverent

For this blog post, I’ve jumped a bit ahead in The Rule of Saint Benedict. In my last post, I covered chapter seven. I’ve decided to skip chapters eight through nineteen as they mostly detail how Divine Offices were said. While there are a lot of good insights into the praying aspect of monastic life, I’m not super interested in dissecting the offices. I may come back to those chapters in the future, but for now, I want to talk about what was and was not considered the proper way to pray.

Add. 39636  f.10 (full page and detail)

Benedictine monks chanting | BL Add 39636, ff. 10, 13, 28, 29, f. 10 | Source: PICRYL.com

Chapter Twenty is titled ‘Of Reverence at Prayer.’ As you might be able to tell from the title, this chapter is about praying respectfully. Saint Benedict tells his monkish reader that praying to God should be similar to making “any request to men in power” (Saint Benedict, pg. 41). Meaning that you should only “do so…with humility and reverence” (Saint Benedict, pg. 41). God isn’t your friend so you must pray to Him “with all lowliness and purity of devotion” (Saint Benedict, pg. 41). God also doesn’t have all day to listen to you so your “prayer, therefore, ought to be short and pure,” except of course you are lucky enough to have it “prolonged by the inspiration of Divine Grace” (Saint Benedict, pg. 41). That being said, when praying as a community prayer should be kept short and the “all [should] rise together” at “the signal given by the Superior” (Saint Benedict, pg. 41).

If Saint Benedict was telling his monks to pray respectfully and to keep it short, was long, disrespectful prayer a problem? Admittedly I haven’t done much research into prayer during Saint Benedict’s life (he lived between the years 480 AD and 547 AD) but I have done some research into monasticism during the later medieval period. And the answer is yes. Yes, disrespectful (for lack of a better term) prayer was an issue at some monasteries. Three of my four examples weren’t exactly bothersome to God but to the people around the worshipper.

(I’ll note that the people I’ve listed as examples were Cistercians and not Benedictines. However, the monastic Order of Cistercians also follow The Rule of Saint Benedict. Ironically, it can be argued that the Cistercians are more strict about The Rule than the Benedictines!)

660px-São_Bento_e_São_Bernardo_(1542)_-_Diogo_de_Contreiras

Saint Benedict and Saint Bernard (1542), by Diogo de Contreiras | Note: St. Benedict is in black and St. Bernard is in white | Source: Wikipedia

 

 

Caesarius of Heisterbach documents an incident where “one nun genuflected overenthusiastically…and injured her knee” (Kerr, pg. 98). As a result of this injury, the nun had to go to the infirmary. While recovering, the Virgin Mary visited her. The Virgin Mary wasn’t exactly pleased with the nun showing off and she was “reprimanded” (Kerr, pg. 98). The nun was also “warned that in the future she should be modest and discreet in her prayers” (Kerr, pg. 98).

A minor knee injury isn’t the only documented example of overenthusiastic worship. A twelfth-century nun called Ida the Gentle had a tendency to “fall into ecstatic trances after receiving the Eucharist” where she would lose “all physical control” (Kerr, pg. 153). These trances would involve Ida crying out during services, falling down, “unable to speak or move,” her face would change color, “and her eyes flashed” (Kerr, pg. 153). Despite Ida’s spiritual journey, her worshipping style was considered to be a bit too much by the nuns and priests she lived with:

“The community acknowledged that Ida’s turns were a mark of her spirituality and considered her privy to Divine Knowledge, but her behavior was nonetheless regarded as disruptive and irreverent and Ida was consequently barred from attending the Eucharist.” (Kerr, pg. 153)

Of course, not only nuns had issues with reverence at prayer. In Villers in Belgium, there was a lay brother named Arnulf who “was periodically overcome with jubilant laughter” as a result of “an inward flow of Heavenly Grace” (Kerr, pg. 153). Whenever this happened Arnulf would leave wherever he was and “run into the church to be alone” (Kerr, pg. 153). There he would ‘”dance until the wine of his drunkenness was gradually digested”‘ (Kerr, pg. 153-154). Like Ida the Gentle’s trances, Arnulf’s laughing and dancing did get him into a bit of trouble. Sometimes he found this laughing to be embarrassing, especially when people didn’t understand that it was very much “involuntary” (Kerr, pg. 154). To make matters worse for Arnulf, “some considered it evil” (Kerr, pg. 154).

 

Bernard_of_Clairvaux_-_Gutenburg_-_13206

Bernard of Clairvaux | Source: Wikipedia

 

Bernard of Clairvaux also had some problems when it came to reverence at prayer. However, his problems weren’t necessarily because of the way he worshipped. Instead, his problems were a consequence of “years of austerity” and by “his later years” (Kerr, pg. 154) he had completely destroyed his digestive system. But I wouldn’t necessarily consider that disrespectful worship, at least not in regards to God. What was an issue was how Bernard of Clairvaux tried to get around his tendency to vomit up his latest meal.

Instead of accepting that he was too sick to “participate fully in the liturgical day” (Kerr, pg. 154) Bernard decided the best solution was to install a basin in the choir for him to throw up into. Julie Kerr wonderfully describes the monks’ reaction to the vomiting during services as such:

“This was not, however, a satisfactory arrangement.” (Kerr, pg. 154)

Needless to say, the monks found his constant throwing up extremely gross. In the end, Bernard of Clairvaux was “compelled to withdraw from communal activities” (Kerr, pg. 154).

 

 

Main Sources:

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.)

Kerr, Julie. Life in the Medieval Cloister. Continuum, 2009.

(This book can be purchased here. Some of it can be found here on Google books. It can also be accessed on ProQuest Ebook Central.)

Other Sources:

Wikipedia’s overview of The Rule of Saint Benedict to double-check my interpretations of the text. Link to that article here. (Accessed on February 15, 2020.)

Solesme Abbey’s translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict can be found here as a PDF. I used this to cross-check the translation.

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Seven, How to be Humble Like a Medieval Monk in 12 Easy (and Certainly Not at All Creepy) Steps

Chapter seven of The Rule of Saint Benedict is completely dedicated to humility and how a monk should be humble. According to Saint Benedict, there are twelve degrees of humility. The degrees of humility are of varying levels of easiness, practicality, and to be honest, creepiness. While I admit this is an ethnocentric worldview, I can’t help but feel a bit uncomfortable with the way Saint Benedict phrases things as well as with his desire for his monks to have blind, unquestioning obedience no matter what they are told.

My feelings of uneasiness are emphasized when I think about abuse in the Catholic Church. I can easily see how a superior in a monastery could take advantage of this particular text and use it for nefarious purposes. That being said, not all of the text in this chapter is problematic. Some of it is quite mundane and other parts consist of wise advice.

Saint Benedict doesn’t jump into the degrees right away. Instead, there is a long introductory paragraph instructing monks how to worship humbly and the importance of doing so. It can be summed up with this quote:

‘”Every one[sic] that exalteth himself shall be humbled, and he who humbleth himself shall be exalted.”‘ (pg. 25)

Basically, don’t pray or act for the sake of glory. Neither should you pray to show off your self proclaimed holiness. You aren’t being holy when you do so. You are being self-righteous. If you do pray just to show off, beware. Bad things will come your way. In contrast, if you are humble with your prayers and good deeds, God knows and you will be praised.

After the preface, Saint Benedict explains the first degree of humility. Compared to the other degrees, this one is pretty lengthy. In my translation, there are four paragraphs discussing it. (This is a lot of text for a book that is only eighty-six pages long and has seventy-three chapters.) In the first paragraph, Saint Benedict tells his monkish reader to “always [keep] the fear of God before his eyes” (pg. 26). In doing so, Heaven will be “prepared for them” (pg. 26). Saint Benedict is aware that constant fear often leads to hate. To get around this unfortunate consequence, the text threatens “that those who despise God will be consumed in hell for their sins” (pg. 26).

The second paragraph consists of more fear-mongering. We are reminded that God is always watching over everything we do. So how exactly does God watch every single human being on Earth at every second of the day? Surely He has better things to do. Saint Benedict explains that instead of God personally watching over us, our actions (good and bad) “are every hour reported to Him by His angels” (pg. 26). This is a good answer to (almost) every Catholic child’s ponderings over the practical logistics of God’s surveillance of humanity. Because God or His angels are keeping an eye on you, it is best to “be on…guard against evil thoughts” (pg. 26). God’s surveillance reminds a monk to be humble so he can be “unspotted before Him” (pg. 26).

 

IMG_2115.jpg

The Virgin Mary, Baby Jesus, and Six Angels (watching you) | Source: Photo taken by Viktor Athelstan at The Louvre Museum

 

Even with God always watching, in the third paragraph the reader is told that “[w]e are, indeed, forbidden to do our own will by Scripture” (pg. 27). However, this doesn’t mean that we don’t have free will. Instead, ‘”[t]here are ways which to men seem right, but the ends…lead to the depths of hell”‘ (pg. 27). What Saint Benedict is saying is that while you may think what you are doing is good and holy, in reality, you very well be sinning. To avoid sin (and thus be humble) it’s important that you do what God wants. This is especially the case when it comes to “desires of the flesh” (pg. 27).

The fourth paragraph goes in-depth about the dangers of “evil desires” (pg. 27). Saint Benedict warns his reader ‘”[g]o not after thy concupiscences“‘ (pg. 27) and repeats that God’s angels are always watching. In short, a monk should always fear God. You can’t be properly humble if you don’t.

The second degree of humility basically says to always do God’s will. A monk should not “delight in gratifying his own desires” (pg. 27). Instead, he needs to be subordinate to what God wants. In doing so, his “reward…will be a crown of glory hereafter” (footnote on pg. 27).

The third degree of humility is once again about subordination. However, instead of subordination to God, a monk should “submit himself to his superior in all obedience” (pg. 28). In doing so, he will be “imitating the LORD” (pg. 28).

 

virgin-and-kneeling-monk-from-bl-sloane-278-f-7-2a10ef

Virgin and kneeling monk | BL Sloane 278, f. 7 | Source: PICRYL.com

 

The fourth degree of humility wants monks to endure all hardships patiently. While this sentiment might be a good way to tell your monks to stop complaining, my translation’s phrasing gives this part of the text some creepy undertones. The connotations of many of the words are extremely violent. These words and phrases include (but are not limited to!) “injuries,” “afflicted,” “death,” “slaughter,” “tried by fire,” “snare,” “tribulation,” and “adversities” (pg. 28). I was curious if these violent connotations were just a result of my translator’s word choice. I looked at another translation and the connotations are extremely similar. (You can find the link to that PDF under ‘Other Sources’ at the end of this article.) The sentence at the beginning of this section particularly alarmed me:

“…that if in this very obedience hard and contrary things, nay even injuries, are done to him, he should embrace them patiently with a quiet conscience, and not grow weary or give in…” (pg. 28).

Telling your monks to suck up their pain may be good if all of their complaints relate to little things (e.g. bad tasting food, uncomfortable beds, tonsure makes their head look weird) but it can get dangerous if it is used to ignore bigger concerns. Like in any other living space, problems will inevitably arise from clashing personalities. Telling a monk who is being severely bullied or even abused to “bear with false brethren, and bless those that curse them” as it will “secure…their hope of the divine reward” (pg. 28) isn’t productive. It is the same as sweeping everything under the rug because that is easier to do than deal with the actual problem. And eventually, that problem will boil over into a bigger issue.

The fifth degree of humility is to always confess your sins. A humble monk wouldn’t “hide from one’s Abbot any…evil thoughts” nor would he hide “the sins committed in secret” (pg. 28). Instead, he would “humbly confess them” (pg. 28). Admitting your wrongdoings keeps you from getting too big for your britches. You aren’t perfect and God knows if you’ve done bad things. What’s the point of trying to hide them from Him?

The sixth degree of humility reminds monks “to be contented with the meanest and worst of everything” and to “esteem himself a bad and worthless laborer” (pg. 29). While the latter certainly won’t be great for anyone’s self-esteem, the former can be quite helpful. After all, if you’ve willingly become a monk you shouldn’t expect to be living large. Instead, you should be content to live with little like Christ.

The seventh degree of humility also is not fantastic for anyone’s self-esteem:

“…he should not only call himself with his tongue lower and viler than all, but also believe himself in his inmost heart to be so…” (pg. 29)

Even though hating and thinking badly of yourself isn’t a healthy way to think, this mindset certainly will keep you humble. You can’t be proud if you consider yourself worthless. That being said, this is another degree that can be dangerous if taken to the extreme. Especially when Saint Benedict encourages his monkish readers to think, “‘I am a worm and no man”‘ (pg. 29). I can easily see how a monk may spiral into depression (or melancholy) if he isn’t careful with thoughts like this.

The next few degrees are extremely short.

The eighth degree of humility is just to follow the rules. A monk needs to “do nothing except what is authorized” (pg. 29).

The ninth degree of humility is to only speak until spoken to. A monk should keep “silent until a question [is] asked him” (pg. 29). It’s also a short summary of chapter six which I’ve written more about here.

The tenth degree of humility is don’t laugh. A monk shouldn’t laugh because ‘”The fool lifteth up his voice in laughter”‘ (pg. 29).

 

Royal 19 D.III, f.266

A Fool | BL Royal 19 D III, f. 266 | Source: PICRYL.com

 

The eleventh degree of humility is to speak “gently and without laughter, humbly, gravely, with few and reasonable words, and that he be not noisy in his speech” (pg. 29). Basically, a humble monk doesn’t talk a lot and when he does, he gets to the point right away.

The twelfth degree of humility is to not only act humble but to look humble too. A monk “in his very exterior, [should] always show his humility to all who see him” (pg. 30). So how does one do this? Well…

“…that is, in the work of God, in the oratory, in the monastery, in the garden, on the road, in the field, or wherever he may be, whether sitting, walking or standing, with head always bent down, and eyes fixed on the earth, that he ever think of the guilt of his sins…” (pg. 30)

By looking humble as well as acting humble a monk can be a good example to others.

Saint Benedict ends this chapter with a closing paragraph. Here he says that if a monk can achieve all of these degrees of humility and not stray from them he no longer has to “dread…hell” and through “the love of Christ” he will be “cleansed from vice and sin” (pg. 30).

 

 

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 purchase my edition of it here.)

Other Sources:

Wikipedia’s overview of The Rule of Saint Benedict to double-check my interpretations of the text. Link to that article here. (Accessed on February 14, 2020.)

Solesme Abbey’s translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict can be found here as a PDF. I used this to cross-check the translation.

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Six, Stopping Your Monks From Saying Dumb Stuff, or Silence in the Medieval Monastery

Whether it’s a monk only talking to complain or SNL’s skit about a monastery’s Super Bowl bets there quite a few jokes out there concerning silence in the monastery. But why should monks be quiet? Why is that even a thing? Well, according to chapter six of The Rule of Saint Benedict the answer is actually pretty simple:

‘”[I]n much speaking thou shalt not avoid sin”‘ (Saint Benedict pg. 25).

I’m sure we’ve all said something really stupid because we weren’t thinking. (I know I have!) So what’s the easiest way to prevent your monks from constantly putting their feet in their mouths? By telling them to keep quiet of course! After all, idle talking can lead to sinful thoughts and sinful thoughts lead to sinful actions and sinful actions lead to an eternity in hell.

However, this doesn’t mean that most monks never spoke or talked to other members of the community. Later in The Rule Saint Benedict gives instructions on when monks can talk to each other and when they shouldn’t. Even in this chapter, Saint Benedict gives guidelines for conversations. For example, “if anything has to be asked of the Superior, let it be done with all humility and…reverence” (Saint Benedict pg. 25).

 

monks-singing-from-bl-harley-2888-f-98v-d1ffe8

Annoyed looking monks singing | BL Harley 2888, f. 98v | Source: PICRYL.com

 

Saint Benedict uses this chapter not only to warn his monks about sinful thoughts but about “bad speech” (Kardong) in general. Bad speech also includes “buffoonery [and] idle words” (Saint Benedict pg. 25). In Terrence G. Kardong’s commentary on The Rule, the Latin text is translated as “crude jokes and idle talk” (Kardong). Either way, Saint Benedict doesn’t want his monks saying things that “move [you] to laughter” (Saint Benedict pg. 25) or that are “aimed at arousing laughter” (Kardong). (I’ll note that these quotations are different translations of the same sentence.) Kardong speculates that Saint Benedict wasn’t crazy about laughter not because he was a killjoy, but because “much ancient comedy was obscene” (Kardong). Given that monks are supposed to be chaste, it is understandable that Saint Benedict wouldn’t want dirty (thus sinful) jokes told in his monasteries. 

The Rule’s chapter about silence isn’t just about avoiding saying sinful things or laughing at things holy monks shouldn’t. It’s also about learning when to talk and when to listen:

“For it becometh the master to speak and to teach, but it beseemeth the disciple to be silent and to listen” (Saint Benedict pg. 25).

Like students listening to their teachers, monks should listen to their abbot. The abbot is supposed to be an “inextinguishable fount of wisdom” (Kardong). And the only way to truly listen and learn is to keep quiet.

 

 

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 purchase my edition of it here.)

Other Sources:

Benedictus, and Terrence G. Kardong. Benedicts Rule: a Translation and Commentary. Liturgical Press, 1996.

(You can find part of this book here.)