PC: Benedict as Incomplete

This is a continuation of the previous post for Psalming Christ


Consider intentional communities for a minute. How many of them survive—and for what length of time? How many communes formed in the 1960’s are still around? Most of them folded within years of their founding. It’s hard work to for human beings to live together in community. It’s even harder to make it work over a period of decades. Yet, Benedict’s rule has endured for centuries as a template for intentional Christian communities. It’s a template that works; it has proven successful across centuries and cultures as a means of forming Christians within them and inspiring the Christians around them.

Why this particular document? It’s certainly not because it was the only monastic rule out there. When Charlemagne appointed his top monastic advisors to look into the state of monasticism and to determine what should be the single rule under which he would unite his realm, Benedict of Aniane and Smaragdus of Saint Mihiel compiled a document containing many different rules that were in circulation at the time—but Benedict of Nursia’s was chosen out of all of these.

It’s worth comparing Benedict’s Rule to one of the other rules found in this collection. It goes by the name “The Rule of the Master.” It shares so many similarities with Benedict’s Rule, including common sentences and chapters, one of them must have copied from the other. However, the Rule of the Master goes into far greater detail than Benedict’s. It doesn’t just prescribe how to pick a prior; rather, it goes into details about how the brothers are to greet the prior when they run into him in the halls, detailing a brief liturgical script for the encounter. It doesn’t just recommend certain classes of activities for the monks when they are not in the church praying; rather, it gives explicit directions for exactly what monks at various points in their professed lives ought to be doing in the different sections of the day. Where Benedict’s Rule is lean and spare, the Rule of the Master describes and details, ending with a text that is 3 times the size of Benedict’s work. For centuries it was assumed that the Rule of the Master was an expansion of Benedict’s Rule. The great bombshell in twentieth century Benedictine studies was the realization that it worked the other way around: The Rule of the Master was the earlier text. Benedict had copied from the anonymous Master.

Benedict’s rule worked better because it was shorter—because it lacked the countless scriptings of daily events that characterize the Rule of the Master. Because it didn’t give all of the details, it could be implemented in a wider variety of places and times that those imagined by the Master. The specificity of the Rule of the Master was undoubtedly one of the reasons why it was left behind while the Rule of Benedict was adopted more broadly. Benedict’s brevity is one of the keys to his success.

But here’s the thing: while his brevity might have helped the Rule be adopted in a wide variety of contexts, his Rule is not enough. To put a finer point on it, Benedict’s Rule assumes many things that are never described or explained. For instance, Benedict goes into great detail around the singing of the psalms: he explains how many psalms should be prayed in the Offices (RB 9-13, 17), how the psalms determine how many Offices should be prayed (RB 16), which psalms should be prayed at which Offices (RB 18), he describes the intention with which the psalms should be prayed (RB 19-20), but he never gets around to telling us why the psalms should be prayed! He assumes it, he expects that his readers will accept it as self-evident. But—why?

To zero in on another core practice of the Rule, sacred reading (lectio divina) forms a central part of the monastic day (RB 48). But how is it done? Why is it done? Benedict assumes the importance of the practice, carving out significant amounts of time for it, but he never describes the goal or purpose or method he expects his monks to follow. If this activity is so central that it becomes one of the three basic practices of the monk (praying the Offices, sacred reading, and work), why does he devote so little place to explaining or exploring it?

If we flip back to that longer, more expansive Rule of the Master, we find our situation not much improved. The Master doesn’t answer any of these questions either! Instead, we have to see both of these documents as not sufficient in and of themselves. Neither of these rules contain everything that they need to contain in order to communicate the fullness of monastic life and values.

One of the ways monastic communities addressed this gap was by writing customaries—legislative documents that would help describe how the Rule of Benedict was put in place within their particular time, situation, and architectural arrangement. One well-known example of a customary is the Ordo Qualiter used by the great Abbey of Cluny and its many daughter houses. Another is the English Regularis Concordia that the monastic bishops of the 10th century Benedictine Reform wrote to establish uniform monastic practice throughout England (based, in part, on the Ordo Qualiter). However even these documents don’t get into the heart of spiritual practices of the monasteries. Yes, they prescribe additional devotions and say what the monks should be doing when, but so often they pass by the question of why and how: the questions that we are most interested in.

Rules and customaries exist within a living tradition, some of it written, but some of it oral as well, that has had to be recaptured and recompiled whenever monasticism has been restarted in places where it has ceased to exist. The English had to do this in their monastic reboot in the early 10th century after decades of viking depredations. The French Benedictines had to do it 19th and 20th centuries. While the Rule is essential, it’s is not sufficient. There is more that has to come along with it. Here’s the key point for us: if we too wish to explore the heart of Benedictine spirituality, we too must realize that there is more too it that the Rule itself does not describe.

2 Replies to “PC: Benedict as Incomplete”

  1. This is a wonderful piece, Derek—and something often forgotten in the examination of the monastic way. Benedict’s Rule is truly a solid center and, ultimately, it is usually the surrounding customaries that define a community (and are most frequently the seed of its success or demise).
    I have tried to think of it as a tree: at the root is the underlying, often unexpressed monastic principles and practices; above that is the trunk—the Benedictine framework (which assumes the roots); and above that are the branches—the regulations, patterns, preferences, and customaries of specific communities.
    One of the difficulties is that communities often pick up Benedict’s rule and start there without realizing that the Rule—as you point out—is itself based on massive assumptions which are essential for the functioning of the community but are often overlooked or forgotten. It ends up often with well-meaning communities merely “playing Benedictine” without the monastic roots (i.e., they didn’t read Derek Olsen first).
    If anyone wants to get a hint of some of the underlying and unexpressed principles of monasticism, I have often suggested that they look at the famous map of St. Gall, or at Monte Cassini or Fontevrault. Even the architecture itself can reveal monastic principles. Take St. Gall: the principle one can clearly see is that the abbey is intended to be entirely self-supporting—to such degree that it might have been possible to lock the gates and have little or no exchange with the outside world. And that reclusiveness and self-sufficiency is one of those formative principles behind the Rule—and something almost universally ignored in new foundations.
    So I heartily applaud your conclusion and your caution: that the Rule is not exhaustive in and of itself and that many dimensions of true Benedictine spirituality cannot be found there.

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