On Tuesday the 21st of May Jamie Miller conducted the Spiritual Reading Group at the Library on the Prologue of St Benedict’s Rule. Here is the second paper, which Jamie didn’t get to use in its entirety but from which much of the conversation emanated.
The Rule of St. Benedict
The Rule itself draws on monastic experience covering some 200 years in addition to Benedict’s own experience of several forms of monastic organization. His sources include the writings of the 4th C desert fathers and mothers, the writings of John Cassian one of the early Desert Fathers of the Church, as well as a pre-existing monastic rule entitled The Rule of the Master.
Benedict’s Rule is a quite short and very practical document, originally written in Latin. Apart from the prologue and the first few chapters, Benedict’s goal seems to have been to provide a framework within which monks could live and work and pray and be schooled in the Lord’s service. Theology and theory are never far below the surface, but it is the practicalities of daily living that primarily command Benedict’s attention. It is well and truly based on Scripture and contains within it many Scriptural references.
The Rule comprises 73 chapters. Many of them have to do with the opus dei [the Work of G-d, specifically the recitation of the divine office]. Obviously these portions are of somewhat academic interest to people living in the world today, and who are not monastics. But there are many other chapters that deal with the practicalities of every-day living.
Here are some of the broad topic areas he addresses in his Rule:
Liturgical Instructions for the Divine Office, or Opus Dei ("the work of God"). These are the seven daily community prayer services that compose the main occupation of the monks.
Roles, Responsibilities, and Procedures for Community Members. Benedict provides qualifications and "job descriptions" for leaders as well as for other selected jobs within the monastery. He also includes directions for such things as sleeping arrangements, meals, food, clothing, work, discipline, and the process for joining the monastery.
How to Live Together in Community. An important part of the Rule involves interpersonal relations: how monks should treat one another and conduct themselves to promote peace and harmony in the community.
Spiritual Direction. Benedict encourages his monks-and us-to take our relationship with God seriously and to actively nurture it. He provides directions for such disciplines as prayer, study, Lenten practices, and living with humility before God.
The Rule has theme words: roots, belonging, community, fulfillment, sharing, space, listening, and silence. The Rule also addresses questions from "How do I relate in love to other people?" and "How do I find meaning in what I must do each day?" to "What are the priorities of a Christian life?"
In a Prologue and seventy-three chapters, Benedict explains how we can live a Christ-centered life with others. Noted Anglican author Esther de Waal and incidentally a Benedictine Oblate herself, summarizes beautifully the content of the Rule:
"It is all about love. It points me to Christ. Ultimately the whole meaning and purpose of the Rule is simply, [in Benedict's own words] "Prefer nothing to the love of Christ."8
The center of the Rule is Christ, the cornerstone is Scripture, and the focus of the Rule is how to live in loving relationship with God, self, and others.
That's why the Rule is so relevant for all Christians. The way to live, Benedict states in his Prologue, is by following the Gospels (Prologue 21), especially Jesus' main directive ‘to love one another.’
Benedict sees that the way to holiness is through other people. While we might agree that it's easy to be a saint alone, Benedict knew that people are relational creatures, desiring relationships with others as well as with God. While stressing the importance of being in community, Benedict felt that there also needed to be a balance between being alone and being with others.
The Rule is practical and down-to-earth, and easy to read. Benedict's gentleness and understanding flow through the words. "Therefore," he writes in the Prologue, "we intend to establish a school for the Lord's service... we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome. The good of all concerned, however, may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and to safeguard love" (RB Prologue 45~7).
In her book Living the Rule Today, the Benedictine nun Sr. Joan Chittister likens the Rule to a railing that you can cling to while climbing the stairs. We all need some kind of railing to hold onto in this life: one that supports both our physical and spiritual journeys, one that will better help us to live out our Baptismal Covenant and follow Christ in our daily lives. It is interesting to note that the etymology of the word Rule flows from words meaning Trellis – something by which a plant might be supported, something that might train the plant to grow into a certain shape.
Last but not least, the Rule is very much about living an ordinary life well. Thomas Merton, monk, priest, social activist and spiritual writer, said the essence of the Rule is "doing ordinary things quietly and perfectly for the glory of God."
Why am I a Benedictine? Why am I a Benedictine Oblate? I hope that perhaps in telling Benny’s story and describing Benny’s Rule, I might have, in part, answered that question for you.
If you are looking for ways in which to better order your spiritual life you will find appropriate chapters on this too. All of this to be conducted in an atmosphere of quiet reverence. Not silence – like some other monastic regimes, but quiet reverence
My relationship with the Rule
Very early in my reading of the rule I came to the conclusion that if I could only submit myself to those parts of the rule that applied to my life as it was then, I would be able to make significant changes and improvements. That maybe I could take charge of my life again. Maybe I could achieve the order and discipline I so desperately craved.
Let me give you some ‘for instances’….. as to family life, Benedict’s rule addresses these issues: Speaking the truth
Making peace before sunset
Obeying without grumbling
Serving G-d with the good things we have been given
Helping others in times of trouble
“Council” meetings [aka ‘family conferences’]
Listening to youngsters
Every one to have an equal voice in making decisions and solving problems
The head of the household to teach by example
Guests to be received as Christ
I’ve now lived with the Rule in my [metaphorical] hip pocket for around 35 years. It has served me well and preserved my sanity on more than one occasion. Without boasting I think I can say that I have balance in my life. I have a sense of proportion as to what is important and what is not. I have a well developed and solidly grounded spiritual life. At times when things threaten to go off the rails, I stop and reflect what Benedict might have to say.
I say two offices each day. I spend time in reflective reading – usually the Scriptures. I manage and have done for 30 years, a twice daily discipline of 30 minutes of meditation in the John Main tradition. I’ve managed to do this throughout a busy career at the top end of corporate life involving multinational business and quite huge travel demands – in fact I’m tempted to say that I managed that career only because I had adopted a Benedictine view of the world and my life.
Some years ago I discovered I had a life-threatening bowel cancer. Throughout my illness and recovery I tried diligently to maintain the rhythm of my Benedictine life-style. Dianne and I credit that life style with my recovery and my ability to come to grips with a radically altered anatomy.
I sometimes reflect on what it is about Benedictine spirituality that makes it so appealing to those who encounter it. Perhaps it is the invitation to a mysticism of everyday life, a very ordinary way, by which our sacred yearnings are joined with the secular realities of our lives. This spirituality of the ordinary creates a milieu in which attitudes to prayer, peace, justice and love have not only permeated communities of monastics but significant numbers of people who are not. There is a rapidly growing sense in the wider monastic community that it is only through Benedictine Oblation [along with oblates, associates and tertiaries of order religious orders] that the charism of the religious life will survive the next 50 -100 years.
Why a Benedictine Oblate…….
Oblates are those who discern that G-d has called them to a balanced life of prayer and study and who have turned for advice, help and direction to the experience that monasticism has developed over the centuries. They are those who like me, keep the monastic ideal before them, even though they are not monks or nuns.
A very long time ago I discovered and visited the Anglican Benedictine community at St. Mark’s Abbey, Camperdown. Despite having been an active parishioner of some 40 years standing in a Melbourne suburban parish, I found at Camperdown and in that monastic community something that was missing from my spiritual life – Community – I discovered there a sense of belonging, an opportunity for meaningful relationship and an opportunity for service. This is something I believe many contemporary spiritual seekers yearn. It is through the community experience of work and worship, play and prayer that unconnected individuals become united in the knowledge that they are loved by the G-d of Jesus, and can commit to living in Christ’s name. In growing numbers, non-monastic people like you and I who already belong to worshipping congregations are also being drawn to monasteries. This is because our monastic sisters and brothers invite us to share in their community, and in an historic enduring way of life that brings home to them the practicality and promise of the Christian Gospel. Over time, as I got to know this Benedictine community and they got to know me I was invited to give form and substance to my association with them. I accepted, and for a year or so was a novice Oblate – confirming my life under the Rule of Benedict, living out in ordinary life the three promises of Obedience, Stability and Conversion of life (in-so-far as my life allows) maintaining an appropriate level of spiritual discipline and support and visiting and supporting the Camperdown community. A year or so as a novice confirmed my desire to make my Oblation and I did that by making promises about my participation in the Benedictine way of life before G-d, the Community and Abbot Michael King.
Today I am in no doubt that I am part of that community. I do not live in the enclosure but there is a sense that I do live in a monastery without walls. As a Benedictine Oblate I am generously supported by my community and by my family.
I am convinced that Benedictine monasticism is a very significant resource for the body of Christ – the Church, and for the modern world. The way I give expression to this conviction is through my Oblation to St. Marks Abbey. I know I am in good company. Many Christians around the world seeking meaning purpose and community in their spiritual lives are turning to monastic communities and joining as Oblates. Already the number of Oblates exceeds the number of professed monastics by a very wide margin – some estimates say there are 20 Oblates for each professed monastic. In the past ten years the growth in Oblate numbers has exceeded 75%. In my own community there are now just two professed religious and the community has over 80 Oblates
Forty years ago when I came to the conclusion that I did not have a monastic vocation I was wrong. I now think that I do have a monastic vocation, one that God had in mind for me all along, but one I was unable to identify until much later in life. One that is lived outside the monastic enclosure.
In conclusion permit me to quote the concluding chapter to Benedict’s Rule – Chapter 73
Whoever you may be [see, he is not just addressing monastics ! ], whoever you may be, then, in your eagerness to reach your Father’s home in heaven, be faithful with Christ’s help to this small Rule which is only a beginning. Starting from there you may in the end aim at the greater heights of monastic teaching and virtue… and with G-d’s help you will be able to reach those heights yourself. Amen.
©Jamie Miller, Obl. OSB