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Exploring the Rule of Benedict §2: Biblical Sources and Trajectories of the Rule

The Rule of Benedict is saturated throughout with biblical quotations and allusions. Like many of the theological and spiritual writings of the premodern era (and distinctly unlike many of those in the modern era), Benedict does not so much cite proof texts of Scripture in support of his assertions as he simply speaks through scripture. Most often, Benedict is found citing the Gospels, the Psalms, and the Proverbs. Much of the rationale for the Rule lay in seeking after the cultivation of central biblical virtues, chiefly humility and obedience, both of which are major themes in the Psalms and wisdom literature. In the Rule of Benedict, humble obedience is the primary virtue (RB 7) of the Christian life and the primary way of struggling against sin was through the cultivation of humility. While for Augustine, the primary struggle in the Christian life was between the love of God and the libido dominandi, for Benedict the primary challenge was the struggle between the divine call to the “labor of obedience” and the human rebellion which is the “laziness of disobedience” (RB Prologue). For Benedict, according to the Bible, obedience is the master virtue to which human beings are called before God. It is the struggle to live in obedience which characterizes the Christian life. 

The wisdom literature and the prayers of the Psalms were the central resource that Benedict drew on in seeking after these biblical virtues. Central to the entire Benedictine way of life was constant immersion in the Scriptures, especially the Psalms. According the Rule, the entire Psalter was to be chanted every week by the brothers (RB 18). Benedict viewed this is a minimal endeavor, as the early monastic fathers had sung the entire Psalter daily. At the core of Benedictine spirituality was constant immersion in, and contemplation of the Holy Scriptures.

Modern readers will be quick to balk at some of the harsh uses of certain scriptures by Benedict, especially in regard to the form of discipline undertaken in the monastery (see RB 27, 28). While of course there is good reason to question flogging in response to disobedience as a viable Christian practice in our contemporary context, it behooves us to remember the historical context in which the Rule was written. In contrast to many of the rules that were promulgated in the same time period, the Rule of Benedict was widely considered to be extremely moderate and practical in its demands and strictness. Its ascetic practices were extremely moderate by comparison to the kinds of self-flagellation practiced in a wide variety of contemporary monastic settings. Likewise, as the Rule of Benedict states rightly, the forms of discipline exercised on rebellious brothers were not considered by Benedict to be the most effective or serious measures to be called upon. In the face of the failure of excommunication to restore a wayward brother, Benedict called on the abbot and the brothers to turn to “greater things”, which are chiefly “prayers…so that the Lord may cure the sick brother, for He can do all things” (RB 28).

In sum, while Benedict does not provide a biblical defense of the idea of monasticism and monastic living, such a defense is not something that one would realistically expect him to have ever thought of providing. The monastic movement during his time was a way, and perhaps the primary way in which Christians sought to return to the vision of discipleship articulated in the Bible in a way that remained within the church but still protested against the corruption and self-exaltation of the ecclesial hierarchy. The most charitable and equitable way of reading the monastic movement and its biblical roots requires attention to this context and the realization that these communities were exclusively centered on striving after ways to be faithful to God in the midst of an unstable world and a corrupt church. As such, Benedictine spirituality has much to teach the church today, especially in view of some striking similarities between the breakdown of culture in the dark ages and the fragmentation of life in late capitalist postmodern culture. In light of this, it seems prudent for the church today to be open to considering the insights of Benedictine spirituality.


  1. Ben wrote:

    Thanks for doing this series. Benedict’s Rule is something I’ve been fascinated with (from afar) for some time.

    If monasticism, as you say, arose as a response to the fragmentation of culture and corruption in the church, I wonder what Benedict’s vision of monastic relationship with the wider (corrupt) church was… and how those similarities would play out in today’s context (is the “church at large” as corrupt as it was in Benedict’s day? Perhaps its corruption is a hidden one, in its implicit support for consumer capitalism?)

    How does one engage in alternative ecclesial practices (new monasticism?) and maintain some kind of relationship with the church at large?

    Just some wonderings I had as I read. Thanks again.

    Wednesday, December 19, 2007 at 11:58 am | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    How does one engage in alternative ecclesial practices (new monasticism?) and maintain some kind of relationship with the church at large?

    That is the truly challenging question, that all “ecclesial movements” have to deal with. At the very least, a sor of spiritual and relational ecumenism, such as that called for by Vatican II seems to be necessary. And of course, neomonastic protestant communities have different challenges before them than do similar Roman Catholic movements.

    As to Benedict’s vision of his relationship to the wider church, it is really difficult to say, since the only information we have about him comes from the Dialogues of Gregory the Great, which are clearly at least a bit hagiographical. From the Rule, we know that Benedict was very reticent to allow a member of the priesthood to join the order, which seems to communicate some level of desire to maintain autonomy from ecclesiastical control. But of course he remained firmly within the church. I suppose we’ll really never know exactly what he thought of the “church at large” with any great specificity.

    Wednesday, December 19, 2007 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

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