The Rule is only the beginning
The purpose for which we have written this Rule is to make it clear that by observing it in our monasteries we can at least achieve the first steps in virtue and good monastic practice. Anyone, however, who wishes to press on towards the highest standards of monastic life may turn to the teachings of the holy Fathers, which can lead those who follow them to the very heights of perfection. Indeed, what page, what saying from the sacred scriptures of the Old and New Testaments is not given us by the authority of God as reliable guidance for our lives on earth? Then there are the Conferences and Institutes and the Lives of the Fathers and the rule of the holy father Basil. What else are these works but a means of true progress in virtue for those aiming at high standards of observance and obedience in monastic life? We, however, can only blush with shame when we reflect on the negligence and inadequacy of the monastic lives we lead.
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 in the works which we have mentioned above and with God’s help you will then be able to reach those heights yourself. Amen.
After so many words and so many chapters it feels very surreal to be writing what is the final reflection on The Rule of St Benedict, a project started many months ago, paused amidst parish work and finally taken up again in the midst of a global pandemic. The time lockdown and isolation has been pertinent to reflect upon the monastic life and all that it has to teach us as we adjust to a period of time, spanning longer than we imagine or know, where we must be working from home, be self-sufficient, pray in our ‘cell’ and learn to have even more tolerance with those we may abide with.
Benedict ends the Rule by stating that it is only the beginning, that his words in this text are the basics, and introduction to a different way a life, the first few tentative steps on the path to Glory. As you may expect from a man who has written about humility and the need to suppress the ego rid ourselves of pride he points away from himself, from his own great tome to the words of two other sources. Firstly, Benedict shows his great love and reverence of scripture in this chapter, pointing the reader to the words of the Old and New Testaments – that these, authorised by God, are perfect for the guidance of our lives on earth. He does not intend his words to detract from the Bible, and thus scriptural references both obvious and slightly more hidden are found on almost every page that he has written.
Just in case you thought that after taking the Scriptures as a primary source, that the Rule would be the best secondary source for guidance, Benedict has another recommendation. To turn to the Conferences and Institutes. Here the Holy Father is referring to the corpus of works by St John Cassian, (AD 306-435) – also known as John the Aesthetic, as the name suggests he was a monk, he is revered by both the churches of the East and the West and he is credited with bringing knowledge of the monastic life to the Western word. Benedict has become known as the ‘Father of Western Monasticism’ which would make John Cassian the Grandfather. These two great works, the Conferences of the Coenobites to give it its full title, collects the wisdom of some of the greatest early monks about the ordering of monastic life. This is coupled with the Institutes of the Desert Fathers, which is more concerned with inner development. Together they paint a picture of monastic life that Benedict attempted to capture and distil.
After Cassian, Benedict also mentions Basil the Great. St Basil wrote a very early monastic rule to help form the shambolic communities of the desert into something more ordered. It is a strict and very aesthetic set of instructions because the situation that Basil found was in disarray – there was very little prayer and even less to distinguish them as christian communities, more just a collection of people living together in the desert and doing their normal tasks. In comparison to the Rule of St Benedict it is short but less flexible, a reaction to the current scenario rather than a plan for the future, but it heavily influence Benedict as he dealt with the corruption he saw in his own age.
You may, as most do, think that if you follow the letter and spirit of the Rule of St Benedict you would be as close to sanctity as is possible this side of heaven, but Benedict points further, suggesting that those who are zealous to live in an even higher degree of monastic aestheticism must look toward the Desert Fathers, the original source, and drink from that fountain. Somewhat ironically, the work of the Rule is such that it is more than a life work, perhaps if we could live several times over it wouldn’t be enough to truly participate in this purgative process on the path to perfection. But the wisdom of Benedict, precisely because of that, has become timeless – he does not speak just to the age, or an age, but all ages – the wills and whims of man is such that these words, this advice to address our foibles, failures and falls will remain relevant – as long as there is breath in the lungs of humanity and evil in the heart of The Enemy.
Although Benedict does not consider his Rule to be apt for experts, only a guide for beginners, it is just as well that we, all of us, are but infants seeking to grow in wisdom, truth and understanding. By taking these words to heart and keeping Christ at the centre, we can develop a monastic mindset – focused solely on God – that spills out into or community. Be that cloister, convent, monastery or market place.
St Benedict, pray for us, we are really going to need it.