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Visitors are almost always impressed by the order that characterizes monastic life. The monks and nuns walk quietly through the cloister precincts. They walk two by two to solemn liturgies. Each member of the community has an assigned place and assigned duties. It all seems to run like clockwork.
Ordering Time and Place
Some of this order appears to be a fairly modern invention as far as Christian monastic history goes. Benedict said nothing about marching two by two into church, though he certainly did value decorum. One can theorize--justifiably, I think--that orderly communities tend to attract personalities for whom order is a high priority, so that order almost becomes a religious norm, if not a religion, to which freer spirits are forced to conform. This irritated Thomas Merton. There is, he commented in Contemplation in a World of Action,
a fatal tendency to dramatize the monastic life. A special costume and decor. A unique behavior, . . . a ritual solemnity and obsequiousness. In the end this amounts to attachment to feudal anachronism, and the monk who pretends to justify himself by these masks is only convincing people that he is an object for the museum.
Nevertheless, some kind of order is clearly necessary and important. Community life requires ordering. It is important to know who is doing the cooking today, what time we say morning prayer, who will get the mail, and so on. It is even important that we observe certain standards of polite behavior, just to avoid irritating those closest to us.
Even in one's individual life there needs to be order. It may not be necessarythat I make my meditation every day at the same time or that I read Scripture a half hour a day instead of three and a half hours a week, but it is necessary that there be some sort of plan whereby I set aside time to do the activities to which I am committed. Left to chance, some of those activities will not get done.
How structured life should be depends in part on personality and circumstance, but structured it must be.
Benedict was legislating for a community of people who evidently were ethnically and educationally diverse. There were children and old men, monks who had transferred from elsewhere, priests and laymen. He needed to integrate this diverse cross section of humanity into a kindly, well-organized community so that everything would be done at the proper time. He achieved this integration through several mechanisms, the most important of which were seniority and the daily order, or horarium. Seniority meant that each member of the community was assigned a place that depended on the time of his or her arrival. All the members of the community had a place of their own. They knew where they belonged. Some tasks were assigned in rotation on the basis of seniority; others were assigned according to talent and skill.
More important for us was the horarium. Benedict divided the day into three principal activities: work, prayer, and reading. The details varied according to the season of the year, but the division left four to five hours for work, about three hours for prayer, and slightly less than three hours for private reading (there was also public reading in the dining room during meals and elsewhere in the interval between supper and compline). Benedict specified when the members of the community should be occupied with these activities. He also made provision for two other activities: hospitality toward guests and mutual help and support. These two activities could be required at any time and were unpredictable. In order to be hospitable and helpful to each other, the monks had to have some flexibility in their schedules. If their schedules were completely full and unalterable, and thus no time was available to be hospitable and helpful, those schedules needed to be changed.
Saint Benedict did not like idleness, but he does not seem to have assigned any of these activities simply as a remedy for idleness. Work, prayer, and reading were activities to which his monks were obligated by their calling, talents, and humanity, and if they devoted themselves to those activities zealously, they would not be idle. But the value of work, prayer, and reading far exceeded their contribution to keeping the monks from idleness.
In fact, in the prologue and elsewhere, the Rule of Benedict conveys a sense of urgency: one must hasten and run toward the goal of everlasting life. The goal is precious; there is no time to waste getting there.
Each of these five activities of the horarium will be discussed later. What is important here is the fact that there had to be time for hospitality and for mutual help and support. Saint Benedict teaches a very important truth here, a truth most of us know but often neglect to act upon: after God, other persons are the most important realities in our lives. If we are too busy to make time for people who need us, whether they are strangers or neighbors, there is something wrong with our priorities. Worse yet, we may be using our obligations to work and prayer (and perhaps reading) as an excuse to try to evade our obligation to be helpful and hospitable.
These five activities not only divided up the hours of the monks' day; they also correlate to the defined space of the monastery. Prayer was done in church, reading in the cloister (and later in the library or the cell), work in the workshops; hospitality was provided in the guest house; and mutual support was given wherever it was needed.