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A Devotional Commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict
By Norvene Vest
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 1990 Norvene Vest
All rights reserved.
The Various Kinds of Monks
It is plain that there are four kinds of monks. The first are the cenobites: that is, those who do their service in monasteries under a rule and an abbot.
There is much misunderstanding and variation in opinion about who monks are and what they do, as well as what a Rule of Life is and how to use it. In these "Comment" sections, we look closely and prayerfully at the language of the Rule itself to see what it tells us in its own terms about such questions. We ask: What is Benedict trying to say to us through his choice of language and emphasis?
Two items of note appear here. The parenthetical phrase at the beginning of the chapter may not have been in the earliest manuscripts, but it is a helpful reminder about the linguistic roots of the word "rule." Regula literally means "straight edge," as in a plumb line or carpenter's edge that sets a measure or boundary that is "true," or properly aligned. The Rule serves that purpose for the community of monks—in Benedict's case, by pointing consistently toward the Gospel and its daily applicability.
The reference here to cenobitic monks is brief, chiefly because the balance of the Rule is addressed to them. There was in Benedict's time, and still is, a tendency to think of a solitary individual engaged in heroic ascetical feats, works of charity, or spiritual heights, as the culmination of the religious life. However, taken overall, Benedict's Rule suggests something quite different: that the optimum setting for the true Christian life is in community—in the daily, committed, face-to-face interaction of very different people who share a love for God. Not only does Benedict express his preference by listing the cenobites first (community monks, the sort for whom he writes), but in verse 13 of this chapter, he calls them "the strong kind." For all practical purposes, Benedict defines the true monk this way: as one who lives in monastic community, serving under an abbot and a rule. He goes on (after this preliminary chapter) to provide a rule for the cenobitic monk that powerfully articulates the nature of the optimum communal setting for the consecrated Christian life.
Both rule and community are severe and constant tests of my willingness to be a part of something bigger and more important than my ego. There are days when the idea that I really belong is so exhilarating that I give myself generously and with joy, and days when I feel so grumpy that I would like to withdraw from the constant pressure of otherness and incompleteness that is so exasperatingly manifest in human interaction. I guess it is precisely that tension which makes the Rule a sound and practical ascetical system, subtle as it sometimes seems. To let my ego be given away, daily and bit by bit, but intentionally: that surely is even harder work than regular fasting! Well, Benedict, I'll walk with you a while to see what you want to teach my heart.
The second are the anchorites—hermits: that is, those who, not in the first fervor of monastic life, but after long probation in the monastery, have learned by the help and experience of others to fight against the devil They go forth well-armed from the ranks of their brethren to the solitary combat of the desert. They are now able to fight safely without the support of others, by their own strength and with God's assistance, against the vices of flesh and thoughts.
This short chapter sketches a brief history of the cumulative Christian wisdom about the best ways to live the consecrated life. In the first centuries after Christ, serious Christians often found themselves embracing martyrdom. After Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, many earnest Christians found faith lukewarm at best "in the world" and thus chose the way of the hermit. As generations of Christians experimented and observed carefully the results of those experiments, the awareness grew that certain forms of monastic life enhance spiritual progress, and certain forms hinder it. Consensus developed that one who is serious about the Christian life "needs training, a training that aims at absorbing the wisdom and profiting from the experience of many previous generations."
Benedict's Rule clarifies the emerging idea that the cenobitic or community life is at least equally as important as the eremitic, or solitary calling. The language in this paragraph reveals much of Benedict's thinking on this matter.
The real battle is the devil's war against God for human souls. This battle is fought in every setting on earth, but becomes particularly intense whenever a human spirit determines to turn to God. The methods of the devil are subtle and carefully designed, so that one unacquainted with these tactics in general may incorrectly interpret them as personal doubts, desires, or incapacities. In any case, two things (in addition to prayer) are very helpful in combating these tactics: 1) knowledge of them, shared by those who themselves have struggled; and 2) the continual support of those now engaged side by side in the struggle.
Living in community itself is often a source of temptation, when irritation, comparisons, and conflicts invite ego isolation from one another. Yet Benedict consistently treats such temptations as opportunities for self-giving in the context of the community of faith.
I often wonder whether Christian community really exists in the contemporary parish setting. Yet, I am compelled to admit that I am given opportunity to experience the support of community far more than my pride lets me see or respond to. It seems to me that true community grows only over a long period of shared intimacy and explicit acknowledgement of Christ's empowering presence. Yet I feel that seldom either have I had or taken the opportunity to truly grow in faith and love (and trials!) with other committed Christians. What might be the reasons for this—both in me and in my environment? Even my present-day monastic friends struggle with this issue. For me, community is indeed a strenuous discipline—and a gift of grace. I look forward to the hard interior work of exploring this discipline of community further with Benedict and in the communal contexts of my life.
A third and detestable kind of monks are the sarabaites, who have been tried neither by rule nor by experience as gold by the furnace (Prov 27:21); but, being as soft as lead, still keep faith with the world in their behavior, lying to God with their tonsure. Living in twos or threes, or even singly without a shepherd, they enclose themselves not in the Lord's sheepfolds but in their own. Their law consists in their own pleasures and desires: whatever they think fit or choose to do, that they call holy; and what they do not like, that they consider unlawful.
Strong language here! In Benedict's day the Roman world as it was known was falling apart. Many persons were intensely seeking roots, something that would give security and stability in a time of great change. Yet Benedict suggests that there are those who try to fool themselves—or others—into believing that they have found something worthwhile, but it is really a vast illusion, and a cynical one at that. When someone pretends to believe in God and is quite without inspiration, he or she either doesn't believe there is a God or believes that God has no power.
True commitment to God demands submission both to tradition and to authority. Both tradition and authority have their limits, but we are only qualified to speak to those limits after being tested. At first and for a long time we must submit to the wisdom contained in tradition and in the elders. We must find a good school and undergo strenuous training—training that will often demand something different than what we would "freely" choose. Even our wills must be taught to recognize the good, and to choose it in daily situations.
Make no mistake: there is real and awesome power here! It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, and while we may do so gladly, it behooves us to do it with the utmost respect and obedience.
Again I hear the phrase: "still keep faith with the world in their behavior"—and I am indicted and humbled by it! I keep forgetting how deeply my most "personal" desires have been formed by the crass, egoistic, and consumptive culture in which we live. What are most damning are those moments I realize how utterly incapable I am of choosing for myself that which (even) is my own good. I don't yet know enough to make such choices; more profoundly, I don't yet love enough. I am often aware of what a puny thing my loving is!
There is great comfort in the possibility that I can rest in and be formed by something I can trust which is "bigger" and wiser than I am. Something incarnated, something that belongs to the human community as God's gift. There is also great risk in the vulnerability entailed in giving myself to such tradition and authority. But perhaps the power of my need and my longing is now great enough to allow me to take that risk.
VERSES 10-13 (END)
The fourth kind of monks are those called gyrovagues, who spend their whole lives seeking hospitality in province after province; monastery after monastery, staying three or four days at a time; always wandering and never stable, they are slaves to self-will and the snares of appetite: they are in all things worse than the sarabaites.
Of the most wretched life of all these it is better to remain silent than to speak. Leaving these behind us, therefore, let us proceed, with the help of God, to make provision for the cenobites—the strong kind of monks.
Benedict has told us that he proposes a school for the service of the Lord, and in this chapter he makes clear that the school does call for some definite training. In this section, he gives a clue about the training—it is a training of the will; it is designed to liberate us from slavery to the will. One who calls himself a monk dares not be a slave to appetite/willfulness.
"Will" is a word very narrowly conceived in our culture: we think of it as kind of an executive, decisive and controlling; it almost has the features of an "iron fist." In contrast to this concept, however, the mainstream of Christian tradition has generally conceived will as a matter of the heart—not in a sentimental, flaccid way, but as a passionate harmony of one's entire being. What Benedict is opposed to is allowing ourselves to be moved by the superficial forces of appetite, which prevent our deep discovery of authentic inner necessity.
Here Benedict spells out that monks in community are the strong kind. He writes to those of us willing to explore our own experience for the ways in which community brings us into fuller life. One commentator has suggested that Benedict understands cenobites to be the "strong kind" because they are willing to recognize and to act on their needs, their weaknesses, and their longings. In some essential way, Christians in community belong to and supplement one another. Thus, in community it is as important to offer our needs as it is to offer our gifts. Strength is found in the combination.
Many times I have thought about what will is (especially when I start a new diet), and I cannot say that I know, in the sense of knowledge that wells up out of me from within.
But I believe Benedict is right, that in order to discover (and train) my will, I must be stable; that is, "stay put." I need to stay quiet for a time, undistracted by multiple stimuli and competitions for my attention, undistracted by the noisy inner cravings that would mentally draw me here and there. I need to stay put until I enter quiet, and know the greatness of God and the terrible inadequacy of myself. I need to stay put until I have passed beyond even that, and know the enduring power of love. And there, finally, I discover a depth and passion that must flow over and spend itself in compassion, charity, and adoration.
Chapter 2, What Kind of Person the Abbot Ought to Be
An abbot who is worthy to govern a monastery must always remember what he is called, and fulfill his title through his deeds. For he is believed to hold the place of Christ in the monastery, since he is addressed by a title of His (Christ's), as the Apostle has said: You have received the spirit of adoption of sons by which we cry, "abba, father" (Rom 8:15).
Therefore, the abbot should never teach or enact or command anything contrary to the teaching of the Lord; rather let his commands and his teaching, like the leaven of divine justice, suffuse the minds of his disciples.
Excerpted from Preferring Christ by Norvene Vest. Copyright © 1990 Norvene Vest. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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