In the sixth century when Roman Empire was breaking apart and politics, cultural life and even the Church were in disarray tumultuous times not unlike our own Benedict of Nursia designed what he termed “a little rule” that showed his monks the way to peace as they learned to prefer Christ above all things. The Rule of Benedict offers timeless and practical tools for living this Christ-centered life today.
• Revised and expanded 10th anniversary edition
• Practical, down-to-earth writing style; explains the content of the Rule of St. Benedict and how to use the practices in daily life
• Contains historical background to the Rule and a new chapter on relationships and community
• Includes guide for group use
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St. Benedict's Toolbox
The Nuts and Bolts of Everyday Benedictine Living
By Jane Tomaine
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2015 Jane Tomaine
All rights reserved.
The Rule of Benedict
Relevant and Appropriate
The Christ-centredness of the Rule and of the life to which it gives rise is overwhelming. Christ stands at the head of every avenue. ... Christ is the beginning and the end, the ground of my being and the goal of my seeking. With Christ all things become possible; without Christ nothing makes sense.
— ESTHER DE WAAL
A BENEDICTINE PRACTICE FOR THIS CHAPTER
As you read, think about other "rules" that you've encountered:
What's different about the Rule of Benedict?
What ideas about the Rule introduced in this chapter catch your attention? Why are they important to you?
Who was Benedict? What is his Rule all about and why was it written? How does Benedictine spirituality relate to who we are as Christians? As Episcopalians or United Methodists, Presbyterians or Roman Catholics? Does Benedict's teaching have value to us today? We'll explore these questions in this chapter, as we look at Benedict and his times, explore the Rule and its main teachings, and consider its impact on Christian tradition. First we'll take a brief look at the development of monasticism in the centuries prior to Benedict, learning about the tradition which he inherited.
A Brief Look at the Origins of Monasticism
Saint Antony and the Roots of Monasticism
Christian monasticism was born in the barren and inhospitable deserts of ancient Egypt in the late third to early fourth centuries. While men and women before him lived in solitude close to towns, a young man named Antony went deep into the Egyptian desert in search of God and a life dedicated to Christ. The Life of Antony was written by Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria in the fourth century. When Antony was between eighteen and twenty, one Sunday morning on his way to the Lord's house he was pondering how in Acts some sold all they had and placed the money at the feet of the apostles for those in need. Just as he was walking into the church he heard the gospel lesson where the Lord said to the rich man, "If you would be perfect, sell your possessions and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." Antony gave away all his possessions, leaving everything behind for the solitude of the Egyptian desert where he sought God, pursued virtue, and at every turn, battled the Devil. Athanasius tells wonderful stories about this gentle and single-minded holy man's quest for God who "urged everyone to prefer nothing in the world above the love of Christ," an instruction that Benedict included in his Rule (4.21; 72.11).
Antony became the father of Christian monasticism, inspiring men and women to dedicate their lives to the search for God. These ardent Christians in love with their Lord ventured into the desert and became our Desert Abbas (Fathers) and Ammas (Mothers), imparting wisdom that we continue to draw on today. Many practices in the Rule of St. Benedict have as their source their holy way of life, having been handed down from generation to generation. Closing The Life of Antony, Athanaseus writes, "Therefore, read these things now to the other brothers so that they may learn what the life of the monk ought to be."
Monasticism Grows — Communities Form
While many Desert Abbas and Ammas lived an ascetic life as hermits, gradually like-minded individuals gathered together, creating the first monastic communities. One such individual was Pachomius (290–346), considered to be the founder of cenobitic life — monastic living in community. Seeking to "learn and do God's perfect will," he established a number of monastic communities in Egypt which grew to include over five thousand monks!
The torch of monastic living in community was carried forward by others such as Basil (330–379), who advocated this form of living as a lifelong commitment. Establishing communities in what is now Turkey, Basil wrote two sets of Rules while abbot of his community that are on Benedict's own "Recommended Reading List" in chapter 73 of his Rule. Basil also became bishop of Cappadocia. And so we now turn to Benedict, his life and times.
The Life of Benedict and His Rule
A Time of Uncertainty and Turmoil
Benedict (480–547) was born into a world of turbulence and violence. The fall of Rome in 410 CE had shocked the civilized world. The onslaught of "barbarian" tribes brought about the official end of the Western empire in 476, with the deposition of Romulus, the last emperor. After an extended peace under conqueror Theodorix, king of the Ostrogoths, Italy was again ravaged by war. The sixth century was an age characterized by danger, mass injustice, dislocation of population, and the apparent collapse of almost all high culture. Not even the Church was spared disruption as theological controversies raged. Distracted church leaders had to contend also with political turmoil. It seemed that there wasn't a sovereign or ruler who wasn't either an atheist, a pagan, or a heretic. It was into this chaos that Benedict brought the promise of an ordered, Christ-centered life.
Benedict Forms Communities
Benedict was born around the year 480 in the Umbrian province of Nursia in Italy. What we know of Benedict's life comes from the second book of Dialogues, written in the late sixth century by Pope Gregory I, also known as Gregory the Great. He describes Benedict's family as one of high station. Sent to Rome to study, the young man quickly abandoned the life of a scholar when, Gregory writes, "he noticed that many students fell headlong into vice. Wishing to please God alone, he went in search of the habit of a holy way of life." After several years in a small village where he sought to live an ascetic life, Benedict withdrew to an area near the town of Subiaco, where he lived for three years as a hermit in a hillside cave. Gregory tells us he became known for his holiness and wisdom throughout the neighboring area: "He inspired many people to gather there to serve the almighty God — so many, in fact, that he built twelve monasteries there with the help of Jesus Christ, the almighty Lord."
After threats on his life, the results of jealousy, Benedict traveled to Monte Cassino in the imposing mountains of the central Apennines in Italy. Tearing down pagan temples within the walls of an ancient fortress, he formed a new community and remained there for the rest of his life. We believe that Benedict wrote the Rule for the monks of Monte Cassino. His sister, Scholastica, established herself nearby with her own community of nuns, and it was said that the two met once a year. Benedict died in 547. Forty years after his death, the monastery at Monte Cassino was destroyed by the Lombards. Today the relics of St. Benedict may be found at the abbey of St. Benôit-sur-Loire in France.
The life of Benedict presented in Pope Gregory's Dialogues is not a biography as we know it today but a literary form called "hagiography," a way of writing about the lives of the saints that focuses on stories and wondrous accounts of miracles. While we may question the accuracy of these accounts, we may heed the love and reverence they show toward Benedict. Here's one wonderful story.
During a time of famine the severe shortage of food was causing a great deal of suffering in Campania. At Benedict's monastery the entire grain supply had been used up and nearly all the bread was gone as well. When mealtime came, only five loaves could be found to set before the community. Noticing how downcast they were, the saint gently reproved them for their lack of trust in God and at the same time tried to raise their dejected spirits with a comforting assurance. "Why are you so depressed at the lack of bread?" he asked. "What if today there is only a little: Tomorrow you will have more than you need." The next day about thirty hundredweights of flour were found in sacks at the gate of the monastery, but no one ever discovered whose services almighty God had employed in bringing them. When they saw what had happened, the monks were filled with gratitude and learned from this miracle that even in their hour of need they must not lose faith in the bountiful goodness of God.
The Creation of the Rule
At the time that Benedict wrote the Rule, monasticism was three hundred years old. He inherited a tradition that began with Antony and incorporated ideas from several other rules. Following the Rules of Pachomius in Egypt and Basil in Asia Minor, he stressed the importance of being in a community and not living either in isolation or as a wanderer. He carried forward the main theme of the Rule of Augustine of Hippo (354–430) — that monastic community is about love, the very purpose of monastic life. Benedict also drew from a famous rule known as the "Rule of the Master," removing material that did not follow his view of community and leadership or that he considered punitive, offering a more moderate approach. He added new material he felt was important, such as the qualities leaders of the monastery should possess.
Benedict's message was: Find God by being in relationship with one another. Achieve holiness by being normal. Base your faith on the changelessness of God and of God's love and empowerment. Relate in a healthy way to yourself and keep that relationship in its proper proportion. Recognize that your role as a Christian is to love God, to serve others, and to seek eternal life.
It is this model that Benedict brought to the Western Church and to us. One reason why the Rule is so pertinent to our lives today is that he emphasized living together in one physical place and remaining solidly faithful to that place and to the people there. All of us already live "in community": family, marriage, friendships, committed relationships, church families, the workplace, religious organizations, neighborhoods, and cities.
Benedict wrote his Rule for the monks of his own monastery. He had no thought or idea of establishing a monastic rule that you and I, over fifteen centuries later, would consider valuable for our own lives. Yet within a century or two after his death in 547, Benedict had become the patriarch of Western monasticism and his Rule the most influential in the Western Church. By the high Middle Ages (eleventh–thirteenth centuries), most of the monasteries of the West had adopted his Rule.
Benedictine monasteries became beacons of light and learning in a world of violence. As the communities grew during the medieval period, they became the extensive complexes that we are familiar with today. One hundred or more monks would live in a monastery that would have a great church on its property. When pilgrims and visitors came to these places of worship, the monasteries interacted with the world. Abbots, who were the leaders of the monasteries, often became political figures with great power.
Pressures from the world outside brought change and great wealth. Over time many monasteries became lax in fulfilling the way of life as directed in the Rule. Yet there have always been individuals who sought to truly live the Rule of Benedict. In the eleventh century the Cistercians were established as an offshoot of the Benedictine houses. They sought to bring about reform and a return to following the original Rule, with an emphasis on contemplation.
What Is the Rule of Benedict?
Structure of the Rule
Imagine you're holding your checkbook, or, better yet, take your checkbook out and look at it. Imagine a book about an inch larger in length and width and about one-quarter inch thick. This is the size of Benedict's Rule — with standard-sized print!
Benedict's Rule, originally written in Latin, includes a Prologue and seventy-three chapters. Each chapter of the Rule has a title that explains the content of that chapter: for example, "The Tools for Good Works," "The Sleeping Arrangements of the Monks," "The Reception of Guests," and "Distribution of Goods according to Need." Most modern translations divide these chapters into numbered "verses" for easy referencing of the content just as we do the Bible.
In St. Benedict's Toolbox, I use several translations of the Rule as well as my own paraphrase of verses. References to the Rule are given in parentheses after a quotation or a paraphrase by noting only the numeric chapter and verse. For example, "(42.5)" means the "Rule of Benedict, chapter 42, verse 5." I will add RB before the chapter and verse when Scripture appears within that verse of the Rule. For example, "(Gal 5:16; RB 4.59)".
What is the Rule of Benedict all about? Bottom line, the Rule gives instructions for how to seek God in community. Here are the broad topic areas that I find in his Rule:
Liturgical Instructions for the Divine Office, or Opus Dei ("the work of God"). These are the eight daily community prayer services that compose the main occupation of the monastics. (The Divine Office is covered in chapter 6 of this book.)
Roles, Responsibilities, and Procedures for Community Members. While Benedict provides some specific instructions for jobs in the monastery such as for the abbot or abbess (the superiors of the monastery), the cellarer who distributes food and utensils to the monastics, and the porter who greets visitors at the gate of the monastery, his main concern is with the personal qualities needed by each person and how they are to treat others. Benedict's focus is on being more than on doing. Most of us will never be a superior of a monastery, but we can take on the Christ-like qualities that Benedict asks for those in leadership roles.
How to Live Together in Community. An important focus of the Rule involves relationships: how monastics should treat one another and conduct themselves to promote peace and harmony in the community. Again we can bring his practical instructions into our own lives as we seek to promote peace and harmony where we are. Addressing logistical matters in community, Benedict also includes directions for such things as sleeping arrangements, meals, food, clothing, work, discipline, and the process for joining the monastery.
Spiritual Direction. Benedict encourages monastics — 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 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."
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. The way to live, Benedict states in his Prologue, is by following the Gospels (Prologue 21), especially Jesus's main directive to love one another. That's why the Rule is so relevant for all Christians. Benedict sees that the way to holiness is through other people.
The Power of the Rule
The Rule is practical, down-to-earth, and easy to read. Benedict's gentleness and understanding flow through the words, reminding us to also be gentle and understanding. He is always realistic about what his monks can do. "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" (Prologue 45–47). Timothy Fry wrote that Benedict "shows an extraordinary understanding of weakness, a compassion for those who fail or are troubled or distressed, a delicate patience even with the hard of heart ... his Rule is deeply human and evangelical."
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.
Last but not least, the Rule is very much about living an ordinary life well. Thomas Merton, monk, priest, and spiritual writer, said the essence of the Rule is "doing ordinary things quietly and perfectly for the glory of God."
Excerpted from St. Benedict's Toolbox by Jane Tomaine. Copyright © 2015 Jane Tomaine. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPreface to the Tenth Anniversary Edition,
Words of Encouragement for Those New to the Rule of St. Benedict,
Welcome to St. Benedict's Toolbox,
Guide to Using the Book: The "How-To" of St. Benedict's Toolbox: The Nuts and Bolts of the Book,
Introduction: The Rule of Benedict: A Tool for Christian Living,
Part I: Getting Started,
1 The Rule of Benedict: Relevant and Appropriate,
2 The Prayer of Lectio Divina: Listening to God in Scripture,
Part II: The Benedictine Vows: The Core of the Rule,
3 Stability: Remaining Present,
4 Obedience: Listening and Responding,
5 Conversion of Life: Being Open to Transformation,
Part III: More Tools for Daily Life,
6 Walking through the Day with God: Praying the Divine Office,
7 Benedictine Hospitality: Hearts Overflowing with Love,
8 Keeping a Holy "Benedictine" Lent Anytime,
9 The Holiness of Labor: Benedictine Work and Service,
10 Community, Relationships, and Being a Benedictine Presence,
11 What Are You Looking For? Developing a Rule of Life,
12 Conclusion: Living in the Present Moment,
Appendix A: A Listing of the Tools in the Toolbox,
Appendix B: A Guide for Using St. Benedict's Toolbox in a Group Setting,