A Life of Listening
Listen!" wrote Benedict at the beginning of his monastic Rule. Writing around A.D. 540, he offered a way of listening in a setting where God's voice could be heard, where those who wished to seek God through humility and obedience in a community of like-minded Christians could practice the disciplines of prayer without the distractions of family life.
In his prologue, Benedict invites the reader to listen to the voice of God calling him or her to service in prayer, faith, and good works. Such a disciplined life may be difficult at first, Benedict says, but “as we progress in this life and in faith, our hearts will expand with the inexpressible joy of love as we run the way of God's commandments.” This is the ultimate outcome to which the Rule points: Joy is the result of loving service to God.Monastic "rules" were more than lists of dos and don'ts. They were blueprints for an ordered and celibate form of Christian life that had been growing in the Christian church for 200 years before Benedict. He based his own rule on earlier ones such as the anonymous Rule of the Master. But it was Benedict's "little Rule for beginners" that became the gold standard for Western monasticism. In a short space, about 50 pages in modern editions, Benedict wrote a Rule noteworthy for its wise moderation, biblical grounding, flexibility, and interweaving of spiritual teaching and practical directives.
Called Into Community
By the time Benedict wrote his Rule, the monastic movement had taken many shapes. The hermit's life of solitude was one form. But although Benedict had great respect for hermits, he thought that a community offered more safeguards and guidance. Would-be hermits should first live in a community before embracing solitude. Therefore he was writing for “cenobites,” monks who lived and served together “under a rule and an abbot.”
Benedict's monastery was not an alternative church where super-Christians followed esoteric lore and practices. Benedict and most of his first disciples were laypeople, though he did allow ordained priests to enter the monastery. His primary goal was not to minister to the wider church, but to establish a community of baptized, celibate Christians devoted to helping each other live out the gospel. According to historian David Knowles, “Benedict's monastery is neither a penitentiary nor a school of ascetic mountaineering, but a family, a home of those seeking God.”
To become a monk under the Rule of Benedict was to commit to the long haul. For this reason, Benedict stipulated that those who came to join the monastery were “not to be granted easy admittance.” After spending some time in the guesthouse, they were admitted to a special part of the monastery called the “novitiate,” where a monk appointed by the abbot instructed them in monastic life for a year. They studied the Rule, took part in the activities of the monastery, and experienced the hardships of a disciplined community life.
From this it became clear whether “they truly [sought] God, and [were] eager for the work of God.” They became permanent members when, before the whole community, they promised “stability, fidelity to the monastic way of life, and obedience,” that is, to live faithfully in their monastic community until death.
The Rhythm of the Day
A monk's daily routine reflected Benedict's conviction that prayerful listening should be at the center of the Christian life. The Psalmist declared, “Seven times a day I will praise you” (Ps. 119:164), and, “At midnight I arose to give you praise” (Ps. 119:62), so Benedict structured each day around seven communal prayers and added an eighth a few hours after midnight. He carefully distributed the 150 psalms over these prayer services so that all the psalms would be prayed at least once a week. To the psalms he added readings from Scripture (and, at the night service, readings from esteemed Christian writers), hymns, and prayers.
<p>A monk's daily routine reflected Benedict's conviction that prayerful listening should be at the center of the Christian life. The Psalmist declared, “Seven times a day I will praise you” (Ps. 119:164), and, “At midnight I arose to give you praise” (Ps. 119:62), so Benedict structured each day around seven communal prayers and added an eighth a few hours after midnight. He carefully distributed the 150 psalms over these prayer services so that all the psalms would be prayed at least once a week. To the psalms he added readings from Scripture (and, at the night service, readings from esteemed Christian writers), hymns, and prayers.</p>
In addition to spending about four hours a day praying the divine office, Benedict's monks spent an almost equal amount of time in “godly reading” (lectio divina). Like other literate people of their time, they read slowly and reflectively, pronouncing the words. This was because handwritten manuscripts were difficult to read, but also because the monks were not looking for quick information but ideas to live by. They wanted to take the words to heart and commit them to memory.
Benedict's expectation that his monks would read and memorize the Psalms and other parts of the Bible bore fruit. The monks developed a rich, biblically based culture, and their monasteries became centers of learning that were particularly important during the upheavals of the early Middle Ages.
School of the Lord's Service
A life of listening—to Scripture, to the writings of the church fathers, to the abbot, and to each other— required of the monks certain fundamental attitudes: the humility of a creature seeking to live in the presence of his Maker, the receptivity of a disciple “in the school of the Lord's service” (Benedict's definition of a monastery), and the silence of one who is slow to speak and ready to learn. While Benedict didn't require perpetual silence, he wanted monks to use sign language to ask for things during meals, because the monks listened to public reading while they ate. At night, he wanted strict silence.
The monks were to express obedience, silence, and humility in virtuous action. In chapter four of his Rule, Benedict listed some 70 “instruments of good works,” beginning with the Lord's command to love God with all one's heart and to love one's neighbor as oneself. The list includes the Ten Commandments, ascetic practices, forgiveness, sincerity and restraint in speech, confession of sins, and placing one's hope solely in God.
These are not tools to earn salvation but ways to serve the Lord. Benedict cautioned that those who use these instruments rightly should “not become elated over their good observance, but realize that the good things in them come not from them but from the Lord.” He went on to cite the apostle Paul: “By the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15:10).
The Monastic Family
After explaining the attitudes he wished his monks to cultivate and listing ways these attitudes could be exercised, Benedict devoted most of the remaining 66 brief chapters of his Rule to organizational matters: who does what and how.
The abbot had a paramount role. Benedict's Rule stipulated that the monks elect their own abbot, or “father,” who represented Christ in their midst. He, for his part, was never to deviate from the Lord's teaching. He was to teach more by example than by words. Although he was responsible for the physical as well as the spiritual welfare of his flock, he was not to be “overly concerned about passing and earthly things. He will have to render God an account of his care of the souls entrusted to him.” Benedict's Rule is full of such reminders of God's all-seeing presence.
<p>The abbot had a paramount role. Benedict's Rule stipulated that the monks elect their own abbot, or “father,” who represented Christ in their midst. He, for his part, was never to deviate from the Lord's teaching. He was to teach more by example than by words. Although he was responsible for the physical as well as the spiritual welfare of his flock, he was not to be “overly concerned about passing and earthly things. He will have to render God an account of his care of the souls entrusted to him.” Benedict's Rule is full of such reminders of God's all-seeing presence.</p>
The abbot had final say in decisions affecting the life of the community, but he was not to make important decisions without first hearing from the community members, so that all may be done “with foresight and fairness.” The abbot and the monks were to listen to the Rule and to each other.
The last chapters of the Rule regulated day-to-day life so that the community would run smoothly. Benedict instructed each official to do his task in a way that would build up the community and help its members live in God's presence. He distributed burdens so that no one was overworked. He made exceptions for the young, the old, and the infirm. He insisted that each person have what he needed, but nothing superfluous.
A cellarer (business manager) oversaw the material goods of the monastery, an infirmarian looked after the sick, a God-fearing elderly monk manned the gate, a prior assisted the abbot in overall care for the community. Each monk was assigned work to do because work is an integral part of human life, and because Benedict wanted the monastery to be as self-contained as possible.
Benedict's monastery was not a place of deprivation. He derived his basic principle from Acts: “Things were distributed to each according to his need.” Everything was to be held in common, and each was to receive what he needed from the abbot: “cloak, tunic, sandals, shoes, belt, knife, stylus, needle, handkerchief, and writing tablets.”
The monks' diet resembled that of their rural neighbors, except that the monks didn't eat meat (unless they were very weak and sick). Some earlier monastic writers thought monks should not drink wine, but in this and other matters Benedict offered a moderate alternative that took into account human limitations and differences: “The monks of our time cannot be persuaded of this, so let us at least agree to drink sparingly, and not to satiety.”
The monks were to sleep with their clothes on (but without their knives in their belts!) so they could rise without delay when the signal was given. Though they rose very early, they went to bed very early, and in the summer they had a siesta in the afternoon. Benedict wanted to make sure they had adequate sleep.
Though the primary purpose of Benedict's community was not ministry outside the monastery, ministering to others inevitably grew out of their lives together. In the Rule, Christ appears in three guises: as the Lord, as a model of self-emptying humility, and in all people, especially those who are vulnerable and burdened: the sick, the elderly, the poor, pilgrims, and guests. All these people should be treated with the reverence one would show to Christ. Benedictine communities often became islands of peace in a tumultuous world.
Near the end of his Rule, Benedict urged his monks to “to compete in honoring each other,” “with utmost patience to bear with each other's weaknesses of body and character,” love God and the abbot, and prefer nothing to Christ—and “may He lead us together to ever lasting life.”
The Rule's Legacy
Benedict's final chapter is a reading list for those who wish “to hasten on to the perfection of monastic life.” Thus he concluded where he began, urging his monks to be listeners with him to Scripture, respected biblical interpreters, and his monastic forerunners, such as St. Basil and Cassian.
This varied list assured that there would be varieties of theory and practice in monastic communities following Benedict's Rule. Those who read these works would, like the Rule itself, be permeated with the Word of God and, after a lifetime of patience and faithful Christian living, would arrive where God wished them to be: eternal life. At the end, and throughout, the Rule speaks with seriousness and optimism about both hard effort and divine grace.
Benedict's Rule spread gradually until it became normative for monasteries in Western Europe in the ninth century. In almost every century since, there have been efforts at monastic renewal and reform inspired by its teaching. Hundreds of thousands of monks and nuns have tried to live according to the Rule. Lay people—men and women, kings, farmers, and writers—have associated themselves with monasteries as benefactors, prayer partners, retirees, and employees, not becoming monks but finding in the Rule guidance for their own Christian lives. Modern monks, nuns, and lay oblates—both Catholic and Protestant —are listening still to the Rule and to the Word of God to see where the Holy Spirit might be leading Benedict's disciples today.
By Hugh Feiss, OSB
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #93 in 2007]Hugh Feiss, OSB, is a Benedictine monk of the Monastery of the Ascension in Jerome, Idaho, and the author of Essential Monastic Wisdom: Writings on the Contemplative Life. Monk-ing Around
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