St. Benedict’s Easier Way

Thanks to my job at St. Anselm’s Abbey School, I’ve become something of an amateur student of the Rule of St. Benedict.  I will probably always think of my spirituality as Franciscan after my time at Franciscan University, but the rule has had a pretty big impact on the last five or ten years of my life both personally and as educator.

St Benedict image

One of the fascinating themes of the rule is solicitude for the weak.  St. Benedict famously wrote his rule as a beginner’s guide for a world where monastic observance had, in his view, sadly declined to weak ineptitude.  Let’s leave aside for the moment what he thinks of our own time as he intercedes for us in heaven and instead focus on two ways his rule cares for the weak.

The first is an observation about the structure of the rule and the program of life it lays down (I’m ripping this idea from De Vogue, the foremost modern commentator on the rule).  Rather than prescribing a life of perpetual austerity, St. Benedict sets up a community that ebbs and flows in its devotions.  The times of silence are periodic so as not to be unbearable to those just setting out on the path of monastic perfection; the fasting goes through cycles of intensity and relaxation and is quite liberal in its concessions to the seasons; the times and durations of prayer have a flow to them that provides ample time to rest.

The perfect, as St. Benedict called them, were always free to pursue ever-greater works of prayer, fasting, and silence.  But the requirements of the rule he intentionally set as a training model to get “kids these days” into shape for such rigors.  It is perhaps the earliest form of interval training we have on record.  Take that, Billy Blanks!

The second is like the first.  In comparison to older rules, St. Benedict much mitigated the vigils.  Keeping his rule is no light task–plenty of monks still fight to make morning prayer or slay the noon day devil–but in his new rule there is a marked shift in emphasis in why the monks are keeping vigil.

The more primitive observance seems to have laid stress primarily on the “staying awake” aspect.  The vigils were a physical feat, living out quite literally Christ’s command to keep watch.  This is strikes a powerful, romantic chord in me and it deserves some careful consideration I think.  But the downside of extreme vigil-keeping at say, Easter, was a choir full of sleeping monks on Easter Sunday who could not sing the psalms.

St. Benedict, by contrast, places the emphasis on the psalms themselves.  For him it is not the staying awake that is the primary prayer, but the canonical recitation.  As a result he has his monks in bed earlier; when the Paschal Sunday arrives, those monks had better be singing the psalms with reverent attention.  The sacred words of the Psalmist, the Holy Spirit giving utterance to David so that Christ (and we) could speak God’s own words back to God, are the ipsa res.  The times matter, but they matter less than the proclamation of the words.

This shift has proven to be one of those invisible revolutions that dramatically rewrote Europe’s approach to prayer and spirituality.  This little post is no place to go over the primacy of the psalter and lectio divina, but it’s not completely hyperbolic to claim that St. Benedict created literature as we know it–a new approach to the written word.

I might start hosting some of my old talks on the Rule somewhere on this blog, and post a few more of these as I get back into Kardong and De Vogue in the spring.

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