St Benedict on the Path to Justice

The Rule of St. Benedict was written around 540, five years before Benedict’s death in 545. It is a very simple outline of what, according to Benedict, it takes to set out on the path to a righteous life. The first and most obvious thing to say is that it takes total commitment, and not in an esoteric or cognitive sense, but in an actual embodied handing over of one’s possessions and one’s person to the monastic community. It is very sobering to read this book and to imagine the sense of loss and stripping away that would occur if the reader were to take it seriously and embark upon this road. 

But the basic thrust is to provide a manual for the monk to fight against the work of the devil in his soul. Benedict is, let us say, not sanguine about human nature. He sees the soul as a battleground between the forces of good and evil. Which will win is dependent upon whether the monk will choose the path of humility or of pride. The fires of pride are stoked by envy and gain, so possessions are not permitted and everyone must have the same. Pride is tempted by position and rank, so if a brother is promoted he must be chosen because of his humility and if his promotion causes him to behave in a haughty manner he must be cautioned and demoted. Pride is manifested in laziness and disobedience; so if a monk repeatedly displays these things he must be warned and, if he does realign himself to godly behaviour, he must be beaten. The monk must pray and read and rise during the night to sing Psalms with the other brothers, this to continully focus his mind upon God and so to triumph over his own miserable condition.

What is remarkable about this is that it is a compromise for St. Benedict, who had started a monastery many years previously but had imposed a rule upon his monks that was so demanding and punishing that the brothers had conspired to poison him to death. He had realised that, although he was capable of the most incredible feats of endurance and abstinance, the normal man simply was not, and so a rule for that normal man. But a rule all the same that appears challenging to the modern ear. The final section of the work is entitled ‘The rule is only a start on the path to justice’:

We have written this rule so that by living by it in accordance with the monasteries we may demonstrate that we are to some extent living virtuously and have made a start on the religious life…But we are lazy and live reprehensible and careless lives, and we ought to be ashamed of ourselves. Whoever you are then, who are hurrying towards the heavenly country, observe this little rule for beginners which I have written with Christ’s help, and then with God’s protection you will at least reach the greater heights of wisdom and virtue I mentioned earlier in this work.

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