A Commentary on the Rule of St Benedict
Sister Christine Conrath Abbey of Our Lady of Jouarre, France
In 2002 the Benedictine publishing-house EOS of S. Ottilien published a Commentary on the Rule of St Benedict, edited by Sr Michaela Puzicha, OSB, Director of the Institute for Benedictine Studies at Salzburg. The work of about 600 pages is, in my opinion, in a class of its own. It has a preface by Dom Jean-Pierre Longeat, OSB, President of the AIM and abbot emeritus of the Abbey of St Martin at Ligugé, and will soon be published in French. Each chapter is presented according to the same schema, namely
1. Its place in the Rule of St Benedict
2. Biblical references
3. Its roots in the monastic and patristic tradition
4. The text in Latin and translation, followed by a verse-byverse commentary.
1. A reminder of the place of a chapter in the whole of the Rule gives a view of the total shape of the Rule. Thus chapter 19 on the attitude in prayer completes the ordo of the divine Office presented in chapters 8 -18. It immediately precedes chapter 20 on reverence in prayer.
2. Biblical references are not given in the Rule. Their function is to bring the heart of the monk back to essentials. As Sr Michaela says ‘A chain of quotations does not mean that Benedict is incapable of developing his own idea. It is a way of attesting the masterly priority of holy Scripture.’
3. The Rule is rooted in tradition, both patristic and monastic. We give the example of the vices Christi. In faith we recognize that the abbot holds the place of Christ. Already in Ignatius of Antioch the bishop holds the place of God or of Christ in the Church. If the reader wishes to go deeper into this theme, the author gives several references at the bottom of the page. The text is often quoted in Latin, not out of pedantry but to demonstrate the shared vocabulary of the Rule and the references. There follow some remarks on the Church in Christian antiquity: ‘In the ancient Church the vicar of Christ is charged with ensuring unity and unanimity in the community’ (cf. Cyprian, The Lord’s Prayer, #8).
After the Fathers of the Church, the masters in monastic life embellish the commentary of Sr Michaela. The superior is charged with a ministry of reconciliation and forgiveness. We quote an apophthegm: ‘Someone said to Macarius the Great that he was ‘a god upon earth’ for, just as God shelters the world, so Abba Macarius shelters faults, seeing them as if he did not see them, hearing them as if he did not hear them’ (Macarius 32 in the Solesmes numbering).
The patristic and monastic references are unequally divided according to the chapters. Chapter 53 on hospitality gives the place of honour to the Historia Monachorum. Chapters 33 and 34 zealously take up the Rule of St Augustine. Chapter 49 relies heavily on the sermons of St Leo the Great. For the reflections on prayer we return to the traditional debates on continuous prayer. St Augustine recalls (Enarratio in Ps 36) ‘there is in the soul an unceasing prayer, which is a yearning. Whatever you do, you do not cease to pray if you yearn for the repose of heaven. An incessant yearning is a continuous voice. To be silent would be to cease loving.’ Chapter 4 takes up the great catecheses of Christian antiquity, like a summary of the Christian life according to the commitment taken at baptism. We quote our author: ‘Before or after baptism a list of precepts was given on the Christian way of life. Various editions appeared, woven from biblical texts and sayings of the tradition. As catechetical summaries they quoted the holy Scripture explicitly, taking into account the actual situation of the Christian, what attitude to adopt towards such-and-such a pagan practice, in such-andsuch a particular social milieu, when faced with persecution, etc.’
We are familiar with the expression, ‘They shall prefer absolutely nothing to Christ’, but do we know where it comes from? St Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, martyred during the persecution of Valerian in 258, comments the Lord’s Prayer (#15): ‘To prefer nothing to Christ, since he has preferred you to everything, to cling unbreakably to his love, to stand at the foot of the Cross with courage and confidence... This is the meaning of wanting to be a co-heir with Christ, to fulfil the command of God, to do the will of God.’
4. We come now to the text of the Rule itself, divided into sections of a few verses, in the original Latin and a French translation. Benedict is no theoretician, but a practitioner of the spiritual life. To introduce prayer he turns to the ancient formula of Cassian, ‘To remain continuously in the presence of God, recite continuously this prayer, ‘God, come to my assistance. Lord, make haste to help me.’’ Prayer, a vertical relationship with the Lord, is celebrated in the Church in communion with the brothers, on a horizontal axis. These two axes trace a cross. Community life is the place of fulfilment of our monastic life; there is no relationship with the Lord which does not pass through fraternal communion. Cenobitic life is ‘a school of the Lord’s service’ (Prologue 45). Benedict develops this expression, drawn from the Rule of the Master, in a personal way, unveiling what is closest to his heart, to smoothe the path as much as possible in order to keep the monk on the road of salvation.
The Rule of St Benedict contains 20,000 words. That is not much! ‘Observance of this Rule in monasteries will suffice to experience a certain moral rectitude and a beginning of monastic life.’ Benedict does not intend to minimise the importance of his ‘little Rule’ (RB 73.8), but he reminds us that the first rule is the gospel. He outlines its purpose, the vision of God, promised as a recompense in the biblical sense. It is important to observe this elementary Rule scrupulously in order to remain on the path of life. This is possible only with the help of Christ; the text is perfectly explicit: deo auxiliante, adiuvante domino (RB 1.5, 13).
‘Listen, my son...’ Benedict demands a recollected and well-intentioned hearing, made explicit by the adverb libenter. The candidate for baptism is required to listen; that is the first word of the faith, ‘Listen, O Israel, to the laws and customs that I am teaching you today so that you may live’ Catechumens are called audientes and Christ is the magister in gentleness and magnanimity. Familiarity with the Word of God, which the Rule calls lectio, is at the heart of monastic life. Christ is the Word. ‘Why not consecrate to reading those moments when the Church leaves you free? Why not come back to Christ, talk to him, listen to him? When we pray we are talking to him, when we read the divine words we are listening to him’, says St Ambrose.
On the subject of a difficult obedience Benedict poses the question with a formula which suggests an exceptional situation, ‘if by any chance a brother...’ It is not a question of a trial deliberately imposed on a brother, but unfortunately such situations inevitably arise in monastic life. Faced with this difficult situation, how is the brother to react? Benedict reminds him that he has chosen to follow Christ (RB 36.5; 48.7; 58.7-8; 72.5). So he must receive the order: suscipere. The monk has already used this verb at his profession. Benedict does not ask whether the situation is objectively impossible, but he registers that the brother feels it to be such. Having received the order, the monk is not told to fulfil it at any cost. He has every freedom to explain to his abbot patienter et opportune the reasons why it is impossible for him, remaining open to dialogue. We know that pride makes a person blind. The abbot a priori behaves irreproachably: he takes the time for a long reflection, as foreseen in chapter 3. If no solution suggests itself in the direction of the brother’s plea, the abbot finds himself constrained to stick to his order. Then Benedict helps the brother enter on the road of acquiescence and interior willingness, because he knows that the abbot’s decision is not arbitrary and that he cannot change the circumstances. Ideally a relationship of confidence is established which allows the monk to accept his abbot’s decision as the will of God who makes everything contribute to the good of those whom he loves. This is the ‘labour of obedience’ (RB Prologue 2) and its goal, the widening of the heart and communion with Christ (RB Prologue 49; 5.13; 7.39).
I appreciated, on the subject of chapter 34 on the distribution of things necessary, the remark on community maturity: ‘Whoever who has less will give thanks to God and not be upset; whoever has more will humble himself and not be at all stuck up because of the kindness shown to him. Thus all the members will be at peace.’ Everything necessary is put at the disposal of the brothers. Each asks himself. what do I need, and in what quantity? An equal treatment is not the same as uniformity. Nor is it a question of anticipating the wishes of the brothers. The Rule does not favour or penalize a brother because of his social background, his place in the community or his influence in the community. The abbot makes no distinction of persons; he must consider their weaknesses and treat them with discretion. So the Rule presents a double problematic, sprung from the sensitive approach to needs: if tact and discernment are needed on the part of the abbot, a high degree of spiritual maturity on the part of the community is essential. The brother decides in his own conscience what is necessary for him. By using his free will he consciously renounces what is not necessary for him, even when this could be given to him. This involves keeping an even distance from the snare of comparisons which immediately arouse envy and jealousy, and from the risk of a brother putting forward his own moderation as a measure applicable to everyone. When murmuring begins to bud, Benedict invites the monk to turn to the Lord in gratitude, an excellent antidote to selfishness.
Sister Michaela has picked out the instances of several keywords, humility, presumption, discretion, respect in fraternal relationships, service, lectio. At the end of the book an index is given. Let us take negligence, a vice which Benedict considers particularly grave. We quote a passage from the commentary on chapter 21: ‘A brother who behaves irresponsibly in the discharge of his duties is sanctioned by St Benedict. As in everything else, the greatest risk is pride, which is revealed in arrogance, presumption because of the office, negligence in the service of the brothers. Benedict combats pride in the deans by repeated warnings which lead up to the final consequence, deprivation of office and nomination of another brother.’ In the same way, at chapter 49 on Lent: ‘What Cassian considers a decline from the original ideal is attributed by Benedict to human fragility when he estimates, with Leo the Great (Sermon 42.1), that few monks have such perseverance in asceticism. So he calls for a stricter life during Lent. His discretion shows in the prudence with which he contents himself to persuade: he expresses his expectation, making no demand.’ Negligence and presumption are very grave vices because they point to an attitude of indifference or a rejection of monastic values. The brother who is infected with them risks contaminating the community; he must be set apart and given synpectes to hasten his healing.
Many of our contemporaries seek the famous Benedictine PAX. Sr Michaela analyses this concept at chapter 31. It happens that an unreasonable wish is put to the bursar. For St Benedict what is important is not the behaviour of the brother who asks, but the way in which the bursar responds. Faced with an unreasonable request, the bursar must respond reasonably and with humility. He may have to refuse the brother, but he must be sure to preserve the quality of their relationship with each other. Thus the community is built up. This example, among many others, justifies the attention which the rule still commands today.
It would be good to introduce lay readers to the chapters on punishment which hold an important place in the Rule and at first sight seem unattractive. Benedict enumerates the deficiencies of the brothers and the way to correct them. ‘At the time of the divine office, as soon as the signal is heard the brother should leave everything he has on hand and hasten to get there. If someone arrives late [when the invitatory psalm is being recited slowly in order to give late-comers time to arrive] he should not sit in his place but wherever the abbot tells him to go’ (RB 43). Every sanction aims to put the brother on the road to healing, for a brother at fault is a sick brother. The Lord was sent not to the healthy but to the sick (Matthew 9.13). Benedict gives a sanction for being late in the oratory and in the refectory, the two places where fraternal communion is built up. In our example the late-comer sits in view of all and shows his humility by a public penance: he bows profoundly, head to ground. The extent to which Benedict prizes order is well known. In danger of disturbing the order of the divine office, the late-comer must come into the oratory to curb chatter or laziness. In addition, it is indispensible that all the brothers should place themselves under the saving action of the Word of God, ‘thus they will not lose everything’ (RB 43.9): they will have the chance of correcting themselves for the future. St Benedict counts on an attitude of improvement on the part of the brother at fault. When a brother has left the monastery and asks to return Benedict accepts the request, but lays down a condition for the return of the brother, that the difficulties which occasioned his departure should be really brought to light. Sr Michaela knows by experience that a departure does not happen suddenly, but is preceded by a prolonged and permanent conflict. Again and again her commentary shows her skilled writing. The final word of the Rule, ‘you will reach’ is a positive statement. From the very beginning the end is in view: the Lord in person. Benedict is absolutely certain that the monk will achieve his purpose, since Christ is present in his life. Strengthened by that assurance let us continue to run together towards eternal Life.
Statue of St Benedict in the garden of the priory of the Sisters of Grace and Compassion, Tiruvannamalai, India.
The death of St Benedict, woodcut, Benedictines of Ndanda,Tanzania