Dom Jean-Pierre Longeat, osb
President of AIM
Brothers according to the Rule of St Benedict
If there is one single dimension which is important to St Benedict it is fraternity. In his Rule he gives the title of ‘brother’ a special position to describe the members of the monastic community. By comparison the designation ‘monk’ is much less frequently employed. In this connection it is useful to recall the conclusion of Christine Mohrmann who in her time pointed out this frequency in relation to the ideal of the first Christian community for Christian ascetics, under the leadership of the Gospel, as the Prologue to the Rule so well expresses.
Every time St Benedict uses the title ‘brother’ it is full of meaning. It does not have a merely functional role but marks an ideal. The monastic community is described as a fraternal army in which exercises are carried out and where a fierce war against the wicked spirit is waged (RB 1.5). This characterisation of the courageous nature of cenobites is not without its significance. It must be taken with extreme seriousness, no less than the image of the school of the Lord’s service or that of the workshop where the tools of good works are put to use. By speaking of the fraternal army St Benedict stresses the importance of learning to escape the snares of the enemy and for this to rely on the experience of those in whose company the combat is fought.
Fraternal commitment in the community
After the novice has made his profession he is to prostrate himself at the feet of the brothers because the immediate consequence of this commitment is membership of the fraternal body where he is going to continue the struggle against everything opposed to the commandment of love (RB 58.23).
This dimension is recalled also as a major factor at the beginning and the end of the Rule. In his first paragraph St Benedict addresses himself to the brothers, ‘What can be sweeter, my very dear brothers, than this voice of the Lord which invites us’ (Prologue 19), and in chapter 72, which can be considered the real conclusion of the Rule, ‘They should chastely perform to one another the duties of fraternal charity’ (RB 72.8). It is because a fraternal voice has spoken to us with all the gentleness of love that we embarked upon a journey to a community in order to work out there with others the dynamic of love.
Between these two mentions one could say that the whole Rule consists in responding very concretely to the call received from the most attractive voice of the Lord, and from the chaste practice of the duties of fraternal love.
The Prologue itself makes use of the interplay between this listening and the practice of the commandment of love, ‘My brothers, when the Lord asked us “Who is there who wants life and wishes to know joyful days?” (Psalm 33) or again, “Who wants to live within your house, Lord?”’ (Psalm 14). St Benedict insists, ‘My brothers, let us listen to the voice of the Lord.’ The voice of the One who speaks to us invites us to start off on the road and act effectively. There is room, in order to encourage this process, to speak to the monks as very dear brothers, as St Benedict does.
But what sort of brotherhood makes up monastic life?
A Community of Brothers
In the first place, the community consists of a council of brothers which the abbot consults regularly. This is one of the features of the common life. It happens at different levels: either the whole community is gathered together or a council of ‘wise men’ around the abbot. As the Rule stresses, it is good to do everything with advice, to avoid later regrets.
Once the brothers have assembled, the advice of each one is asked. This is both a right and a duty which none can avoid. ‘The brothers should give their opinion with all humility and respect’ (RB 3.8). This provides a quality of listening and attention, and awareness that each person’s individual opinion is worth less than that of the whole. ‘Everything is interconnected, and the whole is more valuable than the part.’ This is of course the issue with fraternal consultation. If this dimension does not occur sufficiently regularly then danger is certainly on the horizon.
A humble fraternity
It is therefore appropriate to keep in mind the need for humility to encourage a true community of brothers. In Chapter 7 on humility we are told that the wise brother (literally the one who wants to be useful) should repeat again and again in his heart in order to direct his thinking, ‘I shall be faultless before the Lord if I keep myself from sin’ (7.18). The essence of sin is turning one’s back on God and acting purely for oneself. St Benedict insists, ‘Let us conclude, my brothers, that we must be vigilant at all times.’ At the end of Chapter 7 he concludes, ’The brothers support false-brothers and bless those who curse them’ (7.93). In the same way in the Prologue and in the Rule as a whole the basic invitation is to a listening, a vigilance to which the members of the community are called in complete brotherhood. Similarly, at the end they should be capable of loving their enemies, of supporting false brothers, of blessing those who hate them – in other words to put into practice the commandment of love. Otherwise it is impossible to advance. Humility puts a person in a disposition of listening, of attention, of vigilance, of control of the heart in order to follow Christ on his paschal path and to live in true fraternal communion as he did.
The basic value of the fine witness of a monastic community in the heart of society is especially that capacity of brotherhood which brings the grace of peace, unity and love.
Under the Guidance of Christ
The abbot whose function is to manifest the presence of Christ in the midst of the community must himself ensure that fraternal hostility does not slip into the group. He will keep a special watch on his own actions, which speak as loud as, and sometimes louder than, his words. This is especially true of his relationship to the brothers, which he approaches with humility, ‘You who see a speck in the eye of your brother do not see the plank in your own’ (RB 2.15).
The responsibility of the abbot is the same however many the brothers of whom he has charge (RB 2.38). He will have to answer for the advance or regress of each one by the vigilance which is required of him. Chapter 64 translates this into the powerful formula, ‘The abbot will hate vices and love the brothers’ (64,11).
Normally the collaborators of the abbot are chosen on the advice of the brothers, as for example the prior (65.15). Deans will be appointed among the brothers who have a good reputation and a holy life (21.1). In the chapter on the cellarer St Benedict outlines the fraternal attitude required of the person responsible for the material organisation of the monastery, ‘Let the cellarer not upset the brothers’ (31.6). ‘He should be capable of giving a good word to a brother who asks of him something unreasonable’ (31.7), and ‘he should be wary that each one should receive the portion which belongs to him, according to his needs’ (31.16).
It may be said that this is a concern of the whole community. ‘The brothers will serve one another’ (35.1). Those who begin their service each week should wash the feet of their brothers, imitating Christ on the eve of his Passion. The meal and the service which it implies are conceived as eucharistic moments. They make reference to those agapes which the first generation of Christians celebrated after the eucharistic sharing.
Particular care should be taken of the sick, who represent Christ in a special way: ‘I was sick and you visited me’, said Christ, and ‘What you did to one of these little ones you did to me’ (RB 35.2-3).
But St Benedict is also particularly concerned that fraternal service should not disturb the community, ‘Let the brothers accomplish their task without murmuring’ (41.5). For this reason the organisation must be well oiled. There is a time for everything, for work, for liturgy, for spiritual reading, for social life. A whole chapter is devoted to the use of time, and finally (48) the whole of life is consecrated to an activity of conversion with mutual encouragement.
If ever there is a brother who suffers from discouragement (acidy) it will be good to prop him up, be at his side and help him to get through this stage (48,18). On the other hand, it is important also that there should be personal times where fraternal relationships do not act as a distraction (48.21). If there are fragile brothers special care will be taken of them and a proportionate activity will be found in which they can take part, without being overwhelmed or moved to flee from their task altogether.
It is important to be sure that the tasks are not too heavy, in the kitchen, the workshops, the infirmary, the guesthouse, the portery. If the porter needs help he should be given a younger brother (66.5). This may seem banal, but it is a dimension which strongly affects the quality of daily life. Someone who is harassed by his work cannot serve the brothers satisfactorily. Just as the cellarer will consider the material of the monastery with the same care as the sacred vessels of the altar, so the abbot will entrust all this material to reliable brothers, and will take care each week that nothing goes missing, so that the brothers whose turn it is should not be taken unawares but should be able to count on the trustworthiness of others.
A Life of Searching
The rule emphasizes that brotherhood is rooted in the search for an interior disposition which can be found in prayer and meditation. Apart from the fact that nothing should come before the Work of God, that is, prayer in common, St Benedict requires that time should be devoted to study of the psalter and the lessons. It is well-known that the ancient monks spent time at learning by heart the psalms which are the primary material of the office. Hence the brothers who need it should be told to spend time at this between Vigils and Morning Prayer (8.3). Reading in choir deserves special care. It is important that it should not be frayed by someone who lacks the skill of reading (9). There again a sense of fraternity, which touches the roots of revelation, comes into play.
The Rule is based on fraternal confidence. The community is organised like a sporting team in which everyone plays their part and expects others to do the same. It is up to the abbot to play the game of fraternal confidence, knowing for certain what he can expect of others. For example, in the matter of oversight he can trust it to brothers on whom he can rely (32,1) and he will check that there are no crossed wires from day to day, especially in the passing on of responsibilities. However, it is important not to be naïve: in the monastery as in all societies there are cheats, and there is room for correction and checking any temptations to usurp power.
There can be no harmonious fraternity without regulations. That is why St Benedict foresees measures to promote personal reflection on one’s conduct and allow some adjustment. This occurs principally in the daily meetings of the community (at the liturgy and meals). A brother who has committed some fault may find himself excluded from the common table or from the common prayer (24-29). This segregation is intended to show that failure in fraternity is more important than the variety and disorder of each individual’s own desires. Nowadays there is a worrying phenomenon which induces brothers or sisters to cut themselves off without this being considered a difficulty or a trial. They are happy to cultivate their own differences without care for the common good in the conviction that they have this right. So pronounced is this that ways of regulation adapted to contemporary mentalities are so difficult to find that one can end up by accepting that they practically do not exist. It seems to me that this is something to be explored in our community life in order to find a good solution.
The End of the Rule
At the end of his Rule St Benedict puts great stress on the dimension of fraternal relationships. He thinks of brothers who go on journeys, whether long or short. He lays down that they should be blessed at their departure and that they should be prayed for at their return. He takes the trouble to examine how to treat the question of orders which seem to exceed the powers of the brother who receives the order. The process of the debate is remarkable (cf. 68). He lays down that no one should strike or punish another brother deliberately, but that fraternal correction should be regulated by the abbot and the community. He asks above all that the brothers should obey one another (71). There should be in the monastery a desire to listen to one another and put what one has heard into practice. If a brother has annoyed another he should immediately admit his fault and ask forgiveness (71.6).
St Benedict sums up this attention to horizontal fraternity in the powerful formula, ‘They should chastely fulfil the duties of fraternal charity’ (72.8), that is, that no one should be too close to another nor lay hands on anyone else.
Advice for living out fraternity
We would like to highlight certain pieces of advice in the Rule which put fraternal relationships in concrete form.
The most important thing for living out fraternity freely is to detach oneself from everything and not to feel ownership of anything, while still being alert to the needs, bodily and spiritual, or every individual. Integrated into fraternal life will be a necessary dialogue on the interpretation of orders received which will make their execution more apt, even when it is a question of things which at first sight seem impossible (68). The brothers will learn to put the shared purpose into practice in such a way that it is rooted in the divine will. Of course any personal arrangements which would make the law of the strongest prevail must be avoided at all costs: no one may make a subjective and radical decision about other brothers. That must be left to superiors (70). But by contrast any undesirable collusion between brothers must be avoided.
In matters of clothing monks should not be preoccupied by their appearance. They should receive their habits from the community without worry about their style or colour, but with a measured sense, that is, without excessive expense (55). There is no place for a shower of presents either from outside or from inside, but each should accept what is useful for them. A permanent interior disposition should be adopted which marks the day of solemn profession where the new brother prostrates at the feet of all the others and asks their prayers to be fully received into the brotherhood of the community. He will keep this rank of his entry in such a way that social markers are erased, and anything else which else would outweigh communion.
When brothers pass one another they should be aware of each other and give a fraternal greeting. The young should honour the elders and the elder love the young. They will address them affectionately as ‘brother’ and ‘father’ (nonnus). This will typify the relationship within the monastery, a relationship with reference to the commandment of love.
The young should not be left always on their own, but should intermingle with the elders so that their standards may be balanced and they may avoid the temptation of a superficial opposition or a divergence on basic values (22).
The brothers serve one another in turn at table and take care that no one lacks anything (38.6). There should be two cooked dishes so that no brother should be deprived if he cannot eat one or other. The brothers should provide reading at table from week to week, and to avoid excessive strain they should be able to eat before their service, especially if they have been fasting all morning (38.6,10). It is important that the brothers should do everything they have to do without being tempted to interior or exterior murmuring. St Benedict is most insistent on this for the quality of fraternal life. He is also insistent that everything should occur on time. He lays down that the abbot himself should ring the bell for the liturgy or else that he should entrust this task to a brother so punctual that the office is never delayed (47). At the conclusion of the office all the brothers should leave the church in total silence (52). St Benedict expects that some brothers should be able to stay in the oratory after the office. In this case they should be discrete, without making audible the sighs they may send up to God.
The brothers are invited to share their prayer and one part of their life with those who come to stay in the guesthouse of the monastery. This is a strong point of monastic life for St Benedict. The brothers are not vowed to turn in on themselves. They are required to be witnesses of fraternal communion to those whom they receive (53). St Benedict explains that every guest should be received as Christ, so that at the arrival of a guest the brothers hasten to him, showing all the marks of charity (53.3). They will pray together and the abbot will wash their feet after the example of Christ to his disciples. The abbot shall eat with the guests and will break his fast for them; he may invite other monks to his table (56.2), while the community of brothers will observe the fast according to the Rule (53.10). If the guests are numerous it is important that everything should be organised so that the life of the brothers should not be troubled in its essentials (53.16). This is why the office of guestmaster demands great spiritual qualities, especially the awareness of the permanent presence of God which gives meaning to all relationships and acts of life. (53.21).
According to the Rule of St Benedict the monks are not totally enclosed. They go on journeys and are in frequent contact with people outside. A whole chapter is devoted to brothers who go on journeys (66). When the brothers need to leave the monastery for a time they ask for the prayers of the community when they leave and when they return, and they remain linked to the prayer of the community as far as possible by keeping to the hours of prayer.
Finally the Rule of St Benedict is not a treatise on brotherhood as a generous idea to which it is good to be attached, but it is rather a practical invitation to put it into practice in the framework of a permanent community. This brotherhood is extended to guests welcomed by the monastery and to all those who, from near or afar, are linked to the community. Finally, as may be seen in all human history, fraternal witness is an element which stimulates the construction of the whole of a society. In fact monastic communities show that brotherhood is possible; they live it in the long term with stability. The time factor is basic to the monastic ideal even if – unfortunately – the factor of space has sometimes seemed more important. On occasion structure has taken priority, although this can become rigid and incapable of adaptation.
As the Life written by Gregory the Great makes clear, Benedict loved the essential role of fraternity in social life. Even in this day and age he invites us to be true witnesses of it who give our lives in love at the heart of a community of brothers