IT MAY BE objected at the outset that a statement of the unchanging aims and ideals of Benedictine life is impossible. Can an institute with fourteen hundred years of existence behind it, born in Italy when the shadow of the ancient civilization still stood, have remained for so many centuries without changes such as to alter its whole essence? Again, we know many intimate details of the lives and sayings of Saint Francis and Saint Ignatius Loyola, so that they stand before us as clearly as do other historical figures. But Saint Benedict is a dim figure, and the facts of his life are given us in a clothing which obscures rather than reveals his personality. Nor have we any documents which throw light on the lives of his early followers.
Such considerations would have weight if Saint Benedict had been, like Saint Francis or Saint Ignatius, the founder of a religious order who by his force of character and personal attraction set on foot a great movement. But it would seem that the direct personal influence of Saint Benedict upon his contemporaries was very limited. It was not by his activities or by his personality, or even by his holiness that he influenced so deeply his own and future generations, but by his Rule.
And in his Rule we possess a document almost unique in Christian literature, at once impersonal and full of character, which has influenced each succeeding generation of monks in much the same way that the gospels have influenced religious souls in every age. Only those who have read and reread the Rule can appreciate the depth which underlies its apparent simplicity, and the greatness of Saint Benedict's achievement in writing what is at once a workable rule of life and a guide to Christian perfection.
There are many rules with a plan of religious life drawn out in considerable detail but containing little or no reserve of spiritual teaching. On the other hand there are many spiritual classics which are so highly individualistic as to give little help to many types of character. Saint Benedict's Rule combines what is best in either group. It is extremely detailed in its directions on all essential and some non-essential points. When principles of rules of conduct are in question, every word seems chosen to avoid any suspicion that the writer has in mind abnormal or uncommon types of character.
No one seriously aiming at Christian perfection can go to the Rule for help and come away feeling that he has read advice suitable only for a particular call or a particular stage of the religious life. Each finds there what he seeks. The Rule has something of the divine impersonality of the gospel teaching without limitations and yet intensely individual; nor should this surprise us, for the Rule is the gospel teaching.
But does not the rule of every religious order hold a similar place in that order's history? Not, surely, an exactly similar place. In some orders, such as the comparatively small eremitical and wholly contemplative orders, there has not been, and cannot well be, any serious modification or development which is not a clear revolution or relaxation. In the highly organized modern orders, the rule is consulted and interpreted in somewhat the same way as Scripture is by the teaching body of the Church. But, as we shall see, independence and autonomy, unity in variety, and ever-renewed vitality have always been characteristics of Benedictine monasticism.
There has never been a fountainhead, a teaching body, to which individual Benedictine houses could appeal. At every rebirth or reform the Rule has been the one inspiring document. As with congregations and houses, so with individual monks.
In the life of each monastery the Rule of Benedict is the one book which every Abbot, every superior, reads and tries to grasp more and more fully. What wonder then that true Benedictine life and ideals should show little change with the centuries, and that Benedictine abbeys throughout the world, though connected by no legal bond, should he united in spirit?
What then is the Rule? For whom did Saint Benedict write, and what was the life he wished his followers to lead?
The Rule is a document about as long as the present essay. It is divided into a prologue and seventy-three chapters of very unequal length. Whatever may have been the immediate occasion of its composition, it is written as if for use in a large number of monasteries with locally differing circumstances. Although the daily life and work are entered into in considerable detail, there is scarcely a trace of any legislation dictated by the position of Monte Cassino, the Italian monastery in which it was composed.
Although the Rule is relatively brief, details of the psalms and prayers to be used in the Divine Office, and of the manner and degrees of correction and satisfaction for faults are settled with almost meticulous care. But when the legislator treats of the great monastic virtues and offices, of obedience, of humility, of silence, of the Abbot, every phrase seems to reveal a life's experience and thought. Hence it is possible to extract from the Rule a very fair notion of the time-table and fare of the monks for whom it was written, while on the other hand it remains a source of spiritual instruction unaffected by the lapse of centuries.
Saint Benedict wrote his Rule for all who wished to he monks. To wish to be a monk was, in his own words, "to wish to renounce one's own will." He is legislating, therefore, for all of those who wish to devote themselves to God in a particular form of life. His monastery is a "school of the Lord's service." Everywhere he is positive and constructive. Nowhere does he suggest that he is writing for those who have used the world ill and now repent, or for those who have had a past. He does not imply that the monastic life is a reparation. Neither does he suggest that he is writing for those called in some special way to serve God by penance, expiatory sufferings, or intercessory prayer. His invitation is to all, and it is the invitation of the Gospel to the individual soul.
It is perhaps not out of place, when discussing Saint Benedict's ideals, to remind ourselves that his monks were not priests, and that it was, therefore, none of his business to decide in what relation they should stand to the clerical body. Nowadays, when it has for so long been the custom for all choir religious, even those vowed to the strictest poverty or the deepest seclusion, to become priests, we ordinary confuse a religious vocation with the call to the priesthood. Moreover, in the course of centuries of good discipline, the ideals of spiritual perfection held up to the secular clergy have come to he hardly distinguishable from those attributed in earlier times to the monastic order.
But when Saint Benedict wrote, all this was different. He had a clear field. The monastic life was a sharply different state from that of the clergy. The life he offered was the only alternative (save the wholly eremitic life or the debased monastic life of the time) to a life in full contact with the world.
Since his day this single alternative has been subdivided, and many great religious orders of monks and friars and canons and regular clerks of all kinds aim at essentially the same spiritual ideals as Benedictine monachism. Hence it would he disingenuous to claim much of Saint Benedict's teaching as the peculiar property of Benedictines today. The gospel counsels are the monopoly of no religious order.
It will he therefore necessary to lay some stress on works and ideals which have come to be regarded as peculiarly Benedictine. Nevertheless, we may he allowed to remind ourselves that the Rule, and it may he added, the Constitutions of most Benedictine congregations, aim at nothing more particular than the guidance to God of those who wish to serve Him more fully than is normally possible in the world.
Continue to Chapter Two.
Table of Contents.