It may be helpful to have a copy of the Rule of St Benedict open with you and to read the relevant chapters. If however you don’t have a copy you should still be able to get a feel for it from what follows anyway.
The Rule of St Benedict defines itself as a rule for beginners. It is tough enough to stretch you but moderate enough so as not to crush you. In it St Benedict outlines the rules and methods of living successfully as a community, the rule has endured since its creation and has been used by cloistered communities and members of the laity alike. These day’s sections of it are even being adopted by secular businesses, so timeless and effective is its message.
St Benedict writes in such a way that a lot of the time you cannot truly tell if you are reading his words or the words of scripture unless you have a very solid memory of the Bible. Thankfully most translations these days have highlighted and referenced the scriptural sections.
So then to the Rule; I am going to focus on three of the 73 chapters, those which I feel are most helpful to those who live a fairly ordinary life. Chapter 1 then; the kinds of monks where St Benedict describes the three different kinds of monks. So what can we learn from these four different kinds of monks. Well they could just as easily be redefined as the different kinds of Christian. The first kind being those who understand the discipline that scripture gives and the boundaries which it necessarily creates, they live to serve Christ and not themselves and understand the need for other Christians around them to support, guide and encourage them on their walk with God. The next kind is rarer in ordinary Christian circles. You are likely to find people who decide to go it alone, to avoid church and other Christian meetings because they know best and can’t be bothered with the church. The rule makes it very clear that this is not acceptable. That you probably shouldn’t go it alone at all but if you must it should only be after vigorous testing within the Christian community and a long time within the church, you cannot simply flee from the world. The third kind is those who decide that God is for them, that they want to be saved and go to heaven but would rather do it their way rather than God’s. Deciding for themselves what is and isn’t acceptable in God’s eyes rather than looking to his word as revealed in Holy Scripture. They do not try themselves vigorously and arrange their lives to suit themselves. This type in particular St Benedict takes particular exemption to and so to in our day these people are just as troublesome for the church as they were in his day. Finally then is the fourth kind those who decide to put no effort into anything. By simply drifting from place to place these monks never had to do any work and would basically just freeload off a monastery until they had to work and then leave for another. We must be wary of those who drift from church to church never settling down, chances are they are simply seeking to satisfy themselves and grow themselves without any responsibility to their Christian brothers and sisters to help them grow.
So what then should we be like? Committed to our church, wherever it may be, to contribute to its life and to support our brothers and sisters there in their walk with God. We must accept the discipline of God’s word as revealed in the Bible, especially when it goes against our own wills and interests. And if God does lead you out of the fold and onto new things on your own to be especially cautious that you stay strong and true to God’s word as you did whilst within the fellowship. Whilst Christianity is essentially at its core a message of freedom it is not a freedom to do as you wish, it is a freedom with important limits, those limits keeping you from those things which would ultimately damage your freedom.
Onto Chapter 5 – Obedience and Chapter 7 – Humility. Obedience, St Benedict writes, is important not because of what is commanded but because of the discipline it creates within us. It reminds us that our own wills are not important; that it is the will of God that is important and that we should live in obedience to that. Elsewhere in the rule he tells us that even if what is being asked is unreasonable, impossible or seemingly unfair that we should do it anyway to the best of our ability, as if Christ had told us to do it. For if we train ourselves in being obedient to those set over us here on earth we will be so much better prepared to live in obedience to him who is over all the earth, our creator and redeemer. And it is obedience to him that is our primary concern. And in obeying those set over us we obey God and in obeying them we are further prepared to obey God in whatever he asks of us as we are trained to do as we are asked. In our modern society we are losing this message, this discipline. All too often when asked to do something we think of how it affects us first, of our own wants and desires, our own wills. We are to put these aside. For it is what God asks of us, to lay aside our own wills and live for his will. To live for others rather than ourselves is very counter cultural these days and this should be a big part of our faith, the releasing of self to serve. Even our attitude in doing so is important; if we are begrudging and unwilling then we might as well have not done it. Yes the task is complete, but our hearts remain unchanged. We need to allow ourselves to be changed so that we always relinquish our own will freely and joyfully and serve the Lord as we would serve ourselves. This is a perpetual challenge for us all, to change our hearts, one act of obedience at a time, to joyfully serve God in all that we do.
Chapter 6- Restraint of Speech. If St Benedict is ruthless towards any action it is murmuring and gossip. He knows well from experience that this is what divides and destroys communities most effectively. Grumbling about things in our hearts or with a few others quickly damages relationships and sets people against each other. All of this, he says should be avoided at all costs. In our work, family and church lives too this is important. To idly grumble about things and do nothing to seek to change it is pointless, and to grumble if you do request a change and it is turned down is just as bad. We are to be humble to know that it is not about our wills and to trust that if no change is made that it should be for our own benefit and furtherance of our walk with the Lord. If you have a problem with a situation you are to speak to the superior only and then to leave it at that. To trust that if any changes should be made that they are and if they are not to have the humility to know that it must not be necessary. If we have a problem with a person, with something they do or say then we are to tell them straight. To tell them the truth out of love for them, to tell them the truth in love. For if we do not then this problem will grow in our hearts and take root and soon you will resent the person, who is oblivious to any issue, and then in complaining to others you divide the community and corrupt the good that is being done. In speaking the truth in the first instance all of this can be avoided and all is laid bare for all to see so that what is seen on the surface is truly what goes on within. This challenge is another great one, one that would benefit all communities especially within church circles.
The foundation of all of this is prayer. St Benedict ensures that plenty of time is devoted to this as he knows that it is through prayer that we connect with God and get the strength to do all of the above. It is also where God speaks to us, and we cannot obey God if we are not listening to him.
Here ends my reflection upon those brief sections of the rule, but I commend the whole of it to you, it’s fairly cheap on Amazon and in bookshops. It most certainly does not replace scripture, far from it, its entire basis is on the Bible. It is more like a companion for you on your Christian journey. Taking the principles and teaching of scripture and boiling them down into a highly practical way of life which guides us ever closer to God and draws us ever deeper into fellowship with him and one another.