Saint Benedict and Celibacy

Saint Benedict and Celibacy - Living for God Alone

Sister Laurentia Johns, OSB, Stanbrook Abbey, England

Since this issue has been consecrated to the life of the monasteries and to great anniversaries celebrated this year in the monastic world, we do not present any article specifically centred on formation. However a consideration of St Benedict and celibacy, such as Sister Laurentia here offers, is always welcome in a monastic bulletin.

‘Desiring to please God alone, he went in search of a holy way of life.’ (Gregory the Great, Dialogues II, I). The little we know of Benedict’s early life comes to us via the Dialogues, traditionally thought to be written by Pope St Gregory the Great in the 590s, that is, about fifty years after the death of St Benedict. From the opening lines we are in no doubt as to the desires of Benedict’s heart:
‘There was a man whose life was holy. His name was Benedict and he was blessed by grace and by name. From his earliest years he had the heart of an old man. Precocious in his way of life beyond his age, he did not give himself up to sensual pleasure. He could have had a good time in this life but disdained to do so – as if he already saw the bloom of the world as something faded’ (Dialogues II, I).

The phrase ‘blessed by grace and by name’ suggests a kind of consecration, a mission to holiness which is in the first place that of all the baptised: as ever, the monk is first and foremost a Christian and a witness to Christian values; but to the demands of chastity, enjoined on all the baptised, is added the particular call – and gift (for would God give the call without the gift?) of celibacy (1). It seems to be rather typical of Benedict’s life (of ours too?) that he first of all receives a grace and then has to work to consolidate and integrate that grace into his life. We think of the way he embraced the eremitical life before the cenobitic (though he would teach his disciples the opposite order) and in his living out of celibacy we see a similar apparent paradox: he appears to be given the gift of celibacy from early manhood and then has to bring that gift to maturity, often through struggle and temptation. But is this really a paradox? Is it not, in fact, rather how the monastic vocation seems to unfold for most of us? Recall the grace of your own call to the monastery; the grace of clothing and profession. In each case we are flooded by the grace of God and then have to spend much time and energy, fuelled by yet more grace, in living up to the gift. (This helps explain, perhaps, why we so often seem to ‘regress’ after these dramatic injections of grace.)

But to return to the young Benedict… The Dialogues tell of his going to study at Rome, of his being disgusted by what he saw there and of his subsequent opting out. We are spared the details but can imagine that the sexual mores of sixth-century Rome may well have been among the things which repelled the youthful Benedict. Were there unresolved issues for him? ‘To the pure, all things are pure’, as the Letter to Titus (1:15) reminds us; even so, the recognition that something is ‘too hot to handle’ and the decision to remove oneself from the potentially damaging, are in themselves mature responses to a situation. We are told that Benedict, impelled by a deep, inner desire ‘for God alone’, went off ‘in search of the monastic habit’ – symbolic of the whole ascetic calling - ‘in order to find a holy life’.

As de Vogüé. points out (2), that phrase, ‘God alone’, recalls two examples from St Paul: the ‘unmarried man’ of 1 Corinthians 7.32 and the ‘soldier on active service’ of 2 Timothy 2.4, where the state of life embraced by each is in the wider interest of single-hearted service. For Gregory (3), the monk has two main defining features which betray a similar singleness of heart: a certain contempt for ‘the world’ and, secondly and more importantly, an ardent, exclusive and unifying desire to see God. It is this latter drive which makes of the monk interiorly that which he professes to be in name, i.e. ‘monos’, ‘one’ in the sense of being unified, galvanised into integrity by the unique love of his life. So for Benedict, celibacy is to be seen as both in the service, and a result of, this one great love – ‘God alone’ (4), and therefore intimately bound up with the life of prayer where this unique relationship is forged and nurtured.

Benedict’s withdrawal to ‘the desert’, rather like that of Antony, proceeded in stages, the preliminary stop being at Effide (still attended by his nurse.) The episode of the broken sieve affords not just the occasion of Benedict’s first miracle but also a precious insight into his character: moved to tears with compassion, he is far from the stonelike impassivity of a Stoic, and so we are not surprised when this passionate nature is challenged during his three-year sojourn in the deeper desert of Subiaco. Indeed De Vogué (5) portrays the early chapters of the Dialogues as a series of crises which test Benedict, passion by passion, more or less following the classic order of ascetic struggle as delineated by Evagrius and Cassian.

Stage One – The Hermit’s Cave, Subiaco

We are told very little about this stage except that it lasted for three years, though it surely would not be fanciful to posit a certain growth in self-knowledge, born of prayer, for the reflective young Benedict during this time. The focus on food (three different sources of bread-supply are listed: the charitable monk, Romanus; the mysterious priest on Easter Day, and the local shepherds) hints at Benedict’s struggle with the first classic temptation: greed, though perhaps the sub-text suggests a subtler one, as the wouldbe hermit and super-ascetic learns of his reliance on other people, and so begins to come to terms with his sexuality. (Remember the etymology of the word ‘sex’ from secare in Latin, meaning to cut off with its implicit suggestion of an inbuilt drive towards the other.) His recognition of Easter Day, prompted by the sight of another human being, can therefore be seen to denote communion indeed – an awakening out of self-sufficiency - and so a re-birth for Benedict whose celibacy begins to bear fruit: when the shepherds bring him food he is able in turn to nourish them with words: ‘They brought food to sustain his body and from what he said to them they took back in their hearts nourishment for life’ (Dialogues II, I, 8).

Stage Two – Battle is joined

In reply to a certain Secundius, a veteran hermit troubled by carnal temptations, Gregory states (Letter IX) that nothing is to be more expected, since Secundius’s way of life was in such open defiance of the devil. Neither does Benedict escape strong temptation in this area as recounted in the Dialogues II, II where we find the wellknown herbal remedy applied by Benedict’s throwing himself naked into patch of thorns and nettles. We are told that he, ‘vanquished sin by changing one fire into another’ (Dial. II, II, 2). In other words, there was a re-channelling of this sexual energy into his chosen, all-consuming quest for God. What is portrayed here as an intense and one-off temptation and victory is, for most – but not all – people, a more prolonged battle. Less quoted, but probably even more effective a therapy than the nettle-bed, was Benedict’s openness in re-counting this incident to his disciples in order to teach them. As with all the passions, lust loses its grip on us when brought into the light. And, as in the previous temptation, we see the fruit of victory, this time as spiritual fecundity: disciples are drawn to Benedict who becomes a father of souls and master of the cenobitic life.

Celibacy in the Rule of St Benedict

For the real key to understanding Benedict’s life, St Gregory directs the enquirer to the Rule for monks written by Benedict, for, says Gregory, ‘he could not have lived other than he taught’ (Dialogues II, XXXVI). But the enquirer trying to reconstruct Benedict’s life and teaching on celibacy will, at first at least, find very little on the subject in the Rule, though it needs to be remembered that the Institutes and Conferences of Cassian were read regularly to the community (see RB 42.5 & 73.5) and so they would have been familiar with the traditional desert teaching on the eight principle ‘thoughts’, including lust. In RB 4, we find among the tools for good works, the terse command ‘to love chastity’ (RB 4.64), though it is true that this chapter also contains injunctions not to commit adultery, not to gratify the promptings of the flesh, to discipline the body and dash and disclose wrongful thoughts. Chapter 33, on private ownership, reminds the monk of the illogicality of clinging to material things when he has renounced even the free disposal of his body (RB 33.4), a renunciation mentioned but hardly elaborated on in chapter 58 which describes the self-gift of the monk at profession (see RB 58.25). Finally, in chapter 72.8, mention is made of the chaste love of brothers which should characterise community relationships (caritatem fraternitatis caste impendant).

Stage Three - a key from the Dialogues?

Perhaps the Dialogues can help fill out these rather sparse lines from RB. At the end of Book II we get that marvellous vision given to the veteran Benedict of the whole world caught up in a ray of light. It is worth quoting at some length. After offering hospitality to the visiting abbot, Servandus, Benedict is about to retire:
‘There was a stair leading from the lower to the upper part [of the tower]. In front of the tower was a larger building where the disciples of both abbots were asleep. Benedict, the man of the Lord, having brought forward the time for night-prayers, was already at vigils while the brothers were still asleep. He stood by the window, praying to the Lord almighty. All of a sudden, he looked up in the middle of the night and saw a light spreading from on high, completely repelling the darkness of the night. It shone with such splendour that it completely surpassed the light of day… A marvellous thing followed in this contemplation for, as he himself related afterwards, the whole world was brought before his eyes, gathered up, as it were in under a single ray of sun. The venerable Father, while straining his attentive gaze at this splendour of shining light, saw the soul of Germanus, bishop of Capua, carried up to heaven by angels in a fiery sphere.’

This vision can be seen as a symbol, a visual image of prayer, or rather of what prayer and therefore celibacy in the service of prayer (6) should be leading us to, that is: unity, oneness, wholeness, integration, a catching up of everything into God’s transformative light. We are taken back to that exclusive, ardent, unifying desire to see God which for Gregory defines the monastic quest, back to the underlying motive for Benedict’s own monastic odyssey and thence to the touchstone for discerning every monastic vocation: does this person truly seek God? (RB 58.7 si revera Deum quaerit…). So it is fitting that the Dialogues should give us this graphic illustration which can be seen as the culmination of the life-long journey of celibacy and prayer. But what of all the years in between? Does the Rule give us any glimpses of this vision unfolding in via?

The Rule re-visited

Any journey involves choices: modes of transport to be taken, whether to opt for the motorway or the more scenic by-ways, decisions that have to be made at cross-roads. At each stage the ultimate destination and the urgency of the traveller’s desire to get there will shape the decision. Throughout his Rule Benedict gives the monastic traveller en route for God the clearest directions and guidelines where there is room for choice: as the Way par excellence to the Father (John 14.6) ‘nothing is to be preferred to, (or put before) Christ. This phrase, which first appears in RB 4.21 can be traced back, tentatively, via the Rule of the Master to early Christian writers like Athanasius (d. 373) and Cyprian (d. 258)(7) and beyond them back to the Gospel tradition itself, ‘Noone who prefers father or mother to me is worthy of me’, words put on the lips of Jesus himself in St Matthew’s Gospel (10.37). Benedict puts before his monks three more similarly clear phrases about ‘preference’, each one proper to his Rule (i.e. not found in the Rule of the Master) and therefore perhaps indicative of Benedict’s own mind-set. The phrases are:

I- Care of the sick must be put above and before all else (RB 36.1). Infirmorum cura ante omnia et super omnia adhibenda est

II- Nothing is to be put before the Work of God (RB 43.3) (8) Nihil operi Dei praeponatur.

III- Let them put absolutely nothing before Christ (RB 72.11). Christo omnino nihil praeponant

What are we to make of these apparent contradictions? Is Benedict the fickle sort of chap who says one thing one day and the opposite the next? Hardly, especially given his love of stability. It is relatively easy, and in the first example from RB 36 one need only complete the sentence (‘in order that Christ may truly be served in them’) to see that all three are, in fact, the same preferential option for Christ from RB 4 played out in different contexts. We might think of each of these three phrases as representative of different spheres in monastic life – and, in the absence of a power-point presentation, use our imagination to assign each a colour.

Community service or manual labour could be represented by a yellow circle; Christ encountered in the Opus Dei, a blue circle; Christ encountered in himself – in personal prayer – might be shown as a red circle. Now we know that in the monastery, as in life, these activities often overlap, and so, to continue our prismatic meditation, we might put lectio divina, the personal appropriation by the individual monk or nun of the Word heard collectively in the liturgy, at the intersection of personal prayer and the Opus Dei, and so assign it the colour purple; Christ encountered personally in the guest, the sick, the abbot etc would fall between the red and the yellow circles and so be coloured orange; while the junction of the manual labour (yellow) and Divine Office (blue) spheres creates a green we might term ‘reverence’, where all tools and goods are treated as sacred vessels of the altar (cf. RB 31.10). I am suggesting that these colour-coded overlaps portray in an external, visible way, something of the mysterious inner process of integration that accompanies growth in prayer and celibacy. The Rule provides glimpses of other such integrative juxtapositions viz. ‘Listen readily to holy readings’ (RB 4.55) is listed as a ‘tool of good works’ and later, it is in the chapter on manual labour (RB 48) that Benedict gives us his most detailed instruction on lectio divina; likewise obedience is termed a ‘labour’ (Prologue 2) and one which ‘comes naturally to those who hold nothing dearer than Christ’ (see RB 5.2).You can probably think of other examples. At the level of experience, most of us no doubt remember a time when a monastic day seemed to be an endless stream of one thing after another (and perhaps there are still days like that) but, hopefully, as one gets more acclimatised to the monastic rhythm, a greater sense of the relationship of part to whole develops and one begins to make connections between those parts: some phrase from lectio sustains your work, a guest calms you with a ‘word’ or a solution to a problem seeps in unawares while you are singing the Office.

It is, of course, in the Eucharist (9), where we meet the Risen Christ in word and sacrament and assembly that our three circles, red, blue and yellow, converge into a light which we might call the ‘eucharistic light’ of the veiled but real presence of Christ who is present in the assembly, present as the Word and present, par excellence, under the species of bread and wine. In the intimacy of Holy Communion we assimilate this light, or rather, we are assimilated into Christ our Light and so are empowered to live eucharistically, that is, with Christ’s own life. And how will this life manifest itself, if not in praise and gratitude to the Father, in a deep concern and respect for the other, and in a profound reverence for all created matter?

When we consider the context of Benedict’s vision on the tower stairs we discover all these elements to be present: Benedict had just offered praise and thanks to God by saying Vigils (the Opus Dei – our blue circle); he had extended hospitality to Christ in a guest (denoted by orange in our colour scheme); had been casting an abbatially-caring eye on the sleeping brethren (monastic service – our yellow circle) and finally, we are told that he was ‘at prayer’ (the red circle) perhaps rapt in wonder at the beauty of the night-sky (green zone). Just as the Eucharist is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, so, Benedict’s vision can be seen as a preview of the heavenly light that unites all.


Celibate Integration

In his searching and innovative book Living the Celibate Life, Richard Sipe (10) identifies ten elements which he says support the celibate life. Anyone familiar with the Rule of St Benedict will immediately recognise a striking similarity between these ten elements and the components of the Benedictine way, or conversatio. See the table below.

In line with Sipe’s expectation that his study be used as a work-book and adapted to specific individual situations, the right-hand list has been slightly re-ordered to reflect the Benedictine charism. What this table underlines, I suggest, is that the difficulty of finding very much concrete teaching on celibacy (nor we might add, on prayer) in RB is not that of finding the proverbial needle in the haystack but more that of detecting the leaven in the dough. The teaching pervades the whole Rule, as the state of celibacy qua relationship with Christ, and the goal of continuous prayer should pervade our whole lives, and the more so as the process of integration becomes more developed (11). Or, to return to the image of the prism, while one cannot see the light which results from the fusion of the constituent colours, one can see the whole with greater clarity in and through that light. Sipe speaks (p. 146) of the example of the saints – and he would surely include St Benedict – as those who ‘plunged into their loneliness’ to attain to a unity, an integrity which is ‘on the other side of pain, sacrifice and selfknowledge…. the experience of the reality that we are all one’. It is suggested then, that Benedict’s vision of the world caught up in a beam of light is no piously mystical flourish on the part of the author of the Dialogues, but rather portrays the full flowering of the eucharistic life Benedict had lived for many years, the sign of integration completed.


This essay grew out of novitiate conferences on the vows when, as a result of reading Richard Sipe’s acclaimed study of celibacy (Living the Celibate Life, Liguori, 2004), we felt it would be interesting to build up a profile of Benedict as Celibate, along the lines set out by Sipe for the various models of celibacy such as Cassian, Augustine and Merton, presented in his book. In order to do this recourse was, of course, made to The Dialogues of St Gregory the Great and especially to Fr Adalbert de Vogüé’s illuminating commentary on them (The Life of Saint Benedict, St Bede’s, 1993) to which the first part of this essay is indebted.

The image of the prism in RB was first presented at a meeting of Benedictine Juniors held at Stanbrook early in 2005. Thanks are due to the participants for their helpful comments and encouragement.

Finally, a debt of gratitude is owed to Juliet Murphy for generous technical assistance.



(1) The witness of such a life cannot be underestimated. In his apostolic letter for the fifteenth centenary of the birth of St Benedict on 11th July, 1980, John Paul II reminded us that the world needs those who are called to give everything to the Lord in celibacy.
(2) Gregory the Great, The Life of St Benedict, commented by Albert de Vogüé. (St Bede’s, 1993).
(3) See Peter de Cava in his Commentary on the First Book of Kings, 1.1.61.
(4) The phrase ‘God alone’ echoes the formation given at Stanbrook, thanks to the prayers of Dame Catherine Gascoigne (see A Great Tradition, by the Benedictines of Stanbrook [John Murray, 1956], p. 14). Dame Gertrude More asked for this with great insistence on her deathbed (see Augustine Baker, The Life and Death of Dame Gertrude More, edited by Ben Wekking [Salzburg, 2002], p. 316-7).
(5) See The Life of St Benedict, cited in note 2, preface p. 15ff.
(6) The analysis of André Louf on the dynamic between celibacy and prayer, remains very pertinent (Apprends-nous à prier [Editions Foyer Notre Dame, Brussels], p. 98), ‘It is a long process of vigil and prayer which last a whole life long, where bodily asceticism and the unrelenting concentration of the heart on God are inseparably linked’ For a complete study of sexuality, see R. Rolheiser, OMI, The Holy Longing (Doubleday, 1999).
(7) Athanasius speaks of it at key points of the life of St Anthony (Vita Antoni, 14), while Cyprian speaks of it earlier in The Prayer of the Lord (no. 15).
(8) Benedict could have said this for one of the first legislators of Lerins, perhaps Porcarius, Mon 12, according to Terence Kardong.
(9) Aelred Niespolo OSB wrote that the daily Eucharist in monasteries witnesses not only to koinonia but also to celibacy, since it brings into play the intimacy and sexuality of God incarnate, Jesus Christ (quotation taken from ‘Healing Wounded Souls of Monk and Guest’ [Religious Life Review, vol 43, 2004]).
(10) AW Richard Sipe, Living the Celibate Life (Liguori, 2004).
(11) For celibacy as a help to grow in interior union, see R. Cantalamessa OFMCap (Editions du Lion de Juda, 1990)