The Rule of St Benedict

Dom Mauro-Giuseppe Lepori, O. Cist, Abbot General

THE RULE OF ST BENEDICT, A PROPOSITION OF HUMANITY

 

leporiA Treasure for Everyone

I have found your invitation to contribute to your session on the subject, ‘What is direction?’, with the task of presenting the contribution of the Rule and the charism of St Benedict highly stimulating. For more than 24 years I have lived at the Cistercian Abbey of Hauterive, and for 15 years I have been its Abbot, that is the person responsible, or if you like the ‘Director’ – to remain close to the formulation of your subject of reflection. This means that I have spent all these years following the Rule of St Benedict, the Rule to whose literal observance the Cistercian monks of the twelfth century wished to return. I have been able to discover for myself to what extent this monastic Rule, composed at the beginning of the sixth century, remains essentially relevant, relevant not simply to follow as a Rule, but as a means of living better in every respect and for a whole life long in every dimension.

When it becomes clear that something helps towards a better life, to living our humanity with more flavour, and also with more responsibility, it can only be regretted that such a treasure remains today often shut up in monasteries, serving monks and nuns who are following the Benedictine Rule by their religious vocation. This has not always been the case. The whole of European culture has been modelled by this experience of life, which was passed, as if by osmosis, from the monasteries into the very fabric of society, a society which was to rebuild itself on the ruins of the Roman empire by integrating the new and energetic blood of the barbarian peoples.

St Benedict enabled Christianity to become culture in the global sense of the word, that is, to incarnate itself in the dough of our humanity to make it more human, more harmonious, more united. This humanisation constitutes an integral part of the dowry of Christianity. If God, the creator of the human race, became man and lived a human life, it follows inevitably that he offered himself as an icon of a fulfilled humanity, true, beautiful and in accordance with the plan by which every human being exists.

That being said, I am well aware that I am not necessarily speaking to a public which shares my Christian faith. However, it would be impossible to speak of what the Benedictine movement has brought to humanity without mention of the vivifying root and source. This would be especially unfaithful to St Benedict, who several times in the course of his Rule puts the advice and precept ‘to prefer nothing to the love of Christ’ (chapter 5) at the centre. It is undeniable that this was St Benedict’s only goal, his only concern. The whole of his influence on European culture was the fruit of the life he lived, although he certainly neither intended nor foresaw this.

I am convinced that if St Benedict, like so many other fathers of our civilisation, can help us in the crisis through which we are passing, provided that we have the honesty, and indeed the humility, to listen to his experience in all its dimensions, by considering what was to him central and fundamental.

 

The Service of God

The firm foundation of the new humanity which St Benedict promoted is that everything in the Benedictine monastery is lived in relationship to God. The purpose of the life of the monastery is service of God, the glory of God. At the end of the Prologue of the Rule Benedict affirms that his purpose is to build ‘a school of the Lord’s service’. Of every candidate who enters the noviciate Benedict requires that it should be established above all that ‘he truly seeks God’ (chapter 58).

Now it is unmistakable in reading the Rule that this fundamental intention, this fundamental choice, concerns not only prayer, the liturgy, the purely monastic aspects of life in the monastery, but in fact all aspects of human life, even the most material, economic, physical, earthly. Everything, literally everything, is embraced in this school of the Lord’s service. I will take just one example, particularly adapted to the audience I am addressing, since it concerns money. At the end of the chapter of the Rule on the work of the craftsmen of the monastery, Benedict ends by saying, ‘if some product of the craft of the monastery is to be sold, the brothers in charge must take care that they do not commit any fraud. In fixing the price they must be careful that the evil of avarice does not slip in: a sale should always be at a price a little lower than seculars charge, so that God may be glorified in all things’ (chapter 57).

Human life in itself is woven from a multiplicity of factors, but all can be lived in unity, in harmony, if the objective of life is greater than life itself. I believe that the secret of the fruitfulness of St Benedict for Western monastic life and for European culture in its entirety, resides in his ability to incorporate in a daily, concrete experience, the awareness that it is only in living for something greater than themselves that human beings can live to the full all the elements of existence. When values are no longer lived in function of something greater than themselves they lose their foundation and their goal, and become sterile.

 

formationA Heart Enlarged

Why is this the case? Because the fundamental option for the glory of God, or, if you prefer, the fundamental reference to the transcendent, to an Absolute, is constitutive of the human heart. St Benedict is deeply aware that the human heart is so constituted, and lives in this way. And the life of the heart is happiness, the sense of fulfilment. Benedict inherited his concept of the human heart from the Bible, the patristic tradition, for example, from St Augustine, Cassian, St Basil, etc, but also – directly or indirectly – from the best of the pagan philosophers of antiquity.

The very first sentence of the Rule is, ‘Listen, my son, to the precepts of the master, bend the ear of the heart’ (Prologue). No renewal of life is possible if the point of departure is not the need for happiness which every human heart carries in itself. Sooner or later, however, everyone realises that he cannot succeed in gaining this happiness for himself. Hence the invitation to direct the listening-capacity of the human heart to a master, to someone who can be a guide, and a guide on the basis of an experience of the truth of life. For Benedict the essential is that the heart give free assent to a salvation which does not come from itself. The essential is that the heart, aware of its inability to save itself, but also of its inalienable desire for fulfilment and for happiness, decide to listen to Another, and to listen in willingness to consent to be guided, instructed and led to life.

The result of this work is that the heart is enlarged, that is, that one becomes more free, more oneself, more capable of desiring happiness. This is what Benedict promises at the end of the Prologue: ‘little by little, the heart is enlarged on the path of monastic life and of faith, so that the monk runs on the path of the commandments of the Lord, with heart enlarged by the unutterable sweetness of love.’ The expression ‘the heart enlarged’ expresses a capacity to love which allows the liberty of embracing all life, all reality. The enlarging of the heart means that the person is unified, without turning away from reality. The love which dwells in such a person becomes an open relationship with everyone and every thing. The whole of life becomes full of life because it becomes love, a love which chooses everything, welcomes everything, respects everything, sacrifices itself for everything, renounces everything and yet possesses everything. I would say that the outcome of the path on which the Rule guides us is a sympathy for all reality, an affection for everything which enables a person to make everything done and everything encountered positive.

From the beginning the heart, enlarged by the unutterable sweetness of love, engenders a different way of looking at people and things, and gives a different relationship. This different relationship changes everything, changes persons, making them better, building them up, healing them if they are hurt or damaged. It is this new way of looking which reconstructed and built up European civilisation. The decadence of the Roman empire and the barbarian disasters had obscured and darkened the way of looking at reality. Everything had become ruins, pessimism, defeatism. Who could build anything up again, take any initiative, hope in any thing new?

Benedict had the intuition, at the heart of this decadence, that it was necessary to look further off, to look at things differently, to look to Another. Nevertheless, he withdrew for three years into a cave to focus himself on God. He came out of this experience with a new optic. To begin with, he no longer needed to change any part of reality or of society to see the positive side of anything. He carried the positive in himself, in his own way of seeing things. He had realised that he needed to help others to fix their eyes further off than themselves, further off than their own misery and that of the world.

 

The path of education

How then can the heart be enlarged? How can St Benedict educate people to a positive and constructive relationship with reality, a reality as dramatic and painful as it was in his day and still is today? How then can St Benedict help us to find hope again?

St Benedict created a framework for education to the truth of life, a school of life. The charism of St Benedict is a charism of education to a fundamental human hope. Education means loving the true destiny of a person. Education means accompanying a person in the directing of life towards its fullness. Education means loving a person not only for what that person is, but also for what that person is called to become. Education is truly human when its goal is the human being as he or she is, but also as he or she is called to become. What, then, according to St Benedict is the axis of the contribution of education to a human and fruitful culture? The Rule underlines especially three interwoven factors: prayer, community and activity.

 

Prayer

I shall not delay on this point of prayer, principally because I have already explained its fundamental meaning above. Basically it means a listening and gestures which bring someone to live for a Person greater than oneself. It means a familiar address to a Presence which surpasses ourselves and which loves us, which created us and wills that our life should be lived in love and blessedness. All the hours of community and personal prayer prescribed by St Benedict are aimed at developing this awareness, and so liberating the heart from being closed on itself and so suffocating the breath of life. For St Benedict to pray is to educate oneself to recognize that the dimension of the eternal and the infinite are part of the definition of ourselves, and that this dimension is a someone, God, who speaks to us and listens to us, that is, someone who remains in contact with us throughout the day.

Benedict requires us to interrupt sleep, and at frequent intervals the activities of the day, to meet with Him who creates us and gives a goal and fullness to our life, not only after death but now, today, in what we are living today. Benedictine prayer is lived almost entirely in the Word of God, in listening to and experiencing the Bible, and especially the Psalms, those 150 poetic compositions by which the Hebrew people express everything in relation to God which the human heart can feel and live, both positive and negative. The regular practice of prayer, of petition and of praise, creates a consciousness of oneself and of reality which permeates the tissue of life in its relationships and in work. For St Benedict everything must become liturgy, everything is for the glory of God. That is why every material and practical detail becomes the expression of a desire which far exceeds appearance and contingency. In practice everything occurs just as St Benedict told us: if the human heart lives in a relationship to God, everything done and touched becomes an expression and reminder of this relationship.

 

butlinNeytStability in the Community

Prayer, the relationship to God, the recognition that God is God, all this becomes like sap which runs through the whole tree. The tree of the Rule of St Benedict is community life, expressed in work and fellowship. For St Benedict the community is a body to which each monk freely belongs, accepting to live monastic life according to the Rule. It is a group of persons which, living under a single father (Christ, represented by the Abbot), who have taken as a law fellowship as brothers or sisters of one another. In the monastic community all are equal, because all are called to the monastery by a single Lord. In an age when slavery still existed, St Benedict stresses ‘slaves or free, we are all one in Christ, and, having one single Lord, we all fulfil the same service’ (chapter 2).

This equality does not rule out diversity. St Benedict finds no difficulty in bringing out the personal talents and qualities of each monk, provided that these do not become grounds for pride, so that a personal talent or quality, instead of enriching the community becomes a cause of division. In fact all the members need the community, so that all the virtues and values become real and not imaginary. The community verifies everything and makes it real. In community each individual is what he is, not what he appears to be outside the community or what he imagines himself to be. It is in humble and harmonious unity with the rest of the body that each member can find and express his fruitfulness of life. Insertion in a community is so important for the authenticity of the path of every monk that St Benedict requires of anyone who chooses this path to make a vow of stability in the community. Stability is pretty well the fourth Benedictine vow. It involves the decision to remain for ever, until death, in a determined community. This is a choice which Benedict wishes to be deliberate, controlled by study of the Rule, tested by life in the community in such a way that it can be taken in total liberty – but for ever (chapter 58).

What is the meaning of this vow, of this commitment, which can be so difficult to accept these days? Its purpose is to make the way of conversion undertaken by the monk real and effective. Only someone who has decided on stability in a community, that is, in a fixed place, can really change. To decide on stability is like saying, ‘Come what may, I am determined to change myself rather than my place and the people to whom I belong.’ There will always be problems and difficulties on any path undertaken. The temptation is always to toy with the illusion that elsewhere, with other companions, everything will go better, be easier. This notion is almost always an illusion. Someone who leaves, who moves from one place to another, will always find the same problems, because the real problem is to accept to change oneself, to make progress, to convert ever more fully to a life which is more open, more free of oneself. There is no doubt that this purely Benedictine life commitment would be of inestimable value in today’s society, in every sphere, family, profession, etc. In today’s society, when difficulties arise, people seek to change or at least to avoid the people with whom the difficulties occur. Often such people are replaced by others with whom there are the same difficulties. The result is that people are never helped to change. They lack confidence in the possibility of improvement which is within everyone’s reach.

The vow of stability in the monastery is fundamentally an extreme act of confidence not only in God but also in human beings. The individual and the community commit themselves to confidence without a timelimit, for ever, to the indestructible confidence in every person of being open to change, to the truth of a life ever greater, despite its defaults, delays and failures. The fact of opening oneself in community to a relationship with others, that is, the acceptance that the other is my brother and sister because we all have a single Father, is the fruit of gratitude to God. It conveys a relationship to everyone which does not stop at appearances or at instinct. St Benedict requires that we should recognize and revere Christ in every guest, especially if that guest is poor (chapter 53). In general the Rule lays down that every person without distinction should be revered. This openness of view and of welcome has surely contributed greatly to humanizing European society at a time when the diversity of cultures and hostilities was tearing the world and individuals apart.

 

What is ‘direction’?

It is time to approach more directly the subject of your seminar: what is ‘direction’. All the experience of life which the Rule of St Benedict describes is in fact a ‘directed’, that is, a guided experience. It is guided fundamentally by the Rule, and through the Rule by the Bible and in particular the Gospel and monastic tradition, which goes right back to the fathers of the desert in the early centuries. But the Rule is not merely a rule-book. The Rule is a vade-mecum for anyone who is called to guide the monastery and for every monk who wishes to follow this path. The community described and inspired by the Rule is a directed community, directed essentially by an Abbot and by other figures of delegated responsibility who share in the responsibility of the Abbot to guide the community more effectively.

If a community is to promote life it cannot be guided by itself, it needs a guide, a guide who is, normally, ‘democratically’ elected by the community itself. A person elected by the community in the fear of God will be set up as Abbot. He must be chosen by the merit of his life and the wisdom of his teaching, even if he is last in rank in the community (chapter 64). For St Benedict the Abbot represents among his brothers the fatherhood of Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd who gives his life for his sheep (John 10). The figure of the Abbot is mentioned in practically each of the 73 chapters of the Rule. Basically the role of the Abbot is to be moderator between the letter of the Rule and the life of the community. The Rule does not change. By contrast, the life of the community, like the life of every human organism varies constantly. The Abbot must exercise the charism of discretion, discernment and moderation.

 

What does it mean to be called to direct the community?

St Benedict gives several pieces of advice. I will try to underline the four most important, and hopefully the most useful today, also for you.

The Abbot must be a teacher, in the sense of knowing how to offer to the community a steady teaching, a ‘teaching of wisdom’ (chapter 64), which he himself draws from divine wisdom. ‘The Abbot,’ writes St Benedict, ‘must not teach, establish or command anything apart from the commands of the Lord, but rather his arrangements and his teaching should come to the soul of the disciples like a leaven of divine justice' (chapter 2).

1. For me this is an essential aspect because it implies an exercise of authority which demands not an automatic, servile, infantile obedience, but personal freedom and judgment. The exercise of responsibility by means of the communication of a wisdom teaching means leaving to others the possibility of making their own the reasons for what is being asked, for the path they are to follow. This means leading people to obey the truth by making it their own, by assimilating it rather than obeying an order which remains exterior to them. The wisdom teaching ensures that the person responsible acts in accordance with liberty and clear thinking, through which one learns to stand tall and make personal decisions, so to be a subject rather than a sheep on the road that the community is taking.

This is a point which I think is particularly worrying in all kinds of conduct in today’s society. How many of those who hold responsible positions in political or professional life are really capable of expressing ‘wisdom teaching’ for those dependants who ask for it? That is, how many people in responsible positions can really give reasons for the path to be taken, the duty to be performed, the choice to be made, so that real personal liberty is brought into play rather than mere fear of sanctions or niggardly calculation of personal gain?

2. Another important aspect of the ‘direction’ given by the Abbot is openness to consultation, that is, to stimulate and encourage a shared opinion on the path to be followed. The third chapter of the Rule is devoted to this theme, which also occurs elsewhere. ‘Whenever there are important matters to discuss in the monastery, the Abbot assembles the whole community and presents the matter to them. He listens to the opinion of the brothers. Then he reflects on his own, and does what he thinks useful. All the brothers are called to give counsel, as we have said. In fact the Lord will often reveal to the youngest brother what is best… When it is a matter of less important decisions for the needs of the monastery, the Abbot will ask the opinion of the seniors only. The Bible says, ‘Ask advice of others for everything, Then, when it has been done, you will not regret it.’ (Sira 32.24; Rule, chapter 3).

I think it is important to note that the dynamic of counselling is above all a dynamic of reciprocal common listening. The fundamental idea is that there is a truth more profound than all the counsellors, which can be heard only by listening to one another. It is truth itself which must become clear and win the day. For this to happen it is not surprising that the instruments used should be even people who seem less skilled and competent. Nevertheless, this practice does not level out the roles and the responsibilities. For example, the Abbot should listen and reflect on what others say, but in the last analysis the decision is his. The responsibility remains his and he cannot hide behind the screen of the opinion of the community. He must remain free to make a decision which goes in the opposite direction if, having listened to all the brothers, he judges that the right decision is not that which the majority want.

3. In the Rule another important aspect of responsibility is delegation. The Abbot is not required to do everything on his own. St Benedict establishes, for example, that, if the community is large, brothers among the monks should be selected whose worth the others recognize and who are living a godly life, and they should be made deans. These deans should be chosen so that the Abbot can count on them to share the weight of his office. They should be chosen not according to their date of entry into the monastery, but according to the merit of their life and the wisdom of their teaching.

It is clear that basically the deans should have the same qualities as the Abbot: merit of life and wisdom of teaching, which means that they must not merely execute orders, but must exercise a real personal responsibility with regard to the brothers. The only condition is that they should act in unity with the Abbot, that the Abbot should be able to rely on them. This holds also for the Prior of the monastery (chapter 65), the cellarer (chapter 31), the novice-master (chapter 58), the infirmarian (chapter 36), the guestmaster (chapter 53 and 66), etc. Each delegation of responsibility should be brought into harmony and nourished by a most explicit link of loyalty and obedience to the Abbot, transparent in the exercise of personal responsibility.

St Benedict is aware of the risk run by any person who holds office, the inability to trust others, regarding the office as his own property, and so exercising it in some paranoid way. This is why he invites the Abbot to seek to be loved rather than feared. The Abbot must not be worried nor restless, neither excessive nor obstinate, neither jealous nor suspicious, or he will get no rest (chapter 64). St Benedict has no time for phrenetic superiors, so worried by their responsibilities that they lose appetite and sleep. The Abbot must remember that he too is a son and one of the brothers, just like his fellow monks. This is why he must delegate, but most of all trust God. He too must exercise his office more in praying than in speaking or acting.

4. A fourth aspect of the exercise of the authority of the Abbot according to St Benedict is the capacity to correct others. The human material of any community is always fragile, fallible, constantly in need of correction, of raising up after a fall, of drawing back from erring or ruinous paths, in order to avoid or repair regressions or falls or escapes. In such cases the Abbot is called to be a physician: he must patiently tend, respecting the liberty of the brothers, so that they may understand for themselves the falsity and negativity of certain choices. Above all the Abbot is required to be aware of his own fragility. Often he is able to correct and adequately help the brothers who stray because he too has strayed, fallen and experienced that we too can descend into falsity and hypocrisy. If the Rule envisages punishments, these too are therapeutic and must simply help the brothers who stray to become conscious of their error and recognize it as such. When a monk immediately recognizes his mistake, he has no need to be punished.

Essentially Benedict requires that the Abbot should be merciful, for the purpose of a monastery is not efficiency, but that each member should be loved and in turn become capable of loving. In chapter 64 St Benedict prescribes that the Abbot should ‘always exalt tenderness above justice, so that God may treat him in the same way. He should hate evil tendencies, but love the brothers. When he corrects others he is prudent; he never exaggerates, or else in scraping off the rust he may make a hole in the vessel. He must not forget that he too is fragile. He must remember that he must not break the bruised reed (chapter 64).

 

Attention to humanity

I could go on for hours giving examples and quotations about ‘direction’ according to St Benedict, but I have the impression that with the points I have mentioned, and especially the last, I have said what is necessary. The essential is that the best way of directing, of governing, of being responsible, of effectively leading a community, a work-group, and enterprise, a bank, in short any human activity, is a sense of humanity, awareness that it is always important to be fully human. It is this becoming ‘human’ that must be worked on, even if the objective of the group, the enterprise, the bank, seems to be quite different. The best way of attaining the success of any human endeavour is attention to humanity, of oneself and of others, the sense of humanity, of what man is, the meaning of life, the deepest desire of the heart, the sense of fragility and, at the same time, of the very noble human vocation.

Loss of the sense of humanity, so sharp in St Benedict, is what is today condemning the West to its ruin, to total ruin of families, of businesses, of schools, of work, of politics, of everything. The real crisis of our society, in my opinion, consists simply in behaving as if it had nothing to do with human nature. Everything is done, organized, directed as if humanity had no purpose, as if we were dealing with a machine, a computer, and not human beings, male and female.

How great is the contrast with the sensitivity of the Rule to every aspect of our humanity! In reading the Rule one feels enveloped in all one’s humanity, in all its aspects, the most miserable and niggardly no less than the most elevated and noble. Benedict does not censure anything about our humanity; he is attentive to all of it. Just think that, when he is speaking about the prayer of the night vigils and morning prayer, he does not fail to mention that it is important to leave an interval so that ‘the brothers may go out for the needs of nature’ (ad necessaria naturae) (chapter 8)! When humanity is considered in its totality, and its totality extends from the necessaria naturae to the longing for the infinite, for God, nothing is censured, everything is seen and everything has a taste, a beauty of its own.

In the chapter on the reception of guests, Benedict uses a splendid expression, difficult to translate. He requires that omnis exhibeatur humanitas towards the guest, that the guest be shown the greatest possible humanity (chapter 53). Certainly, in this context, it means that all the needs of the moment should be cared for. But this phrase can also be understood in the sense that such care should be seen by the guest, an unknown stranger who presents himself, as an expression of what is totally and truly human, showing what is the authentic human nature and vocation. For this is the fundamental human need, today no less than fifteen centuries ago: the need to realize what one truly is, one’s nature and one’s destiny. Then it becomes possible to love a little more oneself, one’s life, everything one does, and to love others as oneself.

I believe that this revelation of one person to another, this revelation of full humanity, in the light of the experience of the search for God, is the still valid contribution which the experience of St Benedict can offer to today’s society. This is the most precious reality of the Benedictine charism for people of today, and also their most urgent need.

A conference given at the session of Credito Svizzera, 21st April, 2009.