Saint Benedict's Wisdom

Although the Holy Rule gives no biographical details of its author's life, the document offers numerous hints about the saint's character. It shows Benedict, like the monks of good zeal whom he wished to form (RB 72), to be passionate for God and for the things of God. From his experience of living in communities of monks, he learned that the little daily choices that one makes in ordinary life ultimately determine the basic orientation of one's whole life. For a Christian, and so too for every monk, the choice must be made for Christ again and again. In the Rule Benedict challenges his monks to make a fundamental choice to listen to the voice of Christ and to recognize that "the love of Christ must come before all else" (RB 4:21). The vow of stability and the detailed organization of life in community are meant to help the monk make the choice for Christ, day by day and moment after moment. The monk is instructed to see in these time-tested structures ample opportunities to choose for God and reject self-centered impulses.

Benedict was well aware of the pervasiveness of those self-centered tendencies, and his radical zeal for God is balanced by his loving concern for the individual monk with all his weaknesses. The saint knew that the brothers suffered from a variety of deficiencies and that all had need of forgiveness and mutual support on the journey to God. He also possessed keen insight into the great differences that existed among individual monks; some were obedient, docile, patient, and perceptive, while others were undisciplined, negligent, stubborn, slow to learn, and even disdainful and arrogant. The more wayward the monk, however, the greater his need for the loving attention of the Good Shepherd to seek him out and heal him (RB 27:8). It is the abbot who must fill the role of Christ in showing the utmost concern for straying sheep. Using every skill that a wise physician would apply to heal a sick person, the abbot must avoid harshness and see himself as an instrument of Christ's healing love in his commitment to nurture the development of souls in the community. The Rule also shows that Saint Benedict was thoroughly grounded in the tradition of the Church.

Much of the Rule consists of quotations from or allusions to Sacred Scripture. The monks are urged to meditate extensively on Scripture as well as to read from the orthodox fathers of the early Church (RB 73:2-4). In writing the Rule, Benedict himself relied heavily on the already well-developed monastic tradition of the two previous centuries. He incorporated large sections of the Rule of the Master and also borrowed teachings from other great monastic authors, such as Basil, Augustine, Cassian, and Caesarius of Arles. However, Benedict also did something new. He blended the wisdom of the past in such a way as to respond to the conditions of sixth-century Italy, and he gave the Rule enough flexibility to be adapted to the social and cultural circumstances of the Church for many centuries to come. Benedict's Rule includes both spiritual teaching (mostly in RB 1-7, 72-73 and the Prologue) and practical regulations for the ordering of daily life in the monastery (mostly RB 8-71).

He knew that both sound doctrine and disciplined practice were essential to authentic monastic life. For Benedict and the other ancient monastic leaders, monasticism was simply the Christian life lived in an especially intensive way in community as a response to God's persistent invitations. Thus he called his document a "little rule for beginners." On the other hand, because of the passionate faith, the gentle compassion, and the invaluable practical wisdom embodied in the Rule, Benedict's way of monastic life became a tradition in itself which spread throughout the world and which has shaped Western civilization for the past 14 centuries.

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