The Rule Of St. Benedict In English, edited by Timothy Fry
As a reader, I must admit that aside from my passionate interest in the Brother Cadfael series of history novels , and the fact that I live a rather monk-like existence in general, the rules of monasteries have not generally been of profound personal interest. This is not least because I come from a religious tradition where there are no such practices and where acesticism and celibacy in general are highly frowned upon at best. That said, as someone who reads a great deal outside of my own particular religious traditions, it came time for me to read this book as part of a challenge , and I have to say that I found this book to be an interesting one. That is not to say that I found a great deal of agreement with the asceticism of the author or his perspective of what others have considered the “white martyrdom” of monasticism, but rather I saw this book as an interesting human attempt to manage people under less than ideal circumstances that shows a great deal of humanity and moderation, and there is something at least to appreciate about that.
This particular rule is a short one, at just under 100 very small pages that can be comfortably fit inside of a pocket, containing 73 very small chapters, some as short as a single paragraph. After a preface from the editors and an introduction from the author (namely Benedict himself) explaining why he has taken the task of writing this rule, the author discusses a wide variety of practical topics, beginning with a look at the kinds of monks (1), the qualities of abbots (2), and the consensual workings of monasteries (3). The author talks about tools for good works (4) in the aims of obedience (5), restraint of speech (6), and humility (7). A fair amount of space is given to the divine office at night (8) including the number of psalms (9) and the arrangement of the night offices in summer (10). A discussion of the celebration of lauds on Sunday (11) and their solemnity (12), and the celebration of lauds on ordinary (13) and saint’s days (14) takes up some time as well. Later chapters of the book deal with the subject of reverence in prayer (20), the sleeping arrangements of the monks (22), and a few chapters that look at excommunication for faults (23), degrees of excommunication (24), serious faults (25), unauthorized communication with those who have been excommunicated (26), the abbot’s concern for those who have been excommunicated (27), the treatment of those who refuse to repent with other punishments (28), and the readmission of monks who seek to return to the monastery after having departed (29). A few of the chapters deal with offices, including the deans (21), the cellarer (31), kitchen servers (35), the reader (38), the porter (66), and the elections of abbots (64) and the selection of priors (65). The author also shows himself deeply interested in the practical task of life together in a religious community, discussing the importance of manual labor (48), dealing with monks who work outside the monastery (50) or are traveling (51, 67), receiving guests (53), avoiding favoritism in who sits at the abbot’s table (56) and in encouraging good zeal among monks (72), noting at the end that this rule is only the beginning of perfection and not the end (73).
What struck me the most about this rule, and this is perhaps due both to the author as well as to the translators of it, is the way that the rule strikes this reader at least as being highly moderate. It is typically thought that the life of monks was extremely austere and ascetic to an extreme, but although some of the rules were severe, like the fact that monks were forbidden any private property, including books and writing implements, without the express permission of the abbot, the rule as a whole recognizes that the monks were human beings subject to foibles and imperfects and makes arrangements for their sleeping and eating arrangements that are certainly moderate and also even allows for a certain amount of drinking in moderation as a way to aid their duties. In short, this book is not one that appears, at least if one looks at it as a human effort, to be that far beyond the sort of faith that a conscientious believer of a works-based religion would have, and there is even a bit of grace here, more than one would expect at any rate. Let us consider this book a triumph over low expectations.
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