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Benedict’s Rule

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Source: Saint Benedict, The Rule of St. Benedict, translated into English. A Pax Book, preface by W.K. Lowther Clarke (London: S.P.C.K., 1931). Preface.

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PREFACE. By W. K. Lowther Clarke

No one living in the world who receives an invitation to write an Introduction to an edition of the Rule of St. Benedict can consent without searchings of heart. Who is he that he should criticize, or patronize by his praise, the legacy of the great Father? But one thing would seem to justify him. Books are published in the hope of their being read and appreciated, and the present book may fall into the hands of some whose sympathies need to be stirred before they can do justice to an old-world document like the Rule. One who knows nothing of Benedictinism except as an outside observer may be able to interpret it to the world better than a monk or nun who is living the life laid down in the Rule.

Perhaps I may be allowed to approach it from the side of my own studies—by way, that is, of Egypt and Cappadocia. Seldom have the depths of the human heart been plumbed so deeply as by the monks of Egypt, whose wisdom Cassian has preserved to us in his Institutes and Conferences. Rarely, if ever, has God raised up a Saint of such many-sided grandeur as St. Basil, by whose side, in an epic of Christian love, stand his sister St. Macrina, his brother St. Gregory of Nyssa, and his friend St. Gregory Nazianzen. But these treasures of Egypt and Cappadocia are unknown in their original form except to scholars. That they have influenced Christian thought and conduct in the West is due almost entirely to the Benedictine tradition, to which they have contributed, thanks to the founder’s recommendation, in the last chapter, to read the Conferences and Institutes (of Cassian) and “the Rule of our holy Father Basil.” This chapter should be carefully weighed, or the reader may at first feel a sense of disappointment. With all its incomparable sanity, the Rule may seem to be lacking in the higher spirituality. But the Saint only intends to draw up an elementary rule, suitable for all alike. When that has been mastered, “the loftier heights of doctrine and virtue” may be essayed with the help of loving study of the Scriptures and of the pioneers in the monastic life.

Mediæval history cannot be understood if monasticism is ignored, and at the base of all Western monasticism lies the Rule of St. Benedict. As we sit within the ruined walls of Fountains or Tintern, and wonder what manner of men once lived here, we shall be wise to draw out the Rule from our pocket and by its aid reconstruct in imagination their daily life and, what matters more, its motives and inspiration. Chaucer’s Prioress, again, is a gracious and lovable figure, with the quaintness of antiquity; but the real woman must be put in the background of the Rule if she is to be understood.

The second-century writer of the Epistle to Diognetus says that “what the soul is in the body, that the Christians are in the world”; and Aristides the Apologist writes: “I have no doubt but that the world stands through the intercession of Christians.” If we transferred these thoughts to the function of the “religious” in the Church today we should doubtless be guilty of exaggeration. But to a large extent we should be right. The ideals for which monasticism stands would be even more obscured than they are, if there were no specialists making them the primary means by which they live to God’s glory. The threefold vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience is a standing reminder that, in an age when economic considerations dwarf all else, some at least are renouncing possessions and making many rich; that, when self-indulgence and self-expression are preached as the duty of man, some are practising restraint without detriment to the fullness of their humanity; and that, when self-determination is the watchword both of nations and individuals, obedience is being preferred by vigorous wills.

But the characteristic vow of the Rule is even stranger than these three. Poverty, chastity, and obedience the modern world may understand—with an effort. But stability—the monk’s vow to continue in the monastery of his choice unto his life’s end—is indeed alien to us. Stabilitas is virtually enclosure, a downright terrifying idea. We are all agreed, clergy and laity alike, that constant change is good for us; to settle down to one place, one occupation, for life seems intolerably dull. But may it not be that mental and spiritual stability needs to be secured by outward and physical stability, that we cannot bear much fruit unless we stay long enough in one place for our roots to penetrate deep down into the surrounding soil?

Lastly, I should like to suggest some ways in which a detailed study of the Rule may help English Churchpeople, for whom this edition is mainly intended. The Communicants’ Guilds which flourished in the nineteenth century have fallen on evil days. This is a pity, for our parishes need bands of the devout, organized for progress in the spiritual life, as much as ever. But the form of organization most helpful today is some kind of “Third Order,” a branch of a fraternity associated with a monastery, supported by the prayers of the Community, and in its turn reinforcing the Community by its prayers and alms. If such a movement is to develop, the devout laity must first understand the basic principles of monasticism far more clearly than they do at present, and the first step to such understanding is to read this “elementary Rule.”

But the Rule contains much that applies to the needs of the ordinary Christian. Thus Chapter IV. would serve admirably as a basis for self-examination. The principles of conduct laid down for the Abbot apply in a measure to all who have to rule and lead their fellow-men. But I hope a parish priest will not seize too eagerly on Chapter III., as a guide to his conduct of the Church Council: “having listened to the counsel of the brethren, let him settle the matter in his own mind and do what seems to him most expedient.” For the Abbot himself is a Benedictine monk and has vowed to live as such. He is no autocrat, but must obey his holy Father St. Benedict, who, being dead, yet speaketh in the Rule.

Again—and here I am treading on delicate ground—the Rule will help us to a sense of proportion in our devotional life. The devout are coming to centre their prayer-life more and more around the Blessed Sacrament. The congregations at weekday Evensongs have dwindled sadly. Choir Offices are apt to be condemned as dull. And voices are heard suggesting that wordless prayer, the technique of which was perfected by the teachers of the Counter-Reformation, is the only true prayer. We must always beware of the swing of the pendulum. If we find the Bible dull, the Psalms, Te Deum and Magnificat uninspiring, there is something wrong with us, not with the Offices. The best mind of the Mediæval Church is reflected in the golden words of the Imitation: “Without these two I may not well live, for the word of God is the light of my soul, and this Sacrament is the bread of my life.” In the Rule the faithful observance of the Divine Office is shown as the chief work of the Community, nothing less than the opus Dei. And when we are distressed by our failure in mental prayer, we may comfort ourselves by remembering that for a thousand years the characteristic Benedictine piety was faithful repetition of the Church’s prayers supplemented by a loving prayerful study of God’s holy Word such as is within the capacity of the humblest Christian. This must not be taken as deprecating the higher flights of prayer or devotion to our Lord in His Sacrament. Rather I want to suggest that a certain solid Anglican piety, such as we find in the devotional life of Dr. Johnson, is spiritually akin to the Rule.

These are my words, framed with diffidence. Let me conclude with Cardinal Newman’s classic expression of the Benedictine spirit, in which the restless modern world could find, if it would, the things that belong to its peace.*

“To the monk heaven was next door; he formed no plans, he had no cares; the ravens of his father Benedict were ever at his side. He ‘went forth’ in his youth ‘to his work and to his labour’ until the evening of life; if he lived a day longer, he did a day’s work more. Whether he lived many days or few, he laboured on to the end of them. He had no wish to see further in advance of his journey than where he was to make his next stage. He ploughed and sowed, he prayed, he meditated, he studied, he wrote, he taught, and then he died and went to heaven.”

[* ]Historical Sketches, ii. 426.

Last modified April 13, 2016