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March 2023
Issue No. 313

The Rule of St Benedict

by Samson Fan, Vincent Chan


The mention of godliness and a spiritual life often elicits the following imagery: a man living far away from civilisation, cloistered within walls for decades without end. The pursuit of a spiritual life may seem antagonistic to us mere mortals at first, but it is in fact what God calls for all of us. When Jesus taught in the Beatitudes ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God,’ he was hinting to us that spiritual nourishment isn’t found only in the wilderness, and it isn’t the sole domain of those who lead a hermit’s life. One does not need to be a cloistered monk to be always listening for and seeking God – no matter if one were a housewife, an officer worker, young, or old – for as long as we are willing to be attentive, we will see even in our urban lives the face of God, of ourselves, and of the whole creation. The Lenten reader this year, Seeking God: The Way of St Benedict, traces the Benedictine tradition and teaches us ways of finding God’s footsteps in our daily lives.

The Rule of St Benedict is often misunderstood. To us, living in the modern age, the mention of any ‘rule’ is a sign of limitations, control, and even bureaucracy – it is something to be feared and avoided. And yet, the Ruleneither limits nor proscribes; rather, it guides the believer on his journey towards imitating Christ and his gospel in everyday life. St Benedict wasn’t a member of the clergy – he was a member of the 6th century Italian laity, and helped establish the monastic community on Monte Cassino. The monks there issued an urgent call for the people to be alert, to listen, and to act, and these became the Rule of St Benedict. The whole pamphlet consists of fewer than 9000 words, and succinctly describes the goals and methods of St Benedict’s monastic life. The text is neatly organised into 73 chapters, and lays out the basic principles for organising a community on matters of worship, work, study, devotion, authority, and wealth. For more than a thousand years, the Rule’s urgent call remains the same, and remains both inspirational and applicable to us in the 21st century.

When we first read the RRule, we may find it a bit dry: there are whole chapters dedicated to such menial things as clothing and sleeping arrangements, organising the cellar, and the duties of the attendants. Indeed, the Rule is a worldly text, and that is why it is such an important text. As we reread its passages, we discover the spirited message behind its dry contents, just as we discover how its descriptions of daily routines – no matter individual or communal – are all designed to align us towards a Christ lifted high. All the actions described within the Rule point towards a Christ that is constantly calling and watching over us, and our journey towards godliness should accordingly begin with Christ, and end with Christ. The Rule begins in its preface, ‘No matter who you are… He who has the hearing ear, let him hear.’ St Benedict decorated his descriptions of those who follow the Rule, likening them to newly recruited soldiers, workers in the workshop of God, pilgrims on a journey, and even students at a seminary. The way we are called is different from person to person, but one thing is constant: we must respond to this call immediately, and we must act without tarrying. The Rule challenges the values we take for granted in our lives, and calls for us to review the most basic things we do: How should we grow up as our true selves? Where should we find the medication to make our lives complete? What should be the relationship between ourselves and our neighbours, our world, and our God?

The vows of a Benedictine monk are that of stability, conversion of manners, and obedience. We don’t need to actually become a monk to be inspired by these vows. The vow of stability can be taken as a response to our current culture of immediate gratification, and the culture of nomadic rootlessness. Benedictine stability, in contrast, teaches us to be content with our current circumstances, and that our attention should be directed towards finding why God has placed us in such situations which we find ourselves in with our family, work, and other relationships. As the author of Bloom where God has planted you, Sister Kazuko Watanabe from Japan has written, ‘ To bloom where one is planted is not an acceptance of defeat. Rather, it is to prove that God has made the right decision in placing you there. He has chosen for you to live with a blessed smile, that others around you may be blessed as well.’

The conversion of manners could be said as a balance to the vow of stability. If stability is a vertical force that enroots us in a community and directs us upwards towards seeking God constantly, then the conversion of manners is an expansion of our daily attitude towards God on the horizontal axis. The conversion of manners teaches us to be open to God in our daily lives, and be ready for his call at any moment. When we are always glad to be called and be transformed, then we will see God in all things around us.

The vow of obedience is an important accompaniment to that of stability and the conversion of manners. With a humble heart, the follower of the RRule submits himself before the holy word of God and the elders chosen by God. Such obedience grants a person the willpower to commit to stability without running away, and the creativity to change in the face of a transient and unforgiving world. As we periodically review why we are called, maintain an open mind towards his calls, and be always ready to change, we become willing to obey the holy word and the authority of those appointed to instruct us.

These three vows can also deepen the conscious presence of Christ in our daily lives. ‘The vow of stability demands us not to flee from a battlefield, and face directly the true challenges ahead. The vow of obedience demands us to relive Christ’s own obedience in our lives – an obedience that Christ displayed despite it leading to his suffering and death. The vow of conversion teaches us to ready ourselves for a renewed journey of growth until the end of our days. And the whole journey of growth is founded on a paradox from the gospels: one must first die to attain life. If one were to be obsessed with spiritual growth, then the result would be spiritual death. The goal of a transforming life isn’t the realisation of the self, despite its popularity in today’s world. St Benedict was merciless when it comes to criticising this self-centred kind of actualisation. To him, our goal should be Christ, and it is only by continuous struggle that we may reach him. St Benedict did not advocate inaction – to reach any goal at all requires action rather than mere words. That said, our actions should be guided by God, and all we are doing is simply in response to him, as if we are cooperating with him. And so we must understand that when we seek God, we are in fact giving God the chance to seek us. In seeking God’s truth, the important thing isn’t in what we can find or achieve, but rather that we depend entirely on his grace as we approach him.’

Looking at the three Benedictine vows holistically, they can be seen as a complete monastic journey. Benedict invited everyone to enter into a dynamic commitment – at once under the comfort of God, and at the same time working towards God – and throughout our journey in life we focus on being attentive to and obeying the holy word of God instead of ourselves. The three vows and the wider Rule serve as a reminder that we, as disciples, have a certain responsibility to discipline, and such disciplines help us on our life’s journey in being Christ’s student and follower. We don’t live as closed systems, cut off from others; instead, our lives should be an open door for God, at the same time safely within God, and at the same time turning ever deeper towards God. Such is the spiritual journey when we learn to notice God from outside ourselves, and at the same time transform our observations into renewal within.

‘Pray and work’ (ora et labora) is the motto associated with the Benedictines. St Benedict stressed the importance of balancing work, study, and prayer, since any asymmetry in the three could impede spiritual growth. On the one hand, he wrote about the importance of persevering through the Rules, and on the other, he acknowledged the practical need of adapting the methods along the way, such that the strong may be challenged fruitfully, and the weak may not be discouraged. This way, the seeker of godliness may come to learn that the worlds within and without are equally important; he would learn to be passionate in seeking God, and at the same time prudent in self-reflection, understanding limits, and showing love when serving others. Such a balancing act results in both the nurturing of one’s inner spiritual needs and the encouragement of acting out one’s love for our neighbours. The inner and the outer spheres thus merge, and work becomes prayer, and prayer becomes work, with no discrepancies between the two. Benedict’s ideal is that we should be completely attentive to what God asks of us in his house, and establish a complete spiritual life that encompasses both the inward and outward directions, with both the self and the others balanced in the interlocking of work and prayer.

St Benedict was born in about 580 AD, in a world that may not be as different to ours as we would think. He witnessed the grandeur that was Rome falling apart, with social mores deteriorating, and what used to be the pillars of society now showing disconcerting cracks. The social classes no longer trust one another, the talk of the land is discord, and the vision of the Kingdom of Heaven seems unreachable. St Benedict never thought that this little pamphlet of his would still be an inspirational text for many after 1500 years. He brought together the forces of work and prayer, the self and others, quietness and labour, and the desert and the city, that we as the prodigal son may return to God. Our merciful Father awaits, and the door is always open. 

At the Fleury Abbey in France, one can read from one of its walls, ‘Today we left our homes, and we have lost our keys, but you have called us to return to this home, where we may find ourselves once more. This is an invitation to an inward path, and your experience shows that you are helping others in finding themselves. Benedict, teach us in returning to our inner self.’ Perhaps it is time for us all to return home.

Samson Fan & Vincent Chan


<The above article was published in "Echo" Issue No. 313. Please click here>


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