Tag Archives: Rule of St. Benedict



Some words are as old fashioned as my grandmother’s butter churn, words like clew (ball of thread), fandangle (useless or purely ornamental thing), popinjay (a parrot), and scapegrace (a rascal). A word not yet archaic but in danger of becoming so is the word “obey,” especially when used in reference to human behavior. Obedience is a good quality to have in children, employees, soldiers, and subordinates. However, it seems to cut so much against the modern, egalitarian grain that when we hear it commended, it can have the same effect as running one’s fingernails down a chalkboard. (Chalkboard is another word in danger of becoming archaic.)

The Rule of St. Benedict begins with the archaic word “hearken” in Dom McCann’s translation. It means “to listen intently to” or “to obey,” and it appears in the imperative mood: Listen! Obey Obedience is a virtue not only for children and employees but also for monks, nuns, and anyone trying to live a spiritual life. In fact, St. Benedict, at the very beginning of his rule, speaks of the “labor of obedience” and the “strong and shining weapons of obedience.” Obedience is described as both a means of returning to God and an instrument of spiritual warfare with which we fight for him. Renouncing one’s own will is one of the most difficult things to do. It’s no wonder St. Benedict refers to it as labor. The word calls to mind images of chain gangs and delivery rooms.

What makes obedience joyful, though still difficult, is the knowledge that the one we obey is a “loving father.” It is unclear whether the reference is to God or the abbot. Likely it’s both, since the abbot (from the Aramaic “abba,” meaning “father”) stands in the place of God. Loving parents make it easier for their children to obey. The same principle applies to all leaders, whether employers, teachers, military officers, abbots, or abbesses. In God’s kingdom, love and obedience go hand in hand. With love, obedience still isn’t easy but it’s less likely to become extinct.


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Saint Benedict’s Toolbox

What do Baptists and Benedictines have in common? Not much other than they both start with the same letter. On second thought, that’s not true. Both movements began as radical attempts to get back to first-century Christianity. Benedictines remained within the established Church but withdrew from the world. Baptists remained in the world but withdrew from the established Church. Only by the early seventeenth century when the first Baptist churches formed, the established Church in England was no longer Roman Catholic but Anglican.

I, a Baptist, find myself drawn to the Rule of St. Benedict as a practical guide to Christian living. Even though it was written specifically for silent monks a millennium and a half ago, it still speaks to anyone who will “incline the ear of [their] heart.” In fact, Benedict offered his “little rule for beginners” as a gift to all, addressing it to “whoever you may be.”

In chapter 4, the Rule enumerates seventy-two “tools” of spiritual craftsmanship. Among these are some usual suspects such as the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, as well as some of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not kill,” “Thou shalt not steal,” “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” “Thou shalt not bear false witness,” and “Thou shalt not covet.” Others are more monastic in flavor: “Love fasting,” “Love not much talking,” and “Love chastity.” My favorite is number twenty-one: “To prefer nothing to the love of Christ.” In chapter 43, the Rule says, “Let nothing be preferred to the work of God,” referring to the Liturgy of the Hours, the set times of communal prayer in a monastery. Thus, the Rule equates prayer and loving Christ, since both are identified as the pinnacle of Christian spiritual practice—that to which nothing should be preferred.

One thing that strikes me is how Benedict begins and ends his list of spiritual tools. He begins where Jesus began, telling his hearers “to love the Lord God with the whole heart, the whole soul, the whole strength.” That’s number one, and it’s a positive command. He ends with a negative command. Number seventy-two says, “And never despair of God’s mercy.” These two form the bookends of spiritual disciplines. I believe Benedict positioned them intentionally. Those who attempt to love God by obeying his commands and living a good life ultimately fail. No one can love God perfectly, keep the commandments continually, or practice spiritual disciplines consistently, even in a monastery. The temptation then is to wallow in self-pity. Self-pity makes you want to give up, feeling you’re not good enough for God. That’s why Benedict ends by telling us what not to do: never despair of God’s mercy. No one is so far gone they can’t be forgiven and restored. No one.

A monk was once asked, “What do you do there in the monastery?” He replied: “We fall and get up, fall and get up, fall and get up again.” That’s a picture of the Christian life outside the monastery too.

The tools in St. Benedict’s ancient toolbox for monks can help anyone live a healthy spiritual life today. Even a Baptist.


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Lessons from a Monastery


Holy Cross Abbey, Berryville, Virginia

The week after Easter I spent three days on retreat at the Holy Cross Abbey near Berryville, Virginia. It was my first retreat in many years, but not my last I hope, and my first time at a monastery apart from visiting as a tourist. My goals were modest: catch up on sleep and spend time praying, reading, and relaxing. I accomplished these goals and learned a few valuable lessons I’d like to share with you.

One thing I learned is that I eat too fast. At our communal meals, eaten in silence, I was usually the first one done, even though I took bigger portions than most. I need to eat less, chew more. The same goes for prayer. Monks pray slowly and deliberately as if chewing on every syllable. I need to slow down and take time when I pray.

Not only do I need to pray more slowly, I need to pray more frequently. Monks pray seven times a day, following the example of the Psalmist: “Seven times a day do I praise thee because of thy righteous judgments” (Ps. 119:164). These aren’t short God-bless-us-all prayers but prayer services lasting from twenty-five minutes to over an hour. They even rise every night at 3:30 a.m. and shuffle on groggy feet to the chapel where they pray and read Scripture aloud, their voices still raspy with sleep. Some days I am so busy that I only pray three times – breakfast, lunch, and dinner!

I also learned that monks stay busy too. In addition to their set times of prayer and worship in the chapel throughout the day and night, they are required to perform manual labor. This requirement goes back to the sixth-century Rule of Saint Benedict, which prescribes daily periods of prayer, work, and rest to help maintain a healthy balance. The monks at Holy Cross Abbey run a bakery and sell their products in the monastery gift shop and online, and they also stay busy maintaining the grounds and running the monastery. It’s a good reminder that I need to balance work, rest, and prayer, allowing sufficient time for a healthy dose of each.

A final lesson comes in the form of a wonderful mixed metaphor from the previously mentioned Rule of St. Benedict: “Listen with the ear of your heart.” This is a good lesson for all of us. If we listen with the ear of our heart, we may be surprised by what we hear.


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