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The Medieval West: Benedict

History

St. Benedict was born around the year 480 C.E. in Nursia in central Italy. Not a lot is known about his life. But we do know that at about the age of 20, Benedict decided to become a hermit and went off to live in a cave. As was often the case in desert monasticism, Benedict began to have gathered around him a following of eager disciples. Communal leadership was not an interest or goal for Benedict (and he apparently had his doubts as to the quality and resolve of those asking to be under his authority), but he decided to lead these willing followers anyhow.

As the story goes, Benedict was quite right about his would-be disciples. Apparently upset over one thing or another, they tried to kill him. Benedict, however, survived the attempt and returned to his solitary cave life. But followers began to gather again and Benedict started the building up of 12 monastic communities that would live according to his Rule (a monastic term for a community’s particular style of life). History would prove Benedict’s Rule to become the most influential pattern of life for monastic communities in the West until today. Impressive for a young man who just wanted to get away and pray.

Reading Benedict’s Rule, two aspects seem to dominate: common life and what he calls the Work of God. The Work of God is the gathering of monks together eight times a day for prayer and recitation (from memory) of Scripture. They would go through the Psalms in such a way that the entire Psalter was recited (again, from memory) once each week. For Benedict, this was never to be a mere rote recitation. As he writes in the Rule, “Let us stand to sing the psalms in such a way that our minds are in harmony with our voices.” The Work of God would also have its place during meals. The monks would all eat in silence and listen, as one designated brother would read the Scriptures throughout the mealtime.

Notice the difference in how Benedict uses the language of “work” in comparison to how we use it so often today. When we speak of doing the work of God in the Church we so often mean doing acts of mercy, help, justice, etc. But Benedict reminds us that worship is also work. He also challenges us with the notion that worship is the primary work of the Church. I wonder what our congregations would be like if pastors generally led their congregations into the belief that worship was an active vocation rather than a more passive participatory activity.

Common life also dominates the Rule. And it is this aspect that is particularly fascinating to me as a pastor. By this Benedict means both manual labor (which all monks were obliged to participate in) and the way in which the monks interact with each other. The regulation of monks’ interactions is, from a pastoral perspective, both humorous and challenging. It is humorous because there is a theme shows up over and again as Benedict attempts to regulate monks’ interactions—the theme of grumbling. He writes, “First and foremost, there must be no word or sign of the evil of grumbling, no manifestation of it for any reason at all.” I think this is humorous because you can tell what is going on in a community by what the rules try to prohibit. Apparently there was quite a bit of grumbling going on in Benedict’s communities. I think back on congregations I have served in one form or another and smile to myself when I witness that the same things that have annoyed me as a pastor in the 21st century were just as prevalent in the 5th. But then the challenge takes over. Benedict’s rule calls me out in my own grumbling. I remember coming home countless times and grumbling to my wife about how people grumbled.

Community life is hard. Benedict knew it and tried to regulate it. I saw it and grumbled about it. I grumbled about the grumblers. Benedict has a rule for me. He didn’t expect spiritual superheroes, which is good news—there is room for me. But he did expect us regular grumbling folks who fill the Church (and sometimes pastors can be the most adept grumblers) to live community life more carefully. It is comforting to know that I am well within a long and ancient tradition of grumbling. But Benedict and his Rule won’t allow that to be comforting for too long. He made a rule for it.