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Why celebrate St Benedict?

Dom Michael Casey ocso, wrote, ‘there no doubt the Rule of St Benedict is a profound document. This, however, is no excuse for spending the rest of our lives on the first page of the Prologue.’ [1]

This quote at the beginning highlights the vital impetus of the monastic life. Since God is limitless, so too then should be our search for him, it is ultimately a process of gaining since God is holiness. There is no earthly terminus for the monastic life, it is ultimately the contemplation of God that is the goal, who is holiness Himself.

As a far as St Benedict is concerned, holiness cannot be contained, but it must be shared with those around. It is in the sharing that we can become holy ourselves. This is clear in the first chapter of the Rule, in which St Benedict described the types of monks. But what must be borne in mind is that there were no religious orders in the modern sense in St Benedict’s time, but simply monks and monasteries.

Two manners of monastic life that are insufficient for growth in Christian and monastic life, according to St Benedict are the Sarabaites and Gyrovagues. These two types are in contrast to those who are authentically trying to live truly the monastic life, the coenobites and hermits. [2] The Sarabaites and Gyrovagues do not live up to monastic holiness as they lack either a sense of stability or a true understanding of what it actually means to live in community. Sarabaites live in community, but lack a common rule to live by, so they follow their own wills at the expense of the community. Gyrovagues, on the other hand, don’t live in a permanent community but simply travel between monasteries without a sense of stability to one.

These are examples of monastic life lived in a selfish manner. For truly living in community implies that there is a reasonable sharing that builds yourself and others up. For St Paul says in his letter to the Galatians, ‘If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us have no self-conceit, no provoking of one another, no envy of one another.’ Later on, St Paul also said, Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.’ [3]. St Benedict’s attitude would then imply that the actions of a sarabaite or a gyrovague are not in accord with these words of St Paul. For as soon as trouble comes community life breaks down. This is community life without roots, without the roots that enable a monk to endure through trials of manifold kinds, after which comes the crown of virtue. The virtues that are gained through monastic perseverance are such that lay the ground for true growth in holiness.

St Benedict, on the other hand, thought that for someone to truly live the monastic life, there must be a sharing that is true and not in the spirit of selfish interest. For St. Benedict then, this way is brought under by the life of the coenobitical and eremitical lives. The Coenobitical, through the daily acts of prayer, work and reading, rooted in the Benedictine vows of obedience, stability and conversatio morum centred in a monastery or at least linked to it (for St Benedict does allow monks the ability to work away from the monastery in chapter 50, yet in this community life is still paramount.[4]). This is the best manner in which a monk can grow in community life, and being shaped by the experience of God directly and through others, is to allow oneself to be moulded in the life of Christ. It is a place where we can come up against all sorts of issues both communal and personal. Yet these should be where an individual can be secure with the sense that they are called by God, to be a monk, and that to praise God everyday through monastic activities is the role that they are given. The life of the hermit is in some ways a higher calling than the coenobite. A hermit has the grace to live alone through the grace of God. But the foundations of a hermit’s life for Benedict comes after living the life of the coenobite. After living with others, they are called to go forth as soldiers are to battle. For St Benedict said, ‘thanks to the help and guidance of many, they are now trained to fight against the devil’.[5] There is then an organic link between the life of a hermit and monks in community.

It is right and just, then, to speak of St Benedict’s genius. As a man, who with the wisdom and precedent of monastic living of various kinds, managed to construct a way of getting many individuals to be linked together by the bonds of charity not only for God but each other as well. The Rule of St Benedict is an attempt to do so. By examining the types of monks, St Benedict, shows his genius by emphasising that the monk is never a lone ranger, and never lives monastic life for its own sake, but for those around for whom the monk intercedes. Therefore, a monk needs to constantly strive for holiness in every action, making sure that it is in authentic Christian discipleship.

Br Aidan Messenger

Br Aidan is a monk of Douai Abbey. He joined the monastery on the 30th September 2019 and took simple vows on 27th March 2021. He is pursuing his studies for the Priesthood at Blackfriars Studium, Oxford, and is about to start theology, having finished two years of philosophy.

[1] Michael.Casey, ‘Making Use of RB 1980’, Cistercian Studies, vol.XVIII, 1983:3, [2] Rule of St Benedict, 1980, Chapter 1 ‘Types of Monks’. [3] Galatians 5:26-27, 6:2 (RSV) [4] Rule of St Benedict, 1980, Chapter 50‘Concerning Brethren who are working at a distance from the Oratory [5] Rule of St Benedict, 1980, Chapter 1 ‘Types of Monks’.

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