Like many, I imagine, I came across St Benedict and his Rule through reading Esther De Waal’s now classic, Seeking God: The Way of St Benedict in my early twenties. I went on to read the Rule itself, and have continued a regular pattern of reading the Rule ever since, usually including a section at Evening Prayer. I go on retreats, stay in religious houses, and follow a pattern of spiritual reading all within the Benedictine tradition. I should also say that I trained for ordination at the College of the Resurrection in Mirfield, and there gained a deeper insight into Benedict’s daily rhythm of prayer, study, and work, through being alongside the Community of the Resurrection, a monastic community influenced by St Benedict and his Rule. Benedict has been a constant for me, and, on reflection, I can say that throughout my spiritual journey I recognise the imprint of the Rule.
In the spiritual life, it is easy to lose your way or become distracted. I have found the Rule to be helpful in keeping a steady path, and a practical guide on how to prioritise and keep Christ at the centre. Sometimes, I’ve simply needed reminding that ‘nothing is over the Work of God’, which helps me prioritise daily prayer above everything else: work (ministry too!), and even sometimes family demands. I think Benedict really knew people, the need for structure and routine, and how to relate to others in a way where Christ is the focus. Benedict’s Rule is full of very practical, perhaps seemingly insignificant, details - from the measure of food to the tools of the kitchen - and yet, this very focus on detail holds much wisdom. I like how Benedict connects living the Rule with the setting of a ‘workshop.’ The Rule is not so much, I find, a list of rules, as a pattern of daily living that in turn creates a freedom to focus on God. The way the Rule works is to build good habits: it is not about going to extremes to make spiritual advancement, but rather a gradual conversion of the whole person happens. I’ve always appreciated this element of Benedict. It means it is possible to begin again because the Rule gives you an accessible starting point to enter back into the daily rhythm. Formation happens within the Rule, with carrying it out.
It has been well noted how much Scripture Benedict draws on in his Rule. I really appreciate Benedict’s approach here. You feel close to Christ’s Word, and you are encouraged to do exactly as Benedict writes at the beginning of the Rule, to ‘listen my son to the instructions of your Master.’ The insistence in the Rule on silence after Compline (the greater silence) is especially helpful here, and silence in the daily rhythm of life is given an important place in the Rule. It is in the silence that we first listen, become aware of God’s presence. My experience of staying in Benedictine communities is that prayer comes from this silence, this first having made space each day to listen to God. Benedict’s detail on how the offices are done is an important part of this. Again, this combination of the practical and spiritual is one of the ways the Rule really shines.
Even though I am not in a monastic setting, but instead in ministry on a busy university campus - and it is difficult to see how some of the Rule applies - nonetheless the Rule, as many in non-monastic settings find, is able to inform and guide the spiritual path and order the living out of the Christian vocation to holiness. This is ultimately because the Rule speaks to much of what is common in human experience, bringing a pattern and rhythm to daily living that looks to keep our eyes fixed on Christ, who is the source of all life.
The Revd Dr Catherine Reid is currently Anglican Chaplain to the University of York. Prior to this ministry, Catherine was Vicar of the rural benefice of Ampleforth and had a training role in the Diocese of York. She is a tutor on the York School of Ministry and teaches in Christian theology and liturgy. Catherine is married to Andrew and they have two young children. They live in York.