The Rule of Saint Benedict is an eminently practical document. This is not to say that it contains no spiritual doctrine at all; rather, Saint Benedict teaches doctrine through his legislation of practice. He gives detailed descriptions of the actions he hopes will be performed in monasteries and gives the abbot wide range for teaching the meanings of these actions. Thus, his doctrine is integrated into a discipline of life.
The word ‘discipline’ is one of those words that needs some unpacking. For many of us, it is a discouraging one, calling to mind images of physical coercion. For others, it is an ideal that few of us feel called to attain. We think of the driven (almost unbalanced) athletes who deny themselves all sorts of things to win Super Bowls and trophies of various kinds.
A connected word with generally better connotations is ‘disciple’, one who follows a master and learns from him. A disciple is perhaps to be distinguished from a student by the fact that disciples tend to live closer to their masters and imitate their masters as models, whereas students tend to receive largely intellectual lessons from a teacher who, after class is over, lives a life quite apart from his or her students.
Disciples, in imitating the behavior of a master, learn by doing rather than by reading. This is the idea within monastic life. Certain lessons can’t be learned except by certain kinds of experiences. Thus, while reading is an important part of the life of a monk, what integrates the life is an entire structure of living, a rhythmic routine lived out in the alternation between the Office, manual work, and study and pervaded by the practices of silence, obedience and prayer. The entirety of this structure is the ‘discipline’ of monastic life.
Thus, what concerns Saint Benedict is teaching a practical discipline. This practical discipline is not one that simply exists to keep order, but is the manner through which Saint Benedict teaches the basics of spiritual theology. This is because, for the ancients, no progress in the disciplines of philosophy or theology was possible without the purification of one’s desires through a disciplined, ‘practical’ life. The practices of monastic life, its ‘discipline’, exist to re-order the monk’s inner life, purifying disordered desires and freeing the mind to approach truth without hidden motives that would distort how we see the world. Gluttony, lust, anger, sadness and pride are among the self-interested distortions we introduce into desire. When we allow these vices to inhabit our hearts, we will quite naturally want truth to comport with the satisfaction of our distorted desire. But only the pure of heart will see God, and therefore, the first obligation of the monastic disciple is this purification. Saint Benedict’s Rule aims for this, but the only way for a disciple to obtain this purity is through the practices of the life.
Thus, while listening is important, it will be to no effect if we do not put the master’s lessons into practice. Indeed, as we learn the discipline of monastic life, we will begin to listen differently and hear more and more of the actual message of the master. This is why the Rule (and Scripture itself) needs to be read over and over. As we grow in the monastic discipline, we will better understand the meaning that Saint Benedict intends.
For the Oblate, it is necessary to find ways to adapt the monastic discipline to a life lived in the world. My primary aim in this series of commentaries is to offer ideas on how this might be done. I will be greatly helped by any feedback!