- By Fr. Peter
- 4 March, 2013
- Comments Off
The Prologue to the Rule of Saint Benedict is largely borrowed from the earlier ‘Rule of the Master’, though shortened quite a bit. The Rule of the Master (abbreviated RM) was probably written in Italy one generation before Benedict wrote his Rule, in about the year 540 A.D. In the early centuries of Christian monasticism, many important monks wrote rules for their disciples, and these various rules were often used in combination in the monasteries of the time. The Rule of St. Benedict became the ‘standard’ in the Latin West during the time of the Emperor Charlemagne in the early ninth century.
This is important to realize, for it shows us that Benedict saw himself as part of a much wider tradition, and had no particular pretensions for his own writing. He was quite happy to borrow from those who went before him. A quite large percentage of his Rule is simply quoted from the RM. However, when Benedict makes changes, they are quite significant. Benedict differs from the Master in important ways, and I will note some of these as we go along.
When we read the Master’s Prologue, we see clearly that it is a kind of baptismal homily, patterned after the catechesis that would be given to the newly-baptized at the Easter Vigil. After baptism, the former catechumens would be taught the ‘mysteries of the Faith’, such as the Lord’s Prayer. The Master’s Prologue contains a commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, which Benedict does not reproduce. This teaching that would take place after baptism was connected to the idea that baptism brings ‘illumination’ or ‘enlightenment’ to the mind of the new believer. Having been baptized into Christ’s death and rising, the Christian is now prepared to call God ‘Father’ and to have his or her mind renewed in Christ. Conformity to Christ means the straightening of our minds and their orientation toward spiritual realities, to the mysteries of the liturgy, the communion of saints, and so on.
Thus, when St. Benedict reproduces this line from the RM, “Let us open our eyes to the light that comes from God,” he is placing himself in this baptismal setting. Why? What is the significance? Can’t we assume that any monk or nun would already be baptized and know the basics of the conversion of life that following Jesus Christ requires?
St. John Cassian, another one of the most important sources for St. Benedict, has an interesting account of the origins of monasticism. His claim is that in the Church of the Apostolic era everyone lived like monks. Then, over the course of time, as many more entered the Church, Christians fell away from this radical ideal. In other words, for Cassian, the ideal for the Church of any era would be that all live more or less like monks; or to put it another way, that there be basically no distinction between life in the monastery and outside. In that case, incidentally, there would be no need for monasteries.
This is not the world we live in, and I would not suggest that we should attempt to make the entire Church monastic in this way. However, there are a couple of important points to make here. First of all, the spirituality proposed inside the monastery is not different from the root spirituality of Christianity in general. The monastery is simply a place set aside where the radical living out of our baptismal promises can take place more readily than can be done ‘in the world’. If we turn this around again, we can say that any Christian can, and should, incorporate elements of ‘monastic’ spirituality into their regular Christian discipleship because there shouldn’t be a large distinction. Perhaps there is a distinction between how thoroughly one can live out a life in Christ in a monastery and in the world, but in a central way, there should not be a major distinction in the central goals and even methods.
This is why so many people find the Rule of Saint Benedict to be so life-giving, even for someone living ‘in the world’. The Rule really is adaptable to life outside the monastery.
And, for that matter, the life of the monk will not be so advanced as to leave behind serious reflection on baptism and the fundamentals of the Faith.
I might make a comparison between the liturgy and devotional prayer, such as the rosary. In recent decades, beginning most clearly at the Second Vatican Council, the bishops have called attention to the fact that devotions should derive from the liturgy and lead back to it. When this does not happen, it creates an imbalance in one’s spirituality (an extreme example, solely for the sake of explanation, might be someone who imagined that praying the rosary devoutly on Sunday could substitute for attendance at Mass).
Just so, Christian life ‘in the world’ should derive its savor and spirit from the same sources as does monastic life. And a Christian life lived well in the world will naturally draw the believer back into a desire to live something more monastic in contour. When this doesn’t happen, we have a similar imbalance. This does not mean that there can be no variety in spiritualities within the Church, but their relationship with this oldest strata needs constant renewal. And indeed, the movement of European community monasticism in the fifth and sixth centuries was precisely fueled by a desire to live the ‘apostolic life’, the life of the Twelve who shared all things in common (along with the Blessed Mother of God), and whose witness was invigorated by constant attention to the liturgy. [See Acts 1: 13-14; 2: 42-47; 4: 32-25]