In his famous book of Dialogues, St. Gregory the Great mentions that St. Benedict of Nursia composed a rule for monks “remarkable for its discretion and its clarity of language.” In the early years of the monastic movement, many rules were composed in different languages for monks of different regions and climates. Eventually, the majority of monasteries in the West adopted the Rule of Saint Benedict. In some cases, the Carolingian rulers (8th and 9th centuries) mandated the use of the Rule, but in other cases, communities simply chose the Rule because of its great spiritual wisdom.
Benedict’s Rule is renowned for its humanity and flexibility. The abbot should strive to arrange things so that “the strong have something to yearn for and the weak nothing to run from [RB 64: 19].” The arrangements of Psalms for the daily celebration of the Office is still used today, and was even the basis of the Roman Rite until Vatican II. Nevertheless, Benedict himself is content to encourage communities to arrange the Psalms differently if there is a better way [18: 22]. The abbot has full authority, yet must adapt himself to the characters of each monk. He should “study more to be loved than feared.”
The center of the Rule is the Ladder of Humility, found in Chapter 7. Like similar ladders proposed by St. John Cassian and St. John Climacus, it gives us concrete indications of spiritual progress, while emphasizing that in Christian living, we paradoxically progress by humbling ourselves.
The Rule is written for cenobites, that is, monks who live in communities. Benedict has profound respect for hermits, but cautions beginners to lean first in the crucible of community living how to engage in spiritual battle before going out the single combat of the desert.
Saint Benedict borrowed much of his text from an earlier rule, known today as the Rule of the Master (RM). Scholarship of the past century has learned quite a bit about Benedict’s personality from identifying the changes he made to RM. Benedict is less suspicious of the brothers and of the world. He prefers short and direct speech. Where the Master likes to do a lot of minute legislating, Benedict recognizes that the abbot and his advisors must be given a certain freedom to address the differing situations in the changing milieu of the Church.
While the deep wisdom of the Rule is not always obvious at a first or second reading, since the eleventh century, it has been found to contain insights conducive to a stronger living of the gospel even for persons outside of the cloister. Benedictine Oblates study the Rule and aim to live in the world according to the principles of Benedict’s vision: robust community, dignified manual labor, daily prayer and reading, balance between work, study and prayer, humility, silence and good zeal.