On the Rule of St. Benedict
Noll continues his mostly positive – and occasionally triumphant – discussion of Christianity’s turning points with the resounding, though not unmixed, successes of the Rule of St. Benedict, founder of the Benedictine order. Notes Noll: “almost everything in the church that approached the highest, noblest, and truest ideas of the gospel was done either by those who had chosen the monastic way or by those who had been inspired in the Christian life by the monks.”
And this is rightly said. The monastic tradition has given modern Christians translated Scripture, Trinitarian liturgy, classical theology, robust missions, and church history. What the Rule of St. Benedict did was to flexibly but firmly curb the excesses of the monastic movement that gave us all of the above: the early asceticism of the desert fathers at times amounted to a denial of the material world in Gnostic fashion.
The Rule of Benedict restored prayer to the center of monastic life, re-centered Scripture as the fount of spiritual life, and grounded the more esoteric of inward religious experience in the common lot of work, study, food and rest. One wonders if monasticism could in fact have given the Christian world as much as it did without Benedict’s wise and gracious Rule. Like many monks, Benedict began monastic life as a reaction to the moral degeneracy of the late Roman city, though by his time the persecutions at least had ended.
Indeed, the social legitimization of Christianity by Constantine and successive Emperors provided Christians with stability, access to power, and a reasonable means of income – an offer that not all Christians could take in stride. Indeed, were self-sacrifice and humility to be found at all in the comforts and grandeur of the old Roman Empire? Monasticism’s emergence as “the conscience of Christianity” meant throwing aside the trappings of Empire even as the social fabric of that world was coming undone.
The appeal of the monastics came both through their pseudo-Scriptural affinity for virginity and their vision of the world as spiritual battleground; this struck the psychology of the times so positively that a pillar-sitting monk might well have helped the pronouncement of Chalcedon gain popular acceptance. But where Benedictine departed from his predecessors was in his desire to reform the monastic movement itself.
Where the first monks left the cities with a self-proclaimed vow to abandon all property and follow Christ in accordance with scripture, Benedict made dispossession a rule outright. The Rule also not only established prayer as the central spiritual weapon of those who came under it, but codified the manner of that prayer as humble as if “asking some favor of a powerful man.” Where Scripture suggests hospitality as the invitation of Christ, the Rule urges care especially for strangers and the sick.
It was the clear elaboration of such already-extant realities that so marked the Rule of Benedict and brought together the varied and somewhat individualistic ways of the first desert monks. Primarily, the Rule was one of living together, and became more important as men and women both began to do this in Cenobite community. Common practices such as the keeping of the common Benedictine day became catholic missions that spread Christianity through barbarous Europe by cruce, libro, et atro – with cross, book, and plow.
The trend of the Middle Ages is the story of the monastery in parallel relation to the Church – though one, Noll notes, not without its conflict, as abbots and bishops in a region often understood common problems differently. What is certainly true is that throughout the Church’s history, the monastery would continue to be the conscience of the Christian faith, mirroring all of its renewal, decay, and reform.
It is in his truly bizarre and entirely extra-textual coda, however, that Noll would criticize the monastic movement himself, as though Benedict had not done quite enough. His assertion that a Protestant might well ask the question of works-justification in monastic life entirely misses the origin of monasticism not in the search for salvation but in the quest for loving obedience, to simply follow the words of Jesus. Whatever happened to it afterward would not then be not the fault of monastic life but the consequence of the human heart itself.
Noll might begin to understand this when he asks if the disposal of the body would necessarily affect the deepest seat of sin – but misses that Jesus Christ himself seems to have thought at least something of the kind; one can hardly imagine our Lord and Savior “settling down.” Finally, Noll suggests that monastic life as a rejection of the world undervalues Christ’s benediction of it – a point better taken if Noll did not assume what neither the first nor the modern monastics assume: that the denial of world must be lifelong.
Rather, it is through periods of both denial and embracing of the world that Christians learn our rightful place, to be in the world and not of it. If the denial never happens, the benediction doesn’t either. Jesus didn’t die naked on a cross so that we could sit lifelong in upholstered chairs, quaff wine, and muse about the justification resulting from his sacrifice. We are indeed, supposed to do something about it, not in order to re-accomplish it, but simply in order to recognize and accept it. The monastic life has taken many people at least part of the way down that pilgrim road.