Rule of Saint Benedict: April 2010 Archives


Notice the instrument of penance in Saint Benedict's hand. It rather contrasts with the gentleness of his expression.

Every occasion of presumption should be avoided in the monastery. So we decree that no one be allowed to excommunicate or strike any of his brethren, except the abbot have given him authority.

In Chapter 70 of the Holy Rule, Saint Benedict treats of those monks who, deceived by their own pride, appoint themselves to control, correct, and castigate their brethren. Anyone with a certain experience of community life in a monastery has probably come up against this sort of fellow. Censorious, condescending, brittle, hypercritical, and never content, he is ever on the lookout for the speck in his brother's eye and unaware of the log in his own. He is infected with what Saint Benedict will call in Chapter 72 an evil zeal of bitterness.

The Sacristy Plague

Religious controllers, correctors, and castigators are not found only in the cloister. Very often they lurk in sacristies, piously fussing about, and, like the devil, "seeking someone to devour." In their eyes, nothing is ever rubrically correct. Every alb is either too long or not long enough, too lacy or too lacking in lace. Every candle is either crooked or too short. The incense is not of the right sort, or the right fragrance. Every chasuble is either of the wrong fabric or not quite the proper shade of whatever the liturgical colour happens to be. In his eyes the profound bows are never profound enough, and the mediocre bows insufficiently mediocre. They have an opinion about everything, generally negative, and will offer it without being asked. Saint Benedict knows what a plague such types can be and, in his monastery, he will have none of it.


The grace to make corrections gracefully is given to those duly constituted in authority over others. A wise abbot or prior will avoid pouncing on a brother as soon as he notices a fault. He will make a mental note of it, pray over it, and at the opportune moment, bring it to the brother's attention humbly, meekly, and firmly. Corrections are an opportunity to grow in humility, in wisdom, and in grace. A positive experience of correction can, in fact, cause one to look forward to being corrected. Correction becomes an occasion of grace and of growth.

Humble and Mild

When the father of the monastery, or the father master of novices, seeks to rein in an intemperate enthusiasm, to moderate a unwise and idiosyncratic expression of piety, to curb an ascetical excess, or to correct a certain softness in one's observance, he does so fully conscious of his own excesses and shortcomings. He accepts that he cannot control another. He makes corrections humbly. He prescribes the suitable penitential remedy wisely. He prefers to err on the side of an excessIve mildness rather than on that of harshness. At the same time, he will not be indulgent in the face of sin nor will he compromise the purity of the monastic ideal by tolerating vice, or by looking the other way when he notices a brother wounded in spiritual combat.

Brutish Bullying

Saint Benedict divides the community of his own day into two categories: those under fifteen years of age, and everyone else. The lads living in the monastery are not yet monks. Some of them may leave the monastery and go into the world, enriched by their instruction and education in the cloister. Holy Father Benedict holds all his monks responsible for the behaviour of the boys entrusted to his care. But even here, there is no room for any sort of abusive severity, or brutish bullying.

For the Whole Church

The whole Benedictine approach to vigilance, correction, and sanctions is characterized by humility, prudence, kindness, and moderation. It works as well in families, in business, and in parish life as does within the cloister. Saint Benedict concludes Chapter 70 by saying, Do not thou to another, what thou wouldst not have done to thyself (Tob 4:16). The wisdom of Saint Benedict belongs to the whole Church.

Kinship in the Cloister

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Basilio il Grande e Gregorio Nazianzeno.JPG.jpeg

Here is the talk I gave this morning in Chapter.

Ties That Bind

The presence of members of the same family in a monastery has never been without complications. The classic example is that of Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face in the Carmel of Lisieux together with her three sisters Marie, Pauline, and Celine, and her cousin Marie Guérin. Similarly, when two or more men, bound together by the ties of a close friendship in the world, enter the same monastery, while it can be a boon for the community, it can also present problems.

Everything Has Become New

In Chapter 69 of the Holy Rule, Saint Benedict warns against the nefarious effects of tribal, familial, or emotional ties in the context of monastic life. A monk's loyalty belongs to Christ, represented by the father of the monastery, and to the new family constituted under his authority by the action of the Holy Spirit and by profession according to the Holy Rule.

Christ died for us all, so that being alive should no longer mean living with our own life, but with His life who died for us and has risen again; and therefore, henceforward, we do not think of anybody in a merely human fashion; even if we used to think of Christ in a human fashion, we do so no longer; it follows, in fact, that when a man becomes a new creature in Christ, his old life has disappeared, everything has become new about him. This, as always, is God's doing; it is He who, through Christ, has reconciled us to Himself, and allowed us to minister this reconciliation of His to others. (2 Cor 5:16-19)

Monastic Friendship

Does friendship have a place in monastic life? Surely, it does. I would recall, for example, the friendships of Saint Basil and of Saint Gregory Nazianzen, and of Saint Aelred and his biographer, Walter Daniel. Monastic friendships, however, are ordered and subordinate to the all-consuming love of Christ and to that portion of His Mystical Body that is the ecclesiola of the monastic community. Saint Gregory Nazianzen writes:

We began to feel affection for each other. When, in the course of time, we acknowledged our friendship and recognized that our ambition was a life of true wisdom, we became everything to each other: we shared the same lodging, the same table, the same desires the same goal. Our love for each other grew daily warmer and deeper.
The same hope inspired us: the pursuit of learning. This is an ambition especially subject to envy. Yet between us there was no envy. On the contrary, we made capital out of our rivalry. Our rivalry consisted, not in seeking the first place for oneself but in yielding it to the other, for we each looked on the other's success as his own.
We seemed to be two bodies with a single spirit. Though we cannot believe those who claim that everything is contained in everything, yet you must believe that in our case each of us was in the other and with the other.
Our single object and ambition was virtue, and a life of hope in the blessings that are to come; we wanted to withdraw from this world before we departed from it. With this end in view we ordered our lives and all our actions. We followed the guidance of God's law and spurred each other on to virtue. If it is not too boastful to say, we found in each other a standard and rule for discerning right from wrong.

The Heart of Jesus

A monastic friendship that is wholesome, pure, and fully permeable to the Holy Spirit will never constitute an obstacle to monastic discipline, to the necessary work of correction, and to the fundamental commitment to conversion of life. Such a friendship never divides the heart or closes it to growth in divine charity; it never causes inner turmoil, or jealousy. It fosters fidelity to monastic discipline, and magnanimity in the service of the brethren. A monastic friendship, rightly ordered, abides in the Heart of Jesus and, through the Heart of Jesus, contributes to the unity and fruitfulness of the monastic family in the service of the Church.

Impossible Things

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Benedictine Wisdom

I have been studying the Rule of Saint Benedict and trying to live it (however badly) for nearly forty years. This, however, is one instance where familiarity has not bred contempt. On the contrary, as I grow in age, so too does my admiration for the Holy Rule grow apace. Saint Benedict, in addition to being an astute observer of human nature and of social relationships, was steeped in that wisdom that the world does not understand: the wisdom of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. "Now, we have received not the spirit of this world, but the Spirit that is of God, that we may know the things that are given us from God" (1 Cor 2:12).

Daily Chapter

This morning, as we do every morning after Lauds, we read the appointed chapter of the Holy Rule. Today it was Chapter 68: "If A Brother Be Commanded to Do Impossible Things." I offered a little commentary on it. Here is something of what I said.

Something Hard or Impossible

If it happen that something hard or impossible be laid upon any brother, let him receive the command of his superior with all docility and obedience.

First off, implicit in this verse, and illuminating it from within, are the words of the Lord Jesus: "Come to me, all you that labour, and are burdened, and I will refresh you. Take up my yoke upon you, and learn of me, because I am meek, and humble of heart: and you shall find rest to your souls. For my yoke is sweet and my burden light" (Mt 11:28-30). The father of the monastery (abbot or prior) is bound to imitate the meekness of Jesus in all things. He needs to knows his sons, their strengths, their weaknesses, and their need to be stretched in some areas without, of course, risking that they should snap under the strain of stretching.

When the father of the monastery gives a brother a particular obedience (monastic word for area of responsibility, a project, or a job) he does so meekly and humbly, taking care to adapt the obedience to the brother to whom it is given, and so adjusting the yoke to him, that it is sweet rather than oppressive, and light rather than burdensome. The father of the monastery must be prudent lest he break the bruised reed, extinguish the smouldering wick, or ruin the vessel while trying to remove the rust.

The brother, for his part, must ask himself, "What can I learn from this obedience? In what way will it stretch my possibilities and allow me to grow beyond my self-imposed limitations?" His initial response is always positive. Only if, after trying to carry out the obedience, he finds it more than he can manage, does he approach the father of the monastery and ask to be relieved of it.

Calmly and in Due Season

But if he see that the weight of the burden altogether exceeds the measure of his strength, let him explain the reasons of his incapacity to his superior calmly and in due season, without pride, obstinacy, or contentiousness.

If the weight of the burden altogether exceeds the measure of his strength, the brother is right to express his difficulties to the father of the monastery. He does this in due season, that is to say, at the appropriate moment. Not everything can be said at all hours. The brother is to make his representations calmly, says Saint Benedict. No histrionics. No carrying on. No grand scenes inflating one's difficulty into a major vocational crisis.

Saint Benedict mentions three attitudes that are incompatible with the monastic way of making even legitimate representations. These are pride ( I knew all along!); obstinacy (I will never give in on this!); and contentiousness ( Good! At last I have a reason to pick a fight with him!) Even with my own mercurial temperament, I have learned the diplomatic value of reasonable understatement. A monk speaks gently, calmly, humbly, and peacefully. If he is incapable of doing this, he needs to replenish his interior resources in prayer, asking Our Lord to replace harshness with meekness, violence with calm, pride with humility, and agressivity with peace.

Obedience, Love and Trust

If after his representations the superior still persist in his decision and command, let the subject know that it is expedient for him, and let him obey out of love, trusting in the assistance of God.

The father of the monastery, listening to the brother's representations may find them altogether reasonable and so adapt the obedience or change it altogether. He may also see that this is a salutary crisis, an opportunity for spiritual growth, and an occasion of pushing beyond certain self-imposed limitations. Thus, he may persist in his decision and command, helping the brother to see it as an opportunity to grow in virtue. Should this be the father's discernment, the brother needs to say, "I will trust you on this and, relying on the grace of Christ, obey to the best of my ability. Somehow this will work out for my good." Saint Benedict says, "Let him obey out of love, trusting in the assistance of God."

Our Mother of Good Counsel

The fact that Chapter 68 of the Holy Rule falls on April 26th, the feast of Our Mother of Good Counsel, suggests that a monk in crisis (or anyone else in crisis, for that matter) will do well to seek out the guidance and direction of the very best of counselors, the Blessed Virgin Mary. She who told the servers at the wedding feast of Cana to do whatsoever her Son would say to them, still seeks to foster obedience in us. Our Lady knows that obedience, more than anything else, effectively breaks through the limitations imposed by our pride, vanity, fear, and selfishness. The fruit of that obedience is, as Saint John tells us (Jn 2:11), a manifestation of the glory of Christ, and a wonderful increase of faith.

Every moment of crisis is an opportunity to confide our perplexities, worries, fears, and griefs to the maternal Heart of Mary. She is capable of listening to all with a benevolent silence. Her Immaculate Heart discerns what is best for each of us. And if we are silent enough, childlike enough, and even a little humble, she will counsel us and restore our troubled hearts to a peace that the world (and all its professional counselors) cannot give.

About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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