St Benedict Was Not A Liberal

St Benedict
With rather alarming frequency, someone will say to me, ‘I like St Benedict. He is so moderate.’ I like St Benedict, too, but I often wonder about the ‘moderate’ bit. Very often my enthusiast will go on to say things like, ‘He never asks too much. He is sympathetic to the weaknesses of human nature. He’s really quite liberal’. I agree that he is sympathetic to the weaknesses of human nature, but I reserve judgement about the ‘moderate’ nature of what he asks of his monks and nuns. As to his being the sixth-century equivalent of a North Oxford liberal (sorry, Oxford), there I disagree profoundly. Whatever else he was, St Benedict wasn’t a liberal. But he wasn’t a conservative, either, and to try to view him in those terms is fundamentally to misunderstand who he was and what he was about.

Let’s start with what I will readily concede. St Benedict was indeed a kind and, in sixth-century terms, very gentle man. He was concerned about the mealtimes of both the old and the young, not wanting them to suffer unduly from the monastic timetable. He knew the sick might be neglected if the authority of the Rule didn’t provide for them. He wanted everyone to be at peace and knew that, as superior, he might not be everyone’s first choice as confidante, so he provided for senpectae, old and wise brethren, whose special duty was to support the wavering. He advised the abbot to be very careful and restrained when he had to punish anyone, lest he break the vessel by rubbing too hard to remove the rust. He was also a modest man, ready to listen to the criticisms of a visiting monk and to accept a re-ordering of the way in which the psalms are said ‘if anyone has a better arrangement.’ But St Benedict was also completely and utterly given to the search for God in the monastery and there are other passages of the Rule that need thinking about.

Take, for example, the pattern of threes that we find throughout and the frequent references to the Gloria Patri. These are not to be ignored. Arianism was still a worry in sixth-century Italy, and Benedict was insisting on doctrinal orthodoxy in his community. It shows, too, in his choice of reading matter before Compline or in the texts that he advises for growth in monastic life. There is nothing wish-washy about this side of St Benedict. Nor is there anything very ‘liberal’ in his views on obedience or humility, if by liberal one means easy-going. It isn’t so much that the devil is in the detail as the real monk. Benedict never calls anyone who has fallen short of the ideal a monk; he either has no name — quisquis, anyone — or is simply frater, brother. Being a monk is, for St Benedict, a long and hard pursuit. The novice master is specifically warned to tell the novice about all the hardships through which we make our way to God. If that were not enough, Benedict spells out, time and time again, that half-measures won’t do. We must prefer nothing to the love of Christ, cultivate the good zeal of chapter 72 ‘with the most ardent love’ and press on to the end for which we look.

Today is the Solemnity of St Benedict, Patron of Europe. It is also known as the Translatio or Translation of the Relics (as distinct from the Transitus or Death, kept on 21 March, which is for us the ‘big’ feast of St Benedict). It is a good day for thinking about the way in which we ourselves live. Are we apt to make allowances for ourselves that perhaps we ought not to make, mistaking the infinite love and mercy of God for the kind of permissiveness I’ve been writing about? God forgives, but that doesn’t mean he necessarily approves. St Benedict has a lot to say about living virtuously that is applicable outside the monastic context. It takes less than an hour to read through the Rule. It would be a good way to celebrate his feast, and to pray for Europe.

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8 thoughts on “St Benedict Was Not A Liberal”

  1. St Benedict a liberal? I hadn’t thought that. But the kind, gentle, fair, compassionate could well be applied to him.

    He was someone who appears to have put God central to all that he did and his rule seems designed to assist monastics and lay people alike to live in a harmonious mixture of worship, prayer, work and domesticity, which is fitting for a life with God central to it.

    The rule, like any rule demands much of those who live with and by it, but the rewards are rich for those who are able to sustain their life in the rule. I know many Christians who subscribe to the Rule of Benedict on one form or another in their lives, I can’t judge how successful they might or might not be, but most of them seem pretty happy, well adjusted individuals who shine out as examples to others.

    Perhaps that’s the legacy of Benedict to those of us who are not monastics, that ‘living well’ for Christ and for others which brings more into the fold, instead of driving them away as some people who describe themselves (all about them) as the true representatives of Christ..

    • I was trying to address something in the popularizing of St Benedict that concerns me. I called it ‘liberalism’ because that is how it often comes across — seeing St Benedict as a kind of North Oxford/West Coast liberal, rather than as the vir Dei, man of God, with uncompromising ideals, he truly was. I think genuinely living for Christ will always be attractive to others.

  2. First Happy Feast Day to you and the community!
    I have to say that I have never seen St. Benedict as any kind of liberal…anyone who thinks like that has possibly/probably never tried living up to the demands of his Rule. Perhaps one should challenge them to try for a period and then see how ‘liberal’ he is. Aware of, and making accommodation for human weakness yes but liberal never….
    maryclare. 🙂

  3. I think a lot of people who aren’t too familiar with Catholicism (including Sunday Catholics) tend to use political language to describe what they see in the saints, as this is the vocabulary that they know. This can be frustrating, but it’s not necessarily a sign of them wanting to sweep away all the more challenging parts of a saint’s ideas – it just poor religious vocabulary, so to speak.

    Some people also struggle to see that a devout person could be orthodox and still approachable, so they automatically assume that an approachable religious person must be a ‘moderate’ or whatever. When I was in my late teens, a friend (a few decades older than me) criticised the hypocrisy of religious people in acidic terms. I gently reminded her that I am religious. “Well, no, you’re not a religious person – you’re just very spiritual!” That grated on me, because I AM religious, and I disliked the way that she seemed to think she was complimenting me by detaching that label. It took me a while to work out that what she heard by ‘religion’ and what I heard by ‘religion’ were not the same things.

  4. Happy Feast Day to you and all Benedictines! As an Oblate I find the Rule fair but firm, which can be embraced some days and a struggle the next. That’s life though and it shows how the Rule is just as applicable today as it always has been.

  5. Although I have been reading your blog avidly for the past year, I have been reluctant to post any comments because as another poster indicates, I am most definitely a ‘Sunday Catholic’ with a limited religious vocabulary. Thank you for inspiring me and helping me to learn so much more about my religion – and indeed, about myself.

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