Cherry-Picking the Rule of St Benedict

We are currently working our way through part of what is known as the Penal Code in the Rule of St Benedict — chapters 23 to 30, which deal with faults committed by the brethren and the way in which they are to be corrected. These are not the only places where Benedict considers faults, but they form a solid block of teaching that many who express enthusiasm for the Rule tend to ignore. It is true that some of the corrective measures Benedict advocates, such as corporal punishment, are culturally no longer acceptable, but I think the deliberate ignoring of much of what Benedict has to say about the correction of faults goes deeper than that. 

There is a reluctance, first of all, to admit that we are not perfect or that there are limits to our freedom. Why should we need correction? How have our actions harmed anyone else? But there is also a tendency we all share to cherry-pick the Rule. We like the nice, ‘spiritual’ bits about loving Christ and practising good zeal. If we are young, we especially like Benedict telling the abbot to consult younger members of the community because they often have an openness to the Spirit their elders lack; and if we are old, we are particularly fond of passages where Benedict insists on respect being shown to the elderly and sympathetic consideration given to their lack of strength. If we don’t actually live in a monastery, the scope is even wider. We can leave out everything we consider harsh or burdensome and end up simply acting a part, the script of which we have written for ourselves.

Today’s chapter of the Rule (26), about associating with the excommunicated, comes as a douche of cold water on all that. In a few short sentences Benedict does away with any presumption of our knowing better. He trusts the abbot to be fair in his judgement of a situation and to be fair in his imposition of punishment or correction. It is not for us to undermine that by wanting to be ‘more compassionate’ (sic) and taking it upon ourselves to associate with the excommunicated if we have not been given permission. We have a duty to speak up if we think something is wrong, but we must do so at the right time, in the right way, and be prepared to take the consequences. In short, we are expected to behave as adults in the monastery, to accept discipline, and to co-operate with others in our common purpose of seeking God. That is easy to recognize when we are engaged in overtly ‘holy’ actions such as singing the praises of God in choir or serving one another in the refectory or infirmary, not so easy when it comes to the regulation of our everyday behaviour and lapses in conduct to which we are all prone.

I may be wrong, but I suspect this readiness to trust, to co-operate, and to accept limitations on our freedom to act may be applicable outside the cloister, too.

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6 thoughts on “Cherry-Picking the Rule of St Benedict”

  1. Dear Sister Catherine

    This blog makes me think, which I like, especially the third paragraph. I want to agree with you last paragraph, yes it is applicable outside the cloister and people can choose to be ready to adopt these attitudes. I wonder though that the conditions for it to be applied are in a defined group of people, who have agreed a common purpose and have chosen to abide by a given Rule. A two way process – for example The Abbot is making decisions abiding by the rule and the non- Abbots are accepting the decisions within structures of the rule, so trust, Cooperation , limitations can happen . If all are not abiding by the Rule, does it work? So, I think yes it can be applied outside the cloister, however in a controlled environment. And it sound quite a nice way to go about things.

    I wish you well

    • Thank you. I think we can take the concept of the common good and how we work that out in the context of the present pandemic. Acceptance of restrictions on our freedom, co-operation, trust, and so on, have to operate on a societal level rather than just within a small group such as a monastic community, don’t they? Acceptance of penalties would also come into it if we go against what is perceived to be the common good, wouldn’t they?

      • Dear Catherine

        So, in the Uk the common purpose is the containment of the virus; the acceptance of restrictions etc have been chosen to be accepted , based on various guidance; and acceptance of penalties when going against the perceived good, so yes it can operate at a societal level.. I think choice and commitment to the common good or purpose is the basis though. Thanks.
        Although I wonder perhaps it is easier in a unified cultural grouping like a monastic community.

  2. Dear Sister Catherine, thank you for directing me to your daily messages. I spoke to you by phone a couple of weeks ago. I live in South Wales and am a secular Franciscan. Since lock down have become very interested I. The Rule of St. Benedict, which provides much guidance for me. I shall read your blogs with much interest.

    Keeping you in my prayers.

  3. So very important but so very difficult to live up to. You are teaching me so much. Thank you dear Sister – and St. Benedict.

  4. I have definitely suffered for the fact that we have so many opportunities in the world these days and in this part of the world.
    Limitations can be strangely liberating!
    Becoming a Christian has helped me to appreciate that restrictions, though challenging, are good… and as you say ultimately more realistic.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts from the rule.

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