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The Rule of Saint Benedict

Copies of The Rule of Saint Benedict are available in the Bookstore, at the Liturgical Press and can be found in offices and rooms throughout campus. The Rule is offered to students of the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University in order to introduce the Benedictine heritage of the two schools. 

To those unfamiliar with the Rule and with monastic life and history (and that means virtually all new students!), this brief booklet may be confusing.  Some of its passages, in fact, are recognized as dated and so are quietly overlooked by Benedictines today; still others may require some adaptation to modern understandings of human behavior.  Yet, many passages, despite their sixth-century origins, are remarkably time-less, and the values they promote and reflect can readily be appreciated by anyone—not merely those who live in monasteries.  One commentator urges reading and rereading the Rule “to find instruction for the soul and comfort for the heart” (Anselmo Lentini).

Following are references to several key passages or themes of the Rule (RB) along with brief comments (from faculty, staff, or students) explaining why these particular passages may be significant.  As you spend time on our campuses, you will have the opportunity to learn more about the Rule and to experience the Benedictine character of the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University through your interactions with students, the staff, and faculty. 

You may also witness how this Rule – which is only a beginning (RB 73) – is observed today through the lives of the sisters of Saint Benedict’s Monastery and the monks of Saint John’s Abbey.

Prologue 

Listen . . . with the ear of your heart.

The first word of the Rule is: “Listen.”  Listening, with the ear of the heart, is the beginning of learning, the beginning of wisdom, the beginning of openness to the voice of God and to one another.  Listening allows us to discover ourselves and to discover the world and the good people around us.   

Chapter 4:  Instruments of Good Works

Saint Benedict begins chapter 4 with the greatest of the commandments (Matt 22:37-39; Mark 12:30-31; Luke 10:27) and then goes on to illustrate the many ways that members of a monastic community might observe these commands through their daily lives.  These observances, however, need not be limited to members of monastic communities nor only to Christians; rather, they are guidelines for good living, for anyone.  Consider, for example, nos. 70 and 71: Respect the elders and love the young.  Is there any better way to relate to others than this?  Or consider the implications of no. 73: If you have a dispute with someone, make peace with him before the sun goes down. Time heals all wounds, says conventional wisdom.  Yet, time can also allow wounds to fester and do major damage.  Saint Benedict, aware of the latter possibility, urges that we follow the Gospel (Matt 5:24-25; Luke 12:58; see also Prov 17:14) and attempt to settle our differences quickly and charitably.  Disagreements between roommates or misunderstandings among friends might be addressed most charitably by talking them through at an opportune time—but quickly, before they fester and devour.

Chapter 6:  On the Spirit of Silence

Speaking and teaching are the master’s task; the disciple is to be silent and listen (6.6).

In recent years, students of Saint Benedict’s and Saint John’s have compiled numerous lists of “Benedictine values.”  Alas, they rarely, if ever, include silence!  For Saint Benedict, however, silence is central to a life of prayer and reflection, central to learning, central to listening.  Silence allows us to step back from the noise and clutter in our lives, to reflect on what is most significant in life, to hear God’s voice speaking to our hearts.

Chapter 7:  On Humility

The various degrees of humility that Saint Benedict outlines may require a fair amount of “translation” even for monastic members, let alone for students!  However, students might reflect on this observation, from a teacher and faculty resident:

One of the characteristics that well describes students and graduates of Saint Benedict’s and Saint John’s is their ability to laugh at themselves and not to take themselves too seriously.  That can only happen if one stands in relationship to God and in a realization of the person that each of us fundamentally is.

Elsewhere (RB 31.13-14) Saint Benedict urges that we speak to one another in a gentle, humble manner: Above all, let him be humble. If goods are not available to meet a request, he will offer a kind word in reply, for it is written, “A kind word is better than the best gift” [Sir 18:16-17].

Chapter 31:  The Cellarer  [Stewardship]

…regard all the utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar (31.10).

Reverence for all of creation is a theme of the Rule.  Recognizing Christ in every person we meet is explicitly stated by Saint Benedict (see chapters 36 and 53).  Equally, to appreciate and to care lovingly for the world around us and for the work of human hands are means of recognizing the goodness of creation (see Gen 1:31) and practicing good stewardship.

Chapter 48: Daily Manual Labor  [Moderation and Balance]

 … all things are to be done with moderation (48.9).

Leading a balanced life is not only a modern concern; it was a concern of Saint Benedict as well.  Each day is to include work and prayer, and the exact schedule may change to reflect the seasons of the year as well as the health and abilities of the individual.  The body, the mind, the soul need attention each day.

Chapter 53:  Reception of Guests

All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed like Christ (53.1).

Receiving the stranger, receiving the poor, receiving the marginalized are concerns of the Gospels.  Saint Benedict urges that these people especially be recognized and welcomed.  For those beginning their studies at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University: Welcome!  You are a stranger no longer but an honored guest of our communities.  How can you, in turn, extend hospitality to those you meet?

Chapter 64:  Constituting an Abbot 

Therefore, drawing on this and other examples of discretion, the mother of virtues, he [the Abbot] must so arrange everything that the strong may have something to yearn for and the weak have nothing to run from (64.19).

Most of us end up in some kind of leadership or authority position at some point in our lives, and it is important to remember that different people have different gifts.  We can’t expect everyone to be the same, but we can give everyone the opportunity to grow and to make progress.  Another way of looking at this verse is this: sometimes each of us is in the position of being strong; at other times, each of us is in the position of weakness.  Self-knowledge helps us to treat others appropriately, charitably.  Sometimes we are weak; sometimes we are strong—but we try to arrange things toward self and toward others so that we have something to yearn for, or at least, not to run from.

Chapter 71:  Mutual Obedience

Obedience is a blessing to be shown by all, not only to the Abbot but also to one another as brothers (71.1).

Being obedient, being open to others, is one way to “listen” (as the first word of the Rule encourages).  Chapter 71 of the Rule challenges us to live harmoniously in community, to show consideration for others—in the dorms, in the classrooms, on the playing fields.  It also challenges us to consider the relationships between the campuses.

Chapter 72:  Good Zeal

Mutual respect and charity are at the heart of life in community.  Chapter 72 of the Rule is a fine summary of how to live together (as students) now, and how to live with others for the rest of our lives.  We are not to pursue our own self-interests, but rather what would benefit another (RB 72.7).  They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other (RB 72.4 [see Rom 12:10]). Anticipate your sister or brother’s needs before they have to ask for help.  What a different world we would be living in if, indeed, we anticipated each other’s needs on a national scale as well as an international scale.  In light of this chapter of the Rule, a question we might ask ourselves each day is:  What can I do to make others happy?

The Primacy of God

…the love of Christ must come before all else (RB 4.21).  We believe that the divine presence is everywhere (RB 19.1).  “. . . that in all things God may be glorified” (RB 57.9 [see 1 Pet 4:11]).

Saint Benedict’s faith and commitment to be a disciple of Christ permeate the Rule.  He invites us to join him in following in the ways of the Lord: See how the Lord in his love shows us the way of life (RB Prol 20).  Exploring our relationship to God, deepening our spiritual lives, growing in faith—these, too, are part of an education at Saint Benedict’s and Saint John’s.  And may [God] bring us all together to everlasting life (RB 72.12).

Written by Br. Robin Pierzina, OSB, Director of Residential Life, Saint John’s University