July/August 2011 - Vol. 51.

Listen, My Son
from the Prologue to the Rule of St. Benedict
Benedict's Rule and Early Monasticism
Christian monasticism emerged as a distinct movement in the early 4th century. It was not so much an innovation as a fresh expression of the ascetic spirit present in the beginnings of the church. The monastic movement greatly influenced the development and spread of Christianity, not only in the East but in the West as well. An anonymous 4th century author of the History of the Monks in Eqypt describes how monastic communities formed a series of bulwarks for the surrounding churches in the East. “There is no town or village in Egypt of the Thebaid that is not surrounded by hermitages as if by walls, and the people depend on their prayers as if on God himself…Through them the world is kept in being.” Theodore the Studite, a 9th century monastic reformer, wrote, “Monks are the sinews and foundations [support structures] of the church.” 

Benedict of Nursia (480-547 AD) lived in Italy when the great Roman Empire was disintegrating. After his education in Rome, he decided to follow the Gospel more radically by living a more secluded life of prayer and Scripture study. He wrote his Rule for a group of men who wanted to follow him. He founded 12 monasteries. His Rule draws upon the wisdom of earlier monastic elders in Egypt, Cappadocia, Italy, and Gaul. The life envisioned in the Rule is one of balance between worship, study, contemplation, and work. It not only governed the life and work of the brothers who lived in monastic community, it also charged them to read the Scriptures and other holy writings every day. This led to monks writing as well as copying and preserving books. Western historians owe a great debt to Benedict and the Benedictines for the ancient documents they preserved and the medieval historical sources they created. Scholars of religion and culture have long recognized the deep spiritual wisdom, psychological insight, and profound influence of St. Benedict’s Rule not only on monasticism, but on all of western civilization

The Prologue to the Rule of St. Benedict

Do battle for Christ, the true King
Listen carefully, my son, to the master's instructions, and attend to them with the ear of
your heart. This is advice from a father who loves you: welcome it, and faithfully put it
into practice. The labor of obedience will bring you back to him from whom you had drifted through the sloth of disobedience. This message of mine is for you, then, if you are ready to give up your own will, once and for all, and armed with the strong and noble weapons of obedience to do battle for the true King, Christ the Lord.

First of all, every time you begin a good work, you must pray to him most earnestly to
bring it to perfection. In his goodness, he has already counted us as his sons, and therefore we should never grieve him by our evil actions. With his good gifts which are in us, we must obey him at all times that he may never become the angry father who disinherits his sons nor the dread lord, enraged by our sins, who punishes us forever as worthless servants for refusing to follow him to glory.

Let us get up then, at long last, for the Scriptures rouse us when they say; “It is high time
for us to rise from sleep” (Romans 13:11). Let us open our eyes to the light that comes from God, and our ears to the voice from heaven that every day calls out this charge. “If you hear his voice today, do not harden your heart” (Psalm 95:7-8). And again, “You that have ears to hear, listen to what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 2:7). And what does he say? “Come and listen to me, sons. I will teach you the fear of the Lord” (Psalm 34:11). “Run while you have the light of life, that the darkness of death may not overtake you” (John 12:35).

The Lord has called us
Seeking his workman in a multitude of people, the Lord calls out to him and lifts his
voice again. “Is there anyone here who yearns for life and desires to see good days?” (Psalm 34:12). If you hear this and your answer is “I do,” God then directs these words to you:
“If you desire true and eternal life, keep your tongue free from vicious talk and your lips
from all deceit: turn away from evil and do good: let peace be your quest and aim” (Psalm
33:12-14). Once you have done this, my eyes will be upon you and my ears will listen to your prayers. “And even before you ask me, I will say to you, 'Here I am'” (Isaiah 58:9). What, dear brothers, is more delightful than this voice of the Lord calling to us? See how the Lord in his love shows us the way of life. Clothed then with faith and the performance of good works, let us set out on this way, with the Gospel for our guide, that we may deserve to see him “who has called us to his kingdom” (1 Thessalonians 2:12).

If we wish to dwell in the tent of this kingdom, we will never arrive unless we run there by
doing good deeds. But let us ask the Lord with the Prophet [King David]: “Who will dwell in your tent, Lord; who will find rest upon your holy mountain?” (Psalm 15:1). 

He has foiled the evil one
After this question, brothers, let us listen well to what the Lord says in reply, for he shows us the way to his tent [dwelling place]. “One who walks without blemish,” he says, “and is just in all his dealings, who speaks the truth from his heart, and has not practiced deceit with his tongue, who has not wronged a fellow man in any way, nor listened to slanders against his neighbor” (Psalm 15:2-3). He has foiled the evil one, the devil, at every turn, flinging both him and his promptings far from the sight of his heart. While these temptations were still “young, he caught hold of them and dashed them” against Christ [Psalm 15: 4; 137: 9]. These people fear the Lord, and do not become elated over their good deeds. They judge that it is the Lord's power, not their own, that brings about the good in them. They praise (Palms 15:4) the Lord working in them, and say with the Prophet [King David]: “Not to us give the glory, but to your name alone” (Psalm 115:1). 

In just this way Paul the Apostle refused to take credit for the power of his preaching. He declared, “By God's grace I am what I am” (1 Corinthians 15:10).  And again he said, “He who boasts should make his boast in the Lord” (2 Corinthians 10:17). That is why the Lord says in the Gospel, “Whoever hears these words of mine and does them is like a wise man who built his house upon rock. The floods came and the winds blew and beat against the house, but it did not fall. It was founded on rock (Matthew 7:24-25).

Benedict and monks eating

Prepare your hearts 
With this conclusion, the Lord waits for us daily to translate into action, as we should, his teachings. Therefore our life span has been lengthened by way of a truce, that we may amend our misdeeds.  As the Apostles says, “Do you not know that the patience of God is leading you to repent” (Romans 2:4). And indeed the Lord assures us in his love, “I do not wish the death of the sinner, but that he turn back to me and live” (Ezekiel 33:11).

Brothers, now that we have asked the Lord who will dwell in his tent, we have heard the instruction for dwelling in it, but only if we fulfill the obligations of those who live there. We must, then, prepare our hearts and bodies for the battle of holy obedience to his instructions. What is not possible to us by nature, let us ask the Lord to supply by the help of his grace. If we wish to reach eternal life, even as we avoid the torments of hell, then – while there is still time, while we are in this body and have time to accomplish all these things by the light of life – we must run and do now what will profit us forever.

A school for the Lord's service
Therefore we intend to establish a school for the Lord's service. In drawing up its regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome. The good of all concerned, however, may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and to safeguard love.

Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God's commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love. Never swerving from his instructions, then, but faithfully observing his teaching in the monastery until death, we shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his kingdom. Amen.

[Translation from The Rule of St. Benedict in Latin and English with Notes, edited by Timothy Fry, OSB, St. Benedict's Abbey, Atchison, Kansas 1981.] 

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