Wisdom from St. Benedict

The idea of a Life Plan is an ancient one. It goes back to the Garden of Eden, when God advised Adm and Eve, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). God has always offered his people a meaningful and purposeful guide to life.

However, in faithfully responding to the Biblical story for contemporary challenges, very few have compiled a guide to life that has stood the test of time for over 1,500 years! Born in 480, in Italy, St. Benedict of Nursia has become known as the father of western monasticism due to the influence of his “Rule of Life,” which became widely adopted in monasteries across Europe with the support of Charlemagne, and is still the most widely used set of guidelines for monastic communities today. 

Adopting the Rule of Life Strengthened Monasteries and their Societies

The Rule offers guidance for how to live for God and how to order the affairs of the monastic community. As one source puts it,

In considering the leading characteristics of this Holy Rule, the first that must strike the reader is its wonderful discretion and moderation, its extreme reasonableness, and its keen insight into the capabilities as well as the weaknesses of human nature. Here are no excesses, no extraordinary asceticism, no narrow-mindedness, but rather a series of sober regulations based on sound common-sense.

This wisdom led to tremendous vitality for Benedictine monasteries, generating tremendous longevity and fruitful labor:

The results of the fulfilment of the precepts of the Rule are abundantly apparent in history. That of manual labour, for instance, which St. Benedict laid down as absolutely essential for his monks, produced many of the architectural triumphs which are the glory of the Christian world. Many cathedrals (especially in England), abbeys, and churches, scattered up and down the countries of Western Europe, were the work of Benedictine builders and architects. The cultivation of the soil, encouraged by St. Benedict, was another form of labour to which his followers gave themselves without reserve and with conspicuous success, do that many regions have owed much of their agricultural prosperity to the skillful husbandry of the sons of St. Benedict. The hours ordered by the Rule to be devoted daily to systematic reading and study, have given to the world many of the foremost scholars and writers, so that the term “Benedictine erudition” has been for long centuries a byword indicative of the learning and laborious research fostered in the Benedictine cloister. The regulations regarding the reception and education of children, moreover, were the germ from which sprang up a great number of famous monastic schools and universities which flourished in the Middle Ages.

Because of the potent ways his Rule of Life maintained continuity and health for monastic communities for centuries, in widely divergent cultures, these guidelines also gained a credibility that strengthened the rest of society. In addition to the building of cathedrals, farms, and schools, the Rule of Life offered support for the idea of a written constitution, the value of the rule of law, the importance of democracy, and the dignity of manual labor.

These monasteries were not perfect. There was inefficiency, abusive abbots, periods of materialism and spiritual laxity, and other divergences from the intentions of the Rule. However, on the whole, these monastic communities have maintained an exceptional service and example to the world worthy of our respect.

Practical Implications

Not everyone is able to join or interested in joining a monastic community. However, that does not imply that we should also ignore the wisdom they can offer for our individualistic, frenetic, and distracted lives.

What does the Rule of St. Benedict show us?

First, that the effort to intentionally live for God can pay dividends far beyond what we could ever ask or think (to paraphrase Ephesians 3:20-21). When we align our lives with God’s plan, we become aligned with God’s omnipotence and favor. This doesn’t mean unlimited health and wealth, but rather, that by God’s grace we will experience an ever-growing conformity to the character of Christ. To be free of selfishness and able to fully love God and others is a great gift in itself. In Benedict’s case, his own life led to renewal for the entire continent of Europe, as well as the wider world.

Second, it shows us that a Life Plan requires sacrifices. It must lead us to give up some of our autonomy and freedom. It must cost us something in terms of our time, our energy, and our finances. It must comprehensively redirect our lives in the service of Christ. A Life Plan that is oriented towards becoming rich, fit, and famous will not set you apart from the world or offer much benefit to others.

Third, a Life Plan depends upon community. Culture cannot be created, preserved, or built without friends and family who share the culture with you. If you want to celebrate Christmas in a spirit of generosity rather than in an orgy of materialism, especially over the long term, then you will need your family and friends to support and enter into those values with you. The power of advertising and the subtle peer pressure of “everyone else is doing it” will inevitably lead you to conformity.The Rule of St. Benedict has lasted for centuries simply because it supported the longevity and health of communities for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Fourth, a Life Plan must lead to life. A harsh asceticism is unsustainable and unattractive. A profligate selfishness rapidly undermines communal bonds. A wise Life Plan balances the demands it places on each individual with the benefits for the whole community, and every member of the group. As Jesus put it, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). The life of denying ourselves for the glory of Christ is meant, ultimately, to make us fully human, reconciled to one another, and available for joyful service to the world.

Discussion Questions:

1. What do you most admire about St. Benedict and his Rule of Life?

2. What do you find to be the most intimidating part of the monastic example?

3. How can you incorporate wisdom from the Benedictine way of life into your own Life Plan?

4. Are you part of a community (perhaps a church or small group) with a shared Life Plan or Covenant?