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The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century / Edition 2

The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century / Edition 2

by Joan Chittister
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This new edition of a classic religious text combines the timeless wisdom of Benedict of Nursia's Rule with the perceptive commentary of a renowned Benedictine mystic and scholar. In her new introduction to the Rule, the author boldly claims that Benedict's sixth-century text is the only one of great traditions that directly touches the contemporary issues facing the human community—stewardship, conversion, communication, reflection, contemplation, humility, and equality. Tracing Benedict's original Rule paragraph by paragraph, it expands its principles into the larger context of spiritual living in a secular world and makes the seemingly archaic instructions relevant for a contemporary audience. A new foreword, updated content, an appendix, and a recommended calendar for reading the entries and commentaries make this an invaluable resource for solitary or communal contemplation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780824525941
Publisher: Crossroad Publishing Company
Publication date: 08/01/2010
Series: Spiritual Legacy Series
Edition description: Second Edition, Second edition
Pages: 328
Sales rank: 137,741
Product dimensions: 8.52(w) x 11.80(h) x 0.77(d)

About the Author

Joan Chittister is the executive director of the company Benetvision, which serves as a resource and research center for contemporary spirituality; a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie; and a former past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. She writes "From Where I Stand," a weekly column in the National Catholic Reporter, and is the author of many books, including The Friendship of Women, The Gift of Years, In Search of Belief, In the Heart of the Temple, and Wisdom Distilled from the Daily. She lives in Erie, Pennsylvania.

Read an Excerpt

The Rule of Benedict

A Spirituality for the 21st Century

By Joan Chittister

The Crossroad Publishing Company

Copyright © 2010 Joan Chittister
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8245-2594-1



Jan. 8 – May 9 – Sept. 8

There are clearly four kinds of monastics. First, there are the cenobites, that is to say, those who belong to a monastery, where they serve under a rule and an abbot or prioress.

In this chapter, Benedict describes each of the four main classes of religious life that were common at the time of his writing. The effects of the descriptions and definitions are apparent. He is for all intents and purposes telling us the characteristics that he values most in spiritual development and emphasizing the qualities that in his opinion are most important to spiritual growth.

In one brief sentence, then, Benedict describes the life of the cenobite. Cenobites are the seekers of the spiritual life who live in a monastery — live with others — and are not a law unto themselves. Holiness, he argues, is not something that happens in a vacuum. It has something to do with the way we live our community lives and our family lives and our public lives as well as the way we say our prayers. The life-needs of other people affect the life of the truly spiritual person and they hear the voice of God in that.

Cenobites, too, live "under a rule." Meaningless spiritual exercises may not be a Benedictine trait but arbitrariness or whim are not part of Benedict's prescription for holiness either. Monastic spirituality depends on direction. It is a rule of life. Self-control, purpose, and discipline give aim to what might otherwise deteriorate into a kind of pseudoreligious life meant more for public show than for personal growth. It is so comforting to multiply the practices of the church in our life and so inconvenient to have to meet the responsibilities of the communities in which we live.

But the spiritual life is not a taste for spiritual consolations. The spiritual life is a commitment to faith where we would prefer certainty. It depends on readiness. It demands constancy. It flourishes in awareness.

The ancients say that once upon a time a disciple asked the elder, "Holy One, is there anything I can do to make myself enlightened?"

And the Holy One answered, "As little as you can do to make the sun rise in the morning."

"Then of what use," the surprised disciple asked, "are the spiritual exercises you prescribe?"

"To make sure," the elder said, "that you are not asleep when the sun begins to rise."

The Rule prescribes directions that will keep us, like the mythical disciple, awake until what we live, lives in us.

Then, Benedict says, the cenobite lives under an abbot or prioress, someone who will mediate past and future for us, call us to see where we have come from and where we are going, confront us with the call to the demands of living fully in the now when we might be most likely to abandon our own best ideals for the sake of the easy and the selfish. It is a basic Christian call. Everyone in life lives under someone and something. Adulthood is not a matter of becoming completely independent of the people who lay claim to our lives. Adulthood is a matter of being completely open to the insights that come to us from our superiors and our spouses, our children and our friends, so that we can become more than we can even begin to imagine for ourselves.

The cenobite, like most of the people of the world, works out the way to God by walking with others. In monastic spirituality, there is no escape from life, only a chance to confront it, day after day in all its sanctifying tedium and blessed boredom and glorious agitation in the communities of which we are a part at any given moment of our lives.

Second, there are the anchorites or hermits, who have come through the test of living in a monastery for a long time, and have passed beyond the first fervor of monastic life. Thanks to the help and guidance of many, they are now trained to fight against evil. They have built up their strength and go from the battle line in the ranks of their members to the single combat of the desert. Self-reliant now, without the support of another, they are ready with God's help to grapple single-handed with the vices of body and mind.

If any paragraph in the Rule dispels the popular notion of spirituality, surely this is it. Modern society has the idea that if you want to live a truly spiritual life, you have to leave life as we know it and go away by yourself and "contemplate," and that if you do, you will get holy. It is a fascinating although misleading thought. The Rule of Benedict says that if you want to be holy, stay where you are in the human community and learn from it. Learn patience. Learn wisdom. Learn unselfishness. Learn love. Then, if you want to go away from it all, then and only then will you be ready to do it alone.

There is, of course, an anchorite lurking in each of us who wants to get away from it all, who finds the tasks of dailiness devastating, who looks for God in clouds and candlelight. Perhaps the most powerful point of this paragraph is that it was written by someone who had himself set out to live the spiritual life as a hermit and then discovered, apparently, that living life alone is nowhere near as searing of our souls as living it with others. It is one thing to plan my own day well with all its balance and its quiet and its contemplative exercises. It is entirely another rank of holiness to let my children and my superiors and my elderly parents and the needs of the poor do it for me.

Third, there are sarabaites, the most detestable kind of monastics, who with no experience to guide them, no rule to try them as "gold is tried in a furnace" (Prov. 27:21), have a character as soft as lead. Still loyal to the world by their actions, they clearly lie to God by their signs of religion. Two or three together, or even alone, without a shepherd, they pen themselves up in their own sheepfolds, not God's. Their law is what they like to do, whatever strikes their fancy. Anything they believe in and choose, they call holy; anything they dislike, they consider forbidden.

There's passion in the Rule of Benedict, lots of it, and sarabaites come in for a good share. Benedict calls this sort of "spirituality" detestable.

Anchorites separate themselves from a community in order to concentrate their energies and strengthen their virtues apart from the distractions of everyday life. They are seasoned seekers who want to center their lives in God alone, naïvely perhaps but sincerely nevertheless.

Sarabaites separated themselves also. Before the codification of religious law, people could assume a habit without formal training or approval. Sarabaites presented themselves as religious but separated themselves from a disciplined life and spiritual guidance and serious purpose in order to concentrate their energies on themselves. They called themselves religious, but they were the worst of all things religious. They were unauthentic. They pretended to be what they were not.

They lived lives of moderate commitment, chaste and even simple to a point, but they listened to no one's wisdom but their own. They were soft.

Perhaps the real importance of the paragraph for today is to remind ourselves that it's not all that uncommon for people of all eras to use religion to make themselves comfortable. It is a sense of personal goodness that they want, not a sense of gospel challenge. They are tired of being challenged. They want some proof that they've arrived at a spiritual height that gives consolation in this life and the promise of security in the next. There comes a time in life for everyone where the effort of it all begins to seem too much, when the temptation to settle down and nestle in becomes reasonable.

After years of trying to achieve a degree of spiritual depth with little result, after a lifetime of uphill efforts with little to show for it, the lure is to let it be, to stop where we are, to coast. We begin to make peace with tepidity. We begin to do what it takes to get by but little that it takes to get on with the spiritual life. We do the exercises but we cease to "listen with the heart." We do the externals — the churchgoing and church giving — and we call ourselves religious, but we have long since failed to care. A sense of self-sacrifice dies in us and we obey only the desires and the demands within us.

Fourth and finally, there are the monastics called gyrovagues, who spend their entire lives drifting from region to region, staying as guests for three or four days in different monasteries. Always on the move, they never settle down, and are slaves to their own wills and gross appetites. In every way they are worse than sarabaites. It is better to keep silent than to speak of all these and their disgraceful way of life. Let us pass them by, then, and with the help of God, proceed to draw up a plan for the strong kind, the cenobites.

The gyrovagues, whom Benedict rejected out of hand, actually had a noble beginning. Founded to follow the Christ "who had nowhere to lay his head," the earliest gyrovagues threw themselves on the providence of God, having nothing, owning nothing, amassing nothing. Originally, therefore, a sign of faith and simplicity to the Christian community, gyrovagues soon became a sign of indolence and dissipation.

Gyrovagues went from community to community, living off the charity of working monks, begging from the people, dependent on the almsgiving of others. But they never stayed anyplace long enough to do any work themselves or to be called to accountability by the community. As admirable as their call to total poverty may have been in the beginning, it began to be their own particular brand of self-centeredness. They took from every group they visited but they gave little or nothing back to the communities or families that supported them. Gyrovagues abound in religious groups: they talk high virtue and demand it from everybody but themselves. They know how to shop for a parish but they do little to build one. They live off a community but they are never available when the work of maintaining it is necessary. They are committed to morality in the curriculum of grade schools but completely unmoved by the lack of morality in government ethics. Gyrovagues were an extreme and undisciplined kind of monastic and Benedict decried them, not so much because of their ideals surely as because of their lack of direction and good work.

Benedict's reference to the gyrovagues teaches a good lesson yet today. Extremes in anything, he implies, even in religion, are dangerous. When we go to excess in one dimension of life, the unbalance in something else destroys us. Work, for instance, is good but not at the expense of family. Love is good but not at the expense of work.

Too much of a good thing can creep into life very easily and become our rationalization for avoiding everything else. Achievement becomes more important than family. Prayer becomes more important than work. Religious exercises become more important than personal responsibilities. There is a little gyrovague in us all.

The Tao Te Ching, the Chinese Book of the Way, an ancient manual on the art of living that is the most widely translated book in world literature after the Bible, says on the same subject:

Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people's approval
and you will be their prisoner.
Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.


Jan. 9 – May 10 – Sept. 9

To be worthy of the task of governing a monastery, the prioress or abbot must always remember what the title signifies and act accordingly. They are believed to hold the place of Christ in the monastery. Therefore, a prioress or abbot must never teach or decree or command anything that would deviate from God's instructions. On the contrary, everything they teach and command should, like the leaven of divine justice, permeate the minds of the community.

The social revolution of the Rule starts in this paragraph on authority. This will be a different kind of life than the sixth-century Roman ever saw. The head of the monastery will not be a chief or a queen or a feudal lord. The superior of a monastery of Benedictines will be a Christ figure, simple, unassuming, immersed in God, loving of the marginal, doer of the gospel, beacon to the strong.

Once you begin to understand that, you begin to understand the whole new type of authority that the Rule models for a world gone wild with power. You begin to understand that it is not the laws of the mighty that will govern this group. It is the law of God that will preempt all other considerations.

Like Christ, this leader does not lead with brute force. This leader understands the leavening process. This leader, called appropriately abbot or abbess or prioress, is a spiritual parent, a catalyst for the spiritual and psychological growth of the individual monastic, not a border guard or a warden. This leader is not a parent who terrorizes a child into submission; this leader believes in the best and gives people the opportunities to make the mistakes that lead to growth.

The prioress and abbot provide an environment that confronts the monastic with the presence of God, that shows them the Way. After that it is up to the monastic to let the practices of the community and the rhythm of the prayer life work their way until the piercing good of God rises in them like yeast in bread.

"If you meet the Buddha on the road," the Zen master teaches the disciple, "kill him." Don't let any human being become the measure of your life, the Zen implies. Eliminate whatever you would be tempted to idolize, no matter how worthy the object. The role of the spiritual leader, in other words, is not to make martinets out of people; it is to lead them to spiritual adulthood where they themselves make the kind of choices that give life depth and quality. Like the teacher of Zen, Benedict does not make the superior of the monastery the ultimate norm of life. Pleasing the abbot is not what monastic life is all about. Becoming what the abbess or prioress thinks you should be is not the goal of monasticism. Following the leader is not the end for which we're made; finding God is. Benedict makes the superior of his monasteries a lover of people, a leader who can persuade a person to the heights, show them the mountain and let them go.

In our own culture, becoming someone important, climbing the corporate and ecclesiastical ladder has so often meant pleasing the person at the top rather than doing what conscience demands or the situation requires. That kind of leadership is for its own sake. It makes the guru, rather than the gospel, the norm of life. That kind of obedience puts the business before the soul. That kind of authority is not monastic and it is not spiritual. That kind of authority so often leads to the satisfaction of the system more than to the development of the person and the coming of the reign of God. That kind of authority breeds scandals and cover-ups in the face of a tradition that holds up for public emulation Joan of Arc and Thomas More, whose obedience was always to a much higher law than that of countries or institutions.

Jan. 10 – May 11 – Sept. 10

Let the prioress and abbot always remember that at the judgment of God, not only their teaching but also the community's obedience will come under scrutiny. The prioress and abbot must, therefore, be aware that the shepherd will bear the blame wherever the owner of the household finds that the sheep have yielded no profit. Still, if they have faithfully shepherded a restive and disobedient flock, always striving to cure their unhealthy ways, it will be otherwise: the shepherd will be acquitted at God's judgment. Then, like the prophet, they may say to God: "I have not hidden your justice in my heart; I have proclaimed your truth and your salvation (Ps. 40:11) but they spurned and rejected me" (Isa. 1:2; Ezek. 20:27). Then at last the sheep that have rebelled against their care will be punished by the overwhelming power of death.

Benedict puts a great deal of responsibility on the shoulders of people in authority, but not all of it. Abbots and prioresses are to teach, to proclaim, but the community's responsibility is to listen and to respond.

Benedict wants a community that is led, but not driven.

The concept is clear: people are not acquitted of the responsibility for their own souls. Personal decisions are still decisions, personal judgments are still judgments, free will is still free will. Being in a family does not relieve a child of the responsibility to grow up. The function of twenty-one-year-olds is not to do life's tasks as their parents told them to when they were six years old. The function of twenty-one-year-olds is simply to do the same tasks well and to take accountability themselves for having done them.


Excerpted from The Rule of Benedict by Joan Chittister. Copyright © 2010 Joan Chittister. Excerpted by permission of The Crossroad Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

An Invitation ix

Introduction 1

Prologue 3

1 The Kinds of Monastics 25

2 Qualities of the Abbot or Prioress 33

3 Summoning the Community for Counsel 51

4 The Tools for Good Works 56

5 Obedience 67

6 Restraint of Speech 73

7 Humility 76

8 The Divine Office at Night 100

9 The Number of Psalms at the Night Office 103

10 The Arrangement of the Night Office in Summer 106

11 The Celebration of Vigils on Sunday 107

12 The Celebration of the Solemnity of Lauds 110

13 The Celebration of Lauds on Ordinary Days 111

14 The Celebration of Vigils on the Anniversaries of Saints 116

15 The Times for Saying Alleluia 117

16 The Celebration of the Divine Office During the Day 119

17 The Number of Psalms to be Sung at These Hours 121

18 The Order of the Psalmody 124

19 The Discipline of Psalmody 130

20 Reverence in Prayer 132

21 The Deans of the Monastery 134

22 The Sleeping Arrangements of Monastics 138

23 Excommunication for Faults 141

24 Degrees of Excommunication 144

25 Serious Faults 146

26 Unauthorized Association with the Excommunicated 148

27 The Concern of the Abbot and Prioress for the Excommunicated 149

28 Those Who Refuse to Amend after Frequent Reproofs 152

29 Readmission of Members Who Leave the Monastery 155

30 The Manner of Reproving the Young 156

31 Qualifications of the Monastery Cellarer 158

32 The Tools and Goods of the Monastery 163

33 Monastics and Private Ownership 165

34 Distribution of Goods According to Need 167

35 Kitchen Servers of the Week 169

36 The Sick 174

37 The Elderly and the Young 177

38 The Reader for the Week 178

39 The Proper Amount of Food 184

40 The Proper Amount of Drink 187

41 The Times for Meals 191

42 Silence after Compline 194

43 Tardiness at the Opus Dei or at Table 197

44 Satisfaction by the Excommunicated 202

45 Mistakes in the Oratory 204

46 Faults Committed in Other Matters 205

47 Announcing the Hours for the Opus Dei 209

48 The Daily Manual Labor 211

49 The Observance of Lent 218

50 Members Working at a Distance or Traveling 222

51 Members on a Short Journey 224

52 The Oratory of the Monastery 225

53 The Reception of Guests 227

54 Letters or Gifts 234

55 Clothing and Footwear 235

56 The Prioress's or Abbot's Table 241

57 The Artisans of the Monastery 243

58 The Procedure for Receiving Members 246

59 The Offering of Children by Nobles or by the Poor 253

60 The Admission of Priests to the Monastery 256

61 The Reception of Visiting Monastics 259

62 The Priests of the Monastery 263

63 Community Rank 265

64 The Election of a Prioress or Abbot 270

65 The Prior and Subprioress of the Monastery 277

66 The Porter of the Monastery 282

67 Members Sent on a Journey 286

68 Assignment of Impossible Tasks 290

69 The Presumption of Defending Another in the Monastery 292

70 The Presumption of Striking Another Monastic at Will 294

71 Mutual Obedience 295

72 The Good Zeal of Monastics 298

73 This Rule only a Beginning of Perfection 301

Acknowledgments 304

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