Dome Icon

The Rule of St. Benedict

by Sister Jane Michele McClure

The entire document is less than a hundred pages. The author, with characteristic self-effacement, called it “a little rule for beginners.” Written in the sixth century for a collection of serfs, scholars, shepherds, and wealthy scions of nobility—a motley group of would-be monastics, the Rule of St. Benedict survives today as a masterpiece of spiritual wisdom. The roots of Benedictine spirituality are contained in this slim volume, as are guidelines for happiness and holiness (arguably identical states in the Christian tradition), which are as meaningful today as they were 1,500 years ago.

In the Rule’s prologue, Benedict said he intended to prescribe “nothing harsh, nothing burdensome” for his followers. His approach to seeking God was both sensible and humane. For Benedict, a spiritual pathway was not one to be littered with weird and unusual practices; rather, all that is needed is to be faithful to finding God in the ordinary circumstances of daily life. How to prepare oneself for this simple—but not necessarily easy—way of life is the substance of the Rule.

Benedict envisioned a balanced life of prayer and work as the ideal. Monastics would spend time in prayer so as to discover why they’re working, and would spend time in work so that good order and harmony would prevail in the monastery. Benedictines should not be consumed by work, nor should they spend so much time in prayer that responsibilities are neglected. According to Benedict, all things—eating, drinking, sleeping, reading, working, and praying—should be done in moderation. In Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, Sister Joan Chittister writes that in Benedict’s Rule, “All must be given its due, but only its due. There should be something of everything and not too much of anything.”

Benedict stressed the importance of work as the great equalizer. Everyone from the youngest to the oldest, from the least educated to the most educated, was to engage in manual labor—a revolutionary idea for sixth-century Roman culture. Prayer, in a Benedictine monastery, was to consist of the opus Dei (the work of God—Psalms recited in common) and lectio (the reflective reading of Scripture whereby God’s word becomes the center of the monastic’s life). Prayer was marked by regularity and fidelity, not mood or convenience. In Benedict’s supremely realistic way, the spiritual life was something to be worked at, not merely hoped for.