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§ 44. The Rule of St. Benedict.


The Regula Benedicti has been frequently edited and annotated, best by Holstenius: Codex reg. Monast. tom. i. p. 111–135; by Dom Marténe: Commentarius in regulam S. Benedicti literalis, moralis, historicus, Par. 1690, in 4to.; by Dom Calmet, Par. 1734, 2 vols.; and by Dom Charles Brandes (Benedictine of Einsiedeln), in 3 vols., Einsiedeln and New York, 1857. Gieseler gives the most important articles in his Ch. H. Bd. i. AbtheiI. 2, § 119. Comp. also Montalembert, l.c. ii. 39 sqq.


The rule of St. Benedict, on which his fame rests, forms an epoch in the history of monasticism. In a short time it superseded all contemporary and older rules of the kind, and became the immortal code of the most illustrious branch of the monastic army, and the basis of the whole Roman Catholic cloister life.379379   The Catholic church has recognized three other rules besides that of St. Benedict, viz.: 1. That of St. Basil, which is still retained by the Oriental monks; 2. That of St. Augustine, which is adopted by the regular canons, the order of the preaching brothers or Dominicans, and several military orders; 3. The rule of St. Francis of Assisi, and his mendicant order, in the thirteenth century. It consists of a preface or prologue, and a series of moral, social, liturgical, and penal ordinances, in seventy-three chapters. It shows a true knowledge of human nature, the practical wisdom of Rome, and adaptation to Western customs; it combines simplicity with completeness, strictness with gentleness, humility with courage, and gives the whole cloister life a fixed unity and compact organization, which, like the episcopate, possessed an unlimited versatility and power of expansion. It made every cloister an ecclesiola in ecclesia, reflecting the relation of the bishop to his charge, the monarchical principle of authority on the democratic basis of the equality of the brethren, though claiming a higher degree of perfection than could be realized in the great secular church. For the rude and undisciplined world of the middle age, the Benedictine rule furnished a wholesome course of training and a constant stimulus to the obedience, self-control, order, and industry which were indispensable to the regeneration and healthy growth of social life.380380   Pope Gregory believed the rule of St. Benedicteven to be directly inspired, and Bossuet (Panégyric de Saint Benoit), in evident exaggeration, calls it “an epitome of Christianity, a learned and mysterious abridgment of all doctrines of the gospel, all the institutions of the holy fathers, and all the counsels of perfection.” Montalembert speaks in a similar strain of French declamatory eloquence. Monasticism knows very little of the gospel of freedom, and resolves Christianity into a new law of obedience.

The spirit of the rule may be judged from the following sentences of the prologus, which contains pious exhortations: “Having thus,” he says, “my brethren, asked of the Lord who shall dwell in his tabernacle, we have heard the precepts prescribed to such a one. If we fulfil these conditions, we shall be heirs of the kingdom of heaven. Let us then prepare our hearts and bodies to fight under a holy obedience to these precepts; and if it is not always possible for nature to obey, let us ask the Lord that he would deign to give us the succor of his grace. Would we avoid the pains of hell and attain eternal life, while there is still time, while we are still in this mortal body, and while the light of this life is bestowed upon us for that purpose, let us run and strive so as to reap an eternal reward. We must then form a school of divine servitude, in which, we trust, nothing too heavy or rigorous will be established. But if, in conformity with right and justice, we should exercise a little severity for the amendment of vices or the preservation of charity, beware of fleeing under the impulse of terror from the way of salvation, which cannot but have a hard beginning. When a man has walked for some time in obedience and faith, his heart will expand, and he will run with the unspeakable sweetness of love in the way of God’s commandments. May he grant that, never straying from the instruction of the Master, and persevering in his doctrine in the monastery until death, we may share by patience in the sufferings of Christ, and be worthy to share together his kingdom.”381381   We have availed ourselves, in this extract from the preface, of the translation of Montalembert, ii. 44 sq. The leading provisions of this rule are as follows:

At the head of each society stands an abbot, who is elected by the monks, and, with their consent, appoints a provost (praepositus), and, when the number of the brethren requires, deans over the several divisions (decaniae), as assistants. He governs, in Christ’s stead, by authority and example, and is to his cloister, what the bishop is to his diocese. In the more weighty matters he takes the congregation of the brethren into consultation; in ordinary affairs only the older members. The formal entrance into the cloister must be preceded by a probation of novitiate of one year (subsequently it was made three years), that no one might prematurely or rashly take the solemn step. If the novice repented his resolution, he could leave the cloister without hindrance; if he adhered to it, he was, at the close of his probation, subjected to an examination in presence of the abbot and the monks, and then, appealing to the saints, whose relics were in the cloister, he laid upon the altar of the chapel the irrevocable vow, written or at least subscribed by his own hand, and therewith cut off from himself forever all return to the world.

From this important arrangement the cloister received its stability and the whole monastic institution derived additional earnestness, solidity, and permanence.

The vow was threefold, comprising stabilitas, perpetual adherence to the monastic order; conversio morum, especially voluntary poverty and chastity, which were always regarded as the very essence of monastic piety under all its forms; and obedientia coram Deo et sanctis ejus, absolute obedience to the abbot, as the representative of God and Christ. This obedience is the cardinal virtue of a monk.382382   Cap. 5: “Primus humilitatis gradus est obedientia sine mora. Haec convenit iis, qui nihil sibi Christo carius aliquid existimant; propter servitium sanctum, quod professi sunt, seu propter metum gehennae, vel gloriam vitae aeternae, mox ut aliquid imperatum a majore fuerit, ac si divinitus imperetur, moram pati nesciunt in faciendo.”

The life of the cloister consisted of a judicious alternation of spiritual and bodily exercises. This is the great excellence of the rule of Benedict, who proceeded here upon the true principle, that idleness is the mortal enemy of the soul and the workshop of the devil.383383   Cap. 48: “Otiositas inimica est animae; et ideo certis temporibus occupari debent fratres in labore manuum, certis iterum horis in lectione divina.” Seven hours were to be devoted to prayer, singing of psalms, and meditation;384384   The horaecanonicae are the Nocturnae vigiliae, Matutinae, Prima, Tertia, Sexta, Nona, Vespera, and Completorium, and are taken (c. 16) from a literal interpretation of Ps. cxix. 164: “Seven times a day do I praise thee,” and v. 62: “At midnight I will rise to give thanks unto thee.” The Psalter was the liturgy and hymn book of the convent. It was so divided among the seven services of the day, that the whole psalter should be chanted once a week. from two to three hours, especially on Sunday, to religious reading; and from six to seven hours to manual labor in doors or in the field, or, instead of this, to the training of children, who were committed to the cloister by their parents (oblati).385385   Cap. 59: “Si quis forte de nobilibus offert filium suum Deo in monasterio, si ipse puer minori aetate est, parentes ejus faciant petitionem,” etc.

Here was a starting point for the afterward celebrated cloister schools, and for that attention to literary pursuits, which, though entirely foreign to the uneducated Benedict and his immediate successors, afterward became one of the chief ornaments of his order, and in many cloisters took the place of manual labor.

In other respects the mode of life was to be simple, without extreme rigor, and confined to strictly necessary things. Clothing consisted of a tunic with a black cowl (whence the name: Black Friars); the material to be determined by the climate and season. On the two weekly fast days, and from the middle of September to Easter, one meal was to suffice for the day. Each monk is allowed daily a pound of bread and pulse, and, according to the Italian custom, half a flagon (hemina) of wine; though he is advised to abstain from the wine, if he can do so without injury to his health. Flesh is permitted only to the weak and sick,386386   Cap. 40: “Carnium quadrupedum ab omnibus abstinetur comestio, praeter omnino debiles et aegrotos.” Even birds are excluded, which were at that time only delicacies for princes and nobles, as Mabillon shows from the contemporary testimony of Gregory of Tours. who were to be treated with special care. During the meal some edifying piece was read, and silence enjoined. The individual monk knows no personal property, not even his simple dress as such; and the fruits of his labor go into the common treasury. He should avoid all contact with the world, as dangerous to the soul, and therefore every cloister should be so arranged, as to be able to carry on even the arts and trades necessary for supplying its wants.387387   Cap. 66: “Monasterium, si possit fieri, ita debet construi, ut omnia necessaria, id est, aqua, molendinum, hortus, pistrinum, vel artes diversae intra monasterium exerceantur, ut non sit necessitas monachis vagandi foras, quia omnino non expedit animabus eorum.” Hospitality and other works of love are especially commended.

The penalties for transgression of the rule are, first, private admonition, then exclusion from the fellowship of prayer, next exclusion from fraternal intercourse, and finally expulsion from the cloister, after which, however, restoration is possible, even to the third time.



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