Rule of St. Benedict
This work holds the first place among monastic legislative codes, and was
by far the most important factor in the organization and spread of
monasticism in the West. For its general character and also its
illustration of St. Benedict's own life, see the article BENEDICT, SAINT.
Here, however, it is treated in more detail, under the following heads:
I. The Text of the Rule;
II. Analysis of the Rule;
III. Practical Working of the Rule.
I. THE TEXT OF THE RULE
The exact time and place at which St. Benedict wrote his Rule are not
known, nor can it be determined whether the Rule, as we now possess it, was
composed as a single whole or whether it gradually took shape in response
to the needs of his monks. Somewhere about 530 however, may be taken as a
likely date, and Monte Cassino as a more probable place than Subiaco, for
the Rule certainly reflects St. Benedict's matured monastic and spiritual
wisdom. The earliest chronicler says that when Monte Cassino was destroyed
by the Lombards in 581, the monks fled to Rome, carrying with them, among
other treasures, a copy of the Rule "which the holy Father had composed";
and in the middle of the eighth century there was in the pope's library a
copy believed to be St. Benedict's autograph. It has been assumed by many
scholars that this was the copy brought from Monte Cassino; but though this
is likely enough, it is not a certainty. Be that as it may, this manuscript
of the Rule was presented by Pope Zachary to Monte Cassino in the middle of
the eighth century, a short time after the restoration of that monastery.
Charlemagne found it there when he visited Monte Cassino towards the end of
the century, and at his request a most careful transcript of it was made
for him, as an exemplar of the text to be disseminated throughout the
monasteries of his empire. Several copies of the Rule were made from it,
one of which survives to this day; for there can be no doubt that the
present Codex 914 of the St. Gall Library was copied directly from
Charlemagne's copy for the Abby of Reichnau. An exact diplomatic reprint
(not in facsimile) of this codex was published at Monte Cassino in 1900, so
that the text of this manuscript, certainly the best individual text of the
Rule in existence, can be studied without difficulty. Various other
manuscripts go back to Charlemagne's manuscript, or to its original at
Monte Cassino, which was destroyed by fire in 896, and thus the text of the
so-called autograph may be restored by approved critical methods with quite
unusual certainty, and could we be certain that it really was the
autograph, there would be no more to say.
But as already pointed out, it is not quite certain that it was St.
Benedict's autograph, and the case is complicated by the circumstance that
there is in the field another type of text, represented by the oldest known
manuscript, the Oxford Hatton manuscript 42, and by other very early
authorities, which certainly was the text most widely diffused in the
seventh and eighth centuries. Whether this text was St. Benedict's first
recension and the "autograph" his later revision, or whether the former is
but a corrupted form of the latter, is a question which is still under
debate, though the majority of critics lean towards the second alternative.
In either case, however, the text of the "autograph" is the one to be
adopted. The manuscripts, from the tenth century onwards, and the ordinary
printed editions, give mixed texts, made up out of the two earliest types.
Thus the text in current use is critically a bad one, but very few of the
readings make any substantial difference.
The Rule was written in the Lingua Vulgaris or Low Latin vernacular of the
time, and contains much syntax and orthography not in conformance with the
classical models. There is as yet no edition of the Rule that satisfies the
requirements of modern criticism, though one is in process of preparation
for the Vienna "Corpus" of Latin Ecclesiastical writers. A sufficiently
good manual edition was published by Dom Edmund Schmidt. of Metten, at
Ratisbon in 1892, presenting in substance the text of St. Gall manuscript,
with the Low Latin element eliminated.
The number of commentators on the rule is legion. Calmet gives a list of
over a hundred and thirty such writers, and Ziegelbauer gives a similar
list. The earliest commentary, in point of date, is that which has been
variously ascribed to Paul Warnefrid (a monk of Monte Cassino about
780-799), Hildemar, Ruthard of Hirsau, and others. Hildemar, a Gallic monk,
brought to Italy by Angelbert, Archbishop of Milan, reformed the monastery
of Sts. Faustinus and Jovita at Brescia and died in 840. Martène, who
considered this commentary to be the best ever produced, maintained that
Hildemar was its real author, but modern critics attribute it to Paul
Warnefrid. Amongst other commentators the following deserve mention: St.
Hildegard (d. 1178), the foundress and first Abbess of Mount St. Rupert,
near Bingen on the Rhine, who held that St. Benedict's prohibition of
flesh-meat did not include that of birds; Bernard, Abbot of Monte Cassino,
formerly of Lérins and afterwards a Cardinal (d. 1282); Turrecremata
(Torquemada) a Dominican (1468); Trithemius, Abbot of Sponheim (1516);
Perez, Archbishop of Tarragona and Superior-General of the congregation of
Valladolid; Haeften, Prior of Afflighem (1648); Stengel, Abbot of Anhausen
(1663); Mège (1691) and Martène (1739) Maurists; Calmet, Abbot of Senones
(1757); and Mabillon (1707), who discusses at length several portions of
the Rule in his Prefaces to the different volumes of the "Acta Sanctorum
It is impossible to gauge the comparative value of these and other
commentaries, because the different authors treat the Rule from different
points of view. That of Calmet is perhaps the most literal and exhaustive
on many important points; those of Martène and Haeften are mines of
information regarding monastic tradition: Perez and Mège are practical and
pious, though the latter has been considered lax in many of the views
maintained; that of Turrecremata is useful as treating the Rule from the
standpoint of moral theology; and others give mystical interpretations of
its contents. It may be pointed out that in studying the Rule as a
practical code of monastic legislation, it is necessary to facilitate
uniformity of observance, each congregation of the order has its own
constitutions, approved by the Holy See, by which are regulated many of the
matters of detail not touched upon by the Rule itself.
Before proceeding to analyze St. Benedict's Rule and to discuss its leading
characteristics, something must be said about the monasticism that preceded
his times, and out of which his system grew, in order that some idea may be
gained as to how much of the Rule was borrowed from his precursors and how
much was due to his own initiative. Such considerations are important
because there is no doubt whatever that the introduction and propagation of
St. Benedict's Rule was the turning-point which changed the whole trend of
monasticism in the West.
The earliest forms of Christian monachism were characterized by their
extreme austerity and by their more or less eremetical nature. In Egypt,
the followers of St. Anthony were purely eremetical, whilst those who
followed the Rule of St. Pachomius, though they more nearly approached the
cenobitical ideal, were yet without that element of stability insisted upon
by St. Benedict, viz: the "common life" and family spirit. Under the
Antonian system the austerities of the monks were left entirely to their
own discretion; under the Pachomian, though there was an obligatory rule of
limited severity, the monks were free to add to it what other ascetical
practices they chose. And in both, the prevailing idea was that they were
spiritual athletes, and as such they rivaled each other in austerity.
Syrian and strictly Oriental monasticism need not be considered here, as it
had no direct influence on that of Europe. When St. Basil (fourth century)
organized Greek monasticism, he set himself against the eremetical life and
insisted upon a community life, with meals, work, and prayer, all in
common. With him the practice of austerity, unlike that of the Egyptians,
was to be subject to control of the superior, for he considered that to
wear out the body by austerities so as to make it unfit for work, was a
misconception of the Scriptural precept of penance and mortification. His
idea of the monastic life was the result of the contact of primitive ideas,
as existing in Egypt and the East, with European culture and modes of
Monasticism came into Western Europe from Egypt. In Italy, as also in Gaul,
it was chiefly Antonian in character, though both the rules of St. Basil
and St. Pachomius were translated into Latin and doubtless made their
influence felt. As far as we know, each monastery had practically its own
rule, and we have examples of this irresponsible form of monastic life in
the community St. Benedict was called from his cave to govern, and in the
Gyrovagi and Sarabitae whom he mentions in terms of condemnation in the
first chapter of his Rule. A proof that the pervading spirit of Italian
monachism was Egyptian lies in the fact that when St. Benedict determined
to forsake the world and become a monk, he adopted, almost as a matter of
course, the life of a solitary in a cave. His familiarity with the rules
and other documents bearing upon the life of the Egyptian monks is shown by
his legislating for the daily reading of the "Conferences" of Cassian, and
by his recommendation (c. 73) of the "Institutes" and "Lives" of the
Fathers and the Rule of St. Basil.
When, therefore, St. Benedict came to write his own Rule for the
monasteries he had founded, he embodied in it the result of his own mature
experience and observation. He had himself lived the life of a solitary
after the most extreme Egyptian pattern, and in his first communities he
had no doubt thoroughly tested the prevailing type of monastic rule. Being
fully cognizant, therefore, of the unsuitability of much in the Egyptian
systems to the times and circumstances in which he lived, he now struck out
on a new line, and instead of attempting to revivify the old forms of
asceticism, he consolidated the cenobitical life, emphasized the family
spirit, and discouraged all private venture in austerities. His Rule thus
consists of a carefully considered combination of old and new ideas;
rivalry in austerity was eliminated, and there was to be henceforth a
sinking of the individual in the community. In adapting a system
essentially Eastern, to Western conditions, St. Benedict gave it coherence,
stability, and organization, and the verdict of history is unanimous in
applauding the results of such adaptation.
II. ANALYSIS OF THE RULE
Of the seventy-three chapters comprising the Rule, nine treat of the duties
of the abbot, thirteen regulate the worship of God, twenty-nine are
concerned with discipline and the penal code, ten refer to the internal
administration of the monastery, and the remaining twelve consist of
The Rule opens with a prologue or hortatory preface, in which St. Benedict
sets forth the main principles of the religious life, viz.: the
renunciation of one's own will and the taking up of arms under the banner
of Christ. He proposes to establish a "school" in which the science of
salvation shall be taught, so that by persevering in the monastery till
death his disciples may "deserve to become partakers of Christ's kingdom".
* In Chapter 1 are defined the four principle kinds of monks: (1)
Cenobites, those living in a monastery under an abbot; (2) Anchorites,
or hermits, living a solitary life after long probation in the
monastery; (3) Sarabites, living by twos and threes together, without
any fixed rule or lawfully constituted superior; and (4) Gyrovagi, a
species of monastic vagrants, whose lives spent in wandering from one
monastery to another, only served to bring discredit on the monastic
profession. It is for the first of these classes, as the most stable
kind, that the Rule is written.
* Chapter 2 describes the necessary qualifications of an abbot and
forbids him to make distinction of persons in the monastery except for
particular merit, warning him at the same time that he will be
answerable for the salvation of the souls committed to his care.
* Chapter 3 ordains the calling of the brethren to council upon all
affairs of importance to the community.
* Chapter 4 summarizes the duties of the Christian life under
seventy-two precepts, which are called "instruments of good works" and
are mainly Scriptural either in letter or in spirit.
* Chapter 5 prescribes prompt, cheerful, and absolute obedience to the
superior in all things lawful, which obedience is called the first
degree of humility.
* Chapter 6 deals with silence, recommending moderation in the use of
speech, but by no means prohibiting profitable or necessary
* Chapter 7 treats of humility, which virtue is divided into twelve
degrees or steps in the ladder that leads to heaven. They are: (1)
fear of God; (2) repression of self-will; (3) submission of the will
to superiors; (4) obedience in hard and difficult matters; (5)
confession of faults; (6) acknowledgment of one's own worthlessness;
(7) preference of others to self; (8) avoidance of singularity; (9)
speaking only in due season; (10) stifling of unseemly laughter; (11)
repression of pride; (12) exterior humility.
* Chapters 9-19 are occupied with the regulation of the Divine Office,
the opus Dei to which "nothing is to be preferred", or Canonical
Hours, seven of the day and one of the night. Detailed arrangements
are made as to the number of Psalms, etc., to be recited in winter and
summer, on Sundays, weekdays, Holy Days, and at other times.
* Chapter 19 emphasizes the reverence due to the presence of God.
* Chapter 20 directs that prayer in common be short.
* Chapter 21 provides for the appointment of deans over every ten monks,
and prescribes the manner in which they are to be chosen.
* Chapter 22 regulates all matters relating to the dormitory, as, for
example, that each monk is to have a separate bed and is to sleep in
his habit, so as to be ready to rise without delay, and that a light
shall burn in the dormitory throughout the night.
* Chapter 23-30 deal with offences against the Rule and a graduated
scale of penalties is provided: first, private admonition; next,
public reproof; then separation from the brethren at meals and
elsewhere; then scourging; and finally expulsion; though this last is
not to be resorted to until every effort to reclaim the offender has
failed. And even in this last case, the outcast must be received
again, should he so desire, but after the third expulsion all return
is finally barred.
* Chapter 31 and 32 order the appointment of a cellarer and other
officials, to take charge of the various goods of the monastery, which
are to be treated with as much care as the consecrated vessels of the
* Chapter 33 forbids the private possession of anything without the
leave of the abbot, who is, however, bound to supply all necessaries.
* Chapter 34 prescribes a just distribution of such things.
* Chapter 35 arranges for the service in the kitchen by all monks in
* Chapter 36 and 37 order due care for the sick, the old, and the young.
They are to have certain dispensations from the strict Rule, chiefly
in the matter of food.
* Chapter 38 prescribes reading aloud during meals, which duty is to be
performed by such of the brethren, week by week, as can do so with
edification to the rest. Signs are to be used for whatever may be
wanted at meals, so that no voice shall interrupt that of the reader.
The reader is to have his meal with the servers after the rest have
finished, but he is allowed a little food beforehand in order to
lessen the fatigue of reading.
* Chapter 39 and 40 regulate the quantity and quality of the food. Two
meals a day are allowed and two dished of cooked food at each. A pound
of bread also and a hemina (probably about half a pint) of wine for
each monk. Flesh-meat is prohibited except for the sick and the weak,
and it is always within the abbot's power to increase the daily
allowance when he sees fit.
* Chapter 41 prescribes the hours of the meals, which are to vary
according to the time of year.
* Chapter 42 enjoins the reading of the "Conferences" of Cassian or some
other edifying book in the evening before Compline and orders that
after Compline the strictest silence shall be observed until the
* Chapters 43-46 relate to minor faults, such as coming late to prayer
or meals, and impose various penalties for such transgressions.
* Chapter 47 enjoins on the abbot the duty of calling the brethren to
the "world of God" in choir, and of appointing those who are to chant
* Chapter 48 emphasizes the importance of manual labour and arranges
time to be devoted to it daily. This varies according to the season,
but is apparently never less than about five hours a day. The times at
which the lesser of the "day-hours" (Prime, Terce, Sext, and None) are
to be recited control the hours of labour somewhat, and the abbot is
instructed not only to see that all work, but also that the
employments of each are suited to their respective capacities.
* Chapter 49 treats of the observance of Lent, and recommends some
voluntary self-denial for that season, with the abbot's sanction.
* Chapters 50 and 51 contain rules for monks who are working in the
fields or traveling. They are directed to join in spirit, as far as
possible, with their brethren in the monastery at the regular hours of
* Chapter 52 commands that the oratory be used for purposes of devotion
* Chapter 53 is concerned with the treatment of guests, who are to be
received "as Christ Himself". This Benedictine hospitality is a
feature which has in all ages been characteristic of the order. The
guests are to be met with due courtesy by the abbot or his deputy, and
during their stay they are to be under the special protection of a
monk appointed for the purpose, but they are not to associate with the
rest of the community except by special permission.
* Chapter 54 forbids the monks to receive letters or gifts without the
* Chapter 55 regulates the clothing of the monks. It is to be sufficient
in both quantity and quality and to be suited to the climate and
locality, according to the discretion of the abbot, but at the same
time it must be as plain and cheap as is consistent with due economy.
Each monk is to have a change of garments, to allow for washing, and
when traveling shall be supplied with clothes of rather better
quality. The old habits are to be put aside for the poor.
* Chapter 56 directs that the abbot shall take his meals with the
* Chapter 57 enjoins humility on the craftsmen of the monastery, and if
their work is for sale, it shall be rather below than above the
current trade price.
* Chapter 58 lays down rules for the admission of new members, which is
not to be made too easy. These matters have since been regulated by
the Church, but in the main St. Benedict's outline is adhered to. The
postulant first spends a short time as a guest; then he is admitted to
the novitiate, where under the care of a novice-master, his vocation
is severely tested; during this time he is always free to depart. If
after twelve month' probation, he still persevere, he may be admitted
to the vows of Stability, Conversion of Life, and Obedience, by which
he binds himself for life to the monastery of his profession.
* Chapter 59 allows the admission of boys to the monastery under certain
* Chapter 60 regulates the position of priests who may desire to join
the community. They are charged with setting an example of humility to
all, and can only exercise their priestly functions by permission of
* Chapter 61 provides for the reception of strange monks as guests, and
for their admission if desirous of joining the community.
* Chapter 62 lays down that precedence in the community shall be
determined by the date of admission, merit of life, or the appointment
of the abbot.
* Chapter 64 orders that the abbot be elected by his monks and that he
be chosen for his charity, zeal, and discretion.
* Chapter 65 allows the appointment of a provost, or prior, if need be,
but warns such a one that he is to be entirely subject to the abbot
and may be admonished, deposed, or expelled for misconduct.
* Chapter 66 provides for the appointment of a porter, and recommends
that each monastery should be, if possible, self-contained, so as to
avoid the need of intercourse with the outer world.
* Chapter 67 gives instruction as to the behavior of a monk who is sent
on a journey.
* Chapter 68 orders that all shall cheerfully attempt to do whatever is
commanded them, however hard it may seem.
* Chapter 69 forbids the monks to defend one another.
* Chapter 70 prohibits them from striking one another.
* Chapter 71 encourages the brethren to be obedient not only to the
abbot and his officials, but also to one another.
* Chapter 72 is a brief exhortation to zeal and fraternal charity
* Chapter 73 is an epilogue declaring that this Rule is not offered as
an ideal of perfection, but merely as a means towards godliness and is
intended chiefly for beginners in the spiritual life.
Characteristics of the Rule
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. We see these qualities displayed in the
deliberate elimination of austerities and in the concessions made with
regard to what the monks of Egypt would have looked upon as luxuries. A few
comparisons between the customs of these latter and the prescriptions of
St. Benedict's Rule will serve to bring out more clearly the extent of his
changes in this direction.
With regard to food, the Egyptian ascetics reduced it to a minimum, many of
them eating only twice or thrice a week, whilst Cassian describes a meal
consisting of parched vetches with salt and oil. three olives, two prunes,
and a fig, as a "sumptuous repast" (Coll. vii, 1). St. Benedict, on the
other hand, though he restricts the use of flesh-meat to the sick, orders a
pound of bread daily and two dishes of cooked food at each meal, of which
there were two in summer and one in winter. And he concedes also an
allowance of wine, though admitting that it should not properly be the
drink of monks (Chapter 40). As to clothing, St. Benedict's provision that
habits were to fit, to be sufficiently warm, and not too old, was in great
contrast to the poverty of the Egyptian monks, whose clothes, Abbot Pambo
laid down, should be so poor that if left on the road no one would be
tempted to take them (Apophthegmata, in P.G. LXV, 369). In the matter of
sleep, whereas the solitaries of Egypt regarded diminution as one of their
most valued forms of austerity, St. Benedict ordered from six to eight
hours of unbroken sleep a day, with the addition of a siesta in summer. The
Egyptian monks, moreover, often slept on the bare ground, with stones or
mats for pillows, and often merely sitting or merely reclining, as directed
in the Pachomian Rule, whilst Abbot John was unable to mention without
shame the finding of a blanket in a hermit's cell (Cassian, Coll. xix, 6).
St. Benedict, however, allowed not only a blanket but also a coverlet, a
mattress, and a pillow to each monk. This comparative liberality with
regard to the necessaries of life, though plain and meagre perhaps, if
tested by modern notions of comfort, was far greater than amongst the
Italian poor of the sixth century or even amongst many of the European
peasantry at the present day. St. Benedict's aim seems to have been to keep
the bodies of his monks in a healthy condition by means of proper clothing,
sufficient food, and ample sleep, so that they might thereby be more fit
for the due performance of the Divine Office and be freed from all that
distracting rivalry in asceticism which has already been mentioned. There
was, however, no desire to lower the ideal or to minimize the
self-sacrifice that the adoption of the monastic life entailed, but rather
the intention of bringing it into line with the altered circumstances of
Western environment, which necessarily differed much from those of Egypt
and the East. The wisdom and skill with which he did this is evident in
every page of the Rule, so much so that Bossuet was able to call it "an
epitome of Christianity, a learned and mysterious abridgement of all the
doctrines of the Gospel, all the institutions of the Fathers, and all the
Counsels of Perfection".
St. Benedict perceived the necessity for a permanent and uniform rule of
government in place of the arbitrary and variable choice of models
furnished by the lives and maxims of the Fathers of the Desert. And so we
have the characteristic of collectivism, exhibited in his insistence on the
common life, as opposed to the individualism of the Egyptian monks. One of
the objects he had in view in writing his Rule was the extirpation of the
Sarabites and Gyrovagi, whom he so strongly condemns in his first chapter
and of whose evil lives he had probably had painful experience during his
early days at Subiaco. To further this aim he introduced the vow of
Stability, which becomes the guarantee of success and permanence. It is
only another example of the family idea that pervaded the entire Rule, by
means of which the members of the community are bound together by a family
tie, and each takes upon himself the obligation of persevering in his
monastery until death, unless sent elsewhere by his superiors. It secures
to the community as a whole, and to every member of it individually, a
share in all the fruits that may arise from the labours of each monk, and
it gives to each of them that strength and vitality which necessarily
result from being one of a united family, all bound in a similar way and
all pursuing the same end. Thus, whatever the monk does, he does it not as
an independent individual but as part of a larger organization, and the
community itself thus becomes one united whole rather than a mere
agglomeration of independent members. The vow of Conversion of Life
indicates the personal striving after perfection that must be the aim of
every Benedictine monk. All the legislation of the Rule, the constant
repression of self, the conforming of one's every action to a definite
standard, and the continuance of this form of life to the end of one's
days, is directed towards "putting off the old man and putting on the new",
and thereby accomplishing the conversio morum which is inseparable from a
life-long perseverance in the maxims of the Rule. The practice of obedience
is a necessary feature in St. Benedict's idea of the religious life, if not
indeed its very essence. Not only is a special chapter of the Rule devoted
to it, but it is repeatedly referred to as a guiding principle in the life
of the monk; so essentials it that it is the subject of a special vow in
every religious institute, Benedictine or otherwise. In St. Benedict's eyes
it is one of the positive works to which the monk binds himself, for he
calls it labor obedientiae (Prologue). It is to be cheerful, unquestioning,
and prompt; to the abbot chiefly, who is to be obeyed as holding the place
of Christ, and also to all the brethren according to the dictates of
fraternal charity, as being "the path that leads to God" (Chapter 71). It
is likewise extended to hard and even impossible things, the latter being
at least attempted in all humility. In connexion with the question of
obedience there is the further question as to the system of government
embodied in the Rule. The life of the community centres round the abbot as
the father of the family. Much latitude with regard to details is left to
"discretion and judgement", but this power, so far from being absolute or
unlimited, is safeguarded by the obligation laid upon him of consulting the
brethren - either the seniors only or else the entire community - upon all
matters affecting their welfare. And on the other hand, wherever there
seems to be a certain amount of liberty left to the monks themselves, this,
in turn, is protected against indiscretion by the repeated insistence on
the necessity for the abbot's sanction and approval. The vows of Poverty
and Chastity, though not explicitly mentioned by St. Benedict, as in the
rules of other orders, are yet implied so clearly as to form an
indisputable and essential part of the life for which he legislates. Thus
by means of the vows and the practice of the various virtues necessary to
their proper observance, it will be seen that St. Benedict's Rule contains
not merely a series of laws regulating the external details of monastic
life, but also all the principles of perfection according to the
With regard to the obligation or binding power of the Rule, we must
distinguish between the statutes or precepts and the counsels. By the
former would be meant those laws which either command or prohibit in an
absolute manner, and by the latter those that are merely recommendations.
It is generally held by commentators that the precepts of the Rule bind
only under the penalty of venial sin, and the counsels not even under that.
Really grave transgressions against the vows, on the other hand, would fall
under the category of mortal sins. It must be remembered, however, that in
all these matters the principles of moral theology, canon law, the
decisions of the Church, and the regulations of the Constitutions of the
different congregations must be taken into consideration in judging of any
III. PRACTICAL WORKING OF THE RULE
No higher testimony as to the inherent excellencies of the Rule can be
adduced than the results it has achieved in Western Europe and elsewhere;
and no more striking quality is exhibited by it than by its adaptability to
the ever-changing requirements of time and place since St. Benedict's days.
Its enduring character is the highest testimony to its wisdom. For fourteen
centuries it has been the guiding light of a numerous family of religious,
men and women, and it is a living code at the present day, just as it was a
thousand years ago. Though modified and adapted, from time to time, to suit
the peculiar necessities and conditions of various ages and countries, by
reason of its wonderful elasticity its principles still remain the same,
and it has formed the fundamental basis of a great variety of other
religious bodies. It has merited the encomiums of councils, popes, and
commentators, and its vitality is as vigorous at the present time as it was
in the ages of faith. Though it was no part of St. Benedict's design that
his spiritual descendants should make a figure in the world as authors or
statesmen, as preservers of pagan literature, as pioneers of civilization,
as revivers of agriculture, or as builders of castles and cathedrals, yet
circumstances brought them into all these spheres. His sole idea was the
moral and spiritual training of his disciples, and yet in carrying this out
he made the cloister a school of useful workers, a real refuge for society,
and a solid bulwark of the Church (Dudden, Gregory the Great, II, ix). The
Rule, instead of restricting the monk to one particular form of work, makes
it possible for him to do almost any kind of work, and that in a manner
spiritualized and elevated above the labour of merely secular craftsmen. In
this lies one of the secrets of its success.
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.
It is true that as communities became rich and consequently less dependent
upon their own labours for support, the primitive fervour for the Rule
diminished, and for this reason charges of corruption and absolute
departure from monastic ideals have been made against monks. But, although
it is impossible to deny that the many reforms that were initiated seem to
give colour to this view, it cannot be admitted that the Benedictine
Institute, as a whole, ever became really degenerate or fell away seriously
from the ideal established by its legislator. Individual failures there
certainly were, as well as mitigations of rule, from time to time, but the
loss of fervour in one particular monastery no more compromises all the
other monasteries of the same country than the faults of one individual
monk reflect necessarily upon the rest of the community to which he
belongs. So, whilst admitting that the rigour of the Rule has varied at
different times and in different places, we must, on the other hand,
remember that modern historical research has entirely exonerated the
monastic body as a whole from the charge of a general departure from the
principles of the Rule and a widespread corruption of either ideal or
practice. Circumstances have often rendered mitigations necessary but they
have always been introduced as such and not as new or better
interpretations of the Rule itself. The fact that the Benedictines still
glory in their Rule, guard it with jealousy, and point to it as the
exemplar according to which they are endeavouring to model their lives, is
in itself the strongest proof that they are still imbued with its spirit,
though recognizing its latitude of application and its adaptability to
MONTALAMBERT, Monks of the West (Tr., London, 1896), IV; TOSTI, St.
Benedict, tr. Woods (London, 1896); DOYLE, The Teaching of St. Benedict
(London,1887); DUDDEN, Gregory the Great (London, 1905); BUTLER Lausiac
History of Palladius, Introd., XIX in Cambridge Texts and Studies
(Cambridge, 1898); IDEM, The Text of St. Benedict's Rule, in Downside
Review, XVII, 223; and in Journal of Theol. Studies, III, 458; BESSE, Le
Moine Bénédictine (Ligué], 1898); HAEFTEN, Disquisitiones Monasticae
(Antwerp, 1644); SCHMIDT, Regula Scti. Benedicit (Rtatisbon, 1880, 1892);
WOELFFLIN, Benedicti Regula Monachorum (Leipzig, 1895); TRAUBE,
Textgeschicte der Regula S. Benedicti (Munich 1898).
COMMENTARIES: WARNEFRID (Monte Cassino, 1880); MÈGE (Paris, 1687); MARTÈNE
(Paris, 1690); also in P.L. LXVI; CALMET (Paris, 1734); MABILLON, Prefaces
to Acta Sanctorum O.S.B. (Venice, 1733).
ENGLISH TRANSLATIONS OF THE RULE: ANONYMOUS (Ramsgate, 1872; Rome, 1895);
DOYLE, ed. (London, 1875); VERHEYEN (Atchison, Kansas, 1906); HUNTER-BLAIR
(Fort Augustus, Scotland, 1906).
G. CYPRIAN ALSTON
Transcribed by Robert Gordon
In Memory of Clifford A Gordon
From the Catholic Encyclopedia, copyright (c) 1913 by the Encyclopedia Press,
Inc. Electronic version copyright (c) 1996 by New Advent, Inc., P.O. Box
281096, Denver, Colorado, USA, 80228. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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