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The Rule of St Benedict

The document organising both the practical and spiritual aspects of our life is the Rule of St Benedict. Benedict was a young nobleman born in Nursia, Italy c. 480. He soon abandoned his literary studies begun in Rome to lead a solitary life. With more and more disciples gathering around him, he founded monasteries in Subiaco and then the great monastery of Monte Cassino, where he died in 547. During his lifetime, he wrote a rule organising the monks' daily life and guiding their spirituality. Pope St Gregory the Great, who recounted Benedict's life in his Dialogues, highlighted his discretion, i.e. his concern for moderation in all things. St Benedict intends that an abbot should govern his monastery so that “the strong have something to yearn for and the weak have nothing to run from” (ch. 64).

Apart from organising the practical details of a monk’s life, the Rule describes monastic virtues such as obedience, humility and the spirit of silence. It organises in detail the monastic liturgy, which St Benedict calls the Opus Dei (Work of God). The liturgy is at the heart of a monk's life.

St Benedict attaches great importance to the abbot, who represents Christ in the monastery. He therefore states that the abbot should be wise and of exemplary doctrine. St Benedict warns the abbot that he is responsible for his disciples' obedience. He must therefore do everything to lead his disciples on the path to holiness, striving to be “loved rather than feared” (ch. 64).

The Rule concludes with a couple of chapters representing the quintessence of St Benedict's thought. They stress the charity that should unite the monks: they must bear patiently one another's failings and be obedient to one another. Each monk should seek to honour his fellow monks, choosing what is good for them rather than what is good for himself (ch. 72).

But the Rule is not an end in itself. St Benedict himself says that it is only a “little rule that we have written for beginners” (ch. 73). It sets a monk on the right path, opening his heart and mind to a vast, unending programme of growth in doctrine and virtue. With God’s grace, a monk who puts all this into practice will reach the heavenly homeland to which he is hastening.

In accordance with St Benedict's wishes (ch. 66), we read the entire Rule three times a year. The abbot comments on it every evening at the community meeting in the chapter house before Compline.