The Rule of Benedict

Have you ever read a book that suddenly begins reading you, that walks right through you, and leaves you irrevocably changed when it has wrung you out? Such books, for me, have been The Idiot of Dostoievsky, Thomas Mann’s Joseph and his Brothers, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. There even have been some specifically religious books: Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, St Augustine’s Confession, The Gospel of St John, The Song of Songs. So, when I came to read The Rule of Benedict 35 years ago for the first time, it was the most disappointing book. I found it flat, dull, forbidding. I had a similar experience with Aristotle’s Ethics and the Summa Theologiae of Aquinas. Deep boredom as I waded through apparent banality. I later understood that the reason for this initial attitude is that these books are not really books at all. They are the warp and woof of life as I was born into it. They formed the shape and fabric of the cultural shelter woven around me.

Not a book at all, but a book about the book of your own life. How to have that script written for you by God, if you are prepared to waive your rights of authorship: The Rule of Benedict can make this happen. It is not something to read, it is something to be done. So, describing it is like describing how to play Scrabble or Monopoly or Snooker, complicated and tedious until you know how to play. Or describing a trellis, a lattice, a runway: anything that exists to allow something else, something other than itself, to happen. A structure to promote growth, to put some order into abundance, to help you to take off and fly. A form which teaches you to do without it: showing that all form is empty; all emptiness, form.

Books about how to write books are now an overweight industry. Shops stock dozens; some have special sections or shelves. In 1919 a very slim volume called The Elements of Style appeared in the United States. I think it was written for people in the army. Its purpose was to give you the facts without any frills. It was written by a professor of Cornell University whose motto was ‘No needless words.’ He called it a ‘little’ book, stressing the word ‘little’ with cunning effacement, as a gifted athlete might put a spin on the ball. He was always full of deep sympathy for the reader, knowing that most of us are in serious trouble all the time, floundering in a swamp. And the job of a writer was to drain that swamp as quickly as possible and let the reader walk on dry ground. Half a century later a student of his resurrected this little book, his parvum opus which summarized the case for cleanliness, accuracy and brevity in the use of English. This year, 1999, which is 80 years later, the tiny book by Strunk and White, which cut the vast tangle of English rhetoric down to size and wrote its rules and principles on the head of a pin, remains an unrivalled classic. ‘For sheer pith it sets a record unlikely to be broken, as the blurb says, ‘and in a drafty time it stands erect, resolute and assured.’

What more could one say about The Rule of Benedict, which the author also calls ‘a little rule for beginners’?  It too concerns the elements of style, but a style of life for those interested in living with and in God. Benedict also was a keen and compassionate observer of human nature. He realized that people are weak, that people fail, and yet he believed that they were able to measure up to this challenge. This is a no-nonsense, unembroidered hand-book for those who want to join the rewarding school of the Lord’s service. Any unusual calling, whether you choose to be an athlete, an academic or an astronaut, requires training and discipline. Benedict knows that too. But he refuses to lay down anything harsh or burdensome just to impress the monastic weight-watchers. If there is any strictness in his rule it is to correct faults and to safeguard love. Benedict emphasizes the importance of both the human person and relationships between persons living together. He has the natural psychologist’s sureness of touch when arbitrating between conflicting interests in human affairs. His rule contains directions for all aspects of community life, but there is an inbuilt diffidence and flexibility allowing for adaptation to different countries, climates, centuries: which is why it has lasted for over 14 hundred years. It has carried, almost unconsciously, the wisdom of Christianity throughout the Dark Ages, when anything more articulate or less durable might have perished. It had a seminal influence on European history, providing the sanest and simplest infrastructure for community living, cooperative work, and communal prayer. The rule of Benedict is as genial for what it leaves out as for what it puts in. It is not devotional, decorative, nor diffuse. Food for the desert: pemmican rather than puff pastries. The lowest common multiple of monasticism and, at the same time, quintessentially distilled wisdom of the mystical East. It combines the genius of Rome for legislation with the Christian flair for personal touch. It has the beauty of a simple yet effective metal container, to which it takes time to warm and adjust. The community which forms this complex tapestry would fray, stretch, tear and break without this delicate container. Poetry, as always, says it more accurately than prose:

And here is love
like a tinsmith’s scoop
sunk past its gleam
in the meal-bin.