One of the perks of being Novice Master is that in the course of introducing the novice to the monastic life you are yourself exposed once again to the richness of Benedictine spirituality. Let me share some thoughts that came up in my class with Br. Thomas this week as we started studying how to interpret and apply the Rule of Benedict (RB) in the 21st century. We were using a book by Michael Casey OCSO, entitled “Introducing Benedict’s Rule,” a guide for monastics in the process of formation. The following is lifted from page 20, with and without quotation marks.
“The capacity of the RB to enhance the consciousness of modern readers is grounded in the fact that it proposes and alternative perspective to that normally adopted by them.”
This notion, I thought, might be of interest to non-monks who are attracted to monastic spirituality. In the rest of this post pretend that you're listening in on a discussion between me and Novice Brother Thomas.
Modern folks will often say “A sixth century document can’t be of much practical help to me in my life,” It may just be, however, that the value of the RB today is that it preserves a “memory” of a way of seeing and doing things that is not shaped and governed by contemporary ideology.
Too often we accept uncritically beliefs and values that contribute little or noting to the unfolding of our monastic vocation. The RB reminds us that there is an alternative system to what our culture presents as an absolute. Of course just as it would be hard for a fish to describe water it’s difficult for us to identify and asses the impact of the values we have absorbed in the course of growing up. We take them for granted, they’re self-evident. But if this is true, it’s equally true that we have internalized beliefs and attitudes that work contrary to our monastic vocation, but without knowing it.
Part of monastic formation, then, is to acknowledge these presuppositions and scrutinize them critically so that we can accept, modify or reject them consciously.
This kind of scrutiny works best when it is transcultural, when we allow the views of someone not reared in our culture to percolate through our awareness; then there is the possibility of change. The very strangeness inherent in the RB which at first seems like an obstacle suddenly appears as an asset. It’s good to read something about monastic life that comes form another setting and from a different world. It may challenge us to re-examine aspects of our thought and practice; it may also confirm us in what we believe and do. In either case, studying the RB “will have an impact only to the extent that is acts as an autonomous agent, piercing the habitual shell of our customary positions and causing us to wake up.”
The above remarks were preceded by five principles for reading and interpreting the RB in our day. If you’re interested, here they are in a nutshell.
Principles for Interpreting and Applying the Rule of Benedict in the Present Day
(Michael Casey, OCSO, David Tomlins OCSO Introducing Benedict’s Rule, 15-21)
I RB Does not govern directly the community’s way of living
RB acts indirectly on the monastic community by affecting the hearts and minds of each individual monk.
RB offers a personal and communal sense of the vision of the monastic call.
RB is not a series of decisions made for present communities by someone 1500 years ago. Monasteries are governed by other legislation, especially their “Constitutions”
II We must take into account RB’s historical, cultural and linguistic characteristics:
A. RB’s 5th-century approach to monastic life is fundamentally foreign to our way of thinking.
B. Some areas are obscure or even wrong: corporal punishment, prohibition of laughter, downgrading of individual initiative
C. We must rely on the help of scholars to help us to interpret the historical situation understand the wide cultural differences in mindsets, vocabulary, etc.
III RB is part of a living tradition
Benedict wrote RB to help make the monastic tradition a living reality in the situation in which he lived. The tradition did not stop or become set in concrete with Benedict!
Present day monks continue living the tradition, and find RB meaningful on the level of principles and values, not in its detailed prescriptions.
IV Not all aspects of the thought of RB are worthwhile for us.
Some of RB’s elements are local, others are basic principles that can be applied everywhere. We should expect that some parts of RB will be simply inapplicable nowadays. Remember that Benedict himself changed some parts of the tradition in writing the RB.
V You can understand the RB more easily when you are committed to the program of which the RB is part.
Beyond the written word of RB, the other way of getting to Benedict’s thought is through the tradition that stems from him and continues down to today in the actual practice of the RB. You must be in contact with the living tradition in order to truly understand the RB.