Daily Meditations on the Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter 1

To be read: January 9, May 9, September 9

[Here begins the text of the Rule:  It is called a rule because it regulates the lives of those who obey it.]

It is well known that there are four kinds of monks. 2The first kind is that of Cenobites, that is, the monastics, who live under a rule and an Abbot.  3The second kind is that of Anchorites, or Hermits. They have come through the test of living in a monastery and passed beyond the first fervor of their conversion, 4but taught by long monastic practice and the help of many brethren, have already learned to fight against the devil. 5And going forth from the rank of their brethren, well trained for single combat in the desert, they are able, with the help of God, to cope single-handedly without the help of others, against the vices of the flesh and evil thoughts. 6But a third and most vile class of monks is that of Sarabaites, who are untried by any rule under the hand of a master, as gold is tried in the fire (cf Prov 27:21); but, soft as lead, 7they are still loyal to the world by their works, and clearly lie to God by their tonsure. 8Living in two’s or three’s, or even singly, without a shepherd, enclosed, not in the Lord’s sheepfold, but in their own, the gratification of their selfish desires is their law; 9because what they choose to do they call holy, but what they dislike they hold to be unlawful. 10But the fourth class of monks is that called Gyrovagues, who wander their whole life long from one place to another, staying three or four days at a time in different monasteries as guests. 11Always roving and never settled, they indulge their passions and the cravings of their appetite, and are in every way worse than the Sarabaites. 12It is better to keep talk of all these silent rather than to speak of their most wretched life. 13Therefore, passing these over, let us go on with the help of the Lord to lay down a rule for that most valiant kind of monks, the Cenobites. 

It is interesting that St. Benedict begins his Rule with this description of the types of monks.  Why?  If he is following the “Rule of the Master”, then that is the answer, for the “Master” begins his rule here.  However, Benedict strays from his long-winded predecessor at will, omitting almost two-thirds of the Master’s content.  And if this is important information to be included in the Rule, why chapter 1?  Benedict is setting the mark for his target audience—those who have chosen the better way.  Benedict says that the purpose of the Rule is “to lay down a rule for that most valiant kind of monks, the Cenobites.”  This then begs the question for those of us who are not cenobites:  What relevance does this Rule have for us?  Are we to be labeled then as one of the other three types?  Not at all.  (For a fuller description of the four types of monk, see my previous meditations on the Rule. You can find those at https://www.cotres.org/fsb-meditations.) 

Those who are committed to the genuine pursuit of Christ need guidance, direction, and a rule of life that promotes the righteous life in Christ.  To chose to live in the world is a battle of its own, and sets us in the forefront of spiritual warfare.  How do we maintain fidelity to Christ and His Church, stability of discipline, and obedience to the Word and the authority of the Church while not succumbing to or living life for the world?  It is a challenge.  The Rule of Saint Benedict offers the guidance that we need to succeed and be victorious.  In the more than 1500 years of its use in the Church, the RSB has been utilized as the model for every monastic rule in the Western Church.  It is a divine gift to the Church, a guidepost for those on the pilgrimage to Christ’s Kingdom.  And in this generation there is a genuine need for greater discipline for those who love Christ.  We need one another.  We need constant encouragement as we combat the forces waging war against the Church and her saints.  The RSB offers that model for us as well as for the cenobites.

There have been moves in other corners of the Church to revive Benedictine spirituality.  For example, Rod Dreher wrote the book The Benedict Option which presents an alternate vision for the Church based on the RSB.  But Dreher’s and others’ perspectives tend toward isolation from the world—a siege fortress mentality.  But we are called to live in the world, not of the world, in order to transform the world, to bring the transforming light of Christ to the world.  Living lives in accordance with the RSB while maintaining our place in the secular community is a huge challenge.

The challenge of this first chapter, then, is to recognize that our father Benedict is calling all of us to discover who we are in Christ Jesus.  It is the task of all faithful followers to be found in Him and allow Him to lead us through the trials and temptations of life in the world.  As followers of Christ and the Rule of St. Benedict we accept that challenge and like other followers over the past 1500 years we will find sure guidance in Benedict’s “little rule” (RB 73:8).  As he states in the note before chapter one, “It is called a rule because it regulates the lives of those who obey it.”

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