The Spirit of Benedictine Life

December 19, 2007

The Spirit of Benedictine Life

“May my ways be firm in the observance of your laws”

“Do not be daunted immediately
by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation.
It is bound to be narrow at the outset.”
(The Rule of St. Benedict, Prologue, verse 48)

The Following extract is taken from the “Christ in the Desert Monastery” Website


What is Benedictine spirituality? For that matter is there really such a thing as a spiritual lifestyle and philosophy based upon the teachings of St. Benedict?

In attempting to answer this it must first be made clear that the only existing document we have penned by him is a fairly modest volume, his Rule. On even a cursory examination, it can be discerned that the author frequently refers the reader back to the Bible. This is the key, for there most certainly is a “Benedictine” life, with this same Rule as the cornerstone of a spirituality that is practiced on every continent of the world by thousands of monks, nuns, sisters and lay persons. The work begun in the early years of the sixth century, and expanded and perfected at Monte Cassino is nothing if not a fulfilment of the promise, “seek first the kingdom [of God] and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you…” (Mtt. 6:33). Benedict sought God and the perfect service of God, and to this end every precept of the Rule was directed. Yet what is so unique about these teachings is not so much the content, for many others have espoused living in imitation of Christ, but their interpretation of this message.

Of one hundred twenty-six biblical citations to be found in the Rule, there are fifty-five from books of the New Testament, and seventy-one from the Old Testament. Of these seventy-one, fifty are taken directly from the Psalms. It is not for nothing that the Psalter has been called the prayer book of the Benedictines. This then is the pool from which Benedict fished his spiritual life and teachings. It is from this same source that he intended we draw our strength, that we might through perseverance discover both the desire and necessary stamina to proceed in the way of the Gospel. This is the challenge put before us by St. Benedict.

For those seeking an introduction to our way of life, it could be proposed that the spiritual path of perfection as delineated by St. Benedict is outlined most eloquently in the Prologue to the Rule and in the chapter concerning humility. This chapter, the seventh, is by far the longest and in many ways the first among equals, for it presents a virtue that must by definition include all others. It is in confronting humility that we are forced, often against our own will, to couple it first with obedience, and then with good zeal, etc., etc., until the canon is complete. Ultimately we find that all the virtues are so closely linked that, when properly interwoven, they produce a truly indestructible fabric; prayer is the loom on which this cloth is crafted by the monk. He understands this intrinsically, for without this final element self-will would forever retain mastery over him.

It is in chapter 7 of the Rule that Benedict provides us with the metaphor of a twelve-step ladder, kindling in us the desire to “attain speedily that exaltation in heaven to which we climb by the humility of this present life” for which “by our own ascending actions we must set up that ladder on which Jacob in a dream saw angels ascending and descending (Gen.28:12).” (RB 7:6)

Benedict then describes precisely what each step represents and, by so doing provides us not only with an exquisite example of Judeo-Christian symbology on which to meditate, but also a dozen profound lessons in daily living, applicable to monk and lay person alike.

The chapter begins with the exhortation, “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk. 14:11), and quickly builds on this premise, both admonishing us and placing us as individuals within a context: “Lord, my heart is not proud; nor are my eyes haughty. I do not busy myself with great matters, with things too sublime for me. Rather, I have stilled my soul, hushed it like a weaned child. Like a weaned child on its mother’s lap, so is my soul within me.”
(Ps. 131:1)


A first faltering step is taken when a monk consciously obeys all of God’s commandments, never ignoring them but always holding within himself a fear of God in his heart, for “your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”
(Matt. 6:10)

Benedict then warns that we must always beware of what may be said to us in the future, lest we should through negligence fall into evil ways and become useless: “when you do these things, should I be silent?”
(Ps. 49[50])


Our second step is achieved when one thinks not about pleasing himself but instead follows the injunction of the Lord, “I came…not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me”
(Jn. 6:38)


The third step is reached when out of love of God, one obediently submits to a superior in imitation of the Lord, for “he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death…”
(Phil. 2:8)

Such obedience is at the heart of the Benedictine spirit. The obedience a monk shows to his Abbot, and not exclusively to the Abbot but also to his seniors and, for that matter to all his brothers, is an indication that he is actively seeking to do God’s will. In the Benedictine tradition the abbot of a monastery holds the place of Christ, much as a bishop does in his diocese. For the monk, his superior is the father of his particular house of God. For this reason, Benedict gave pride of place in his Rule to the qualities that each individual abbot must possess, spelling them out in exhaustive detail at the beginning of chapter 2. By comparison, chapter 1 is but a short treatise on the varieties of monks and is quickly dispensed with. So seriously did Benedict consider the abbatial position that he did not hesitate to warn, “he should keep in mind that he has undertaken the care of souls for whom he must give an account” (RB 2:34). The saint adds that the abbot must be led to realize that any lack of good in his monks will be laid at his doorstep.

Benedict also demonstrates his understanding of human frailties when, after instructing the monk to obey the abbot’s commands in all things, he remarks that should he (the abbot) himself stray from his own path the monks under him should “do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but do not practice.” (Matt. 23:3)


The fourth step is achieved when a monk, under obedience, patiently and quietly endures all things that are inflicted on him. It should make no difference whether the trials are painful, unjust or even completely beyond his understanding; he should neither tire nor give up. “Whoever endures to the end will be saved”(Matt. 10:22). To this Benedict adds the consoling promise, “in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us”
(Rom. 8:37)


The fifth step is reached when a monk humbly discloses to his superior all the evil thoughts in his heart as well as those faults and evil acts he has actually committed. Benedict urges us to “give thanks to the Lord, who is good, whose love endures forever.”
(Ps. 106:1)


To achieve the sixth step a monk must without qualms accept all that is crude and harsh; at all times he considers himself a poor and worthless workman.


The seventh step is attained when a monk not only confesses that he is an inferior and common wretch, but believes it to his very core. He must be willing to humble himself and claim with the prophet that he is “a worm, hardly human, scorned by everyone, despised by the people” (Ps. 22:7) and that “it was good for me to be afflicted, in order to learn your laws.” (Ps. 118[119]:71)


A monk reaches the eighth step of humility when he does only that which is demanded by the common rule of the monastery or by his seniors.


The ninth step can be achieved when a monk, practicing silence, only speaks when asked a question, for “where words are many, sin is not wanting; but he who restrains his lips does well.”
(Prov. 10:19)

The monk is here reminded that humility at all times entails the control of not only his thoughts but also of his tongue. Benedict was extremely aware of the ease in which one inflicts injury through careless chatter. A monk is instructed to use his powers of speech in order to encourage his brothers.


The tenth step is climbed when a monk restrains himself from undue laughter and frivolity.

Benedict firmly believed that a monk should always remain focused on his calling and upon the reason for his calling.


To reach the eleventh step a monk must speak gently, without jests, but simply, seriously, tersely, rationally and softly.

It is only through silence and limited speech that we are able to listen to God with the ear of our hearts; only thus can we be attentive to his divine presence in our monasteries and in our lives.


The final step is attained only when a monk can at all times show humility not only in his appearance and actions, but also in his heart.

St. Benedict felt that it is only upon climbing all twelve steps that a monk can hope to find that perfect love of God that casts out fear; only then will he be capable of acting solely out of love for Christ. Indeed the initial fear which may have been necessary as a motivator can inspire the renunciation of all externals, including ownership; this in turn may lead to an inner renunciation that is the very essence of humility. Fear is eliminated by love, which is revealed as the very pinnacle of life on earth: upon successfully climbing the twelve steps one discovers what can only be called an unspeakable respect for God. It is then that his word is listened to with veneration and his law lovingly observed.

Accordingly, the person who fears God “guards himself at every moment from sins and vices.” For Benedict, this struggle against the vices of body and mind is the monk’s greatest task (RB 1:5); the prospect of the amendment of these vices is the greatest hope of the abbot (RB 2:40). The totality of the battle to be constantly waged is emphasized by the saint’s listing of the human elements to be guarded: thoughts, tongue, self-will and fleshly desires.

There is, moreover, one specific fault to be denounced above all others by Benedict: murmuring. In fact in the Prologue he cites Psalm 94[95], “today you would hear his voice; do not harden your hearts”. With this he recalls the entire salvation history of the Israelites. This quotation serves to remind the monk that an entire people+

, chosen and formed by God, ultimately through its murmurings turned away from him, losing its privileges in the process and eventually failing even to recognize its savior. For a Benedictine community this is a lesson to be learned and not forgotten; for us it is a matter of spiritual life and death.

To a student of the Gospel, the exhortation that begins the Prologue to the Rule, “Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of the heart…” can be summed up as an urgent invitation for a return to God. Each of its elements: listening, the call, the promise of true life, is an echo of the cry of Jesus to his contemporaries. It is as a response to this cry that Benedict asks us to seek through prayer, renunciation and a conscious sharing in the sufferings of Christ, a share in his kingdom.

The total spiritual poverty that is demanded of us and to which as monks we must respond without hesitation, is lovingly granted through the Beatitudes. It is, according to the teachings to which we adhere, the door to our own resurrection. It is for this reason we ultimately follow him. After all, who has trodden the path as he has: from his baptism in the Jordan through the trials, misunderstandings and humiliations of rejection, to his glowing obedience to his Father and the final unblinking act of sacrifice. Truly did he say, “I am the Way.”

This is the very heart of biblical spirituality; this is the core of the Benedictine spirit.

All quotations from the Rule of St. Benedict are from RB 1980, Timothy Fry, ed., The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN.

All scripture quotations are from NEW AMERICAN BIBLE, The Confraternity for Christian Doctrine, 1991.