I write poetry from time to time. I don’t often share the results in public, but it is good for my soul. When I do write poetry I always find myself picking a form and sticking to it. I’m not up to writing a sonnet, but having the constraints of rhyme and meter actually help. They rule out certain choices, forcing me to think harder and feel more deeply. The rules I submit to turn prose into poetry.
I think that gets to something of what Benedict thought having a “rule” would mean for monastic life: constraints on individual autonomy, freely submitted to, would turn the prose of living to the poetry of discipleship.
Benedict is frankly a little opinionated about community life. He is clearly not in touch with the post-modern sensibility where your views are just as valuable as mine or the next guy’s (or gal’s).
“Bossy” might actually be the word.
But then, his views have brought vital discipleship to countless people for well over a millennium, so I think they are worth pondering. That’s why I’m blogging on Benedict’s Rule, the document that shaped western Monasticism and made it a powerful training ground for mission and leadership.
One of the first strong opinions he shares in his Rule is what makes for the best kind of monks. Key to being the best kind of monk is to be in a community under a rule. He doesn’t mean his own rule. He’s looking back on past generations of monastic life before his Rule existed.
Living as a hermit is okay too, so long as you have first been trained under a rule in a monastery.
But two kinds of monks present big problems in Benedict’s view.
The first are monks whose communities have no Rule. They judge for themselves:
“what they choose to do they call holy, but what they dislike they hold to be unlawful.”
Here is a hint that Benedict would be troubled by the American ideal. We value individual liberty as something good in itself. To Benedict that kind of freedom makes for “the most vile class of monks” because when we choose our own way we tend to choose something other than God intends for us. We end up defining our way of life by our personal preference rather than by God’s Word.
Even if those are the “most vile” another group is “in every way worse.” These are pseudo monks who
“keep going their whole life long from one province to another, staying three or four days at a time in different cells as guests. Always roving and never settled…”
Think of it as the medieval equivalent of “church hopping.” They try one community. They find a problem. They tire of it. They move on to another. From Benedict’s perspective moving on means missing the opportunity for growth.
It is all so counter-cultural. We want freedom from rules. We see rules as the problem. We claim our rights and do things our own way.
- But does this kind of freedom lead to vital life in Christ?
- Does it lead to thriving community?
- Does individual initiative and unbounded liberty lead to participation in God’s work for the world?
One of the Desert Fathers said that if you just stay in your cell your cell will teach you everything you need to know. Benedict seems to think the same thing about the community and its Rule. These things put boundaries on the members’ freedom so they wouldn’t jump to the easy fix of looking for greener pastures. The constraints become like a goldsmith’s forge, refining and purifying their lives as disciples.
These days some are exploring the freedom and fruitfulness that comes from developing a rule of life. Some consider the issue from the individual perspective rather than for community life. Others are developing rules for those in ministry to use to order their lives.
I find it all very challenging; and frightening; and appealing; and impossible.
I’m very curious:
What do you think would be the effect of a modern church or other Christian community having a formal “rule”?
What subtopics do you think a “rule” for a 21st century community would need to include?
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