Daily Reading from the Rule of Benedict

Yesterday's Reading

About the Rule of Benedict

Benedict of Nursia was born in the year 480. As a student in Rome, he tired of the decadent culture around him and left to live a simple spiritual life as a hermit in the countryside of Subiaco about thirty miles outside of the city. It wasn't long, however, before he was discovered both by the people of the area and disciples who were themselves looking for a more meaningful way of life. Out of these associations sprang the monastic life that would eventually cover Europe.

The Rule of Benedict is not a treatise in systematic theology. Its logic is the logic of daily life lived in Christ and lived well. This early monastic rule is part of the Wisdom tradition of Christianity and is rooted in the Bible for its inspiration and its end. It deals with the meaning and purpose of life. The positions taken in the Rule in the light of themes in the wisdom literature of other culture find Benedict of Nursia in the stream of thinkers who lived out of a single tradition but from the perspective of universal and fundamental insights into life.

Excerpted from The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages by Joan Chittister, OSB

November 27, 2015
Chapter 48
The Daily Manual Labor

Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore, the community members should have specified periods for manual labor as well as for prayerful reading.

There is little room for excursion into the quixotic in the Rule of Benedict. If any chapter proves that point best, it may well be the chapter on work. Benedict doesn't labor the point but he clearly makes it: Benedictine life is life immersed in the sanctity of the real and work is a fundamental part of it. The function of the spiritual life is not to escape into the next world; it is to live well in this one. The monastic engages in creative work as a way to be responsible for the upbuilding of the community. Work periods, in fact, are specified just as prayer periods are. Work and prayer are opposite sides of the great coin of a life that is both holy and useful, immersed in God and dedicated to the transcendent in the human. It is labor's transfiguration of the commonplace, the transformation of the ordinary that makes co-creators of us all.

We believe that the times for both may be arranged as follows: From Easter to the first of October, they will spend their mornings after Prime till about the fourth hour at whatever work needs to be done. From the fourth hour until the time of Sext, they will devote themselves to reading. But after Sext and their meal, they may rest on their beds in complete silence; should any members wish to read privately, let them do so, but without disturbing the others. They should say None a little early, about midway through the eighth hour,and then until Vespers they are to return to whatever work is necessary. They must not become distressed if local conditions or their poverty should force them to do the harvesting themselves. When they live by the labor of their hands, as our ancestors and the apostles did, then they are really monastics. Yet, all things are to be done with moderation on account of the fainthearted.

Benedictine spirituality exacts something so much harder for our century than rigor. Benedictine spirituality demands balance. Immediately after Benedict talks about the human need to work, to fill our lives with something useful and creative and worthy of our concentration, he talks about lectio, about holy reading and study. Then, in a world that depended on the rising and the setting of the sun to mark their days rather than on the artificial numbers on the face of a clock, Benedict shifts prayer, work and reading periods from season to season to allow for some of each and not too much of either as the days stretch or diminish from period to period. He wants prayer to be brief, work to be daily and study to be constant. With allowances for periodic changes, then, the community prayed and studied from about 2:00 am to dawn and then worked for a couple of hours until the hour of Terce at about 10:00 am. Then, after Terce they read for a couple of hours until Sext before the midday meal. After dinner they rested or read until about 2:30 and then went back to work for three or four hours until Vespers and supper in the late afternoon. After saying a very brief Compline or evening prayer they retired after sundown for the night. It was a gentle, full, enriching, regular, calm and balanced life. It was a prescription for life that ironically has become very hard to achieve in a world of light bulbs and telephones and cars but it may be more necessary than ever if the modern soul is to regain any of the real rhythm of life and so, its sanity as well.

November 27, 2015
Chapter 48
The Daily Manual Labor

From the first of October to the beginning of Lent, the members ought to devote themselves to reading until the end of the second hour. At this time Terce is said and they are to work at their assigned tasks until None. At the first signal for the hour of None, all put aside their work to be ready for the second signal. Then after their meal they will devote themselves to their reading or to the psalms.

During the days of Lent, they should be free in the morning to read until the third hour, after which they will work at their assigned tasks until the end of the tenth hour. During this time of Lent each one is to receive a book from the library and is to read the whole of it straight through. These books are to be distributed at the beginning of Lent.

During Lent, the monks are to go on working but to increase their reading time. In this period, they are to be assigned a book to read "straight through." In Lent they are to put themselves on a regimen and study what they are told to study in a serious and ordered way. Nevertheless, the work continues. Benedictines were to "earn their bread by the labor of their hands" and no devotion was to take the place of the demands of life. These were working monastics who depended on God to provide the means of getting food but who did not, as the ancients said, depend on God to put it in the nest.

At the same time, work is not what defines the Benedictine. It is the single-minded search for God that defines Benedictine spirituality. That is what the monastic pursues behind every other pursuit. That is what gives the monastic life meaning. That is what frees the monastic heart. The monastic does not exist for work. Creative and productive work are simply meant to enhance the Garden and sustain us while we grow into God.

In today's culture in which people are identified more by what they do than what they are, this is a lesson of profound importance. Once the retirement dinner is over and the company watch is engraved, there has to be something left in life that makes us human and makes us happy or life may well have been in vain. That something, Benedictine spirituality indicates, is a mind and a heart full of a sense of meaning and an instinct for God.

Above all, one or two elders must surely be deputed to make the rounds of the monastery while the members are reading. Their duty is to see that no one is so apathetic as to waste time or engage in idle talk to the neglect of their reading, and so not only harm themselves but also distract others. If such persons are found--God forbid--they should be reproved a first and a second time. If they do not amend, they must be subjected to the punishment of the rule as a warning to others. Further, members ought not to associate with one another at inappropriate times.

Study is hard work. It is so much easier to find something else to do in its place than to stay at the grind of it. We have excuses aplenty for avoiding the dull, hard, daily attempt to learn. There is always something so much more important to do than reading. There is always someone we have to talk to about something that can't wait until the reading time is over. There is always some overwhelming fatigue to be dealt with before we can really begin to concentrate. There is always some excuse for not stretching our souls with new ideas and insights now or yet or ever. But Benedictine spirituality says life is to be struggled through and worked at and concentrated on and cultivated. It is not a matter of simply going through it and hoping that enough of the rust of time is removed by accident to make us burnished spiritual adults.

The Rule of Benedict Insights for the Ages

Is there a great spiritual tradition that deals with the contemporary issues facing the human community? In her new introduction to the Rule, Joan Chittister boldly claims that Benedict’s sixth-century text is the only one of the great traditions that directly touches today’s issues: stewardship, conversion, communication, reflection, contemplation, humility and equality. Tracing Benedict’s original Rule paragraph by paragraph, the new book expands the principles of the Rule into the larger context of spiritual living in a secular world and makes the seemingly archaic instructions relevant for a contemporary audience. A new foreword, updated content, an appendix, a Gregorian Chant download and a recommended calendar for reading the entries and commentaries make this an invaluable resource for solitary or communal contemplation. (Crossroad; Paperback) Order here.