I have recently been involved in creating several short pilgrimage trails around Caithness, based on the missionary efforts of the early Celtic saints. According to the standard histories, the Benedictine order, complete with the Rule of St Benedict, came to Scotland under the influence of Saint (and queen) Margaret in the late 11th century. So I was interested to come across a different version of events in the introduction to ‘The Rule of Saint Benedict in the Latin and English Translation’ by Luke Dysinger, OSB.
‘Celtic missionary-monks in the seventh century used Benedict’s Rule side-by-side with the much stricter Rules of Columban. In their monasteries on the continent the Rule of Benedict slowly proved itself, … ; and it gradually displaced other rules — the Rule of Benedict as the sole rule for monks became one of the guiding principles of the great Cluniac reform of the 10th century: and from this period onward one can safely speak of “Benedictines” who regarded the Rule of Benedict as their principal guide for living out the commands of the Gospel.’ (pp.xxiv-xxv)
This was relevant to my project for two reasons – it showed that the Celtic monks were not totally isolated from European influence and that St Margaret was not, as claimed, deliberately supressing the local monastic organisation and imposing a foreign model but simply welcoming a movement that was gradually spreading over all of Europe.
What was it about the Rule that made it so successful? Even just looking at the readings for June gives us an answer. They cover part of chapter 7 – the 3rd to the 12th degrees of humility; chapters 8 to 19 on how the Divine Office is to be said through the day and the seasons; chapter 20 on prayer; chapter 21 on the role of deans; chapter 22 on the sleeping arrangements and chapter 23 on punishments for faults. This eclectic mixture of the practical and the spiritual is typical of the rest of the Rule. I have not counted, but I suspect that the practical instructions outweigh the spiritual. Benedict expected his monks to gain their spiritual guidance from reading Scripture and the Early Fathers. His Rule was mainly to ensure that the community led an orderly, peaceful, prayerful life where the members could concentrate on growing in holiness. Manual work to produce food to eat, clothes to wear and somewhere to live was essential but not paramount, good deeds towards each other and any strangers turning up at the gates kept them on the path to the Kingdom but the real Work of God was maintaining the pattern of the Divine Office by reciting the psalms seven times a day in such a pattern that all of them were recited every week.
Yet, St Benedict did not put rules before people. He could not have been accused of, to borrow Pope Francis’ phrase from Gaudete et Exsultate, ‘punctilious concern for the Church’s liturgy, doctrine and prestige’. Instead, he encourages flexibility in the liturgy, within certain limits, loving mercy to others and a total disregard for honour and praise:
‘We strongly recommend, however, that, if this distribution of the Psalms is displeasing to anyone, he should arrange them otherwise, in whatever way he considers better, but taking care in any case that the Psalter with its full number of 150 Psalms be chanted every week and begun again every Sunday at the Night Office.’ (ch.18)
And, on the duties of the abbot:
‘Let him exalt mercy above judgement, that he himself may obtain mercy. He should hate vices; he should love the brethren.’ (ch. 64)
The degrees of humility with which June begins includes advice to the monk to bless those who curse them, to confess their sins and to consider themselves of little account.
What messages can we take from this? Perhaps that we should remember the old maxim ‘hate the sin but love the sinner’, which is simply a re-wording of ch 64, as love of others, motivating us to serve them and lead them to God, permeates the whole of the Rule and has contributed to its lasting appeal. We can only achieve this by prioritising the Work of God.
Oblate of Pluscarden