We have, therefore, to establish a school of the Lord’s service, in the institution of which we hope to order nothing that is harsh or rigorous,” wrote Benedict in the prologue to his Rule. The Rule of St. Benedict is a short document, perhaps thirteen thousand words, yet it has influenced all forms of organized religious life, Protestant and Catholic, in the West.

Reading the Rule

Scholars speculate that Benedict (c. 480–549) wrote the Rule in the early sixth century (a) as a constitution for his own monastery of Monte Cassino between Rome and Naples; or (b) at the request of other local monastic communities; or © in response to a papal petition for a normative guide for the many groups of monks and nuns throughout Italy and the Christian West.

The Rule represents the accumulated spiritual wisdom of earlier centuries of monastic experience. It draws upon the teachings of the desert fathers of Egypt, the practice of monastic life in southern Europe, and (especially) the Rule of the Master, a long, highly detailed, and exhortatory document. By classical standards, Benedict was not well educated: his Rule contains not one reference to an ancient Greek or Latin author. But it displays a deep knowledge of the Scriptures, the writings of the church fathers, and the Egyptian monastic tradition as it came to the West in the Institutes and Conferences of John Cassian. Modern scholars stress the major influence of the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament (and Apocrypha)—the Books of Psalms, Sirach, and Wisdom.

Living the Rule

Benedict’s Rule contains both theoretical principles for the monastic life and practical, everyday directives. Benedict legislated for a community of laymen governed benevolently by an abbot—a community whose purpose ...

Subscriber Access OnlyYou have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.

Already a CT subscriber? for full digital access.