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Humility, Obedience, and Justice in The Rule of St. Benedict

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The Rule of St. Benedict, written around 540, not only remains a directory for many people today but also is a key work in the history of Christian monasticism. St. Benedict, born about 480 in modern-day Norcia, was sent to Rome for schooling. Eventually becoming embittered towards the self-absorbed Roman way of life, Benedict departed to a place of confinement to pursue a life dedicated to God. Benedict founded a monastery at Monte Cassino intending to establish the framework of the monastic life. The Rule of St. Benedict is based on the key principles of humility, obedience, and justice, and aims to create a harmonious, well organized religious community in which individuals can make progress in the Christian virtues, appeal to God, and prepare for the hopeful everlasting life. Benedict constructs ideal monastery routines and regulations, including the qualities of an exceptional abbot, each day’s agenda, the steps to humility, and the value of living a virtuous, faithful life. The meticulous way the abbot handles punishment embodies the ideas of obedience, humility, and justice, and in a broader sense, The Rule establishes the idea that the abbot is ultimately responsible for his disciples and their actions, thus preventing the abbot from becoming unjust or prideful.

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From the opening of The Rule, St. Benedict illustrated the criterion on how an abbot should act. Benedict wrote, “…the abbot should not teach or decree or command anything contrary to the Lord’s instructions; instead, he should work into the mind of his disciples the Lord’s commands and his teaching, as if they were the yeast of divine justice.” From this, it is clear that the abbot must be someone who is not only honest but can also interpret and teach what is truly important in life. The abbot and his monks were to hold Christ dearer than anything else in life. If this lifestyle is maintained, absolute humility can be achieved. Chapter 5 of The Rule states that as soon as the superior gave an order, the brother should “carry it out as promptly as if the order came from God.” This standard was expected to be upheld by each member of the monastic community, however, in certain instances if a brother were to become disobedient, the punishment was dealt by the abbot. As displayed by Benedict, it was the abbot’s duty to adapt to each circumstance, be it a first offence or constant wicked acts. The general process stems from Paul the Apostle’s advice to Timothy to, “reprove, appeal, and rebuke.” This serves as a rough baseline for the punishment system in the monastery. Rule 23, titled “Excommunication for offences”, states, “If a brother is found to be insubordinate, disobedient, arrogant, complaining or in any way uncooperative and contemptuous of the holy rule and the orders of his superiors, he should be rebuked by his elders once or twice, in private, as the Lord advised.” For the first and second offences, the brother is to be reproved, or scolded rather gently and privately. This allows the monk to make amends and correct his wrongdoing before facing public admonition. If there is no correction made to his behavior, the abbot will be reprimanded publicly in front of everyone. Afterward, if there is still no improvement, “he must be excommunicated” and if he persists in error, “he should undergo corporal punishment.” This system of punishment is clear and simple enough for the monks to understand. For both God and the abbot, the only truly acceptable form of obedience was one in which “the order given was carried out without hesitation, without delay, without apathy, without complaint, and without any answering back from the one who is unwilling.” The system of rules that Benedict established for the abbot and how punishments were handled emphasizes the principle of obedience.

The Rule of St. Benedict also affirms the precept of humility. Specifically, there are twelve essential steps that a monk is to follow to achieve the highest peak of humility. The twelve steps are a detailed set of “dos and do nots,” generally built based on the fearing of God. Benedict writes, “when the monk has climbed up all these steps of humility, he will reach ‘the perfect love of God which casts out all fear’… all the things he did out of fear he will begin to perform without effort … as a good habit out of the love of Christ and delight in virtue.” The process to ultimate humility aligns with the degrees of excommunication and process for offences also outlined by Benedict. If a monk commits a contemptuous or disdainful act, he will be slowed on his path towards achieving humility. In disciplining the members of the monastery, the abbot is focusing on building up and solidifying the humility within every monk.

The concept of justice is also highlighted in the way violations are dealt with. Although not as explicitly cited in The Rule as obedience and humility, justice is the foundation for which all of Benedict’s rules are built on. God is seen to be supremely forgiving, accepting, and just. Benedict refers to the monks as “the yeast of divine justice.” The abbot is to shape and care for his disciples so that they may act and think truly just. For the monks to achieve divine justice, the abbot first must set an example of the correct way to live in Gods image. In other words, the abbot must convey to the monks that it is of utmost importance to exemplify God’s justice and mercy in how they think, live, pray, and treat their brothers. Saint Benedict believed that those who can live by his Rule have at least some degree of virtue and have successfully begun their monastic life. Benedict acknowledged the fact that his rule was only the beginning, and that if one truly wishes to lead an obedient life, to begin with his rule and then continue to follow other works such as the Old and New Testament. By doing this, one will reach greater heights of wisdom, justice, and virtue.

The Rule of St. Benedict continuously reiterates the idea that the abbot is ultimately responsible for his disciples and their actions. Benedict reminds the abbots that the “shepherd will bear the blame for whatever deficiencies the sheep’s owner might find in them. However, if the shepherd has focused all his efforts on his restless and disobedient flock and been very careful to correct their bad behavior, then he will be acquitted at the Lord’s judgment…”.

Again, in Rule 2, Benedict cautions the abbot that the person who guides and teaches souls should be prepared to present not only those souls for interrogation, but also himself. Living in constant fear of interrogation day and having to present details on his behalf causes the abbots to think carefully about how he acts. In correcting and reprimanding others, an abbot will find that his faults are also corrected. An instance in which an abbot was unjust or prideful is unlikely to be found because the abbot needs to present his disciples and himself to God for final judgment.

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Overall, The Rule of St. Benedict demonstrates the conscientious way the abbot handles punishment which ultimately embodies the ideas of obedience, humility, and justice. The Rule also exhibits the idea that the monks are a reflection of their abbot, thus preventing the abbot from acting unjustly or pridefully. The rules that Saint Benedict arranged were not used as a path to perfection but as a means towards a more spiritual life and have created a basis for Benedictines and other monastics for centuries to come. 

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