Benesict of Nursia’s Monastic Reform
The impact Benedict of Nursia had on the monastic tradition of Western Europe is difficult to estimate. He wrote a set of precepts for the faithful who decided to separate from the secular vanity and become monks, named Rule of Saint Benedict. This code for monks has many similarities with the Rule of the Master, the works of John Cassian, and the Rule of St. Augustine, and from this fact it is possible to claim it is partly based on them. 1
There are numerous similar passages and ideas in these works, but despite it the Rule of St. Benedict can be definitely called the most well known and popular one. However, it is due to the reasonable content and balance the Rule of Saint Benedict managed to reform the monastic tradition in the Middle Ages, that united a great number of monasteries under one rule and led to centralization of monasticism. It led to the rapid growth of the monastic orders, some of them like the oder of the Knights Templar and the order of the Benedictines became very influential participants of the politics in the Western Europe. They contributed to the development of the arts and education greatly, and at the same time they became the power that dominated the Western European army, fleet and trade in the Middle Ages. Many Christians decided to separate from the secular vanity from the times when Christianity appeared, but before the monastic reforms of Benedict of Nursia there was no monasticism in the organized form that is considered to be the only possible one nowadays.
Monasticism in the Middle Ages
It is crucial to understand the historical background that preceded the monastic reform of Benedict of Nursia in order to understand their importance and their impact on the situation in general. Monasticism in Christianity has a long history. It originates from the Biblical tradition to separate from the secular world and to commit all time and powers to praying. According to the New Testament, Jesus Christ went to the desert to pay and fast for forty days, during which He was tempted by the devil. The saints followed His example and it became the beginning of the hermit tradition in Christianity. In the Greek language a solitary person is called monachos, and from this word the notion derives. Even in the third century certain Christians like Anthony, who is considered to be an example of a monk, went to the Egyptian desert alone, and tried to fast, thus fighting with the temptations from the devil. 2
There also were Christians who decided to separate from the society, but chose communal living instead of the paths of hermits. They set ascetic communities near the Nile River and dedicated their life to prayer and work. Such type of monasticism was called the cenobitic monastery and was first established in the fourth century by Saint Pachomius. The other communities were formed in the towns and cities, where Christians who have chosen the pass of solitude and prayer lived in fortified buildings. From one point of view, they lived outside the society, but from another they were still nearby and instructed people on their way to cognition of God, provided them with guidance and supervision, and taught to live according to His rules by their own example.
In those times, the main goal that the monasteries wanted to achieve was to set at least a moderate possibility for observance for the monks. The time the monks had for meditation was higher than in the secular community, but still they spent the biggest part of the day praying and working. There were not enough meals for the normal function of the organism, because the monks ate two times a day and fasted on Fridays and Wednesdays. The masses were long, they often lasted for all night and many of the monks got the problems with health. All this was considered to be the killing of the body, which is the source of sins. As it is seen from such descriptions, the rules of the monasteries were sometimes extremely strict and did not guarantee the balanced life in peace for the monks and the nuns3.
The order in the monastery was regulated by the abbot. Usually the main rule in the monasteries of that time was that everyone was given the same food, the same cloths, and the same amount of work. In all questions the monks and the nuns had to abide the abbot, and the main book was the Holy Scripture, according to which they lived.
The practical need of the monasteries in the times of the Middle Ages was great. They were considered to be hospitals, where the monks and the nuns took care of the sick, the places where travelers could also ways get shelter, and the poor got some food and clothes. The abbots often provided the rulers of the country or the city with advice4. In fact, the monasteries were the center of the Medieval culture, where the ancient classical literature was preserved, the theology developed and the literacy was popularized. The musicians composed for the glory of Christ and the painters depicted the Biblical themes. It is possible to state that Christianity in the Middle Ages was focused in the monasteries, and the monasteries, in their turn, became the patrons of arts, which is evident nowadays when the centuries have passed. The monks and the nuns themselves were musicians, painters, sculptors and writers, who worked in the honor of God and the Blessed Virgin. Another peculiar issue is that the monasteries in the Middle Ages were among the most active participants of the trade. They had ships for such needs, and the logistics was well organized. In fact, the monasteries were industrial communities, that produced much extra food and goods, that was sold to the citizens. 5
All men and women who decided to join the monastery gave a vow of celibacy and obedience to the regulations of the particular monastery. The rules concerning the discipline and the spirit were different in every community. For example, in the fourth century the instructions of Augustine of Hippo were written and they became the code of conduct for the community of nuns who lived in the Northern Africa, which soon was called the Augustinian order. Among the most important issues of the Augustinian rule was the emotional connection between the faithful Christians who live outside the monastery and the nuns with the monks. People often found hope even in the simple existence of the monasteries, where the Christians lived righteously and prayed for everyone, which was a relief in the world of sins and deaths. It is possible to claim that the rules proposed by Saint Augustine of Hippo were the main and the most important one before the appearance of the Rule of St. Benedict. 6
The Rule of the Master and the Works of John Cassian
The Rule of the Master, or the Regula Magistri, appeared in the sixth century and is a collection of precepts for the monastic life, written by an anonymous author. The text was found in the Benedict of Aniane’s Concordia Regularum. It was written several centuries before the Rule of St. Benedict and had a great influence on it, that is why it is important to describe this work in order to understand the progress of the monastic reforms from the historical point of view. After the Rules of Pachomius, according to which the first monasteries lived, the Rule of the Master was more detailed and thought through. It provided the monks not only with the set of regulations, but it also gave theological explanation of the reasons to impose such rules. It made the live of the monks more reasonable. 7
The Rule of the Master consists of consists of ninety five chapters, from which more than twenty parts describe the canonical hours. It gave the monks more opportunities to think and to pray than it used to be with the Rules of Pachomius, when the meditation time was not regulated at all and led to extremely long prayers or no time for thinking and reading at all. The Rule also features much thoughts about the questions of faith, the commentaries of the book of Psalms and parables. The last part of the book is devoted to the discipline in the monastery. 8
The influence of the Regula Magistri on the Rule of St. Benedict is great. First of all, it is almost three times longer than the Rule of St. Benedict, where much information from the Regula Magistri is used. There are certain parallels and even some passages are similar in the two works. The two works have a common structure, pay much attention to the spiritual and theological component of the regulations. 9An emphasis is made on the fraternal love in both books. However, the overall point of view that is dominant in the Rule of St. Benedict is more optimistic concerning the human nature than it is in the Regula Magistri. The most peculiar issue is that there is no historical evidence that the Regula Magistri was used by the monasteries, while the Rule of St. Benedict became popular among the majority of Christian monasteries. 10
It is also necessary to mention the works of John Cassian when talking about the formation of the rules that regulate the life in the monastery. He is considered to be the one who brought the principles of the Egyptian monasticism to the Medieval Europe. 11His ideas were used both by the Rules of Pachomius, the Regula Magistri, and then the Rule of St. Benedict.
Among the works of the theologian are the Conferences of the Desert Fathers and the Institutes of the Coenobia. In the Conferences of the Desert Fathers the attention is payed to perfection of the soul and the training of the character. In the Institutes of the Coenobia John Cassian focuses on the organization of the monastic communities, their rules and ways to regulate the life there. 12
John Cassian writes much about the importance of manual work both in the organization of the monastery, because it does not leave the monks time to sin, and in the development of the soul, that needs to work constantly, otherwise it is open for all evil. The first four books of the Institutes of the Coenobia describe the rules of living in the monastery, the rituals, the prayer and the clothes the monks can wear. In the last eight chapters the moral code for the monks is discussed. An interesting thing is that every chapter corresponds to a particular vice: lust, gluttony, wrath, envy, hubris, boasting and listlessness. 13
The Conferences of the Desert Fathers is dedicated to the conversations of John Cassian with the elders from Scetis. The main themes are the principles of the ascetic life and the spiritual growth. Gaining control over the flesh is the constant work that every monk needs to do in order to purify his soul for the prayer. 14
St. Benedict mentions the Conferences of the Desert Fathers in his rule, which support the claim that the works of John Cassian had influenced the further reformation of the monastic life greatly. This formula of praising is used until now during the Liturgy of the Hours. Almost every canonical hour starts with this versicle. 15
The Rule of Saint Benedict. Essence of Reforms
The Rule of Saint Benedict belongs to the 6th century and sets the new unified order of praising the Lord, which was important in the times that followed the fall of the Roman Empire. 16 The Christian monasteries existed in the form of separate communities with their own rules, and that is why were easy to attack due to their comparative isolation. The appearance of the Rule made the existence of the monastic orders possible, which played an important role in the European history for many centuries. 17
The main ideas of the saint Benedict’s Rule are the combination of prayer and work, which is translated as ora et labora, and peace, which is translated as pax. It offers the moderate way to combine praying with work, which explains the popularity of the Rule of Saint Benedict for fifteen centuries. This monastic code supposes that the spiritual father has powers to support the attempts of monks to grow spiritually, live an ascetic life and let the divine enter their souls.
The Rule of Saint Benedict consists of seventy three chapters and a prologue that contain the lessons on such monastic virtues as obedience, silence, humility. 18 It also features the rules for daily life in the monastery, which consist of manual work, meditative reading of spiritual texts and prayers. Benedict of Nursia also wrote about such details of the everyday life like food and drinks, clothes, way to take care of the ill people and to receive guests. 19
The Rule of Saint Benedict filled the monastic life with discretion, measure and rhythm. 20 The monks do not kill their health during all-night vigils. They have enough food and clothes they produce themselves, and at the same time they do not own anything. Their work time is regulated and they have time for their soul. Those members of the monastery community who required help received it. 21 It is possible to conclude that the Rule of Saint Benedict proposed by Benedict of Nursia made the life in the monastery balanced, humane and corresponding to the Holy Scripture.
Comparing to the previous works that St. Benedict used as the source of ideas and inspiration for his Rule, it is more balanced. Equal space is dedicated to the rules, that cover all minor issues of the every day life in the monastery, and to the spiritual explanation of them. There is no strict code to kill the flesh, as it is in the works of John Cassian. It is more precise than the Regula Magistri, that focuses on the religious and moral side of the life in the monastery more than on the daily routine of the monks. It is also more detailed than the Rule of St. Augustine. All these characteristics have made the Rule of St. Benedict the only set of behavioral conduct in the monasteries for many centuries.
Results of the Monastic Reforms
It is possible to claim that the Rule of St. Benedict became a push for further monastic reforms, which were obviously positive, because they led to the centralization of the Christian monastic life, made the conditions of living in the monastery acceptable, providing a balance between labor, prayer and rest.
The unification of the code of conduct led to the appearance of the organizations of the monastic orders like the order of the Benedictines and the order of the Knights Templar. With the time the orders grew extensively and became an extremely important power in the Western Europe, whose abilities were sometimes greater than the ones of the kings, and their authority in the religious sphere was impossible to reject. They had their own army, treasury and fleet, which made them a serious menace for those who decided to confront them. 22
Though, with the time, the monastic orders have developed in the organizations that had not much in common with the principles expressed in the Rule of St. Benedict. The first monasteries were inhabited by the Christians who lived independently apart from the society, worked in the land to provide themselves with food and clothes, and spent time in studying and prayer. The huge orders like the one of the Benedictines and the Knights Templar gained possessions, participated in the wars, in the crusades, had enormous power, and such policy did not seem to be the life of the ascetics, who decided to live a pious life. 23
The first organizational reforms were made by Charlemagne and then continued by the Carolingian dynasty. His son, Louis the Pious, started to create the centers of learning on the basis of the monasteries, that were supposed to turn the barbarous world into the civilized community. Such attempts led to positive results and the monasteries really became the centers where the latest things in literature, philosophy, music and arts were created. For many centuries the Church was the only source of literacy for common people. 24
The monasteries grew, and they needed a central administration, because it was difficult to organize living of thousands of people. Years after it led to the appearance of big monastic organizations. In th 11th century the Benedictine order united approximately a thousand of monasteries with the center in the Cluniac monastery. In the times of rapid development of the Western Europe, the monasteries become more and more rich. 25The abbeys of that time feature the best sculpture and architecture of that time. The libraries of the monasteries are filled with the best books and manuscripts, where the monks copied them and decorated with precious stones and metal. The best professors of that time worked in the schools of the monasteries,. In fact, the abbeys became the centers of science and arts. 26
In the “golden period” of the monasteries the alternative ways to separate from the secular world and devote the life to serving God appeared. Some Christians did not agree with the state of things in the monastic orders of their time, considering them to be too hedonistic and too far from the behavioral code of St. Benedict. They decided to follow the steps of the first Egyptian monks and became hermits. Among such Christians was the order of the Cistercians. Its members left their cells only for the prayer in the monastic church at night, and had a communal meal on feasts, and it was the only possible time for conversations. 27 They worked on the land, purified their souls and developed their character by constant work. St. Benedict writes in the Rule about it “Idleness is the enemy of the soul; and therefore the brethren ought to be employed in manual labor at certain times, at others, in devout reading.” 28In this way the monks tried to live according to the following words of St. Benedict: “The prophet shows that, for the sake of silence, we are to abstain even from good talk. If this be so, how much more needful is it that we refrain from evil words, on account of the penalty of the sin!” 29There were not much Christians who felt that the real monastic life is their calling. That is why there were only thirty five cells in the main monastery of the Cistercian order. However, the appearance of such order denotes a tendency that not all monks were approving the current situation with the rules in the monasteries of the most influential orders. It was among the first signs that signalized that the end of the monastic orders was soon to come. 30
The beginning of the Middle Ages is often called the Benedictine centuries. The influence of Benedict of Nursia on the reformation of the monastic tradition is really great. Perhaps, he did not discover something extraordinary that people did not know before his Rule of Saint Benedict. However, the way he managed to organize the life of monks and to mention every minor detail that might happen delights me.
Saint Augustine of Hippo, The Rule of the Master, the works of John Cassian were the basis that contained numerous ideas concerning the rules of behavior for the monks and the nuns, the ways to organize the life in the monastery, the ethical and the religious side of such regulations. Though, all these manuscripts were too vague, too philosophical or too rigid, that made the life of the monks in the monastery inhumanly difficult.
Saint Benedict managed to find the golden middle in the theological thoughts and practical regulations that were expressed in those books. He also wrote about that in a simple and understandable format, using the question and answer form. The rules were well balanced, they allowed the monks to purify their bodies and the souls with work, reading and prayer, and at the same time they were easy to interpret. These characteristics are the most important and they determine the popularity of the Rule of St. Benedict throughout many centuries.
The appearance of a unified code of conduct among Benedictines made other monastic orders, such as the Knights Templar possible. It helped to regulate the life and cease conflicts of thousands of people who lived in one place, which is a difficult task to do. Of course, not everything was ideal with the way in which the monastic orders used the Rule of St. Benedict. With the time they became numerous organizations who had power, money and army, and for these reasons they participated actively in the social life of the countries.
Despite this fact, the orders, that became possible to organize due to the Rule of St. Benedict, became the centers of learning, where the the most precious manuscripts were stored, the new philosophical and theological thoughts appeared, the music, the painting and the sculpture developed actively under the patronage of the abbeys. The monasteries became the cultural centers of the Western Europe and such impact is really great.
It is possible to argue with the statement that the monastic orders were a positive phenomenon in the history of the Medieval Europe and the Rule of St. Benedict they used was effective. During the rapid growth of the monastic orders like the order of the Benedictines and the order of the Knights of the Templar alternative orders like the one of the Cistercians appeared. They opposed the comfort with which the monks in the most influential orders lived and the power they exercised in the life of the secular community. For this reason they tried to reform the monastic way of living once more according to the Rule of St. Benedict, making emphasis on solitude, work on the land and praying.
Barry, Patrick. St. Benedict and Christianity in England. Herefordshire: Gracewing Publishing, 1995.
Benedict of Nursia. The Rule of Saint Benedict. Doubleday/Image Books, 1975.
Derrick, Christopher. The Rule of Peace: St. Benedict and the European Future. Still River, Mass.: St. Bede’s Publications, 2002.
Holder, Arthur G. Christian Spirituality: The Classics. Taylor & Francis, 2009.
St. Gregory the Great. The Life of St Benedict. Rockford, IL: TAN Books and Publishers, 1995.
Lawrence, Hugh. Medieval Monasticism: Forms of Religious Life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages. New York: Longmans, 2001.
Southern, Richard W. Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages. Yale University Press, 1970.
Zarnecki, George. The Monastic World: The Contributions of the Orders. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, 1985.
1St. Gregory the Great. The Life of St Benedict (Rockford, IL: TAN Books and Publishers, 1995), 25 – 26.
2Lawrence, Hugh. Medieval Monasticism: Forms of Religious Life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages (New York: Longmans, 2001), 12 – 13.
3Southern, Richard W. Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (Yale University Press, 1970), 63 – 65.
4Southern, 68 – 70.
6Southern, 56 – 57.
7Holder, Arthur G. Christian Spirituality: The Classics (Taylor & Francis, 2009), 73 – 76.
8Holder, 78 – 79
9Derrick, Christopher. The Rule of Peace: St. Benedict and the European Future (Still River, Mass.: St. Bede’s Publications, 2002), 53 – 54.
10Derrick, 55 – 56.
11Holder, 78 – 79.
13Lawrence, 77 – 78.
14Lawrence, 93 – 94.
15Barry, 34 – 36.
16Derrick, 55 – 56.
17Barry, 37 – 40.
18Holder, 52 – 53.
19Zarnecki, George. The Monastic World: The Contributions of the Orders (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, 1985), 120 – 123.
20Lawrence, 83 – 86.
21Southern, 99 – 100.
22Lawrence, 13 – 14.
23Lawrence, 36 – 38.
24Zarnecki, 22 – 23.
25Zarnecki, 36 -37.
27Zarnecki, 67 – 68.
28Benedict of Nursia. (The Rule of Saint Benedict Doubleday/Image Books, 1975), 32.
29Benedict of Nursia, 15.
30Zarnecki, 70 – 71.