John and Charles Wesley were the 18th century co-founders of Methodism. Their young lives were ones of moral striving, extreme fastidiousness in their approach to the Christian faith, an emphasis on the merit accrued by good works. This went on well into adulthood until the brothers – through a series of providential events – received greater light. They came to understand that we do not perform good works in order to be saved. Rather, because God in Christ has graciously saved us, we as a result perform good works. In theological terms, justification (divine pardon of sins) comes first, followed by sanctification (God’s cleansing, leading to holiness of heart and life).
For three decades, the Wesleys had the order backwards, wrongly placing sanctification prior to justification. Once God corrected this error in their thinking and spiritual experience, the brothers – no longer preoccupied with saving themselves – devoted their full energies to announcing the glorious message of saving and sanctifying grace, both the free gift of a loving God, a provision of Christ’s atonement. Their initial error was one they inherited from their father, Samuel – a Church of England clergyman – and their mother, Susanna, but was larger than their upbringing. Moralism was the default message of the Church of England and had been for the second half of the 17th century right up to the Wesley brothers’ arrival on the scene in the early 1700s.
Centuries earlier, Benedict of Nursia (480-543 AD) had devised a rule that served as the organizing principle of a monastery he founded in Monte Cassino, an austere covenant of conduct by which monks agreed to abide. In 53 short chapters, the Holy Rule of Saint Benedict (1) lays out the Abbot’s expectations in every area of life together in the monastery, from eating and sleeping to manual labor, reading of books, and the “Work of God,” the 7 daily worship times that form the backbone of the Benedictine system. What was the ultimate purpose of the 72 “Instruments of Good Works” detailed in Chapter IV? Benedict clarified (p. 8):
Behold, these are the instruments of the spiritual art, which, if they have been applied without ceasing day and night and approved on judgment day, will merit us from the Lord the reward which He hath promised.
As a theological heir of the Wesleys – knowing their early struggles to find the assurance of salvation – my radar is tuned to detect anything akin to salvation by human effort. The above quote betrays what is undoubtedly the greatest weakness of The Holy Rule of Saint Benedict, a moral stretching-and-straining that is admirable but devoid of grace.
Yet shall we cast aside as worthless the entirety of a treatise just because Benedict made the same mistake as the early Wesleys? To do so would be foolish, and we would only be cutting off our nose to spite our face. For those open to light from diverse sources, the Holy Rule has much to teach about practical discipleship, including the high place given to the memorization of Scripture, especially the Psalms. Among other matters, Benedict underscored humility as conducive to spiritual growth, the place of corporate discipline in the Christian life, and the beauty of simple living. Let’s examine briefly how Benedict helpfully weaved these into his monastic system.
The role of humility in “arriving at the love of God”
In Chapter 7 – “Of Humility” – Benedict outlined twelve “degrees of humility.” Allegorizing the story of Jacob’s ladder in Genesis 28, he drew an application from the image of angels ascending and descending the ladder to heaven: “We descend by pride and ascend by humility” (p. 12). Space does not permit a summary of all twelve degrees, but the twelfth is representative of the tone of the chapter:
Let him always have his head bowed down, his eyes fixed on the ground, ever holding himself guilty of his sins, thinking that he is already standing before the dread judgment seat of God, and always saying to himself in his heart what the publican in the Gospel said, with his eyes fixed on the ground: ‘Lord, I am a sinner and not worthy to lift up mine eyes to heaven…”(Ps. 38:7-9).
Once a brother monk had accomplished all dozen degrees of humility, he would have “ascended,” arriving at the “love of God, which being perfect, casteth out fear” [1 John 4:18] (p. 14). What a marked contrast with some modern forms of evangelicalism that present prayer more as a transaction with God, a barging into God’s presence and demanding Heaven’s blessings! The obedience due to the Abbott as the monk’s Superior was a daily practicing of the respectful attitude with which we enter the presence of the Triune God.
Corporate discipline in the Christian life
Related to the question of humility is that of discipline. It is surprising to see how much space Benedict gave to the issues surrounding excommunication. Lesser punishments were applied for those tardy to meals or worship, but for those who committed “graver faults,” Benedict instructed: “…let him, at the time the Work of God is celebrated in the oratory, lie stretched, face down in silence before the door of the oratory at the feet of all who pass out” (Chapter 44, p. 51). He was required to do this penance at every worship time until the Abbot agreed, “It is enough” (Ibid.). Subsequent chapters detailed further punishments if the monk stubbornly persisted in his erring ways, including being thrown out of the monastery.
It is difficult since we live at a time when there is a multiplicity of denominations to imagine the horror that excommunication represented. Apart from a handful of small splinter groups deemed heretical, there was essentially just one church. To be placed outside of the fellowship of the monastery which had de facto become the monk’s entire existence was a bitter fate indeed. To avoid that outcome, the Holy Rule insisted that those interested in joining the community test the waters for many months as a novice (see Chapter 58). Benedict wanted the candidate to be absolutely sure that this was the right community for him.
While we must avoid too quickly connecting the dots between 5th century monasticism and the 21st century church, one parallel suggests itself. The Church of the Nazarene, the Wesleyan Church, and other denominations of the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition historically have included rules, what is now termed in the 2013 Nazarene Manual the “Covenant of Christian Conduct.” Nazarenes in the past have been accused of legalism because of the stringency of some of the rules, which include standards such as total abstinence from alcohol and refraining from playing the lottery or other forms of gambling. At the same time, awards in the past have been given out at District Assemblies for congregations that received the most members by profession of faith during a given year. With these dual emphases – the behavioral and the numerical – how often does the former lose out to the latter? How often are members received only to find out later the covenant commitment involved?
Benedict would have none of it. He believed that the vitality of his monastery depended upon the rigor with which the Holy Rule was practiced, so he made sure people knew up-front what they were getting into. I wonder: Is our long-term decline as a denomination in North America due in part to having sacrificed our standards about holy living upon the altar of marketing? Though it seems counter-intuitive, is not a church more healthy numerically and in every way when its members are called to a higher level of commitment?
The beauty of simple living
A third emphasis of Benedict’s Holy Rule was the obligation of simple living. In what might seem an instance of communism, Benedict – citing Acts 4:32 – forbade “the vice of personal ownership” (Chapter 33, p. 40). Each monk was allowed two outfits and if relatives sent new clothes to a monk, one of his older outfits was donated to the poor (Chapter 55, p. 62). Packages arriving from the outside in the name of one monk were split evenly among all (Chapter 54, p. 61), surely an antidote to the jealously that otherwise may have resulted.
Simplicity extended to other areas as well. In what appears to be the practice of at least partial vegetarianism, Benedict instructed: “But let all except the very weak and the sick abstain altogether from eating the flesh of four-footed animals” (Chapter 39, p. 46). Overeating was discouraged since “…nothing is so contrary to Christians as excess…” (Ibid). In a small concession to the times, Benedict allowed the monks to have wine, yet they were to partake of it “sparingly” (Chapter 40, p. 47).
What shall we make of these restrictions and why was Benedict so strict? Terry Matz provided some helpful context by describing the youthful Benedict growing up in the permissive setting of Rome, where rhetoric was the highest art acquired by wealthy youth, yet it was untethered to moral living:
The power of the voice without foundation in the heart was the goal of the student’s education. And that philosophy was reflected in the lives of the students as well. They had everything — education, wealth, youth — and they spent all of it in the pursuit of pleasure not truth. Benedict watched in horror as vice unraveled the lives and ethics of his companions. (2)
Benedict never introduced rules for the sake of rules. Rather, by simplifying the lives of the monks, he helped them maintain their focus upon God free of worldly distractions. This was the beauty of simple living; it beckons us in the 21st century to a re-examination of our own spending patterns and the debt that is the shaky foundation upon which modern family and national economies are constructed.
Though we may question the policy of cloistering the holy and thereby minimizing their potential redemptive effective upon culture at-large, Benedict’s vision of one way to live against-the-grain has endured. While he misunderstood the nature of salvation by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8-10), Benedict nevertheless provided a haven for young men like himself who had grown tired of the empty pleasures of a life lived without God. In our time of decadence particularly in the Western world, perhaps we will see a re-birth – if not of monasteries – then at least of a way of living in-the-world that incorporates some of the more helpful emphases that Benedict pioneered for his day.
(1) The version used here is the 1949 translation by Rev Boniface Verheyen, OSB, available here in the Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
(2) Terry Matz, “Saint Benedict,” at Catholic Online, internet: http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=26.
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