Disciplined community: light from St Benedict

Benedict of Nursia
Benedict of Nursia

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.

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