… the teachings of the holy Fathers … (RB 73,2)


But for anyone hastening on to the perfection of monastic life, there are the teachings of the holy Fathers, the observance of which will lead him to the very heights of perfection.

~ St. Benedict of Nursia, The Holy Rule, 73, 2.

As he concludes the final chapter of his Rule, St. Benedict seems to undermine the value of his carefully crafted Rule. After mentioning the Institutes and Conferences of St. John Cassian, the Lives (of the Saints), and St. Basil the Great, he goes on to say of his own work that in comparison to the Fathers (especially the ones mentioned above) he is ashamed to the point of blushing for slothfulness, unobservance, and negligence (RB 73, 7). His Rule is a little Rule aimed at beginners (RB 73, 8) and beyond his Rule are the teaching and virtues of the holy Fathers (RB 73, 9). It would seem that Benedict’s assessment of his own Rule is thoroughly and comprehensively given the lie by the history his little Rule has played in shaping the Church and European civilization at large. But perhaps we should not take him at his word here. Is it not possible that Benedict is simply using a mere convention? A mere rhetorical flourish of a feigned humility? Knowing full well he has in fact written a Rule very rich in content?

Fr. Gabriel Bunge suggests that St, Benedict is neither underestimating his Rule, nor is he feigning humility. In fact his concluding remarks serve an entirely different (and more lofty) purpose. Benedict is setting his Rule in a specific context. Aware that his Rule does not, because no rule can, contain everything that could be needed to attain the heights of perfection he points to the source and authoritative tradition he intends his Rule to be a part off. Those praising the Rule for being unique, original, and/or without precedent are decidedly not doing St. Benedict any favors. Creativity, no matter how highly it is valued today, was very far from Benedict’s mind. He did not intend to be creatively original but to be doggedly faithful to the teachings of the holy Fathers . As Fr. Bunge writes: “The perfectio conversationis is to be found there where Benedict himself had found it (Fr. Gabriel Bunge, Auf den Spuren der Heiligen Väter, p. 21).

The Rule of St. Benedict is therefore not above the teachings of the holy Fathers but subject to their authority. It is precisely in this way that Benedict proves himself to be a “Father” in the same sense that the holy Fathers are to be considered as fathers. In the words of Fr. Gabriel:

Those we consider to be “holy Fathers” were not concerned about originality but rather with authenticity. The holy Fathers are always aware they are themselves, first of all, receivers rather than givers.

~ Fr. Gabriel Bunge, Auf den Spuren der Heiligen Väter, p. 21.

The ideal of perfection such as the holy Fathers envisioned it is shared by Benedict. His Rule does not intend to teach all there is to be found in the teachings and lives of the holy Fathers. It seems clear that Benedict intends to provide a starting point which will safely guide its adherents to the heights of perfection to be found in the teachings of the holy Fathers. The Rule is, as it were, the point of entry, it is a doorway. The doorway of the Rule opens into the wider (authoritative) monastic tradition of 4th century Egypt. By following the Rule – instead of ones own mind – a safe passage into authentic monastic life is guaranteed. The Rule of Benedict is of necessity contextualized by the teachings of the holy Fathers and cannot be understood nor practiced without it. Again Fr. Bunge:

In other words the Rule of Benedict itself cannot be meaningfully understood nor practiced without the Doctrinae Sanctorum Patrum.

~ Fr. Gabriel Bunge, Auf den Spuren der Heiligen Väter, p. 21.

Fr. Gregory Wassen

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About Father Gregory

I am an Anglican Catholic Priest, currently residing in Orvelte, the Netherlands.
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