The 73 short chapters of the Rule of St. Benedict has shaped Western Christianity as a whole. It was written as a Rule to be used by a local community in ancient Italy but it is in use today by monastics and non-monastic Christians alike. This is not as strange as it may seem. Monastics are, after all, laity. A monastic receives tonsure, yes, but not ordination. It is therefore awkward – if not simply wrong – to speak in a contrasting way of monastic and lay spirituality. One of Benedict’s predecessors, Evagrius of Pontus, began his “rule” (often called “The Praktikos”) by defining Christianity rather than monasticism.
Christianity consists of three elements that loosely follow one another:
All Christians are called to become ascetics (and in that sense monastics). Baptism, as the Master (an early Christian ascetic and the author of The Rule of the Master) indicates, is the doorway to an ascetic life. This is nothing other than “casting off the works of darkness” and the “putting on of the armour of light (Romans 13, 12).” This is the element that Evagrius called praktike. It is the practice of Christianity. Taking Benedict at his word this is nothing harsh nor too difficult. Rather:
“We are, therefore, about to found a school of the Lord’s service, in which we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome. But even if, to correct vices or to preserve charity, sound reason dictateth anything that turneth out somewhat stringent, do not at once fly in dismay from the way of salvation, the beginning of which cannot but be narrow. But as we advance in the religious life and faith, we shall run the way of God’s commandments with expanded hearts and unspeakable sweetness of love; so that never departing from His guidance and persevering in the monastery in His doctrine till death, we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ, and be found worthy to be coheirs with Him of His kingdom.”
From The Holy Rule; Prologue.
This school of the Lord’s service means we have things to learn and things to do. The word “service” here translates the Latin servitii which in its turn is used by Benedict as a close equivalent to the Master’s militia. The scola (school) is not a university where we engage in original and speculative studies. This school teaches a way of life. This way of life is taught via life in community under an abbot. For non-monastics this could, among the more common, take the form of a spiritual father mother relationship, spiritual direction, or perhaps the life of an Oblate or Third Order member. Spiritual direction under any of these forms above is a great privilege and to be encouraged. However spiritual direction is not always available. In such a case the advice of Fr. Jean Pierre de Caussade is as relevant as it has always been:
God continues to speak to-day as He spoke in former times to our fathers when there were no directors as at present, nor any regular method of direction. Then all spirituality was comprised in fidelity to the designs of God, for there was no regular system of guidance in the spiritual life to explain it in detail, nor so many instructions, precepts and examples as there are now. Doubtless our present difficulties render this necessary, but it was not so in the first ages when souls were more simple and straightforward. Then, for those who led a spiritual life, each moment brought some duty to be faithfully accomplished. Their whole attention was thus concentrated consecutively like a hand that marks the hours which, at each moment, traverses the space allotted to it. Their minds, incessantly animated by the impulsion of divine grace, turned imperceptibly to each new duty that presented itself by the permission of God at different hours of the day.
From Abandonment to Divine Providence, Ch. 1, section i.
If you do not have, and/or cannot find a spiritual director, father, mother or a Monastic Community to connect to then you will have Fr. de Caussade’s direction above. His first chapter will carry you a long way into the spiritual life if you will take his direction. For those of us who wish to measure our lives by the Rule of St. Benedict, but lack a monastic community, or a spiritual director, we can read and apply the Holy Rule via the guidance of Fr. de Caussade.
It is important, however, to emphasize that all of this assumes that you regularly participate in your local Parish or Community. It is essential for the spiritual life to not live it alone. Certainly not if you have only just begun your life as a Christian. Yes, there are hermits, and yes, Benedict values eremetism very highly, but the point of the Holy Rule is precisely that the life of a hermit is begun in community. Without communion in a community it is extremely difficult to learn even the basics of Christian faith and life.
Once the praktike has become habitual and we have achieved a certain “inner balance” our hearts are expanded as St. Benedict says and it begins to show fruits. Physike and theologike are, in a sense, fruits of the practice of Christianity. Our expanded hearts have become “wide” enough to receive God and to “know” Him. At first He speaks to us through created means (Scripture, but also the physical world in which we live) which is physike, and at last he will commune with us directly and without any mediation: theologike.
Fr. Gregory Wassen