“Benedict’s Rule”, a document that supposedly details the way a true Christian must behave to actually be a true Christian, and not a mere Sunday churchgoer, is a curious text. It is aimed mostly at those who wish to dedicate their whole lives to God, written mostly for monks. However, it is often taken to be a guide to how all Christians should behave despite the fact that there are quite a few things that differ rather drastically from what the Bible says. It is my opinion, thus, that this text cannot be used as a correct interpretation of God’s vision for Christians.
Before beginning dealing with both this text and the Bible, I must note that the Bible contains controversial information. Sometimes the tales are of humans that strove hard and failed, and their failure – when taken literally and not as a lesson – can serve as a bad example. Other times, tales are shown to demonstrate how not to do, and there aren’t very many instances that there are direct commandments towards humanity.
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That is why I have decided to use one particular section of the Bible – the Sermon on the Mount, as it is a depiction of Christ speaking directly and clearly to the people to show what he wants of them.
It is a condensation of the Bible in many ways. And, as we shall see in direct comparison, what the Bible says are the direct words of God do not comply even closely what St. Benedict wants of the people. First of all, the text explicitly shows a bias towards monks. Even though it was written for monasteries, the author does not seem to accept any other kind of worshipper. Only those who are monks are actually pleasing to God – or, at least, such an expression I garnered from reading the text.
And, even then, traveling monks, those, who have no stable monastery are frowned upon deeply and insinuated with all sorts of sins (“Always roving and never settled, they indulge their passions and the cravings of their appetite, and are in every way worse than the Sarabaites. ” BR, chapter 1). Elitism, however, is one of the things Christian doctrine rises against the most. Christianity is not the religion of some Elite, it is the religion of the many, and it is for everyone, who will take the time and trouble to know God.
Any person can do it, and there is no need to lead a special, “especially righteous” life in a monastery. No, indeed, a true Christian is a man of the higher world, a man of heaven, who descends unto the Earth to aid those in need of guidance here. Someone might protest on this one that monasteries are of great value. I do not underestimate the importance of monasteries in the great work that is Christianity – scholars and keepers of lore are as valued in the Christian tradition as in any other. However, neither are they the most important.
The most important is the average, everyday person, who has his or her own relationship with Deity. The aim of Christianity was never to create an elite, it was to have everyone transmute into an elite. This requires not monasteries as places of seclusion – a monk may not even eat outside of a monastery, as chapter 51 of Benedict’s rule states – but as schools admitting all those who wish to learn truly! A division between believers is not only unnecessary, but also harmful to the cause, and teaching it to the people who would be teachers is just plain evil, if an unintended one.
Second, as we can see in Benedict’s rule, he depicts things such as humility, silence, and et cetera as being rather, well, showy. For instance, humility: Benedict shows that humility is to be spoken of out loud, at least in the middle degrees of it. This is not humility, but the opposite, exaltation. Even the he mentions greater humility later on; it still does not seem to be the most important. Formal observance seems to take precedence over the simple and honest, if at times clumsy, task of living a good life, shows seem to be more important than honest service.
Monasteries are supposed to be quiet and devoted to their given tasks, not showing off their “more-humble-than-thou-art”. This is devoutly un-Christian. The Bible says, however, that things such as worship should be kept in secret – and not because of a fear of nosy neighbors, either! The mysteries of God are simple, yet, when occulted, they gain great power for the transformation of the one that works with these mysteries. However, as with any occult knowledge, when revealed, it becomes absolutely useless and even false.
Like decorations out of a good drama, when brought to daylight, they are nothing but fool’s gold – and the alchemical transmutation of fool’s gold into real gold only occurs in solitude and darkness, only after a person has sought his on way to God and fought his own battles on it. One might oppose me in that monasteries are there to leave the lights within this darkness, for the lone traveler and neophyte to use. Monasteries are supposed to lead the exemplary life, one for which the average believer should strive. Yet how much of an example is it, if it is impossible to follow because of the elitism?
A true teaching goes out to the students of this teaching, it does not attempt to shroud knowledge in baubles. Yes, showing an exemplary life originally was one of their functions – however, such things must be done very carefully, and never massively. Yes, certain shreds of enlightenment, certain way markers can be transplanted from one person to another; and a basic education is never a bad thing. However, usually such things are not given in monasteries. They are not careful enough, not competent enough, and too massive for their own good – and, even if they were good enough, what truth about God was ever learned in a classroom?
It and the teacher in it can aid in pinpointing the way, not be the Truth itself. Added to the usually reclusive and yet arrogant life of the monasteries, what comes of it is more an indoctrination than anything else. And this leads us to the next un-Christian thing I found in Benedict’s Rule. Benedict speaks much of obedience. (“As soon as anything hath been commanded by the Superior they permit no delay in the execution, as if the matter had been commanded by God Himself. “, chapter 5) However, he speaks of obedience to humans, not to God.
He says that those high up in the Church are God’s chosen for this work, and should be obeyed as God would be obeyed, for they are always vessels for His will. We shall not even get into the whole discussion of where saying that the Church hierarchs lack the basic gift of God – Free Will – leads. Omitting that, we shall focus on the fact that everything is, in its own way, a test from God. If subscribing to the theodicy of the fact that evil exists as a tool for our learning and growth, the fallacies of another can also be regarded in this respect.
Preaching blind obedience, when one of the basics of Christianity is “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. ” (Matthew 7:2)? The process of seeking has always involved thinking for oneself, separating the wheat from the chaff, deciphering the Holy Book that is Life and Christ itself – not merely obeying those who are also on this search, and may be going down a wrong alleyway, for to be human is to err! Christianity is a religion that is supposed to grant freedom, not to suffocate it within the throngs of hierarchy.
In Benedict’s Rule there is much emphasis on formality. When prayers are to be said, how gifts are supposed to be given, and so on. (“CHAPTER XVI How the Work of God Is to Be Performed during the Day”, et cetera). The proper procedure for communion with God is quite important, that no one can deny, however, it is not by chance that the Sermon on the Mount focuses upon the inner motivations (“But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court;” Matthew 5:22) and not on the outer manifestation.
One might say that an outer manifestation, such as the keeping of formalities, is important as well. After all, is it not by ceremony that we recognize and identify? Is it not the symbol that shows us the way? Is it not the atmosphere that is created with these symbols and formalities that first teaches us the essence of religion, is within them not the spirit of Christianity itself? Yes, and I do not mean to contradict that in any kind of way. However, as a word written on a page can never replace the object itself, so the symbols of religion should not become the core of religion, and this should be remembered.
Christianity, when it first arose, was a religion of personal experience. It was something that you felt and worked with, and it – and its outer expressions – was individual for every believer. Everyone was his own judge, in the end. Any outer rules that came into existence for Christianity, though important, were secondary, not primary. The code of conduct is a useful thing, however, it – if the monks to whom it is addressed are good monks – has no value whatsoever. It would be valuable for those striving to be monks, for complete novices, but not for those who have done the inner work.
For, if one heeds the Bible, which frowns even upon evil thoughts, good actions should follow. The formalities are a necessary subsequence to real inner faith. What would be good is advice on wisdom, on how to make decisions, and not on the formalities. Tradition is important and beautiful, but not to this extent. It should not become dogma, accepted on faith as Gospel – and as too many would want it to be. As we can see, the text ”Benedict’s Rule”, if read with care, can be seen as even contradicting the Bible.
Such is the price of human folly; such is the price of people attempting to judge the inner world by outer laws. Not a gentle mingling, growing into each other, which is done within every true individual’s hearts – but a forcible mashing together of the two things that should be one, yet are now separate. This task, to be done, must include letting go of the reins of society and entrusting the process within the hands of an individual human and God, though this is very difficult.
Christianity is not supposed to force this relationship, as Benedict states, with punishments (“At the day hours, however, whoever doth not arrive for the Work of God after the verse and the Gloria of the first psalm, which is said after the verse, let him stand in the last place, according to the rule which we stated above; and let him not attempt to join the choir of the chanters until he hath made satisfaction, unless, perchance, the Abbot’s permission hath given him leave to do so, with the understanding that he atone the fault afterwards” chapter 43).
However, it is supposed to gently show those who made a mistake that it was a mistake. As Socrates said, “There is not one person that would do evil if they knew it was evil. ” This is true, and Christianity’s function is to enlighten the people, to aid them in stopping making mistakes. How many times could a teacher force someone to learn? None. But a teacher who awakens within his pupils not fear, but a desire to learn, will succeed in being a good teacher. Benedict, though he tries valiantly, fails this difficult task.