Holiness in the Rule of St. Benedict

Holiness in the Rule of St. Benedict

The portrait of holiness presented in the Rule of St. Benedict is one of radical humility attained through obedience in order to perform the Holy Office in a worthy manner. In psychological terms it is the maintenance of extremely low self-esteem and low autonomy in order to have a highly dependent relationship with God.

The holiness of the individual and community is centered on the Holy Office: "Nothing comes before the Divine Office" (43). (It is for this reason that a major portion of the Rule is concerned with the arrangements for the Holy Office.) Humility is required so that the Holy Office will be acceptable: "It is far more important that we present our pleas to God with the utmost humility and purity of devotion." (20) Obedience is needful for the sake of humility: "The first degree of humility is prompt obedience" (5).

Much of the of the Rule not concerned with the Holy Office serves directly or indirectly to encourage humility and the primary means of achieving humility, obedience.

The focus on the Holy Office, humility, and obedience is explicit in the instructions for receiving postulants:

A senior, skilled in conversation, should supervise him to see if he truly seeks God and eagerly hopes for the Divine Office, obedience, and humiliations. (58)

The Holiness of Humility Under the Rule

Benedict's general view of humility is set forth in chapter 7. The twelve steps of humility are:

1. Obey all God's commandments.

2. Disregard one's own will, seek to do only God's will.

3. Obediently submit to a superior.

4. Patiently put up with injustice toward one's self.

5. Confess all one's evil thoughts and actions to the abbot.

6. Think one's self a poor and worthless workman.

7. Believe one's self an inferior wretch.

8. Do only what the rule and the superior demands.

9. Speak only when answering a question.

10 Laugh no longer.

11 Speak simply, gently, and softly.

12 Show humility in heart, appearance and actions.

The ultimate goal of the humility:

When a monk has climbed all twelve steps, he will find that perfect love of God which casts out fear, by means of which everything he had observed anxiously before will now appear simple and natural. he will no longer act out of the fear of Hell, but for the love of Christ, out of good habits and with a pleasure derived of virtue. (7)

Many of the practical provisions of the Rule are intended to help the individual to be humble through obedience and through submission to and submergence in the community.

If anyone makes a mistake in chanting…he must immediately humble himself publicly. (45)

If a monk while working does anything wrong, breaks or loses something or offends someone…he shall go at once to the abbot and his brothers and confess, offering to make satisfaction. (46)

If anyone becomes proud of his skill and the profit he brings the community, he should be taken from his craft and work at ordinary labor. (57)

The ordained monk must be neither arrogant nor proud. (62)

All monastic concerns should be managed by the deans as the abbot has decided. With several in charge, no one will have the opportunity to become proud. (65)

Individual desires have no place in the monastery. (3)

The emphasis on silence is for the sake of humility, "I held my peace and humbled myself and was silent, even from speaking good things." (Ps 39:2 in 6).

The reader for meals "will ask all to pray for him, that God may protect him from the sin of pride." (38) Priests entering the monastery "must give to all examples of greater humility." (60).

Monks sent on a journey submit to public humiliation, presumably to counteract any tendency to be proud of their experiences:

On the day of their return they should prostrate themselves at the completion of each Hour of the Divine Office and ask the prayers of the entire community for any sins they may have committed by seeing or hearing evil, or by idle chatter. (67)

The provisions forbidding personal possessions act to encourage humility (as well as to encourage total reliance on the community).

Without the abbot's permission a monk may not receive from or give to anyone, even his parents, letters or parcels. (54)

So that this vice of private ownership may be cut away at the roots, the abbot is to furnish all necessities: cowl, tunic, shoes, stockings, belt, knife, pen, needle, towel, and writing tablet. (55)

The vice of private ownership must be uprooted from the monastery. No one, without the abbot's permission shall dare give, receive or keep anything. (33)

Some Implications of Holiness through Humility Under the Rule

At first glance the rank order in the monastery (63) would seem to act against the development of humility. The rank order provides plenty of practice for each monk in submission to others because obedience is ordered to any senior, not just to the abbot. "The service of obedience is to be shown to all, not just the abbot. " (71) If the community was one of equals, however, there would be no way for each monk to think himself inferior as the program of humility demands.

The link of holiness with humility implies that those who hold high position in the community, especially the abbot, will be less able to achieve holiness. Indeed, the qualifications for the position of abbot do not include holiness or humility, "The abbot should be chosen for his virtue and wisdom." (67). The goal of the monks is not to rise in rank or to have authority, but rather "let them try to outdo each other in obedience" (72).

Holiness in the Rule is not primarily related to service to others in the greater community but to bring the individual to perfection, "They have laid the foundation to fight, with the aid of God, against their own bodily and spiritual vices." (1). The monastic community under the Rule is inward-directed. Although the virtues of service to others are listed in Chapter 4, "The Instruments of Good Works", they are to be applied wholly within the walls of the monastery:

"But the workshop in which we must diligently perform all these things is the seclusion of the monastery and our stability in the community." (4)


Thus, the monks under the Rule are to be obedient so that they may become humble. Because they are humble, God will hear their contrite prayers in the Holy Office. Holiness then is humble obedience to the Rule and the community for the sake of being acceptable to God.

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