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The Rule of Benedict


Bible with Roses 


It is almost incomprehensible that this brief document, almost fifteen hundred years old, is now enshrined as one of the greatest spiritual handbooks of all time. Volumes have been written about it (but the small, unassuming text itself is almost bound to be disappointing to a culture that likes things to sound impressive and to look slick). 


The Rule of Benedict is not concerned with a single time and place, a single view of church, a single set of devotions, or a single ministry. The Rule of Benedict is concerned with life – what it’s about, what it demands, how to live it. This is why it stays both authentic and necessary century after century after century in culture after culture after culture. Its value lies more in the ideas with which it concerns itself and the attitudes it sets out to form, rather than in the particulars it prescribed for the people who were reading it in early Europe. 


The Prologue is its cornerstone. Here are some insights from the Prologue: 


1.     Life is a teacher of universal truths. 

a.     We each need to attend to the important things in life. 

b.     Let nothing go by without being open to being nourished by the inner meaning of that event in life. 

c.     If we do not live life consciously, we may not be living at all. 

d.     If we want to have a spiritual life, we will have to concentrate on doing so. 


2.     The Rule of Benedict is a wisdom literature that sounds life’s themes and deals with answers to the great questions of the human condition: 

a.     The presence of God 

b.     The foundation of relationships 

c.      The nature of self-development 

d.     The place of purpose 


3.      To the wise, life is not a series of events to be controlled – life is a way of walking through the universe whole and holy. 


4.     Spirituality does not come by breathing – it comes, for example, by listening to the Rule and to its insights into life “with the ear of the heart”, with feeling, with more than an academic interest. 

a.     One part of spirituality is learning to be aware of what is going on around us and allowing ourselves to feel its effects. 

b.     The other part of spirituality, the Prologue makes clear, is learning to hear what God wants in any given situation and being quick to respond to that, to “welcome it and faithfully put it into practice”. 


5.     The Prologue insists that the rule is being written by someone who loves us and will – if we allow it – carry us along to fullness of life. No one grows simply by doing what someone else forces us to do. We begin to grow when we finally want to grow – it is our own decision to become what we can by doing what we must. 


6.     The first paragraph of the Prologue sets out the importance of not allowing ourselves to become our own guides – our own gods.  

a.     Obedience – the willingness to listen for the voice of God in life – is what will wrench us out of the limitations of our own landscape. We are being called to something outside of ourselves, something greater than ourselves, something beyond ourselves. 

b.     We will need someone to show us the way: the Christ, a loving spiritual model, the Rule. 


7.     The person who prays for the presence of God is, ironically, already in the presence of God – the person who seeks God has already found God to some extent. 


8.      Attention to the spiritual life changes our appreciation for the presence of God in our dull, mundane lives. 

a.     We come to realize that we did not find God – God finally got our attention. 

b.     The spiritual life is a grace with which we must cooperate – not a prize to be captured or a trophy to be won.  


9.     The spiritual life is a grace that is volatile – to feel it and ignore it, to receive it but reject it, is to be in a worse condition than if we had never paid any attention to the spiritual life at all. 

a.     We can lose what is ours for the taking. 

b.     We can miss out on the life we are meant to have. 

c.     In failing to respond to God everywhere God is around us, we may lose the power of God that is in us. 


10.   Realize that God is the only lifeline that life guarantees us – we have been loved to life by God, and now we must love God back with our whole lives, or forever live a living death. 

a.     Who of us has not been failed by all the other things beside God – money, status, security, work, people – that we have clung to and been disappointed by in our cleaving. 

b.     Whose life has not been warped by a series of twisted hopes, the roots of which were sunk in the shale of false promises and empty treasures that could not satisfy? 


11.  One thing stays with us, present whether pursued or not, and that is the call to the centre of ourselves where the God we are seeking is seeking us. 

a.     We need to listen today – to start now, then begin immediately to direct our life to that small, clear voice within. 


12.  Life is short – we don’t have time to waste time. Some things are significant in life, and some are not. 

a.     We all have to ask ourselves what time it is in our own lives. 

b.     We each have to begin to consider the eternal weight of what we are spending life doing. 

c.     Are we spending our lives on gold or dross? 


13.  The life laid out in the Prologue is a life based on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

a.     It is not the prescriptions of a private guru – it is an immersion in the Gospel life. 

b.     We don’t just stumble through life from one pious exercise to another, hoping that in the end everything will be all right. 

c.     We don’t surfeit on this life – even the spiritual systems of it – and forget the life to come. 

d.     We must run toward the light, with Scriptures in hand – responsible to the presence of God in every moment and sure that life is only beginning when it ends. 


14.  The spiritual life is not a collection of asceticisms – it is a way of being in the world that is open to God and open to others.  

a.     It is so easy to tell ourselves that we overlooked the needs of others because we were attending to the needs of God. 

b.     Deep spiritual traditions everywhere, however, reject such rationalization. 

c.     The great spiritual question of life is not “Is there life after death?” but rather, “Is there life before death?” 

d.     Life lived fully is life lived on two planes: attention to God and attention to the good of the other. 


15.  The spiritual life involves being peaceful peacemakers. 

a.     Never talk destructively about another person – in anger, in spite, in vengefulness. 

b.     Agitation drives out consciousness of God – when we’re driven by agitation, consumed by fretting, we become immersed in our own agenda, and it is always exaggerated. (We get caught up in things that, in the final analysis, simply don’t count and that pass away.) 

c.     Violence must be simply discounted – it doesn’t work: not political violence, not social violence, not physical violence, not even the violence that we do to ourselves in the name of religion.


16. Justice, honesty, and compassion are the marks of those who dwell with God in life. 

a.     Responsibility for the human community is the benchmark of those who “dwell in God’s tent”, know God on earth, live on a higher plane than the mass of humanity around them. 

b.     The really holy, the ones who touch God, are those who live well with those around them – they are just, they are upright, they are kind. 


17.  We are not able to achieve God’s grace without God’s help. 

a.     If we do good for the poor, it is because God has given us the courage to do good. 

b.     If we speak truth in the face of lies, it is because God has given us a taste for truth. 


18. The Prologue puts to rest the position of the wandering monk Pelagius, who taught in the fifth century that human beings were inherently good and capable of achieving God’s great presence on the strength of their own merits. 

a.     We do what we do in life, even holy things, not because we are so good but because God is go good and enables us to rise above the misery of ourselves. 

b.     Even the spiritual life can become an arrogant trap if we do not realize that the spiritual life is not a game that is won by the development of spiritual skills. 

c.     The spiritual life is simply the God-life already at work in us. 


19.  God is not something to be achieved God is a presence to be responded to, but to whom without that presence we cannot respond. 

a.     God isn’t something for which spiritual athletes compete or someone that secret spiritual formulas expose. God is not a mathematical formula that we discover. 

b.     God is the breath we breathe – it is thanks to God that we have any idea of God at all. God is the reason that we can reach God – his is an ever-present Presence. God is already in our lives. 


20. God is with us – for the taking, but not for any spiritual payment. 

a.     God is neither cajoled nor captured. 

b.     God is in the Here and Now. 

c.     It is we who are not – it is we who are trapped in the past, angry at what formed us, or fixated on a future that is free from pain or totally under our control. 

d.     But, God is in our present – waiting for us there.



Source: Taken and adapted from Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad, 2009), 18-27. 

Photo credit: Intellimon Ltd. 




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