What I have learned about St. Benedict from members of the Fortnightly Club
A paper delivered to the Fortnightly Club of Redlands on May 8, 2008
By Roger M. Baty, Hon. Mem.
While serving on the Vestry of Trinity Episcopal Church the past two years, my assignment included “Adult Christian Formation” or helping members learn more about their faith. We found encouragement in responses to programs on the history of Anglicanism and the Episcopal Church in America and discussions on the nature of Protestantism in America. As my own “Christian Formation” evolves, I find myself attracted to learning more about the origins of the monastic movement in the early centuries of the church.
Inspired by our Rector, Father David Caffrey, I have begun researching the Benedictine Order. One of the first books I found in Smiley Library. The book The View from a Monastery by Brother Benet Tvedten shares vignettes of life in a Benedictine Monastery -- South Dakota’s Blue Cloud Abbey. In speaking about life there, Brother Benet writes
“The idealized notion of all monks being holy is easily dispelled by reading St. Benedict’s Rule. These are the words he uses to describe some of the people who lived in monasteries: undisciplined, restless, negligent, rebellious, arrogant, lukewarm, slothful….St. Benedict is reasonably sure that his disciples will make strides in the direction of holiness, and he reminds us that we are always in a state of conversion. St. Benedict sees the vow of conversion as an ongoing process, a striving to make things better. Our spiritual life is expected to improve, and so is the performance of our natural abilities. Take pride in your work, improve it.” (Tvedten, 1999 p.65)
This idea of conversion as an ongoing process helps me think about my own Christian Formation. Along with Brother Benet’s book, I obtained a copy of the Rule of St. Benedict, and was loaned an armful of books on mysticism by Doug Bowman. Gene Ouellette also agreed to talk with me about the topic. We initiated what may be a series of conversations about the path to monastic living and the values inherent in that lifestyle.
I thought this conversion from writing about World War Two might lead to a paper in the next year or so and casually mentioned the thought to our Secretary, Bob Baldwin at a January meeting. Much to my surprise, a meeting or so after my volunteering a paper for next year, Bob called me and delivered a terrific goose. A member had resigned. Could I prepare a paper for the 8th of May? I remember vividly the date of his call -- two days before the 29th of February.
My mind-set at the time figures importantly in my response to his request. It so happens I was mulling over the Rule of St. Benedict. Benedict’s Rule has 73 chapters. Chapter 5 is titled “Obedience.” It reads as follows:
The first step of humility is unhesitating obedience, which comes naturally to those who cherish Christ above all. Because of the holy service they have professed, or because of dread of hell and for the glory of everlasting life, they carry out the superior’s order as promptly as if the command came from God himself…. Such people as these immediately put aside their own concerns, abandon their own will, and lay down whatever they have in hand, leaving it unfinished….This very obedience, however, will be acceptable to God and agreeable to men only if compliance with what is commanded is not cringing or sluggish or half-hearted, but free from any grumbling or any reaction of unwillingness.
In my mind, Bob Baldwin was the perfect exemplar of the Abbot. With monkish eagerness I said I would have a paper ready and shared the title. The more I got into the work of the paper, the more parallels I noted between Benedict’s Rule and the unwritten rules of our own organization. Perhaps I should have titled the paper “What I have learned about the Fortnightly Club from the Rule of St. Benedict.” But I am getting ahead of my story.
ST. BENEDICT OF NURSIA
Just who was this Benedict, important enough that the current Pope would become the sixteenth Pope to choose the name? The only clues we have to this person, aside from his Rule, come from the second book of Gregory the Great’s Dialogues. Gregory, Bishop of Rome (Pope) from 590 to 604 AD, was born in 540, making him seven years old when Benedict died. Gregory’s writing about the life and miracles of Benedict appeared in 593, less than fifty years after Benedict’s death. The second book of the Dialogues, more a spiritual profile than a biography, depended on recollections from several of Benedict’s followers.
Benedict [c. 480-553 AD] was born at Spoleto in the region of Norcia, seventy miles or so northeast of Rome, about 480 AD. His well-to-do parents, following the pattern of seeking the best education for their aristocratic son, moved to Rome [or sent their son there – RB 1980,76]. Here at the age of thirteen, he concluded home schooling and entered grammar school. No doubt studies included Latin and Greek literature including the poetry of Virgil, Horace, Homer and the amorous manuals of Publius Ovidius Naso (Ovid) (who had been exiled as a corrupter of morals by Augustus in 8 AD but whose writings were still devoured by young men seeking advice in their relations with young women). He received instruction in rhetoric and read the plays, speeches, letters and philosophical epigrams of Seneca and Cicero. In addition to this he was disciplining his body through rigorous athletic training. [Butcher, 2006, 39 ff.]
During this time he likely learned of some of the leaders of the monastic movement in the east and began reading the monastic rules then circulating. According to a recent biographer, Carmen Acevedo Butcher, “He could have pored over St. Basil’s fourth-century Rule, which presents wisdom still followed today by Greek Orthodox and Catholic monastics. St. Basil believed the foundation of all asceticism is a dedicated submission to the authority of the Holy Scriptures.” [Butcher, 2006, 44]
[St. Basil of Caesarea, 329?-379 Durant, Age of Faith, 62]
We may surmise that young Benedict also became aware of the enticements of life in the big city and was attracted but also repulsed by the extra-curricular activities of his classmates.
On the one hand he was drawn to the importance of the scriptures and the message of community stressed by St. Augustine, referring in his Rule to Acts 4:32: “Above all things, live together in harmony, being of one mind and one heart, as you walk God’s way.” [Butcher, 45]
On the other hand, he became increasingly familiar with what his classmates were getting in to. He saw many of his contemporaries becoming totally captivated by the evils of Rome described by Juvenal – lying, astrology, patricide, divination with animals, illicit love, thievery and political corruption. [Butcher, 49]. Gregory tells us:
When he saw many of his fellow students falling headlong into vice, he stepped back from the threshold of the world in which he had just set foot. For he was afraid that if he acquired any of its learning he, too, would later plunge, body and soul, into the dread abyss. In his desire to please God alone, he turned his back on further studies, gave up home and inheritance and resolved to embrace the religious life.”
According to some [W.Durant, Age of Faith, 517, referencing Cambridge Medieval History, I, 536] his conversion and decision to leave Rome may have involved a love affair of his own which failed to meet expectations.
Pope Gregory tells us how vigorously Benedict fought to remove any memory of the woman after he left Rome:
One day while the saint was alone, the tempter came in the form of a little blackbird, which began to flutter in front of his face. It kept so close that he could easily have caught it in his hand. Instead he made the sign of the Cross and the bird flew away.
The moment it left, he was seized with an unusually violent temptation. The evil spirit recalled to his mind a woman he had once seen, and before he realized it his emotions were carrying him away. Almost over come in the struggle, he was on the point of abandoning the lonely wilderness, when suddenly with the help of God’s grace he came to himself.
Just then he noticed a thick patch of nettles and briers next to him. Throwing his garment aside, he flung himself naked into the sharp thorns and stinging nettles. There he rolled and tossed until his whole body was in pain and covered with blood. Yet once he had conquered pleasure through suffering, his torn and bleeding skin served to drain off the poison of temptation from his body. Before long the pain that was burning his whole body had put out the fires of evil in his heart. It was by exchanging these two fires that he gained the victory over sin. So complete was his triumph that from then on, as he later told his disciples, he never experienced another temptation of this kind.”
[Pope St. Gregory the Great. Life and Miracles of St. Benedict (Book Two of the Dialogues), Translated by Zimmermann and Avery. Liturgical Press; Collegeville, Minnesota. Pp 7,8]
Here we note the first part of the pattern of his adult life: a sequence of temptation, followed by victory. Later a third component emerges; i.e., the development of his own holiness and the extension of that to helping others. [Fry,1980,75]
In a background essay about Benedict, Timothy Fry, O.S.B., translator of the Rule, tells us the first place he lived after Rome was with a group of ascetics at Enfide (now Affile), east of Rome. This was followed by three years of living on his own in a cave at Subiaco (site of a monastery today where you can see the oldest painting known of St. Francis). A group of false monks persuaded him to be their abbot but this relationship did not last and he returned to Subiaco. Numerous disciples joined him and with these he established twelve monasteries of twelve monks each and appointed deans over them. (Archaeological research after WW2 has found evidence of the twelve monasteries – Fr Philip OSB, St. Andrew’s Abbey, Valyermo).
He left this region taking a few disciples with him. Trekking to the top of the mountain we know as Mt. Cassino, he oversaw the destruction of an active shrine to Apollo, and cut down the grove of trees dedicated to several lesser spirits. The shrine to Apollo was replaced by a shrine to St. Martin of Tours and a chapel to St. John the Baptist. He oversaw the building of a refectory, guest house, and other necessary buildings and continued his preaching and working of miracles. People who formerly worshipped idols, were instructed in the true faith. Probably the Rule was compiled at this monastery. Of the Rule, Pope Gregory tells us: it is remarkable for its discretion and its clarity of language. Anyone who wishes to know more about his life and character can discover in his Rule exactly what he was like as an abbot, for his life could not have differed from his teaching.” [Life and Miracles of St. Benedict, p 74]
THE RULE OF ST. BENEDICT [“sanctae regulae” Holy Regulations]
Benedict labeled the guidelines “sanctae regulae” or holy regulations. These were holy because they embodied a monastic tradition that itself was seen as embodying the tradition of the Gospel [Fry, RB1980, note 65.18]. As regulations they guided the management of daily life in the monastery in minute detail. However comprehensive, the Rules were “only a beginning of perfection.” 
Rules were written for specific monasteries and based on practices passed down from earlier centuries, including, for example, the Rule of father Basil . Benedict’s intent was “to establish a school for the Lord’s service. In drawing up its regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome.” (Prologue, 45,46)
The Rule is not intended for all kinds of monks, but only for those living in the communal setting of a monastery; i.e., the cenobites. It is not for hermits or anchorites. It is not for the small groups of monks that do whatever strikes their fancy [the sarabaites]. And it is certainly not for those monks who drift about staying for a few days in a monastery before they move on, never to settle down. [gyrovagues – those who wander in circles] [ 1].
The administrator of the Rule is the abbot [from Aramaic abba – father]. He is the shepherd and leads by both word and example. [2,11-12] He will ultimately be held to account for the souls under his care and he cannot plead lack of resources as an excuse for failure [2, 30-35]. He is chosen by the whole community or by a smaller part of the community if it “possesses sounder judgment.” [64, 1]
In making decisions, the abbot is to seek advice from the entire community. Since authentic inspiration in attempting to discern the will of God may come from even the youngest member [ in terms of seniority, I presume --rmb], the abbot must remain open to all possibilities. On matters of less importance he listens to the counsel of the seniors only. When the abbot makes his decision, all are expected to obey and the abbot is ultimately accountable to God [Rule 3].
Ideally, the monastery is self-contained and self-supporting with its own water source, buildings, mill and garden. Administering this complex are deans, acting under the abbot’s direction. These are brothers “chosen for their good repute and holy life.” . Each dean is responsible for ten monks and the tasks assigned by the abbot. Only if absolutely necessary, a brother may be elevated above the others to become the prior. But the prior must avoid the temptation of thinking of himself as a second abbot and dutifully accept the decisions of the abbot. [ 65].
The cellarer plays a crucial role, almost as important as the abbot. Indeed, he shares many of the abbot’s characteristics. (We can think of the cellarer as the supply sergeant endowed with special gifts of caring for everybody). He must be “wise, mature in conduct, temperate, not an excessive eater, not proud, excitable, offensive, dilatory or wasteful, but God-fearing, and like a father to the whole community, but will do nothing without an order from the abbot.” [31, 1-4] “He must show every care and concern for the sick, children, guests and the poor…. He will regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar.” [31, 9 – 10]
The Porter of the monastery is the gate-keeper. His attributes are not unlike the individual who serves as the porter at an Oxford college today. He should be a “sensible old man who knows how to take a message and deliver a reply, and whose age keeps him from roaming about…. [he may] be given one of the younger brothers if he needs help.” 
Another key position (which we would call novice-master) is filled by an appropriate senior “chosen for his skill in winning souls.” He looks after those seeking entry to monastic life during their year of testing. It is his duty to explain to the novice the “hardships and difficulties that will lead him to God.” .
Those wishing to become brothers are subjected to significant testing under the guidance of the appointed senior. “If [the applicant] promises perseverance in his stability, then after two months have elapsed let this rule be read straight through to him, and let him be told ‘This is the law under which you are choosing to serve. If you can keep it, come in. If not, feel free to leave.’ If he still stands firm, he is to be taken back to the novitiate, and again thoroughly tested in patience. After six months have passed, the rule is to be read to him, so that he may know what he is entering. If once more he stands firm, let four months go by, and then read this rule to him again. If after due reflection he promises to observe everything and to obey every command given him, let him then be received into the community. But he must be well aware that, as the law of the rule established, from this day he is no longer free to leave the monastery, nor to shake from his neck the yoke of the rule which, in the course of so prolonged a period of reflection, he was free either to reject or to accept.” ]58, 9-16]
“When he is to be received, he comes before the whole community in the oratory and promises stability, fidelity to monastic life, and obedience.” [58, 17] (Italics mine). [Fry points out that these were not 3 distinct vows as monks later made them, but the content of their agreement].
By this time he has given away all his possessions. At the moment of his induction he is stripped of everything he is wearing of his own and dressed in what is the property of the monastery. [58, 24 – 26] He thus begins a communal life resembling that of the early Christians in Jerusalem. [Acts 4:35]
Life was ordered. The Rule quotes the psalmist: “Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous ordinances.” [Ps 119:164] The sacred number of seven is satisfied with service at Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. The idea of getting up in the middle of the night to give God praise also comes from the Psalms, making Vigil an eighth service. Each week they recited all 150 Psalms. [ 18 ] In addition to specified times for public prayer were designated hours for private prayerful reading [lectio divina]; for manual labor; for sleep or rest; and for eating.
The Rule is clear that “idleness is the enemy of the soul.”  Manual labor might include KP, cultivating the fields; looking after the sick, elderly and children; skilled crafts, and other duties as assigned. Illness was taken into account when duties were handed out.
One of the devices for retaining the dedication of the monks was a twelve-step program to achieve humility. Never forget what God has commanded. Do not take pleasure from satisfying your own desires. Learn to embrace suffering. Be obedient. Confess all your sins. Be content with the most menial treatment. Believe you are inferior to all. Do only those things endorsed by the common rule. Be silent unless asked a question. Do not give in readily to laughter. Do not raise your voice. Show humility in your posture. When you walk, bow your head and cast your eyes down .
Monks were not allowed letters or gifts without the Abbot’s permission . “For bedding the monks will need a mat, a woolen blanket and a light covering as well as a pillow. The beds are to be inspected frequently by the abbot, lest private possessions be found there .
For those monks who struggled against the Rule there were different degrees of correction ranging from private warnings from a senior, to graded levels of excommunication, corporal punishment and ultimately, as a last resort, expulsion .
Tardiness, for example, could be punished by excommunication from the event until the proper satisfaction was performed [43,44]. Children who made a mistake in the oratory could be whipped . Satisfaction must be rendered for any sort of failure . “The life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent.” During Lent itself, it is a little more so . Short of expulsion, the worst punishment was to be isolated, out of communion with the other brothers.
Rule 72 is about the kind of respect the brothers must show for one another. “No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else. To their fellow monks they show the pure love of brothers; to God, loving fear; to their abbot, unfeigned and humble love. Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.” .
The Influence of St. Benedict
I asked one of my Fortnightly brothers why he thought Benedict was so important and Doug Bowman shared this:
He was tremendously influential in the westernization of monasticism. I was interested in what distinguishes the western church from the eastern church – Greek Orthodox and Russian and had just finished reading Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov again. Benedict just jumped out as one of the extremely important persons who in some ways came the closest to easternizing the western church. He was a student, I subsequently learned, of Basil of Caesaria – a century before or so – who was one of the great eastern Greek Orthodox fathers of the Philokalia and the whole eastern tradition. He didn’t slavishly follow what he learned there but he included a lot. I think the most important thing that he contributed was he made it quite clear that monasticism should not make a group of hermits but should be communal in character. Therefore the community of the church is vital to the person’s development and to the person’s deepening their own life. We don’t do it by ourselves but along with everybody else. That is the eastern side of him coming through…. So there was a radical break between the formal theological side of the church in the west and the monastic side which was experiential and the core and foundation of faith and its communal nature. Benedict’s big influence was saying “this has got to be communal. And it’s not just for some; it’s for everybody who wants it. And the fact that you want it shows that God is already after you, so follow it up.”
So he developed this rule which was basically an experiential rule. Some form of liturgy or prayer every three hours, and a time of rest and a time of labor so that all of your life from beginning to end was oriented as he reminded his followers as Jesus’ life was oriented to God.
As a result of my studying this I’ve realized that some of the clues in the New Testament to Jesus himself are so subtle and yet so powerful, like, for example, “and he left the crowd and went off into the hills. ….long before dawn he was off in the hills.” OK, what was he doing? As I put in a letter to my Grandson one time, “I don’t think he was looking for additions to his beetle collection!”
As we conversed at his home in Yucaipa, Doug and I planned a visit to the Abbey of St. Stevens in Valyermo, the nearest Benedictine abbey to Redlands. Our trip together was postponed by accidental causes but I was able to visit the abbey on tax day with my good friend Bill Chaffin who has shared with me much of his own journey in Roman Catholicism over the years.
We were both struck by the tranquil beauty of the Abbey, an oasis in a valley branching off from the San Andres fault. (That St. Andrews was chosen as the name for the abbey is unrelated to its geography). Our guest status and prior reservation for lunch gave us access to the grounds and an invitation to participate in the public sessions of mass at noon, and vespers in the evening. We accepted the offer to remain after vespers for an evening meal. Our afternoon was for us to explore the grounds in Bill’s 4WD vehicle, visit the bookstore, place orders in the ceramic shop, enjoy sweeping vistas from the cemetery and learn more about the history of the Valyermo Benedictines.
The aspects of our visit that really impressed me were the painting of the foot-washing ceremony behind the desk of the guest-master; the chanted services, and the evening meal. The evening meal was special because we were all silent. And while we ate, one of the monks read for about twenty minutes from the book that got me started on my journey: Brother Benet Tvedten’s View from a Monastery. Listening to the words helped me appreciate the book even more.
Everything that we noticed reinforced the ideal of monastic life that Gene Ouellette shared with me: achieving balance and community. We in the Fortnightly Club may have a similar ideal, achieved even without a Rule of 73 chapters. But perhaps we should have a meal together and listen in silence to a reading of our constitution!
What I have learned about St. Benedict from members of the Fortnightly Club
The paper shares insights from the author’s own spiritual journey as he learns more about the early days of the monastic movement and the influence of the Rule of St. Benedict. Benedict of Norcia (480 – 547 AD) is known to us through the writing of Pope Gregory the Great. Benedict’s Rule was probably written while he resided in the monastery he built at Mt. Cassino and is still followed by those in the Order of St. Benedict at the nearby monastery of St. Andrews at Valyermo. The Rule has stood the test of time, serving to guide monastic life for fifteen hundred years.
Key words: monastic, monastery, St. Benedict, Valyermo, Rule of St. Benedict, Douglas Bowman, Gene Ouellette, Trinity Episcopal Church, St. Andrews Abbey, Pope Gregory the Great, Abbot, David Caffrey
BRIEF BIOGRAPHY OF ROGER BATY
Our speaker today came to Redlands in 1969 to help start the University’s Johnston College. His first Fortnightly paper in 1972, entitled “A First Look at Strangers”, discussed the reactions of the Mendicant Orders to the New World. Today’s paper goes back one thousand years earlier to the beginning of monasticism in Europe. In offering the paper he wishes to thank his former colleagues at Johnston College and the University of Redlands, and former professors at the University of Montana, Merton College, Oxford, and Stanford University for encouraging learning as a life-long process of gradual improvement. His wife Phebe and their three children have also contributed greatly to his careers as a teacher and, more recently, a recorder of stories about World War Two.
a compilation of Greek mystical ascetic writings –