Written in the sixth century by St. Benedict of Nursia, the Rule of St. Benedict proved to be the most influential guide of Western monasticism until after the Great Schism, perhaps the most influential guide ever in the West. Followed continuously since the time of St. Benedict, this rule is currently used by Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran monasteries. Designed for monks sharing the common life, the Rule is renowned for its spiritual riches, gentleness, and balance.
The saint described his rule as "a school of the Lord's service, in which we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome." In its 73 chapters, he prescribes a full way of life for cenobitic monks to "share in the sufferings of Christ, and be found worthy to be coheirs with Him of His kingdom." In addition to the moral and spiritual aspects of common life, he describes the proper attributes of monks and the ruling Abbot, the proper form of Divine Office, and even the appropriate way to greet visitors.
The Abbot of the monastery is to be blameless, one who teaches the righteousness of Christ through his own words and deeds. Since he is a ruler, he must be impartial, not loving one monk above another nor implementing the monastery's rules selectively. He must exhort the righteous to further righteousness and punish those who err, always adapting himself to the peculiar needs and spiritual attainments of each. Above all, he must always remember he will give account for the souls of the monks entrusted to his care on the Judgment Day.
When any decision is to be made, the Abbot is to ask the counsel of all the monastics gathered in a common meeting, but he makes the final decision himself. The monks are to offer their views humbly and in submission.
The Rule of St. Benedict enjoins all monks to view their fellow monks as their superiors and tend to the needs of others above their own. The monk in a Benedictine monastery is to view himself the lowest of all men, to be satisfied with the worst accommodations and clothing, to keep silence unless spoken to, to do nothing but those things commanded by the monastic rule, and to hide none of his sins from the Abbot during confession. Under no circumstance is he to defend a fellow monk from a deserved punishment, even if they are related by blood.
The Rule regulates the specific amount of food and drink monks are to take in a day. The monk is to own nothing of his own. All monks are to receive an equal ration, though the Abbot must have regard for those with physical infirmities.
In the fourth chapter, the saint lists 73 "instruments of good works." Of these, perhaps the most important is the injunction to "prefer nothing to the love of Christ." Silence, humility, hospitality, holy reading, and spiritual discernment (or guarding of the heart) play vital roles in the Rule.
Guarding of the heart occurs when the monks keep "a constant watch over the actions of our life," "hold as certain that God sees us everywhere," "dash at once against Christ the evil thoughts which rise in one's heart," and "disclose them to our spiritual father."
Silence is a pronounced feature of the Rule. Monks were to keep strict silence for several hours a day and great silence after Compline. During meals, the monks were to keep silence while another monk read from a holy book, speaking only through gestures, and then only if absolutely necessary. Monks may speak at other times with the permission of the Abbot, but St. Benedict so values silence and so understands the likelihood of sin that comes with much speaking that he instructs, "let permission to speak be seldom given to perfect disciples even for good and holy and edifying discourse."
Holy reading (Lectio Divina) has a special place in the Rule. Monks are to read a holy book at least two hours every weekday and all day Sunday, with the amount of time spent reading during the week varying according to the time of year. As noted, they also listened to holy reading during their meals. (The reader was selected weekly and had to ask others to pray for him that he not be filled with pride as a result of his selection.)
Hospitality became a Benedictine hallmark. The importance of welcoming strangers into the monastery is best encapsulated in the exhortation: "Let all guests who arrive be received as Christ."
Beside the spiritual disposition and government of the monastery, St. Benedict outlined the form the monastic office was to take, including the psalms to be prayed at each canonical hour. This general order is preserved in the Breviarium Monasticum (the Monastic Breviary). It can be found in English translation in two volumes: Monastic Breviary Matins and the Monastic Diurnal.
The Rule states it is intended for beginners, and recommends monks read the Monastic Rule of St. Basil, the the Institutes and Conferences of St. John Cassian, as well as the Bible and the lives of the saints, as they advance in their asceticism.
The Rule of St. Benedict has been kept in continual obedience by monks since the time it was written. The Latin Monastery of Amalfi observed the Rule on Mount Athos until 1287; in the eleventh century, this ruling Benedictine monastery was ranked fifth in the Holy Mountain's hierarchy. Various other Orthodox have kept the Rule in recent times, including the monks of St. Luke's Priory under the Antiochian Western Rite Vicariate. Presently, the Christ the Savior Monastery (ROCOR) in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, (sometimes known as "Christminster") follows the Benedictine monastic rule. Likewise, among the Old Calendarists, the Abbey of the Holy Name and its various dependencies.
Abbey of the Holy Name, a Benedictine monastery under the Autonomous Orthodox Metropolia of Western Europe and the Americas.