Its relation to how our Christian community operates and lives today.
I would not classify myself as a monk, but, while on Sabbatical last year, I took some time to read the Rule of St. Benedict. This book was written about 535 A.D. and has been named the title of The Holy Rule for centuries since. Its purpose is to be a code of religious life for Cenobite monasteries. My reason for reading it, is that I am always seeking to find practical insight as to how to most effectively lead people to live out the truths of the Bible in the ministry and Christian community here that we call Steps. I was sure that I could find some great ideas for us, in spite of the fact that I am not an Abbott and we are not seeking to establish a monastery.
In the following article I wish to make some observations about what I read in the book. I’d encourage you to read it too, as you will be able to draw your own conclusions and be challenged by it yourself. There are some things that I saw a correlation with to the way that we operate, but some things which are vastly different. These things caused me to have to think about why. Our culture in the West has become so individualistic, that the very idea of communal living is foreign to us. Oh, how quick we are to see our ways of living church as the only and best ways!
Here are my observations:
The monks’ day was to be filled with corporate reflection and praise.
Seven times a day, the community would gather for a short worship service. The first, Lauds, would be at sunrise, and the last, Compline, would be just before they went to bed. In between that would be, Prime, Tierce, Sext, None and Vespers. These were times of publicly declaring scripture, every monk would take part and would face a penalty if they missed just one. When Ruth and I visited Ffald y Brenin in Wales, the retreat center had a similar daily routine. There were four times throughout the day that people would gather in the chapel and recite a liturgy together. We didn’t go to every gathering during our 5 day stay, but it was very refreshing to be a part of that. We decided to continue the morning and evening prayers for the remainder of the Sabbatical. I think corporate prayer and praise is very important. Here at the Steps community we gather once each day, for those who can make it. I’d like to emphasize scripture reading more in our community, we tend to focus more on worship singing and extemporaneous prayer.
The Monks were to eat and sleep together
It goes without saying that the monks lived in close geographical proximity to one another, they lived in the same monastery and…shared one big bedroom! Every meal of the day was a community meal and everyone had to help with the prep and clean-up work. This kind of communal living is quite alien to western culture. For many Christians, the only day of the week that they see their fellow Church members is on Sunday and they live 45 minutes drive from the building. When a Christian lives in close proximity to another it tests the authenticity of his faith. At the Steps community, we like to eat meals together. This usually involves one or two people cooking and everyone helping to clean up afterwards. But, even this is an occasional thing as we try to align schedules. I would like to see this become more of a regular thing, particularly with those who live nearby.
The Monks were not to privately own anything
On this point, St. Benedict was very strong, “The vice of private ownership is above all to be cut off from the monastery by the roots”. At the monastery, everything was communally owned. Upon entrance into the order, a monk would be given the following necessities “A cowl, tunic, shoes, stockings, girdle, knife, pen, needle, handkerchief and tablets”. Anything beyond this would have to be requested from the Abbott and not acquired by other means. The purpose behind this controversial rule, was to keep the monks from idolatry, worldliness and covetousness. Everyone was to have the same and each would be given an allotment of food each day. The monastery provided everything that the monk ‘needed’ so that the monk could focus on the Lord. It was incredibly liberating to be part of a monastery in the sense that one didn’t need to be concerned with insurance, bills, debt, taxes or personal property management. The Bible describes the common purse of the early church in no uncertain terms. “And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them.
And with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostles’ feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need.” (Acts 4:32-35 NASB). Though we may not put a ban on private ownership, we must at least take on the principle of this scripture which is to not claim ownership of anything that you own. This seems like a contradiction, but the early believers did this and it freed up the apostles to give testimony of the resurrection of the Lord. What this means practically, is that if someone else in the community has greater need of “my” car, then I go without for a day. If there is someone who would have to stay home because they don’t have enough money to go to the restaurant with everyone else, someone foots her part of the bill so she can come along. It is a liberating mindset and one that we foster here in our community.
St. Benedict condemned gluttony, yet allotted them one pint of wine a day!
As stated before, the monks were each given a portion of food every mealtime. They were not lavish dishes, but satisfying. Extra portions of food were strictly forbidden. This might seem strange to us, but to St. Benedict, this could easily lead to gluttony and that is sin. In the western church, overeating is seen as merely a social ill at worst, but not really a sin. Interestingly, St. Benedict allowed moderate daily alcohol consumption. The monks could choose to abstain, or be given a daily portion of one pint of wine. It’s interesting how most evangelical Christians would be more lenient on the food, but stricter on the alcohol. Our perspective is moderation in all things. We discourage drinking because of the widespread alcoholism in the neighborhood we live in.
The community was to receive all guests as Christ Himself
One of the things I like most about Benedict is that he has a lot of instructions regarding hospitality. Much like a monastery, we frequently have people dropping in at Steps for a visit. How these guests are received, expected or unexpected, is very important to me. I want all guests treated as Christ Himself. At a Benedictine monastery:
- All guests were prayed for
- Special care was taken for the poor and strangers
- All guests were read the law of God
- The Abbott would sit and eat with the guest, giving them the best food on hand
- Every monastery was to have a guest house for people to stay in if the Abbott saw fit
How can we say that we truly love our neighbors if we don’t take time to welcome them if they come to our house? Frequently, I will have that moment when I am intensely working on a project or writing something on the computer and a little blond-haired boy or a single mum will drop by and ring the doorbell. I often have the instinctual annoyance like any other person, but it is a labor of Christian charity to pause, take some time and receive the guest. The instruction of St. Benedict is very good on this point.In closing, there is a rising desire in Christendom to revisit monasticism.
A movement named new monasticism is gaining popularity as Christians from all walks of life seek to relocate themselves to urban settings and live in missional community together. These modern day monks are not strictly celibate but can be, there are many families that are part of this movement. Here are the 12 marks of new monasticism taken from the webpage: www.sojo.net/magazine/january-2007/12-marks-new-monasticism
The 12 marks of New Monasticism
1) Relocation to the abandoned places of Empire.
2) Sharing economic resources with fellow community members and the needy among us.
3) Hospitality to the stranger.
4) Lament for racial divisions within the church and our communities combined with the active pursuit of a just reconciliation.
5) Humble submission to Christ’s body, the church.
6) Intentional formation in the way of Christ and the rule of the community along the lines of the old novitiate.
7) Nurturing common life among members of intentional community.
8) Support for celibate singles alongside monogamous married couples and their children.
9) Geographical proximity to community members who share a common rule of life.
10) Care for the plot of God’s earth given to us along with support of our local economies.
11) Peacemaking in the midst of violence and conflict resolution within communities along the lines of Matthew 18.
12) Commitment to a disciplined contemplative life.