I've been reading, and thinking, a lot about The Rule of St. Benedict recently and as a result I may do several posts by way on commentary on the Rule. Whatever finally appears here should simply be viewed as me thinking on paper, out loud, as it were.
The point of view that is my focus at the moment is, while it is absolutely essential to understand that the Rule was written to govern the lives of cloistered religious, there is much in it that is beneficial as a guide for modern Christians living a secular vocation. It provides both spiritual and practical guidance that I doubt will ever go out of date. Still, nothing I write should be taken as conflating two distinct vocations. I am not saying, in any way, that lay people today should try to be monastics; they are not the same and should not be confused.
The Prologue to the Rule
Listen carefully, my child, to your master's precepts, and incline the ear of your heart (Prov. 4:20). Receive willingly and carry out effectively your loving father's advice, that by the labor of obedience you may return to Him from whom you had departed by the sloth of disobedience.
To you, therefore, my words are now addressed, whoever you may be, who are renouncing your own will to do battle under the Lord Christ, the true King, and are taking up the strong, bright weapons of obedience.
And first of all, whatever good work you begin to do, beg of Him with most earnest prayer to perfect it, that He who has now deigned to count us among His children may not at any time be grieved by our evil deeds. For we must always so serve Him with the good things He has given us, that He will never as an angry Father disinherit His children, nor ever as a dread Lord, provoked by our evil actions, deliver us to everlasting punishment as wicked servants who would not follow Him to glory.
There's a lot packed into just the first three short paragraphs of the Prologue to the Rule of St. Benedict. Yet, these paragraphs raise more questions than they answer: Who is being addressed? Who is the master? What is the "labor of obedience?" Why are the military references there? I hope the answer the first of these questions in this post, then follow with some further thoughts later.
Who is "my child?"
It seems confusing; first the Prologue addresses a willing student, then a loving son, finally a soldier, and all these allusions are mixed together. It's pretty clear that, when Benedict originally wrote his Rule, it was addressed to monks. First, Benedict must have had the man who, today, we would say was in the early stages of addressing his vocation in mind. But, it's also addressed to the monk living day to day under the Rule; these opening paragraphs are, I think, intended to serve as an on-going reminder of what is involved in the monastic vocation. Certainly, nothing has changed over the last 1,500 years; the Rule is still addressed to the monks, both novices and long professed.
Yet, in the last 50 years, the monastic vocation has taken an interesting twist with the recognition of the Oblate movement. Now, people living a secular vocation, are also dedicating themselves to live under the Rule as adapted to their way of life. This broadens the interpretation of who might be included as the "children" Benedict is hoping to instruct.
Thomas Merton wrote that the vocation of the monk is solely to seek union with Christ; every part of his life is dedicated to that one objective. But surely, this is at the root of every Christian vocation, religious or secular. Therefore, it must be safe to say that the Rule can serve as a useful guideline in the life of every Christian, because it's clear that Benedict's purpose is that we not be "disinherited" but that we follow our Lord "to Glory.".
But, who is "the master?" It seems important to understand this since, if it is not clear who it is we should be listening to, it is not clear what we should be listening for. There seems to be some disagreement among scholars as to this reference. It appears the majority think either Jesus or the Holy Spirit is meant. Others think it could be Benedict himself or else the abbot of a particular monastery. I wonder if Benedict might have meant "all of the above" and left the reference deliberately vague. Looking at it that way, perhaps a sort of priority is established. First, we are to "incline the ears of our hearts" to God in the Holy Trinity as revealed to us in sacred Scripture. Then, the monk has the Rule as a guide, as explained and taught by the abbot of the monastery. The greatest authority is, obviously, divine revelation, then a Rule that has been around nearly 1,500 years, finally a human teacher living in our own time.