The Rule

Saturday, April 18th, 2015

The spirit of our age takes a dim view of rules governing everyday life and a dimmer view of living communally, but these were cornerstones of St. Benedict‘s way of life:

We’ve come to see ourselves as, each one of us, needing to invent our own unique way of life, governed by our instincts and what we most feel like doing in the moment. As for the idea of community, though it might cross our minds every now and then (especially when we contrast how fun it was at college and how rather arduous and lonely it might be now), nothing in modern capitalism enables us to imagine how we’d ever manage to make the group, rather than the ‘I’, the center of things. Everything from domestic appliances to mortgages to romantic love enforces the idea of the lone or couple-based unit. We’re influenced by an ideology of personal freedom, where pursuing private ends is seen as the only path to happiness — though the results do not necessarily match the hopes. The joys of being part of a gang are simply not on the radar.

These attitudes, which we take for granted today, contrast so strongly with an idea which flourished for very long periods in many parts of the world and continue to have much to teach us about our real longings: monasticism. Monasticism puts forward the bold thesis that people can actually lead the most fruitful, productive and happy lives when they get together into controlled, organised groups of friends, have some clear rules and direct themselves towards a few big ambitions. Even if you’re not planning on setting up a secular version of a monastery any time soon (though we believe — as you’ll see — that this would be no bad idea), monasticism deserves to be studied for the lessons it yields about the limits to modern individualism.

One of the earliest and most influential figures in the history monasticism — in its Christian, Western guise — was a Roman nobleman living at the end of the 5th century, by the name of Benedict. In his twenties, Benedict studied Philosophy in Rome. For a time, he shared the dissipation, wastefulness and lack of genuine ambition of his wealthy fellow students until he suddenly became weary and ashamed and went off to the mountains in search of a better way of living. Other people soon joined him and he naturally found his way to starting a few small communities. From there, it was a natural step to write an instruction manual for his followers, with a simple and emphatic title: The Rule.

His rules include instructions on:

He recommended that one should consume modest but nutritious meals only twice a day. (An occasional glass of wine was allowed.) He thought that everyone should sit together at long tables, but he was also aware of how much idle banter there can be at meals, so he advised that diners should generally listen to someone reading from an important and interesting book while they made their way through lemon chicken with courgettes and beans.

He knew all about distraction: how easy it is to want to keep checking up on the latest developments, how addictive the gossip of the city can be… That’s why his communities tended to be set up in remote locations, often close to mountains, and his buildings featured heavy walls, quiet courtyards and beautifully serene living quarters.

Hair and Clothing
Fashion was, in Benedict’s time, as in ours, a huge source of interest, expense and attention. Benedict was himself a handsome man, but he was keen to put a limit on how much he or anyone else would think about what they had to wear every day. That’s why he recommended that everyone in his community wear the same clothes: plain and useful, not too expensive and easy to wash.

If you are going to be concentrating quite a lot on ideas and intellectual activities, Benedict knew it could be really helpful also to do some physical activity everyday; something repetitive and soothing might be ideal, like sweeping the floor or weeding a row of lettuces.

Early Nights
Get used to winding down systematically, focusing your thoughts and arranging your mind for the next day (a lot of good thinking happens when we’re asleep).

Art and Architecture
He understood that we were likely to take our cue about how to be inside ourselves by looking around at the moods emanating from the walls around us. That’s why Benedictine monasteries have long employed the best architects and artists, from Palladio and Veronese to John Pawson in our own times. If you’re going to live together, it makes sense to create a home that is as uplifting and as calming as can be.

Benedict established his first monastery at Monte Cassino — the same monastery that Walter Miller helped bomb during World War II before going on to write A Canticle for Leibowitz.


  1. Alrenous says:

    Way to gloss over the hardest part, book of life dude.

    went off to the mountains in search of a better way of living. Other people soon joined him

  2. Y. says:

    The problem with monasticism is the same as with careerism.

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