In the early centuries of Christianity, those who wanted to concentrate on the spiritual life tended to go to remote places such as deserts, wild coasts or mountains, to live as hermits. They were often joined by disciples, and small communities developed. It was St Benedict of Nursia who had the greatest success in organising the way in which hermits and their followers could live in community and he developed the Rule by which they should live. He was not the first to have the idea of living in a community, or even the first to develop a rule, but it was his rule that was taken up most widely and lasted the longest.
Benedict lived from about 480 to about 550. He was a hermit at Subiaco, near Rome, living in a cave for about three years. He organised his disciples into groups of twelve and eventually founded a monastery at Monte Cassino, where he finished writing the Rule that he had been developing for several years. Moderation was important to Benedict and he created the Rule to provide an environment of authority, obedience, stability and community life for the monks. These had been missing for other groups of disciples who had gathered around other hermits, where excessive asceticism was the norm.
The aim of early monks was union with God through prayer, and the Rule was supposed to help them to achieve that aim. Little is known about origins of the Rule, but it seems to reflect some of the elements of many rules from the sixth century. The Rule was very straightforward and covered every hour of every day. Monks had to be doing something all the time, even if it was just sleeping.
The word ‘monk’ comes from the Greek ‘monos’, which means ‘alone’, reflecting their origins as hermits. When they joined a monastery, monks were to serve a novitiate of a year and then take binding vows to remain in the community until death. Each monastery was to be independent of the others and monks did not move from one monastery to another.
The monks were to occupy themselves with liturgical prayer accompanied by sacred reading. They were also to be involved in manual work. According to the Rule, monks could only speak when permitted to do so by a superior and were not allowed to have possessions.
The abbot of a monastery was to be a spiritual father of his community and its supreme authority, but even the abbots were not greater than the Rule. Everyone had to live according to its precepts.
Monks were to be obedient and humble. The prologue of the rule and the first seven chapters talk about the ascetic life. The next thirteen contain detailed instructions for the services including prayers, readings and psalmody. The rule set out that all 150 Psalms were to be recited every week.
It then describes how abbots are to be elected, what other senior members of the community are to do and then there are instructions for the monks’ daily lives. This included how many hours they were to sleep, how many hours they were to perform manual labour, how many hours reading, and how many hours eating. Within these chapters a penitential code laid out the penalties for breaches of monastic discipline. It also describes how new members are to be trained. The Rule is so wide that it encompasses the practicalities of communal life as well as the monks’ spiritual lives.
In comparison with other rules for monastic life that were being developed at the same time, Benedict’s Rule is humane and gentle. Most of the other rules were based on the desert origins of monastic life. Life in the desert was hard and these rules made life hard for the monks. For the hermits in the desert, the master (the original hermit around whom disciples had gathered) was the ruler and the disciples had to obey him and whatever rule he put in place.
The Rule always acknowledged that the life of the hermit was the ideal and, even in the fourteenth century, most Benedictine monasteries had two or three monks living as hermits away from the monastery.
The Rule insisted that a guest be received as if he were Christ himself and there were many who were prepared to abuse this principal, travelling from monastery to monastery.
The Rule was flexible enough to adapt and some monasteries became centres of learning, others excelled at agriculture and still others at medicine.
For Benedict communal prayer was the centre of monastic life. Vigils, or Nocturns, was sung at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., depending on the season. Lauds was sung at first light. The remaining offices were relatively short and sung at the first, third, sixth and ninth hours. Vespers was the evening office and the day ended with Compline, which was very short. Nocturns was the longest and most elaborate office. Sometimes it could take two hours. Prime was sung at sunrise, after which the monks went to carry out their manual labour. Not only did Benedict lay down the pattern for monastic life, but most Christian services in the western church today, whether Catholic or Protestant, still follow this structure.