The Order of Saint Benedict

The Rule of Saint Benedict:

(ms. Benedict)

by +Abbot Primate Jerome Theisen OSB STD

The Rule of Benedict (RB) constitutes the basic guide for thousands of Christians who are committed to the monastic movement. Many disciples of Jesus followed the Rule in the past and many still do so today. Written in the sixth century the Rule was followed in thousands of monasteries in Europe, so much so that the Church of the early Middle Ages, beginning especially in the ninth century, was characterized as monastic.

Historians are relatively certain that RB was written by St. Benedict, the founder of the monastery of Monte Cassino, though the historical evidence does not allow a conclusive proof of authorship. St. Benedict's biographer, St. Gregory the Great (pope from 590 to 604), indicates that Benedict "wrote a Rule for monks that is remarkable for its discretion and its clarity of language" (Dialogues, Book 11, ch. 36). The autograph copy of RB has been lost but scholars believe that we have a faithful copy that is a few centuries and manuscripts away from the original. The best manuscript (Codex San Gallensis 914) stems from the early ninth century and is found today in St. Gall (Switzerland). Another manuscript (Hatton 48 found today in Oxford's Bodleian Library), though earlier by a century, is less faithful because copyists strove to correct the sixth-century Latin.

RB should not be viewed as an exclusively legal code though it includes prescriptions for living in a monastery. The Rule actually contains a treasure of spiritual wisdom concerning the monastic movement in the Church. Its Prologue and seventy-three chapters provide teaching about the basic monastic virtues of humility, silence, and obedience as well as directives for daily living. RB prescribes times for common prayer, meditative reading, and manual work; it legislates for the details of common living such as clothing, sleeping arrangements, food and drink, care of the sick, reception of guests, recruitment of new members, journeys away from the monastery, etc. While the Rule does not shun minute instructions, it allows the abbot to determine in great detail the particulars of common living.

RB, written anywhere between 530 and 560, is not an entirely original document. It depends in great measure on the rules and traditions of Christian monasticism that existed from the fourth century to the time of its writing. Scholars note that rules and writings like those of St. Pachomius (fourth-century Egypt), St. Basil (fourth-century Asia Minor), St. Augustine (fourth- and fifth-century North Africa), Cassian (fifth-century southern Gaul) stand behind RB and at times are clearly evident in the text. The most important source for RB, however, is the Rule of the Master, an anonymous rule written two or three decades before Benedict's Rule. Not infrequently, especially in RB's Prologue and first seven chapters, Benedict copied extensively from the Rule of the Master. Benedict picked up the monastic tradition and even copied from its documents (as was customary at the time); but he also corrected and altered the tradition in significant ways.

Benedict wrote his Rule in the spoken and ordinary Latin of the day. It is not the classical Latin of antiquity nor the scholarly Latin taught in the remaining schools of his time, though occasionally his language is elegant and polished. As the Rule drifts from the classical language it also gives evidence of the breakdown of Latin into more common forms of speech (what later became the Romance languages). Benedict writes with crispness and directness; seldom is he profuse or homiletic.

Compared with the tradition and especially with the Rule of the Master, Benedict legislates for a monastic life that has rhythm, measure, and discretion. His monks are not overdriven by austerities in fasting and night vigils. They do not own anything personally, but they have enough to eat and to drink (even wine when it is available) and to clothe themselves. They work with their hands about six hours a day but they also have leisure for prayerful reading and common prayer. Their sleep is sufficient and they may even take a siesta in summer if needed. The young, the sick, and the elderly are cared for with compassion and attention. The abbot, while he directs all aspects of the common life, must seek counsel from the monks; and the Rule makes provision for his limitations and failings. In short, RB arranges for a monastic life in which the monks may seek God in prayer and reading, in silence and work, in service to guests and to one another.

Benedict's Rule stands tall in the great tradition of Christian monasticism. It is a Christian rule in the sense that its spiritual doctrine picks up on the values of the Bible (e.g., prayer, fasting, service of neighbor) and arranges for a life in which these values can be lived out in community. RB is not written for monastic hermits, though Benedict has high regard for them; it is written for ordinary Christians who wish to immerse themselves in a pattern of living in which the life of Christ can be lived out with understanding and zeal. RB is still used today in many monasteries and convents around the world. The monastics of today do not follow it literally but still find in it much wisdom to live the common life. It still protects the individual and the community from arbitrariness on the part of the abbot or others; it still provides a way of living the Christian life. Monastic communities accept it as their basic inspiration even as they mitigate it, supplement it, or adapt it to the living conditions of today.

From The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia (A Michael Glazier Book), The Liturgical Press (1995) 78-79.

Ca. 8,700 men and 18,200 women are living in monastic communities; statistics on oblates (lay associates) living outside monasteries are not recorded (Catalogus Monasteriorum O.S.B., Rome, 1995).


See the excellent introduction to the RB by the Ferdinand Benedictines. Dated but thorough is C. Cyprian Alston's article on "The Rule of Saint Benedict" in the venerable Catholic Encyclopedia (NY, 1913; New Advent online collaborative version).

Rule of Benedict: Bibliographic Index

For more Bibliographica Benedictina:
Connect via the WWW or telnet to PALS <pals.msus.edu>, an on-line catalog that includes three Benedictine (CSB CSS SJU), numerous Catholic, theological, seminary, state, local, research, academic, special and private libraries in Minnesota.
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