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This blog has moved.  If you are looking for a practical commentary on the Rule of Saint Benedict, click here.
This blog has moved.  If you are looking for a practical commentary on the Rule of Saint Benedict, click here.

Chapter 1: The Different Kinds of Monks

           It is well known that there are four kinds of monks. The first kind is the Cenobite, that is, the monk who lives under a rule and an Abbot. The second kind is that of Anchorites, or Hermits—those who, trained for combat in the desert, are able, with the help of God, to fight evil single-handed, without the help of others. But a third and most despicable class of monks is that of the Sarabites, who, living without a shepherd make their own cloister, not in the Lord's sheepfold, but in their own. The gratification of their desires is their law; because what they like they call holy, but what they happen to dislike they call unlawful. There is, in fact, a fourth class of monks which we call Gyrovags. These so-called monks keep constantly moving, staying three or four days at a time in different cells as guests. Always roving and never settled, they indulge their passions and the cravings of their appetite, and are in every way worse than the Sarabites. It is better to pass these over in silence than to speak of their most wretched life.

             There was an old monk in my monastery who used to joke at the start of every Lent that he was going to fast whenever he wasn’t hungry. His point, I think, was that all of us love the rules that are easy to obey, but find reasons to disobey when the rules get difficult. Saint Benedict doesn’t have much patience for this kind of hypocrisy. He utterly despises wannabes—the do-it-yourselfers who make up their own rules as they go…or worse yet, make up rules that just happen to coincide with what they’re already doing.
            I teach Theology at a prep school in Saint Louis, Missouri. Not long ago, a kid raised his hand and point-blank declared that the Church’s teaching on Purgatory was stupid. Frankly, I think he was just trying to get a rise out of me, but before I could answer, the kid in front of him turned around and said, “So who died and made you pope?” I couldn’t have said it better myself. Unless you are truly convinced that you are holier, wiser, and smarter than the combined resources of the entire Catholic Church, you might as well concede that the pope speaks with more authority than you do.

            In class a few days later, the same kid raised his hand. When I called on him, he turned around to the rest of the group and said, “I see you guys at parties and on the weekends. You’re no holier than anyone else. At least I’m true to myself.” There’s a part of me that has to admire a kid like this. He certainly had the courage of his convictions, and I congratulated him on that.[1] The problem was that he actually didn’t know what his convictions were. After all, anyone can claim to be true to himself. If you want to do something really courageous and admirable, try being true to someone better than yourself—like, say, Jesus.

[1] Tom is in college now, and stirring up just as much trouble there as he stirred up back in high school—except that he discovered he could make much more trouble by defending the Church’s teachings!
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     Listen, my son, to the teachings of the master, and incline the ear of your heart.


     The first word of the Rule of Saint Benedict is also the most important.  For the monk, it represents the focus of the spiritual life: listening to God.  Everything a monk does—from the way he eats and sleeps to the way he works and prays—is designed to help him learn how to listen. 
 “Are you listening to me?”  “Can’t you hear what I’m trying to say?”  People use these expressions all the time when they are arguing.  Just think how many problems would be solved if they really did just listen to one another.  A wise old monk once told me that I should never answer a complaint without repeating it back to the person who made it.  Why?  Because it assures them that I am listening. You can’t force people to listen to you, but you’d be surprised how open they are once they’re convinced that you are listening to them.
The monk’s life, however, is not so much about listening to other people as it is about listening to God.  And that’s even more difficult.  Why?  Because God is a gentleman.  He speaks very, very quietly, and he rarely forces anyone to listen to Him.  So if we’re not vigilant, we can easily mistake some other voice—or even our own voice—for His.  This is why it’s so important to share your spiritual journey with someone older and wiser—a parent, or a priest, or a spiritual mentor who can help you to distinguish the true voice of God from the many imposters who want to take His place.
I’ll leave you with something else that same monk told me: when you meet a wise man, listen to him and you will learn wisdom; when you meet a foolish man, listen to him and you will learn patience; when you are alone, listen to God, and you’ll learn everything else.

      Cheerfully receive and faithfully put into practice the advice of your loving Father, that by the toil of obedience you may return to Him from whom by the sloth of disobedience you have wandered away.  To you, therefore, my speech is now directed, who, giving up your own will, take up the strong and most excellent weapons of obedience, to do battle for Christ the Lord, the true King.

      This might be one of those passages that we are tempted to skip over.  It sounds awfully medieval, doesn’t it?  All this talk of obedience and weapons and battle and kingship…
      These days, we have a tendency to prefer a “kinder, gentler” Jesus.  We like to think that we have put the whole idea of kingship more or less behind us.  What is a king, after all, if not a sort of romanticized dictator?  No, we’re more civilized than that.  We prefer to think of Jesus as someone…to hold in very high esteem.  And our Heavenly Father?  Well, we tend to think of Him more as a “heavenly grandfather”—a benevolent, but slightly senile old guy who doesn’t really care what we do so long as no one gets hurt. [1]  And even if we do hurt someone, he’s not likely to notice or even remember it later.

Pantocrator Mosaic of Hagia Sophia
     The stern Pantocrator you see painted on the ceilings of ancient Cathedrals—Jesus, the Judge of the Nations, the Lord of Lords, the King of Kings enthroned over the earth…that’s a little passé.  We live in more civilized times, we prefer now to think of Jesus as more of a facilitator…a group therapist, perhaps.  But let’s not forget that this is the guy who is going to “judge the living and the dead.”  This is the guy who’s going to sit at the right hand of God the Father—who will “rule with an iron rod” and “tread out the wine of fury and the wrath of God almighty.”
      Now I’m not suggesting that it is good to be afraid of God—as though he were sitting up there in heaven just itching to hit the ‘smite’ button on his computer…but then again, as the Book of Proverbs tells us, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  For if God is truly good, then he must be truly just.  Moreover, if our actions in this world are to have any real meaning, they must have real consequences in the world to come.
      The Catechism says this: “The seventh of the Holy Spirit’s gifts, and yet first in the rising scale of value, is the Fear of the Lord, which contains the virtue of Hope and impels us to a profound respect for the majesty of God. Its corresponding effects are protection from sin through dread of offending the Lord, and a strong confidence in the power of His help.”
      Notice that hope walks hand-in-hand with this holy fear.  Although we “dread offending the Lord,” we know that we have the strength, in Christ, to be holy in His sight.  We have the Eucharist.  We have the sacrament of Reconciliation.  We have the combined resources of the largest charitable organization in the world at our disposal.  We are the Church, the glorious bride of Christ, who reaches out her hands to the poor, extends her arms to the needy, whose value is far beyond pearls.  By virtue of our citizenship in this kingdom and by means of our obedience to this king, we have the courage to call ourselves soldiers in this, the greatest of all battles.

[1] C.S. Lewis wrote something similar in his book, “The Problem of Pain.”  Read it.  I promise it will be worth your time.
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