The Rule of Benedict is a rule for life in a cenobitic monastery. Written in the sixth century by St. Benedict of Nursia, the Rule of St. Benedict proved to be the most influential guide of Western monasticism until after the Great Schism, perhaps the most influential guide ever in the West. Followed continuously since the time of St. Benedict, this rule is currently used by Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran monasteries. Designed for monks sharing the common life, the Rule is renowned for its spiritual riches, gentleness, and balance.
The Latin Monastery of Amalfi observed the Rule on Mount Athos until 1287; in the eleventh century, this ruling Benedictine monastery was ranked fifth in the Holy Mountain's hierarchy. Various other Orthodox have kept the Rule in recent times, including the monks of St. Luke's Priory under the Antiochian Western Rite Vicariate. Presently, the Christ the Savior Monastery (ROCOR) in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, (sometimes known as "Christminster") follows the Benedictine monastic rule. Likewise, among the Old Calendarists, the Abbey of the Holy Name and its various dependencies.
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The saint described his rule as "a school of the Lord's service, in which we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome." In its 73 chapters, he prescribes a full way of life for cenobitic monks to "share in the sufferings of Christ, and be found worthy to be coheirs with Him of His kingdom." In addition to the moral and spiritual aspects of common life, he describes the proper attributes of monks and the ruling Abbot, the proper form of Divine Office, and even the appropriate way to greet visitors.
The Abbot of the monastery is to be blameless, one who teaches the righteousness of Christ through his own words and deeds. Since he is a ruler, he must be impartial, not loving one monk above another nor implementing the monastery's rules selectively. He must exhort the righteous to further righteousness and punish those who err, always adapting himself to the peculiar needs and spiritual attainments of each. Above all, he must always remember he will give account for the souls of the monks entrusted to his care on the Judgment Day.
When any decision is to be made, the Abbot is to ask the counsel of all the monastics gathered in a common meeting, but he makes the final decision himself. The monks are to offer their views humbly and in submission.
The Rule of St. Benedict enjoins all monks to view their fellow monks as their superiors and tend to the needs of others above their own. The monk in a Benedictine monastery is to view himself the lowest of all men, to be satisfied with the worst accommodations and clothing, to keep silence unless spoken to, to do nothing but those things commanded by the monastic rule, and to hide none of his sins from the Abbot during confession. Under no circumstance is he to defend a fellow monk from a deserved punishment, even if they are related by blood.
The Rule regulates the specific amount of food and drink monks are to take in a day. The monk is to own nothing of his own. All monks are to receive an equal ration, though the Abbot must have regard for those with physical infirmities.
In the fourth chapter, the saint lists 73 "instruments of good works." Of these, perhaps the most important is the injunction to "prefer nothing to the love of Christ." Silence, humility, hospitality, holy reading, and spiritual discernment (or guarding of the heart) play vital roles in the Rule.
Guarding of the heart occurs when the monks keep "a constant watch over the actions of our life," "hold as certain that God sees us everywhere," "dash at once against Christ the evil thoughts which rise in one's heart," and "disclose them to our spiritual father."
Silence is a pronounced feature of the Rule. Monks were to keep strict silence for several hours a day and great silence after Compline. During meals, the monks were to keep silence while another monk read from a holy book, speaking only through gestures, and then only if absolutely necessary. Monks may speak at other times with the permission of the Abbot, but St. Benedict so values silence and so understands the likelihood of sin that comes with much speaking that he instructs, "let permission to speak be seldom given to perfect disciples even for good and holy and edifying discourse."
Holy reading (Lectio Divina) has a special place in the Rule. Monks are to read a holy book at least two hours every weekday and all day Sunday, with the amount of time spent reading during the week varying according to the time of year. As noted, they also listened to holy reading during their meals. (The reader was selected weekly and had to ask others to pray for him that he not be filled with pride as a result of his selection.)
Hospitality became a Benedictine hallmark. The importance of welcoming strangers into the monastery is best encapsulated in the exhortation: "Let all guests who arrive be received as Christ."
Beside the spiritual disposition and government of the monastery, St. Benedict outlined the form the monastic office was to take, including the psalms to be prayed at each canonical hour. This general order is preserved in the Breviarium Monasticum (the Monastic Breviary). It can be found in English translation in two volumes: Monastic Breviary Matins and the Monastic Diurnal.
The Rule states it is intended for beginners, and recommends monks read the Monastic Rule of St. Basil, the the Institutes and Conferences of St. John Cassian, as well as the Bible and the lives of the saints, as they advance in their asceticism.
The Rule of St. Benedict does not stipulate a particular colour for the monastic habit, and the habit of unbleached, undyed, wool has not been unknown among Benedictines. However, the colour most associated with the Benedictine tradition is black, (hence the name "black monk" used to refer to a Benedictine monk), and that is the colour currently worn by Orthodox Benedictines.
The first layer of the habit is the tunic, which is secured in place by a belt. This is the form of habit worn by oblates during their period of novitiate. The next layer is the monastic scapular, which is a tabard-like garment worn over the tunic. The tunic, belt, and scapular, (with a head-veil for women), form the complete habit worn by oblates while in the monastic enclosure and by monastics during the Novitiate. Outside of the monastery, the oblates simply wear a reduced scapular and the Saint Benedict Medal under civilian clothing. When the monastic makes his solemn profession, he is tonsured and invested with the cowl.
Monastics and oblates alike, upon their repose, are buried in the habit proper to their order.
Orthodox Benedictines today
The Benedictine tradition was largely lost to the Orthodox Church until the 20th century, when a revival was seen, encouraged by the efforts to restore the Western Rite to Orthodoxy which began in the 19th century.
In 1962, under the leadership of its abbot, Dom Augustine (Whitfield), the Monastery of Our Lady of Mount Royal, which had been an Old Catholic monastic community since its foundation in 1910, was received into the Moscow Patriarchal Russian Orthodox Church by Bishop Dositheus (Ivanchenko) of New York. It was later received into the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, in 1975, by Archbishop Nikon (Rkitzsky). Mount Royal continued up until 2010, finally ceasing with the repose of Abbot Augustine.
In 1993, Bishop Hilarion (Kapral) of Manhattan (now Metropolitan Hilarion, First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia) blessed the founding of a new Benedictine monastery under its abbot, Dom James (Deschene), the former Prior of Mount Royal. Christ the Saviour Monastery (Christminster) today runs an oblate programme and seeks to make modest provision for the formation of clergy within the Western Rite of the Orthodox Church, a provision lacking in most Orthodox seminaries. It also publishes music and liturgical books to enhance the offering of the Western Rite Orthodox liturgy.
In 1997, Hilarion (Kapral), then Archbishop of Sydney, received into the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia the monastery of Saint Petroc in Tasmania, Australia. This monastic community had been formed as a Continuing Anglican monastery in 1992 under its superior, Hieromonk Michael (Mansbridge-Wood). While it is not a Benedictine foundation it did have a Benedictine presence attached to it in the form of the Holyrood hermitage in Florida, which has since become an independent monastic hermitage under Abbot David (Pierce).
There are currently at least five Benedictine monastic houses within the Orthodox Church, namely Our Lady of Mount Royal, under Abbot Augustine (Whitfield); the Christ the Saviour Monastery (or Christminster) is a Benedictine monastery of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia and is currently under Abbot James (Deschene); and the Abbey of the Holy Name with its daughter house of St John the Theologian. In addition, an oblate programme exists at Saint Benedict Russian Orthodox Church in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. All of these houses and the parish in Oklahoma City are either under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia or the Holy Synod of Milan. Within the United States of America, the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, while having no monastic houses, does have a number of parishes that run an oblate programme.
There are currently no female Benedictine monastic houses in the Orthodox Church.
The word oblate derives from the Latin oblatus, which means "one offered". Oblates of Saint Benedict offer themselves to God in much the same way that monks and nuns do, except that they do not take monastic vows or necessarily live within the monastic enclosure. Rather, they make a commitment to God, in the presence of the monastic community (or the parish community, depending on circumstances) to strive to live according to the Rule of St. Benedict as adapted to suit their own life situations. Usually, the rule is adapted according to the individual spiritual and practical needs of each oblate by the abbot or oblate master of the monastery to which he or she is to retain a bond of practical support and spiritual obedience.
Oblates may be male or female, celibate or married. They are not tonsured as monastics, and, unlike monastic vows, their oblation may be revoked at any time. Out of necessity, Antiochian oblates are not usually attached to a monastery, (except for those who are under the direction of Christminster), as there are currently no Benedictine monasteries in that jurisdiction. However, the oblature operates on the parish level.
- Order of Saint Benedict on Wikipedia
- The Rule of St. Benedict
- Orthodox Research Institute article - an article about the now defunct, Benedictine d’Alleray Priory of Paris
- Christ the Saviour Monastery - A male Benedictine community in Hamilton, ON, Canada (also known as Christminster)
- The Oratory of Our Lady of Glastonbury - the monastery chapel of Christminster
- Abbey of the Holy Name, a Benedictine monastery under the Autonomous Orthodox Metropolia of Western Europe and the Americas.
- Monastic Oblates: A Brief Overview - an article by Dom James (Deschene) on the Benedictine Oblature
- Oblate Observances - detailing the Observances of the Oblates of Christminster
- Another site with aids for living the oblate life
- Amalfion (.pdf) - An essay on the Benedictine monastery of Mount Athos
- Offices and Prayers of the Oblates of St Benedict (.pdf) - A collection of services and prayers used by Benedictine Oblates under the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America
- St Columba Orthodox Church - detailing the constitution and guidelines of the Antiochian Oblate programme
- The Benedictine Fellowship of St Laurence
- The Mass of St Gregory the Great (.pdf) - The Benedictine Use of Mount Royal
- Directions for the Mass of St Gregory (.pdf) - for use in conjunction with the above