Some Things Monastic
As monasticism began to take shape, it was necessary to form and enforce rules so that the community and the communal process could retain its identity. Were this identity to be diverged from or compromised, not only was the integrity of the process at stake, but the entire Kingdom of God could be lost from one’s grasp. The monastic experience was an attempt by a group of men to live on earth as in heaven. As such, it was devoted to spiritual disciplines that strengthened the individual and communal experience of God. However, by advocating for this kind of lifestyle, lines are drawn (as often happens with Christianity) that create an insider/outsider dynamic.
The Rule of Benedict begins with an earnest appeal to the monk as to why the monastic life is important. Filled with scriptural justification for the importance of the lifestyle, Benedict believes that by living such a lifestyle of devotion and obedience, the Kingdom of God can be inherited: “As we advance in the religious life and faith…we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ, and be found worthy to be coheirs with Christ of his kingdom [prologue].”
Benedict defined what he believed to be the “most valiant kind of monks, the Cenobites [chapter 1].” Once he has defined his ‘inside’ group, he goes on to describe the way of life these insiders must adhere to in order to remain insiders. Chief among the religious disciplines to be practiced are the list of 73 instruments of good works [chapter 4]. The exhaustive list begs the question: What comes first when defining an insider group – the definitions of what one must do to become an insider, or the behaviors that are accepted and then codified by a community who wants to remain exclusive? In other words, does a community with an understanding that there is an insider/outsider dynamic present define their identity by who they actually are or who they wish to be?
In the case of the subsequent chapters dealing with the Divine Office during the night [chapter 8], how the work of God is to be performed during the day [chapter 16], and the manner of reciting the Psalter [chapter 19], 21st century minds may jump to the conclusion that such regulations would be very difficult to keep, thereby concluding that these monks were listing the ideal and not the reality of their experience. However, if a community goes to the extent of specifying sleeping rules [chapter 22], one may conclude that every waking detail was as equally real as every sleeping one. In other words, every detail of this practicing community was thought about, so much so that every rule would be doable and, therefore, required.
The rules didn’t give them just a goal, as the rules in themselves were not the focus. The point of following the rules was to experience the larger meaning that only came with being rightly related to the Kingdom of God. This is especially true when Benedict addresses the notion of excommunication in chapters 23-30 and 44. In this section, the monastery is to be careful as to when and how it should excommunicate someone and how it should deal with this new ‘outsider.’ One consequence is that the offender is to “take his meal alone [chapter 24].” The exclusion of the former insider is meant to teach and rebuke so that he may once again be considered an insider for the benefit of the kingdom of God.
The insider/outsider language continues when “stranger monks” are mentioned in chapter 51: “Let the Abbot take care never to admit a monk of any other known monastery to residence, without the consent of his Abbot or commendatory letters.” Again there is a strong prescription as to how outsiders are to be treated.
Do the disciplines advocated in Benedict’s mind isolate some from Christianity, making it exclusive to the ‘insider,’ in this case, Cenobite monks? Judging by Benedict’s rule, it can be concluded that the monastery as such was not meant to be evangelical in nature, but rather educational and edifying for those already in the fold. It was intended to elevate the Christian status for some in the hopes of realizing the love and Kingdom of God for all [chapter 73].