Fridays with Benedict: Chapter 4, What are the Instruments of Good Works?

After describing the monastery as a "school for the Lord's service" in the Prologue of the Rule, Benedict sets out what we might call the "learning outcomes" of this education. What life should the monk be striving for? What does spiritual growth and maturity look like? What's on the syllabus of this spiritual education? Chapter 4 of the Rule of St. Benedict gives the list (from Leonard Doyle's translation):

Chapter 4
1. In the first place, to love the Lord God with the whole heart, the whole soul, the whole strength.
2. Then, one's neighbor as oneself.
3. Then not to murder.
4. Not to commit adultery.
5. Not to steal.
6. Not to covet.
7. Not to bear false witness.
8. To honor all (1 Peter 2:17).
9. And not to do to another what one would not have done to oneself.
10. To deny oneself in order to follow Christ.
11. To chastise the body.
12. Not to become attached to pleasures.
13. To love fasting.
14. To relieve the poor.
15. To clothe the naked.
16. To visit the sick.
17. To bury the dead.
18. To help in trouble.
19. To console the sorrowing.
20. To become a stranger to the world's ways.
21. To prefer nothing to the love of Christ.
22. Not to give way to anger.
23. Not to nurse a grudge.
24. Not to entertain deceit in one's heart.
25. Not to give a false peace.
26. Not to forsake charity.
27. Not to swear, for fear of perjuring oneself.
28. To utter truth from heart and mouth.
29. Not to return evil for evil.
30. To do no wrong to anyone, and to bear patiently wrongs done to oneself.
31. To love one's enemies.
32. Not to curse those who curse us, but rather to bless them.
33. To bear persecution for justice's sake.
34. Not to be proud.
35. Not addicted to wine.
36. Not a great eater.
37. Not drowsy.
38. Not lazy.
39. Not a grumbler.
40. Not a detractor.
41. To put one's hope in God.
42. To attribute to God, and not to self, whatever good one sees in oneself.
43. But to recognize always that the evil is one's own doing, and to impute it to oneself.
44. To fear the Day of Judgment.
45. To be in dread of hell.
46. To desire eternal life with all the passion of the spirit.
47. To keep death daily before one's eyes.
48. To keep constant guard over the actions of one's life.
49. To know for certain that God sees one everywhere.
50. When evil thoughts come into one's heart, to dash them against Christ immediately.
51. And to manifest them to one's spiritual guardian.
52. To guard one's tongue against evil and depraved speech.
53. Not to love much talking.
54. Not to speak useless words or words that move to laughter.
55. Not to love much or boisterous laughter.
56. To listen willingly to holy reading.
57. To devote oneself frequently to prayer.
58. Daily in one's prayers, with tears and sighs, to confess one's past sins to God, and to amend them for the future.
59. Not to fulfill the desires of the flesh; to hate one's own will.
60. To obey in all things the commands of the Abbot even though he (which God forbid) should act otherwise, mindful of the Lord's precept, "Do what they say, but not what they do."
61. Not to wish to be called holy before one is holy; but first to be holy, that one may be truly so called. 
It's an interesting list. Most of it I find convicting and powerful. But there are other places where the list is grim and medieval. I find the worries about laughter in 54 and 55 to be a bit much. And I don't resonate with 11 ("To chastise the body.") and 45 ("To be in dread of hell."). Still, the Rule is a medieval monastic guide, so things like this are to be expected. And I do think modern non-monastic equivalents can be devised for these passages. I think the concerns over laughter can be fruitfully applied to our modern quest to be titillated and entertained, which inculcates a silly and shallow superficiality in us.

I also think there is a logic to chastising the body. Psychologists have discovered that willpower is like a muscle. The more you use it the stronger it gets. So things like fasting are sort of like willpower exercise. If you regularly practice saying no to yourself your willpower muscle grows in strength, giving you greater freedom of choice. Thus the paradox many religious traditions point toward: if you learn to deny yourself you'll become free.

Finally, I don't spend a lot of time dreading hell. But I do think a lot about God's judgment. For example, I think a lot about the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. For me to "dread hell" is to practice the works of mercy.

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9 thoughts on “Fridays with Benedict: Chapter 4, What are the Instruments of Good Works?”

  1. In thinking about the sections on laughter, I recently saw an interesting post by a guy named Richard Beck that seems relevant.

    I don't think this justifies a strict exclusion of laughter, and also think that humor, with good intent, is indispensable. But maybe the dynamic of laughter explored in Beck's post is what Benedict had in view.

  2. Hi Richard

    I'm interested that you call these outcomes.  I agree with you that they should be just that.  But I wonder to what extent they have been encouraged or even enforced through the centuries as strategies - with a sense of control by self or another being the outcome - or as an end, or purpose, in and of themselves - with legalism being the outcome.  That's always the trouble with turning outcomes into targets - unintended and often harmful consequences.  Perhaps one way to 'reorder' this order is thus:

    Purpose: Love for God and for others >>> Strategies: Practicing works of mercy and devotion >>> Outcomes: A good smattering of rules 3-61 followed as originally intended and as a matter of course.


  3. I think this is interesting.. I've been tripping over the concepts of orthodoxy and orthopraxy in my readings and musings... I read awhile ago in scripture, the Ephesians verse about 'this is not how you learned Christ'... and it got me thinking about when did I learn Christ? Did I skip church or confirmation on the day Christ was being taught? Is that a gift, like faith that will be imparted?  Learning Christ is belief AND behavior.. is my current mental construct... still doesn't address the actual doing.. so although St Benedict has quite the list going on.. thankfully my inner dialogue didn't cause to me acutally LOL.. he is speaking to a similar gap I think we still have .. the gap between being and doing. Thanks Richard

  4. Totally agree. There can be a grim, guilt-driven, works-based righteousness to all this if the telos of it all, the inner motivation, isn't focused on the grace and mercy of God. As I mentioned in the post, there are moments when St. Benedict is a bit too "medieval" for my tastes. For example, while many people laud the Rule they don't tend to talk, say, about the locations in the Rule where corporal punishment is recommended.

    The point being, there are things I like about the Rule and things that don't like, are even repelled by.

  5. As someone also very much interested in the relationship between orthodoxy and orthopraxy I agree that it's nice to have concrete lists like this, something concrete to aspire to and measure with. I joked with by Bible class a few weeks ago how that we've been going to church together for years but it seems like none of us are much improved. We're still the same grumpy and selfish people we were a decade ago. And shouldn't that give us pause?

  6. I wonder about the humour rule. I find that the best humour is tinged with pathos (think Fargo or Punch-Drunk Love). It is humour that enhances our shared humanity not humour that lifts us up at the expense of another. Ultimately, this type of humour is an exercise in laughing at ourselves. This is in stark contrast to the increasingly base forms of humour that are merely cruel belittling of others. I take Barth's lead on humour: "Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God."

  7. I actually just spent a night at a Benedictine monastery and I can assure you the place was not devoid of humor.  Or guestmaster was quite prone to laughter, although, maybe because the other monks couldn't stand it, they relegated him to serving the guests.  :)

  8. I too was discomforted by his caution for laughter.  I think that it might a caution against shallowness - there are those who can hide in the quick retort or always making fun (of themselves or others) to escape discomfort or real engagement.

    I love your idea of spiritual muscle - and have found it to be true in my own life.  

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