By Abbot Primate Jerome Thiesen, O.S.B., S.T.D.
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.
Benedict, the Author
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.