Saint Meinrad Seminary & School of Theology

Formation and Education for the Life of the Church

Benedict and Thoreau: Brothers in Simplicity

by Ron Beathard


I am going to compare St. Benedict and Henry David Thoreau. Get ready.

The abbot of God and the poet of Nature write of simplicity and how it brings us to serenity. Thoreau writes, "My greatest skill in life has been to want but little … Our life is frittered away by detail." Benedict writes little rules about those details.

Thoreau: "Simplify. Simplify! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail."

Benedict: The following dress is sufficient: a tunic, a cowl, a scapular for work, stockings and shoes to cover the feet. The monks should not complain about the color or coarseness, but be content. For bedding let this suffice: a mattress, a blanket, a coverlet and a pillow.

"We think it sufficient for the daily dinner that every table have two cooked dishes. Let a good pound of weight of bread suffice for the day. Above all things, however, over-indulgence must be avoided and a monk must never be overtaken by digestion; for there is nothing so opposed by the Christian as over-indulgence." One cup of wine a day is sufficient.

Thoreau: "By simplicity of life and fewness of incidents, I am solidified and crystallized … My life is concentrated and so becomes organized, which before was inorganic and lumpish …. Many of the so-called comforts of life are not only indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind." [Italics mine.]

Benedict: "If it can be done, the monastery should be established that all the necessary things … may be within the enclosure, so that there is no necessity for the monks to go outside of it."

Simplicity of place and manner leads to serenity-the kind of serenity that allows us the quiet inside to accept the grace of God.

The lowest of the monks were the Gyrovagues, "tramping from province to province, staying as guests in different monasteries …. Always on the move, with no stability, they indulge their own wills," writes Benedict.

The Gyrovagues were looking for softer beds, better food and easier rules, not content with what would suffice. They must have led complicated, disappointing lives.

Our worth and our neighbor's worth are not in the complexity of designer labels, cars and super cars, gourmet this and that, perfumes and wines, degrees and pedigrees. Our worth is in the monasteries of our hearts and the simple things that lie there. We will fill our days with simplicity and the days will overflow with time and room for God.

Writer's note: The Leonard Doyle, Liturgical Press, 2001, edition was used for quotes from The Rule.

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Echoes from the Bell Tower is a blog devoted to observations on Christian faith, spirituality and everyday events, by authors with a connection to the Benedictine values found at Saint Meinrad Archabbey and its Seminary and School of Theology. Contributors include students, permanent deacons, Benedictine oblates and Saint Meinrad monks. Their stories, thoughts and ideas highlight the mission and vision that ring out from the bell towers on this Hill in southern Indiana.