Saint Meinrad Seminary & School of Theology

Formation and Education for the Life of the Church

Benedictine Values: School for the Lords Service

by Fr. Adrian Burke, OSB


Typical of ancient authors, writing was a craft that sometimes involved using words or terms for which more than one meaning was possible. This led the reader to a deeper intellectual engagement with the text and thus a greater appreciation for the value or concept the author was attempting to articulate. 

In the above quotation from the prologue of St. Benedict's Rule, the word "school" can mean more than what initially seems obvious to the English speaker. The Rule was originally written in early 6th century Latin, and the word translated into modern English as "school" is the Latin word scola. In general, the Latin word meant a group of individuals acting according to a collective purpose - like a "school of fish" acts together to appear large in order to intimidate dangerous predators.

But, according to the late French Benedictine and eminent monastic scholar, Adelbert de Vogüé, it also could mean a group of soldiers acting together to fight an enemy, or gathered together for training. The context of the prologue also suggests a group of students gathered around a teacher to learn, the more obvious meaning for us who tend to refer to our institutions of learning as "schools." 

For St. Benedict, the martial image of soldiers and the scholastic image of students are intended to portray the monk as both warrior and disciple - the prologue as a whole suggests Benedict wanted us to pick up on both senses of the term. At the very beginning of his prologue, Benedict already applies the latter image - students - when he admonishes the reader to "Listen carefully to the master's instructions."   The English word "master," translated from the Latin magister, implies teacher more than what we usually think of as a "master." This seems to resonate with the gospel passage where Jesus insists that his disciples (his students) call no one teacher, "for you have only one teacher, the Christ." (Mt. 23.10) 

But, by the end of just the first few verses of the prologue, Benedict reverts to the martial image when he describes the monks as "armed with the strong and noble weapons of obedience to do battle for the true King, Christ the Lord."  (Prol.3) Clearly, for Benedict, to call his monastery a school for the Lord's service implied that monks were to perceive themselves as both fighting for Christ and learning from Him. The soldier-monk's "weapons" are the good works he lists in Chapter 4. But, being a learner, a student, is also a crucial part of the monk's self-image. In a sense, the monk is one who is called to a lifetime of learning - a life of discipleship (in a previous column, I mentioned that the Latin discipulus means pupil/learner). 

Benedict wants to make clear that the monk must be one who is always ready to learn, and indeed who loves learning, first by sitting at the feet of Christ and listening carefully to the precepts of the teacher, and attending to them with the ear of your heart (cf. Prol.1). Learning from the Word of God in prayer is primary, but also important is studying the writings of other "masters" of the spiritual craft (Benedict mentions several of these spiritual masters by name). For St. Benedict, both prayer and study are needed to round out the monastic program of learning for Christian discipleship. 

It's no mere coincidence that Benedictine communities throughout the world have maintained schools of learning. A love of learning has been part of monastic culture even before St. Benedict wrote his Rule. But, in the Latin (Western) Church, Benedictine monasteries have played a leading role in the intellectual development of Western society, culminating eventually in what are some of the world's oldest institutions of higher learning - the great universities of Europe.

Schools are important to any culture - needless to say, I think - and as a monastic community committed to the ongoing effort to form a more humane society, Saint Meinrad Archabbey's primary apostolate (ministerial outreach) is our school of theology. The seminary program for priesthood formation; the formation program for the permanent diaconate; the graduate degree program for lay students; and even our summer liturgical institute for high school kids, One Bread One Cup, are "Benedictine field artillery" for doing battle for the true King. The monastic community's commitment to our school reflects how important the love of learning still is as a value for we who live the Benedictine way of life in the 21st century.

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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.