Saint Meinrad Seminary & School of Theology

Formation and Education for the Life of the Church

The Rule is Only a Beginning

by Fr. Adrian Burke, OSB


"This Rule is only a beginning of perfection." 
Rule of St. Benedict - Chapter 73

The above quotation is actually the title of the last chapter of The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 73. In this final chapter, St. Benedict writes that by observing this "little Rule for beginners" (73.8), "we can show that we have some degree of virtue and the beginnings of monastic life." (73.1)

Observing his Rule is just a start, a beginning. St. Benedict also wants the men and women living according to his Rule to understand that there is much more to know about monastic life than what is contained in this "little rule." There is a long tradition of monasticism that precedes St. Benedict, and he wants not only to acknowledge that, but to encourage the monks to study that tradition.

The value of tradition is unfathomable to the life of any serious Christian. The word "tradition" is rooted in the Latin word tradere, meaning to "hand over" or "pass down." A tradition is a body of knowledge or teachings, customs and practices that are "passed down" or transmitted from one generation to the next. So, the Christian tradition contains what is considered vital to living an authentic Christian life. 

For Benedictine monks and nuns, the monastic tradition is a treasury of doctrine, practices and customs transmitted from one generation of monastics to the next, which provides the basis for a well-formed, fully integrated religious life. In Chapter 73 of his Rule, St. Benedict mentions some of what he considers important pieces of that tradition.

Naturally, he mentions the holy Scriptures, basic to any Christian life. For serious Christians, studying the sacred texts of the Bible is vital for understanding the teachings and example of Jesus Christ, as well as the exhortations of the first apostles and the ancient Hebrew prophets, whose writings formed the basis for Jesus' own religious identity as a Jewish man.

But, Benedict also mentions St. Basil (4th century), who also wrote a rule for monks that greatly influenced monastic culture, especially in the Eastern Church. Benedict mentions the "holy and catholic Fathers," post-Apostolic writers that continued to teach and exhort after the first generation of disciples were gone.

Some of these were monastic authors, so-called "desert fathers" (and some mothers, too, though Benedict doesn't use the term), men and women who left written sayings that were meant to aid monks and nuns in the "cultivation of virtues."

Along with these earlier sources, Benedict refers to "the Conferences of the Fathers, and their Institutes" (73.5), which were compiled by an important monastic writer named John Cassian; his works had an enormous influence on St. Benedict.

And, finally, he makes a general reference to the Lives of the fathers and mothers, documented stories handed down about great monastic saints, some of whom are mentioned in the first comprehensive history book of the Church written by a certain Palladius in the early 5th century, about 100 years before Benedict wrote his Rule.

Also, there is the greatest of all the monastic Lives, a work called "The Life of St. Anthony," which was a monastic bestseller in the 4th century. Benedict wants his monks to study these important writings from the monastic tradition and glean from them good example and holy doctrine, passed down over generations from men and women living fruitful monastic lives, so as to attain, as Benedict says, "the perfection of monastic life" - hearts made pure.

Tradition is important - we can't expect each new generation to "reinvent the wheel." Rather, each generation is responsible for fully receiving and faithfully passing on what works - and warning about what doesn't work - so that subsequent generations can continue to live authentic monastic lives.

St. Benedict's Rule itself is a vital part of our monastic tradition. Today, some monks and nuns dedicate their intellectual lives to studying the Rule of St. Benedict and other ancient monastic rules to understand better what the authors intended by what they wrote, and how they influenced one another in their thinking.

The work of these modern monastic scholars contributes something to the monastic tradition as they continue to refine our understanding of monasticism. The monastic tradition is a sure guide for present-day Benedictine communities striving to adapt the ancient Rule of St. Benedict to our own times and places, as St. Benedict himself wanted us to do in every generation. Thus the Rule of St. Benedict, and our monastic tradition, are "living" realities! 

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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.