With the increase of Christian persecution and criticism throughout the world today, a normal reaction would be to follow in the footsteps of Benedict of Nursia, withdraw from society, and embrace the monastic life. While I don’t advocate this in whole, we can incorporate some of his practices into our Christian walk, even on a temporal basis. So what exactly were the key elements of Benedict’s monastic theology and practice? What monastic principles are relevant for modern Christians who are not monks?
Benedict of Nursia’s ascetic journey began when he decided to leave the wicked society around him for the solitude of the mountains, where he lived as a “hermit in a cave”. From these humble beginnings, with a focus on dealing with his own temptations and time spent alone with God, a timeless monastic standard evolved that continues to this day. The success of Benedictine Monasticism is due in part to three key elements of Benedict’s monastic theology and practice: exactness and comprehensiveness, moderation, and order.
The first key element of his monastic theology and practice was exactness and comprehensiveness. He expounded on Basil’s moralistic rules, which was more fluid depending on an individual’s moral relativity, and created a set of instructions for adhering to these rules. In a way, he created a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for the monastic life, which eliminated the proverbial “gray area” in monastic rules. As a result, the Benedictine Rule became the SOP for Western monasticism for 500 years.
The second key element was moderation, which eliminated the need to inflict bodily pain as a method of overcoming temptation. Benedict knew that by following his monastic SOP, monks could overcome temptation and serve God without the need for bodily torment, as some monastic fathers endorsed.
The third key element was order. Instead of nomadic monks wandering from one place to the next, he asserted that the monastic life better suited the ascetic lifestyle. Benedict also prescribed a daily regimen for monastic monks, including praise, reading, and manual labor, that brought a sense of predictability and discipline to asceticism. This regimen, coupled with his monastic SOP, encouraged accountability for monks living within a monastery, which further fostered daily discipline. He also established a hierarchy within monasteries resembling that of a Roman military unit, which fit extremely well into the intent of monastic order.
Benedict’s lasting contribution to the monastic lifestyle further extends to modern Christians. From personal experience, certain aspects of the ascetic lifestyle can be very beneficial to one’s spiritual growth and maturity. When retreating from society, even for a brief period, one is able to be quiet, alone, and communicate with God on an intimate basis. Even sacrificing basic comforts can be spiritually rewarding. For me, these difficult times spent without many comforts brought me closer to God out of both necessity and strength, such as the times I was deployed to Iraq.
Modern Christians can also learn a lot about discipline from Benedict and his SOP. He figured out early on that discipline, coupled with accountability from fellow Christians, can have a much more profound effect on spiritual growth and maturity than going it alone. Many influential Christian leaders, including Billy Graham, knew the profound benefit of accountability in their daily lives, and utilized it to maintain their sanctity.
Finally, Benedict’s balanced regimen of praise, Scripture reading, and manual labor is the icing on the cake, in that it gives a Christian a sense of daily purpose and sharpens one’s focus on God’s will in one’s life. While it may not be very practical today for the modern Christian to fully abandon society and take up residence in a monastery, certain tenets of Benedict’s monastic SOP would certainly prove beneficial to those who need to renew their focus on God and His will for their life.
- Everett Furguson, Church History, Volume 1, From Christ to Pre-Reformation: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 317.
- Ibid., 318.