Benedict’s Rule and reading
My husband is teaching a seminary course called Medieval and Reformation Spiritualities, and given my sympathies for the “contemplative life,” I’m taking the opportunity to do the readings he’s assigned to students. Thus I re-read The Rule of Saint Benedict over the weekend, in a newer edition (Vintage Spiritual Classics) with a Preface by Thomas Moore.
Since I was already familiar with the material, it was Moore’s comments that I found most interesting. I had forgotten how, compared to other monastic structures, Benedict’s Rule emphasized the benefits (to individuals and communities) of reading. Moore writes:
Benedict’s attention to reading adds another dimension to the contemplative life. In modern life we read mainly for information or entertainment, and writing about books tends to be critical rather than appreciative and exploratory. We have yet to rediscover the monastic practice of contemplative reading which is carried out with care, attention to beauty and form, and a meditative attitude.
I love his use of the words “appreciative and exploratory” there. It is right to read critically, of course, but when a book is truly well done, I appreciate and savor it; and reading exploratively can refer to both subject matter with which I wish to become more familiar as well as experimental forms or the study of other writers’ strengths and weaknesses of style. And the call to read with “attention to beauty and form” and a “meditative attitude” certainly might prompt more frequent forays into poetry, but I would say that all or nearly all genres could be explored with such an attitude.
To be strictly historical, I’m sure Benedict limited his monks’ readings to Scripture, hymns, the commentaries and lives of the church fathers, and other such “devotional” materials. But what’s helpful about Moore’s Preface is his suggestion that the Rule has something for modern laypeople, that it can be applied broadly outside the cloister:
Another way to seed ordinary life with the monastic spirit might be to read this rule not for its historical importance or a literal guide for monks, but to inspire anyone in the direction of contemplation.
And in that sense, I think we can apply the “appreciative and exploratory” attitude with “attention to beauty and form” to novels, short stories, and creative non-fiction as well as to poetry, and to diverse content as well as that which is more strictly “devotional.” Any topic or form or approach that wedges open our spiritual understanding just a bit more is worth engaging.
I spend a lot of time reading, something I see not as a luxury but as a necessity, for various reasons. One of those reasons is reading’s contribution to “living ontologically,” as Madeleine L’Engle puts it, thinking and living deliberately and with purpose. Moore confirms this, too, when he writes:
By not enjoying a genuine common life [emphasis is on genuine; by “common life” he refers to life outside a religious order] and by not giving ourselves a degree of contemplation, we wound our need for emotional quiet and for meaning.
So people who are too busy to read are too busy to think, to contemplate, to consider the meaning of their lives: an injustice against their own well-being. Who knew this commendation of good books was tucked away in a sixth-century list of do’s and don’ts for monks?!
Still, if you’ve heard that the Rule is a bit harsh, believe it. For all the structure it offers monastic communities, including the exhortations to careful reading and contemplation, I’d venture to say that the injunction against private property is perhaps the hardest rule for the modern reader and writer. Benedict insists that “without an order from the abbot, no one may presume to give, receive or retain anything as his own, nothing at all—not a book, writing tablets or stylus….” I guess he knew when it comes right down to it, the last thing a contemplative soul wants to give up is a notebook, pen, and volume by a favorite author!
Well, Benedict has his reasons for this and other aspects of the Rule, and to his credit he seems to apply them pretty consistently. I’m not ready to become a Benedictine, but after this re-read I do find the Rule itself worthy of some contemplation and perhaps careful, broad application to ordinary modern life. And the endorsement of thoughtful reading doesn’t hurt either!