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How to live — advice from the sixth century

01 March 2024

St Benedict’s emphasis on humility and obedience is just as applicable today, says Rowan Williams


Brothers participate in the building of a monastery, in a scene from a fresco series depicting the life of St Benedict, at the Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore, Tuscany

Brothers participate in the building of a monastery, in a scene from a fresco series depicting the life of St Benedict, at the Abbazia di Monte Olivet...

I WANT to begin with something about the Rule of St Benedict, a document which comes from some point in the sixth Christian century. Some people have gone so far as to doubt whether there was ever any one person called Benedict. I’m sceptical about that scepticism, but there can be no doubt that the Rule of St Benedict as we know it is something that was undoubtedly written by a very remarkable man indeed.

The remarkableness of the Rule of Benedict is its very prosaic quality. At the very end of the Rule, Benedict sums up what he’s been trying to do: “The reason we have written this Rule is that by observing it in monasteries, we can show that we have some degree of virtue of the beginnings of monastic life. Are you hastening toward your heavenly home? Then, with Christ’s help, keep this little Rule that we have written for beginners.”

The rest of that concluding chapter spells out what you ought to be reading if you want to keep growing. The Rule of Benedict is not meant to be an end in itself: it’s meant to be a kind of spring-cleaning exercise — or, in musical terms, the five-finger exercises for the piano. These are some of the very ordinary human skills you’re going to need even to begin to grow towards a Christlikeness.

So, this is a handbook, a rule for beginners. With that in mind, it’s important to understand the role in the Rule of St Benedict of the idea of humility, the stress on obedience. These tend to be words that have a slightly lead-balloonish feel in our contemporary setting. Humility has a bad name these days, because it’s so often a virtue commended by the arrogant to the powerless. Obedience, once again, is a virtue which tends to be recommended downwards, by those who think they have a right to it.

But, to step aside for a moment, what exactly is the kind of community that Benedict is writing for? First, it’s a community of lay people. The Rule of St Benedict is not written for clergy. We’re still in that era of church history when the monastic movement was essentially a non-clerical one and, indeed, from time to time, an anti-clerical one. The emphasis is very much on what lay people can do: on the ordinary production of food, on leading a life together of relatively intense manual labour, while at the same time making demands in terms of study, of fluency in scripture, and regularity of prayer.

The monk is, in short, simply a baptised Christian doing their job. Benedict is not clear exactly how many people he expects to be in the community. He, at one point, says, if you have a large community, it helps to have somebody who will be responsible for smallish groups within it. There’s a chapter on what are called the deans of the monastery — that is, somebody who’s got responsibility for a group of about ten people. That’s quite an interesting insight into how Benedict thought it ought to work: there’s a bit of a suspicion of an excessively large or impersonal model of community life.

The next basic thing about the community of the Rule is the expectation that every member of it is going to be equally involved in manual labour. So, although all the monks are expected to do their share of study and reading — and there’s considerable stress on the importance of study — none the less everybody takes their turn in the kitchen, in the fields, in the guest house.

This is a working household: in sixth-century terms, probably a medium to large farm, where there will be labour of all kinds to perform. The sixth century is still a phenomenally hierarchical, aristocratically dominated society, and, if you think that quite a lot of people coming into communities came from that sort of background, you begin to see how far the Rule challenged certain prevailing models in society. Nobody was going to be too important to dirty their hands in the kitchen or the garden.

It reminds me very much of the way in which, in the 16th century, the great reforming Spanish saint Teresa of Ávila makes the same kind of point, pushing back against a monastic establishment which had settled down rather too comfortably with the idea that some people did the serious praying and some people do the washing up.


SO, WHILE the Rule has a lot about authority and obedience and hierarchy, it’s certainly something which is pushing back against the particular models of obedience and hierarchy that are around. Everybody is involved in common labour and common productivity. Famously, of course, Benedict believes that work and prayer are inseparable, because what is envisaged here is not so much a programme for a praying life as a programme for a life all of whose elements can be woven into prayer — that is, towards the restoration of our proper relationship with our heavenly Father.

I suspect that somebody who had visited one of the traditional Benedictine monasteries of our own day and was then transported back to the sixth century to visit Benedict’s community would have a few surprises. They might be a bit taken aback by the level of manual work expected. They’d certainly be taken aback by the shortage of clergy. I think they might be a bit taken aback by the way in which small groups were expected to function within the larger one, and how the organism of the monastery depended on these smaller cells.

This is the kind of community that Benedict envisages: lay people literate enough to read, lay people drawn from a variety of backgrounds. There will be people with wealthy backgrounds and people with not-so-wealthy backgrounds, and you don’t make any distinctions. He’s very explicit about this: don’t raise any expectations for those who bring with them a large donation from their wealthy family that they will be guaranteed a more comfortable time or guaranteed high office. Nobody buys their way into comfort or authority in this community.


IT IS worth bearing in mind that the wider context is one of pretty consistent political and social disruption. It’s not an easy time. It’s a time when patterns of social status, land ownership, career expectation, education were in the melting pot. I think that explains something about Benedict’s almost compulsive returning, again and again, to prosaic stability. This is what you do to create a sustainable human ecology, as we might put it: hundreds of hours of stability.

He has famously disparaging things to say about monks who wander from monastery to monastery looking for the holiest and most impressive variety of monastic life. He tells his communities to be very suspicious of wandering holy people, and he encourages them just to settle down and get on with it. The community is where you have been placed by God to learn who you are and what you are with these particular people.

Benedictine monks, from that day to this, don’t make vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. They make vows of obedience, stability, and transformation of habits. Humility, Benedict says, is the way by which we ascend — that is, by letting go of our own ego, by letting go of our individual agenda, the protection of our security and our status. By letting go of all that, we are actually liberated to rise above the level of conflict, rivalry, and destructive habits in respect of one another.

The monk must constantly remember everything God has commanded. And he’s pretty blunt here, keeping in mind that all who despise God will burn in hell for their sins, and all who fear God have everlasting life. The monk must guard himself at every moment from sins and vices of thought or tongue, hand or foot, self-will or bodily desire. All is seen by God in heaven.

It’s very severe, but it’s severe because Benedict believes that there is a sickness to be overcome, grounded in our attachment to our own preference at the expense of the neighbour. And so he sets out these steps of humility, which we might translate as a set of guidelines by which we can check ourselves.

That humility certainly involves obedience to the Superior. It involves endurance, patience, and other forms of stability. It also involves the willingness to be transparent with one another. In the very different monastic communities of the Eastern Mediterranean desert, the idea that you had to expose your innermost thoughts to a spiritual father was key to the whole idea of monastic development.

In the desert, you sought out a spiritual director you trusted, and you shared everything with that director: your thoughts, your fantasies, your fears, your neuroses. The first step of humility is that a man does not conceal from his abbot any sinful thoughts entering his heart or any wrongs committed in secret, but confesses them humbly.

Part of this acceptance of humility is a willingness to do what you have to do, to do what you’re told to do, to do the job that is given you in the monastery, and not to complain. You have no claim to favourable or exceptional treatment. You take what’s given you, and you remember that you, like everybody else in the community, have been saved by the grace of Christ: that you have not earned your salvation or your status in the eyes of God.

You don’t go in for exaggerated penances or an exaggerated religious observance. You walk in step with the community. You don’t look to be more pious, more penitent than the other. If someone is asking for more hair shirts or iron belts or scourges for their backs, then be suspicious: if someone is seeking to stand out by the extravagance of their piety, they’ve got a problem. That means that it’s characteristic of a member of this community that they control the tongue, both in not speaking judgementally about others, but also in not volunteering too much in an assertive or aggressive way in the community.

We’re told that the monk is not given to ready laughter — and this is a point at which modern minds tend to recoil. We think, what a joyless environment this must be. But, in a lot of monastic writing, laughter almost always has about it the note of mockery or contempt. Part of what Benedict is saying here is: “Don’t sneer. Don’t make cheap jokes.” There’s joy in this text, plenty of it, and he can speak very warmly at other points.

So, you can say that the monk speaks gently, with suitable modesty; briefly, reasonably, without raising his voice. And your external demeanour reflects your inner state — how you sit, walk, stand. Remember that you stand before the judgement of God. You repeat: “Lord, I’m a sinner not worthy to look up to heaven,” the prayer of the tax collector in the parable in Luke.

This emphasis on humility, like the emphasis on obedience, is something that is pretty counter-cultural for us. But, read in context, it seems to me that what Benedict is most interested in here is how you discipline and contain your instinctive competitiveness. You have to keep reminding yourself that you have no God-given rights to tell other people what to do; that you have no God-given superiority to anybody else around. Your significance is always the gift of love to you — and that gift of love is from the very first page of Benedict’s Rule.


SOME of what Benedict has to say on this is of real significance for us today as we try to live a Christian life in community. One is the chapter on mutual obedience: obedience is not just something exercised from the Superior downwards. It’s also something to do with the attention and reverence with which we approach one another.

And, again, in a status-obsessed society, it’s extremely significant that Benedict urges the abbot to make sure that the voices of the younger members of the community, as well as the older ones, are heard equally. Of course, he recommends that young monks be respectful towards older monks and address them with suitable reverence. But he also says you never know where wisdom is going to come from. It may be articulated by some quite unlikely people.

To some extent, your authority depends on how long you’ve been there — how long you’ve been listening to the word of God in the Psalms, the teaching of your Superior, the reading of the Gospels, and the sheer daily rubbing up against the awkwardness of other human beings. All that is to do with how humility plays out, in a constant willingness to step back for the sake of the other, as a mutual pattern.

That’s what the obedience is about: the abbot who has the right to give orders; and the community is also told very firmly that [the abbot’s] got to listen to the community, to attend to the needs of the community, and to give tasks to people that suit their particular spiritual and physical capacity. The abbot has to have super-active antennae for people: what they are good and bad at, what feeds them, what frustrates them. A good Superior will be one who is almost preternaturally attentive to the distinctiveness of each person in the community.

That, to me, is a very interesting aspect of the Rule of Benedict: this stress on personal uniqueness and everybody’s contribution to the community, combined with a very strong underlining of how you mustn’t try to stand out. Your uniqueness in the community doesn’t consist in what you achieve as an individual, but you are unique, and the good Superior will recognise what it is that you contribute to the community and nobody else does. Obedience has something to do with that, but above all, perhaps most importantly for Benedict, obedience is a way of sharing Christ’s life. And it’s very clear in the Rule that living in Christ is what it’s all about.


OBEDIENCE is an intensified listening. Christ’s obedience to the Father in the Gospels is not a matter of Jesus listening for commands dropping from heaven. It’s much more listening for who God is and what God is and how that presence of the Father in Jesus’s life shapes and moulds everything.

Which relates to a point made very beautifully by Luigi Gioia, the Italian scholar, whose book of Saint Benedict’s Wisdom is one of the gems of recent writing on Benedict. As he says, the abbot always exercises authority as a father, and that’s what the name suggests: abba. The abbot has that kind of authority. The monks’ obedience to the abbot, therefore, is not to align with a remote, impersonal set of commands, but is an exploration of the life that has been given and continues to be given in that relationship.

That’s what Luigi Gioia says is what delivers us from what he calls the two great distortions of relation with God: the servile and the mercantile, approaching God as a slave might approach a slave owner, or approaching God as somebody you can bargain with. If you really seriously approach God as the source of your life, if what you are receiving when you’re in the presence of God is life, who you are and what you are, then the whole question of obeying God looks a bit different.

It’s not as if God is out there, bellowing orders. Your obedience is trying to conform to the heart, the energy, the life, the logic of the gift you’ve been given. And that, Luigi Gioia suggests, is what’s going on in some of what Benedict has to write about obedience.

There’s an interesting passage in the Rule, about the attention you give to the work you do, where he speaks about how it’s very important to look after your tools and to put away the dishes in the right cupboards in the kitchen. Part of your responsibility as a member of a community is to make sure that the material circumstances you share are well organised. That, too, is prayerful attention. That, too, is creating the environment in which the likeness of Christ will grow.

And that prosaic practicality, as I’ve called it, which is so typical of the Rule — that is clearly seen as part of the training by which we are set free to grow further into intimacy with God.

Remember, at the beginning, we noted that this is a little Rule for beginners. This is not the whole story. But, unless you do the five-finger exercises, you’re not going to be able to play Rachmaninov. And the equivalent of playing Rachmaninov here, it seems, is going through Cassian and Basil and discovering some of the more demanding and exhilarating dimensions of spiritual life that are involved. Meanwhile, when you wash the dishes, put them in the right place. When you come into the fields, clean your tools and hang them up.

And the same thing applies to what he says about the care of the sick and the care of guests. Famously and rather wonderfully, in the chapter on guests, he says that every guest has to be received as Christ himself. When a guest arrives, pray with them and prostrate yourself before them, especially when the guest is poor or when the guest is homeless. The poor and the pilgrim, more than any other guest, are representing the Christ whom you must adore.


This is an edited extract from a lecture delivered as part of the Sarum College/Church Times Introduction to Christian Spirituality series.


Passions of the Soul by Rowan Williams is published by Bloomsbury at £11.99 (Church Times Bookshop £10.79); 978-1-3994-1568-2.

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