Some possible principles for interpreting the Benedictine Rule...

I've been pondering for some time what the appropriate principles for interpreting the Benedictine Rule might be if one approached it from the perspective of a hermeneutic of continuity, as opposed to the evident discontinuity that has largely prevailed for the last several decades. 

And I've finally been spurred into posting on this having seen a commentary which touches on some of these issues.

Let me say that these are a first draft only, and I'd very much appreciate reactions and debate on them.  If there proves to be interest, I may elaborate on each of them in subsequent posts.

May they prove of assistance at least in stimulating thought!

1. The Rule is a providential encapsulation of spirituality and legislation

That St Benedict wrote when he did, and that his Rule came to dominate Europe, was not happenstance, but rather part of God’s providential plan.

As Pope Benedict XVI has repeatedly emphasized, God works through history; the history of the Church is the history of his saints.

One can’t therefore properly read the Rule solely in terms of how it differs from other contemporary or prior Rules, or decide that certain parts are in some way contingent since they would have been different if they had been written fifty years earlier or later.  Thus, historico-critical analysis of the Rule may be interesting - but it cannot be the be all and end all of its interpretation.  And above all, it should not be pursued at the expense of the "post-history" of the use of the Rule (or parts of it). 

2. That said, the legislative aspects of the Rule can be modified

The Rule itself allows the abbot to adapt and mitigate its provisions, both to the time and place, and in order to the needs of individual monks.

Canon law and the law of the land have also overridden parts of the Rule – the procedures around the noviciate and priests for example in relation to canon law; the law of the land and corporal punishment.

And the experience of the Order over the centuries has led to the effective replacement of some of its provisions (through 'declarations' and Constitutions) in accordance with monastic custom and the history of particular monasteries or congregations – the separate kitchen and dining room for the abbot and his guests for example, number and content of meals, use of individual cells instead of a dormitory. 

In addition, the Rule itself provides detailed prescriptions in some areas, mere sketches in others.  The details have always had to be filled in through customaries, liturgical books and so forth.

In the terminology favoured by historians in relation to the period immediately after St Benedict, in practice, all monasteries today, traditionalist, conservative and liberal alike, effectively follow a "mixed Rule" of one type or another.

3. The Rule has to be read as a unified whole

St Benedict prescribed a regimen for his monks that involved a balance between the liturgy (Opus Dei), sacred reading, and work. He certainly emphasizes to the priority of the Opus Dei.

But within the context of that balance.

And within the context of the general principles of moderation and adaptation to the circumstances and place, as well as individual capacities that he reiterates throughout the Rule.

It is important too, to read the Rule against the background of the Life of St Benedict by Pope Gregory I (and see below for Pope Benedict's comments on this).  The Life is traditionally regarded as one of the foundational texts of the Order, and it provides a useful perspective on the way the life is actually to be lived.

4. The primary criterion for interpreting the Rule is how it has been understood down through history.

The Rule should be interpreted in the context of the history of the Benedictine Order, adopting a "hermeneutic of continuity".

The history of monasticism prior to St Benedict will obviously throw light on it, so will the evidence of St Benedict’s contemporaries, as well as later reactions to in the form of the traditions of other religious orders.  Interpretation of the Rule in the light of the great Franciscan or Dominican or Carmelite writers, for example, could well be of interest to members of those Orders as a way of  appropriating a spiritual classic into their tradition.  It may well also throw up insights that will be of interest to Benedictines.

But to learn how to be good Benedictines, the primary lens must surely be the Order’s own patrimony: read the great commentaries of the past on the Rule first and foremost; the great sermons; the great mystical works and so forth.

Pope Benedict XVI has put this point as follows:

“Charisms are bestowed by the Holy Spirit, who inspires founders and foundresses, and shapes Congregations with a subsequent spiritual heritage. The wondrous array of charisms proper to each Religious Institute is an extraordinary spiritual treasury. Indeed, the history of the Church is perhaps most beautifully portrayed through the history of her schools of spirituality, most of which stem from the saintly lives of founders and foundresses.”

5. The way the Rule is approached must be different for those living in community and those in the world

There is something to Dom David Knowles' proposition that the starting point for a monk in interpreting the Rule will be a presumption in favour of a literal reading of the Rule's provisions (but then allowing for changes and adaptations in the light of custom and the times); the starting point for an oblate will be a spiritual reading.

It is an obvious but perhaps often overlooked point, for example, that the Rule clearly states that it is written for monks living in a community under the authority of an abbot. Many of its concrete legislative provisions depend on the judgment of the abbot on a day-to-day basis. A lay person who thinks that he can simply be his own abbot needs to reread Chapter One of the Rule.

Thus, a lay oblate living in the world cannot be considered to be subject to the concrete legislative provisions of the Rule except to the extent that the constitutions or understandings of the community to which he made his oblation bind him (supplemented by any Rule of Life drawn up in consultation with his spiritual director).  It is the spirituality of the Rule they are committing themselves to following, and its practical requirements must be adapted to take account of the duties of state of life and the need to maintain an appropriate balance between the different elements of Benedictine life....

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