Feast of St. Benedict, 2012
On this day we remember the man who gave to a small group a rule that became the enduring guide for lives of Christian women and men throughout Europe in the centuries after it was embraced by his followers. It was endorsed by Rome and it spread throughout the world. Morning Prayer today sets out the rule that underlies all rules: remember love and fidelity; rely not on your intelligence. What does this mean, if one were to embrace such a monastic rule, or any rule? What is a rule, after all? I have asked my students why the monks would need a rule, so I might well ask why anyone would need a rule.
At the heart of “rule” is the idea of will. Being willing to let the will of another take precedence over my own desires and decisions is the necessary ground for living a rule, a prerequisite. To continue to live under the rule of another calls for fidelity. One must be able to remain faithful to a promise made: that basis must be a rock to build upon, not the shifting sand, debris of the rock worn down and broken up by exceptions and vacillating feelings indulged. If the rule is undermined by changes in one’s decision to let go of willfulness, in things large or small, then it isn’t a rule so much as an exteriorization and justification of what one wants to do now, without an eye to tomorrow or thought to yesterday’s promises.
But what can let a person release his will in a preemptive act of will? Fidelity can only be justified when it itself is underlain and sustained by love. Love that gives life, rather than stifles the soul, has to animate the rule, the ruler, the ruled.