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Monasticism/Education: Theological Contributions of The Rule of St. Basil/The Rule of St. Benedict.

Updated: Aug 8, 2023

Saint Basil (circa. 330-379)

Born of wealthy parents in Caesarea Mazaca (modern Kayseri, Turkey), Basil was educated in Athens and Constantinople (present-day Istanbul). After visiting a number of noted hermits in Egypt and Syria, he gave up an administrative career and settled as a hermit by the river Iris in Neo-Caesarea. There he wrote much of a monastic rule of life that became the basis for an order of monks (later called Basilian monks) that he founded about 360 A.D.

Most Orthodox and some Roman Catholic monks still follow the Rule of Saint Basil.

Noted for his brilliance and the holiness of his life, he was called upon by the Bishop of Caesarea to defend Christian doctrine against the heretical attacks of the Arians. In 370 A.D. he himself was elected Bishop of Caesarea, a post he held until his death on January 1, 379 A.D..

His writings include Against Eunomius, three books directed against the Arian leader Eunomius; On the Holy Spirit, a doctrinal treatise; and the Moralia, an anthology of New Testament verses.

He also wrote a liturgy (known as the Liturgy of St. Basil) still used in the Byzantine Rite. His Feast day is January 1 in the Eastern Church and January 2 in the Western Church.

Saint Basil, his brother Saint Gregory of Nyssa, and his friend Saint Gregory of Nazianzus are known collectively as the Cappadocian Fathers. Saint Basil's grandmother Macrina; his parents, Basil and Emmelia; his sister Macrina, and his younger brothers Gregory and Peter of Sebaste are all venerated as Saints.

Rule of St. Basil

Under the name of Basilians are included all the Religious who follow the Rule of Saint Basil. The Monasteries of such Religious have never possessed the hierarchical organization which ordinarily exists in the houses of an Order properly so called. Only a few houses were formerly grouped into Congregations or are today so combined.

Saint Basil drew up his Rule for the members of the Monastery he founded about 356 A.D. on the banks of the Iris in Cappadocia. Before forming this Community Saint Basil visited Egypt, Palestine, Coelesyria, and Mesopotamia in order to see for himself the manner of life led by the Monks in these countries. Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, who shared the retreat, aided Basil by his advice and experience.

Rufinus who translated them into Latin united the two into a single Rule under the name of "Regulae sancti Basilii episcopi Cappadociae ad monachos;" this Rule was followed by some Western Monasteries.

God knew of you before you were born. He formed you in your mother’s womb. “God calls you one and calls you all, to feast within His banquet hall.” We are called to the interior life within our hearts and mind wherever we are - not only in Monasteries. Our response to God sometimes takes great courage and confidence.

God graces us with attraction toward him in mysterious ways. We must cooperate with our own particular calling if we are going to enter into the banquet hall of our soul where God dwells. This is the interior world. Only the humble find God because he identifies with those who are meek and see themselves in the true perspective as God’s sees us. Our proud nature urges us outward. Only the humble submit to contemplation totally and fulfill their profound calling.

Saint Basil’s example is a marvelous lesson on how to fight pride and be humble. To be proud is sometimes virtuous. To have pride is a vice always. It is a killer vice. It is a big, bad major slayer! Pride leads the parade of capital sins and always wants to be first. Humility seeks the least or nothing.

Saint Basil meant we become God by participation and not by nature. It is through the Spirit in which we become connected with the Holy. Doctors of the Church are designated official guides given to us by the Church. They, with God’s Grace, enlighten us in a special way. We need to be open and docile to the Spirit of God to understand what God is communicating to us through them.

The Spirit is God's gift and promise to mankind. With God's gifts comes a train of other favours. Saint Basil writes about God's gifts which is taken from the “Rules for Monks.”

"What works can adequately describe God's gifts? They are so numerous that they defy enumeration. So great are they that any one of them demands our total gratitude in response... How shall we repay the Lord for all his goodness to us? He is so good that he asks no recompense except our love: that is the only payment he desires. To confess my personal feelings, reflecting on all these blessings I find myself overcome by a kind of dread and numbness at the very possibility of ceasing to love God, and of bringing shame upon Christ because of my lack of reconciliation and my preoccupation with trivialities."

Jesus Christ said to His very first followers in public ministry: come and see where I live. Saint Basil was taken from the world to pray and returned to the world to pray even more.

Saint Basil teaches us that God desires creatures to be steeped in the Spirit and this requires self-denial, discipline and generous efforts toward charity and service to others regardless of our profession, daily duties and vocation. This is impossible without sincere prayer and application of that prayer time according to one's life style, obligations and interest. It is not always clear-cut.

Listen to the rather wise words of Saint Basil when it comes to charity towards all: “The bread which you do not use is the bread of the hungry; the garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of him who is naked; the shoes that you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot; the money that you keep locked away is the money of the poor; the acts of charity that you do not perform are so many injustices that you commit.”

It is said that Saint Basil died at age forty-nine worn out from good deeds and the love of God for others burning in his heart. Although he spent only five years in the Monastery, he repeatedly answered the continual call from God because of his great humility.

Saint Basil was tempted by one of the seven capital sin: pride. To be proud of who we are and the gifts that God has given us is a noble virtue. Any sincere prayer to God is a humble act and we need not fear the sin of pride. Continual prayer to God, his Mother, Saint Basil or any of the Saints or holy person will guard us against the wickedness and snares of the evil one. It is also the surest sign of sanctification and steeps us in the gift of the Fear of the Lord, one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.

The questions refer generally to the Virtues which the Monks should practice and the Vices they should avoid. The greater number of the replies contains a verse or several verses of the Bible accompanied by a comment which defines the meaning.

The most striking qualities of the Basilian Rule are its prudence and its wisdom. It leaves to the superiors the care of settling the many details of local, individual, and daily life; it does not determine the material exercise of the observance or the administrative regulations of the Monastery.

These Monks took an active part in the Ecclesiastical life of their time; they had a share in all the quarrels, both theological and other, and were associated with all the works of charity. Their Monasteries were places of refuge for studious men. Many of the bishops and patriarchs were chosen from their ranks. The position of the Monks in the Empire was one of great power, and their wealth helped to increase their influence.

Of all the Monasteries of this period the most celebrated was that of Saint John the Baptist of Studium, founded at Constantinople in the fifth century. The Monastery was an active center of intellectual and artistic life and a model which exercised considerable influence on monastic observances in the East.

These Monasteries and others as well, were studios of religious art where the monks toiled to produce miniatures in the manuscripts, paintings, and goldsmith work. The triumph of Orthodoxy over the iconoclastic heresy infused an extraordinary enthusiasm into this branch of their labours. In the East the Convents for women adopted the Rule of St. Basil and had constitutions copied from those of the Basilian Monks.

Saint Benedict

(circa. 480-548)

The oldest account of the life of Saint Benedict is that written by Saint Gregory the Great in his second book of Dialogues. It is rather a character sketch of the Saint illustrating primarily the Miracles, rather than a chronological account of Benedict’s career.

Saint Benedict first settled in a village named Enfide with his elderly servant. Here he worked his first miracle by restoring to perfect condition an earthenware wheat sifter that the servant had accidentally broken. The attention this miracle prompted drove Benedict still farther and higher into the mountains to a remote area known as Subiaco.

On his way to this place he met the holy monk, Romanus, whose Monastery was on a mountain overlooking a cave. Romanus gave Benedict a religious habit and indicated the cave where Benedict would find the isolation he desired. Romanus assisted Benedict in every way and even provided him with food by letting a basket down from the cliff above. The Saint lived in the cave for three years, until his virtues became known to a group of monks whose Abbot had just died. Despite his objections they insisted that he rule over them, and he did so for a time until it soon became evident that Benedict’s strict notions of Monastic discipline did not suite their laxity.

They conspired against him and at last put poison in his wine. When the Saint made the Sign of the Cross over the cup according to his custom, it broke into pieces. Reminding them of his warning that his ways and theirs would not be compatible, he left for Subiaco, not to seclusion, but to begin the work for which God had prepared him during his Hermitage. In an effort at ending the capricious rule of superiors in different families of monks who were dispersed in the Monasteries of the region, and to control the license of their subjects, he envisioned a unification of the Monastic system, united together by fraternal bonds in the exercise of regular observances.

To this end:

Saint Benedict believed that labour was not only dignified, but a great disciplinary force for human nature, idleness being its ruin. He, therefore, made work compulsory for all who joined his Community.

Not merely content with overlooking the welfare of his brethren in the Abbey, he likewise was solicitous for the population of the surrounding country. He cured their sick, relieved the distressed, distributed alms and food to the poor, and is said to have raised the dead on more than one occasion. He likewise read hearts, prophesied, bested the devil in several trials and once, through his prayers, was miraculously supplied with 200 sacks of flour during a time of need.

Rule of Saint Benedict

Sources and Context

The Rule was written anywhere between 530 A.D. and 560 A.D., is not an entirely original document. It depends in great measure on the rules and traditions of Christian Monasticism that existed from the fourth century to the time of its writing. Scholars note that rules and writings like those of Saint Pachomius (fourth century Egypt), Saint Basil (fourth century Asia Minor), Saint Augustine (fourth and fifth century North Africa), and Saint Cassian (fifth century southern Gaul) stand behind the Rule of St. Benedict and at times are clearly evident in the text.

The most important source for the Rule, however, is the Rule of the Master, an anonymous rule written two or three decades before Benedict's Rule. Not infrequently, especially in the RB's (Rules' of Benedict) Prologue and first seven chapters, Benedict copied extensively from the Rule of the Master. Benedict picked up the Monastic Tradition and even copied from its documents (as was customary at the time); but he also corrected and altered the Tradition in significant ways.

Saint Benedict's biographer, Saint Gregory the Great (Pope from 590 A.D. to 604 A.D.), indicates that Benedict "wrote a Rule for monks that is remarkable for its discretion and its clarity of language." The Rule of St. Benedict should not be viewed as an exclusively legal code though it includes prescriptions for living in a monastery. The Rule actually contains a treasure of spiritual wisdom concerning the monastic movement in the Church.

Summary of the Rule of Saint Benedict

It is for the first of these kinds of Monks, the Cenobites, as the "strongest kind" that the Rule is written.

The Abbot, like a wise physician and good shepherd, is to arrange for mature and wise members of the community to counsel wayward members in private, while everyone else offer prayers in support, so that with compassion those who show themselves sick by their conduct may be carried back to the flock.

After frequent reproofs and maybe even excommunication has proved unavailing, then corporal punishment is to be dispensed.

If every effort to help a wayward member reform has failed, the Abbot and Community are to pray for him, "so that the Lord, who can do all things, may bring about the 'health' of the 'sick' brother". If this does not "heal" him, the Abbot is to send him away to protect the Community.

The reader is to have his meal with the servers after the rest have finished, but he is allowed a little food beforehand in order to lessen the fatigue of reading.

The times at which the lesser of the "day-hours" (Prime, Terce, Sext, and None) are to be recited control the hours of labour somewhat, and the Abbot is instructed not only to see that all work, but also that the employments of each are suited to their respective capacities.

This Benedictine hospitality is a feature which has in all ages been characteristic of the Order. The guests are to be met with due courtesy by the Abbot or his Deputy, and during their stay they are to be under the special protection of a Monk appointed for the purpose, but they are not to associate with the rest of the community except by special permission.

Each Monk is to have a change of garments, to allow for washing, and when traveling shall be supplied with clothes of rather better quality. The old habits are to be put aside for the poor.

These matters have since been regulated by the Church, but in the main, Saint Benedict's outline is adhered to. The postulant first spends a short time as a guest; then he is admitted to the novitiate, where under the care of a Novice-Master, his Vocation is severely tested; during this time, he is always free to depart. If after twelve months' probation, he still perseveres, he may be admitted to promise before the whole community, whereby he binds himself for life to the Monastery of his Profession.

In Chapter 63, Community Rank is explained. Rank is determined by the date of the Monk's entry into the Community, by their personal Virtue, and the decision of the Abbott. But what is also paramount is that the Community ensures the practice Mutual Respect and Love between all members, young and old alike. It is engrained into daily life. It simply doesn't matter how a Monk feels about another Monk; no matter what may have happened between them and no matter what rank they may be.

The Rule of Benedict prescribes times for common prayer, meditative reading, and manual work; it legislates for the details of common living such as clothing, sleeping arrangements, food and drink, care of the sick, reception of guests, recruitment of new members, journeys away from the monastery, etc.. While the Rule does not shun minute instructions, it allows the Abbot to determine in great detail the particulars of common living. Compared to other precepts, the Rule provides a moderate path between individual zeal and formulaic institutionalism; because of this middle ground it has been widely popular.

Compared with the tradition and especially with the Rule of the Master, Saint Benedict legislates for a monastic life that has rhythm, measure, and discretion. His monks are not overdriven by austerities in fasting and night vigils. They do not own anything personally, but they have enough to eat and to drink (even wine when it is available) and to clothe themselves.

The monks work with their hands about six hours a day but they also have leisure for prayerful reading and common prayer. Their sleep is sufficient and they may even take a siesta in summer if needed. The young, the sick, and the elderly are cared for with compassion and attention. The Abbot, while he directs all aspects of the common life, must seek counsel from the monks; and the Rule makes provision for his limitations and failings.

In short, the Rule arranges for a Monastic life in which the monks may seek God in prayer and reading, in silence and work, in service to guests and to one another. The earliest forms of Christian Monasticism were characterized by their extreme austerity and by their more or less eremitical nature.

When, therefore, Saint Benedict came to write his own Rule for the Monasteries he had founded, he embodied in it the result of his own mature experience and observation. He had himself lived the life of a solitary after the most extreme Egyptian pattern, and in his first communities he had no doubt thoroughly tested the prevailing type of monastic rule.

Being fully cognizant, therefore, of the unsuitability of much in the Egyptian systems to the times and circumstances in which he lived, he now struck out on a new line, and instead of attempting to revivify the old forms of asceticism, he consolidated the Cenobitical Life, emphasized the family spirit, and discouraged all private venture in austerities.

In adapting a system essentially Eastern, to Western conditions, Saint Benedict gave it coherence, stability, and organization.

He perceived the necessity for a permanent and uniform rule of government in place of the arbitrary and variable choice of models furnished by the lives and maxims of the Fathers of the Desert. And so, we have the characteristic of collectivism, exhibited in his insistence on the common life, as opposed to the individualism of the Egyptian monks.

To further this aim of preventing evil coming into the lives of his monks, he introduced the Vow of Stability, which becomes the guarantee of success and permanence. Thus, whatever the monk does, he does it not as an independent individual but as part of a larger organization, and the community itself thus becomes one united whole rather than a mere agglomeration of independent members.

The Vow of Conversion of Life indicates the personal striving after perfection that must be the aim of every Benedictine monk. The Rules legislation points toward the constant repression of self, the conforming of one's every action to a definite standard, and the continuance of this form of life to the end of one's days. It is a means to "putting off the old man and putting on the new", and thereby accomplishing the "conversio morum" which is inseparable from a life-long perseverance in the maxims of the Rule.

The Practice of Obedience is a necessary feature in Saint Benedict's idea of the religious life, if not indeed its very essence. Not only is a special chapter of the Rule devoted to it, but it is repeatedly referred to as a guiding principle in the life of the monk. It is so essential that it is the subject of a special vow in every religious institute, Benedictine or otherwise. In Saint Benedict's eyes it is one of the most positive works to which the monk binds himself; for he calls it labuor obedientiae (Prologue). It is to be cheerful, unquestioning, and prompt; to the abbot chiefly, who is to be obeyed as holding the place of Christ, and also to all the brethren according to the dictates of fraternal charity, as being "the path that leads to God" (Chapter 71).

The Vows of Poverty and Chastity, though not explicitly mentioned by Saint Benedict, as in the Rules of other Orders, are yet implied so clearly as to form an indisputable and essential part of the life for which he legislated. Thus, by means of the vows and the practice of the various virtues necessary to their proper observance, it can be seen that Saint Benedict's Rule contains not merely a series of laws regulating the external details of monastic life, but also all the principles of perfection according to the Evangelical Counsels. It is generally acknowledged that the "Precepts of the Rule" bind only under the penalty of venial sin, and really grave transgressions against the vows, on the other hand, would fall under the category of mortal sins.

The Rule of Saint Benedict is not written for Monastic Hermits, though Benedict has high regard for them; it is written for ordinary Christians who wish to immerse themselves in a pattern of living in which the life of Christ can be lived out with understanding and zeal. His sole idea was the moral and spiritual training of his disciples, and yet in carrying this out he made the cloister a school of useful workers, a real refuge for society, and a solid bulwark of the Church. It cannot be over emphasized the significance and effect of Monasticism upon the education of Europe both in the east and west for almost a millennium.

The Rule, instead of restricting the monk to one particular form of work, makes it possible for him to do almost any kind of work, and that in a manner spiritualized and elevated above the labour of merely secular craftsmen. In this lies one of the secrets of its success.

Many cathedrals (especially in England), abbeys, and churches, scattered up and down the countries of Western Europe, were the work of Benedictine builders and architects.


Original PowerPoint Presentation Submitted to Dr. William H. Brackney as a course requirement for D.Min. 8526 - The Theological Foundations of Ministry - - Acadia Divinity College - Published on May 27th, 2008 (Revised on August 8th, 2023)

© Dr. Charles Warner 2023

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