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Going Sane With St Benedict

28 Jun 2019


I first encountered the Rule at the beginning of the 1990s when Esther de Waal came to Australia and offered a seven-day Benedictine Experience or Retreat here in Melbourne. This involved a group of very disparate people coming together for a week and living out, in as faithful way as possible for a group of 20th century Christian non-monastics, the Rule of St Benedict, at the Santa Maria Convent in Northcote. We kept most of the hours, though not in the middle of the night, and we maintained the Great Silence. During some of these prayer times, Esther included short addresses and reflections on the life of Benedict, or the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Over lunch, she read to us sections from Henri Nouwen’s Genesee Diary. 


That the 24-hour day can be structured seems obvious. But before this time I had never reflected on this as a way to live a flourishing life. This little Rule, ‘mimimam inchoationis regulam’  (little Rule for beginners), designed to ‘set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome’ (RB P.46) was received from an earlier Rule of the Master, then breathed into with new life by an Abbot  psychologically astute and very sensitively to attuned human foibles and fallibilities. The Rule of Benedict is a third in its size to the Rule of the Master, but there are some significant differences in its 73 brief chapters. These variations seem not so much to do with how a monk ought to structure his day, but the sort of communal culture that is fostered in his community. Both Rules know the importance of apportioning time so a human being can live amongst others and have all essential needs, personal and corporate met. Both Rules recognise the variations inherent in each season of the year and the church year. But it’s Benedict who understands community life in a much more down to earth, humanistic way.


This understanding about how to shape our movements through time each day, like learning the steps of a dance, was new to me. The Rule came at a time in my life when I was moving out of a crisis period. I’d had my own powerful experience of God’s love a few years before, the consequences of which instead of enhancing my life, had completely upended it and shattered me. The structures of work, the pressures of study, the responsibilities of marriage, all those artificial external rubrics which can hold together a person’s life including mine, were gone. At this point, I was in painful limbo. In this brief Benedictine life of seven days, I learned what the primary building blocks for a human life journeying on this earth are. I experienced moving through time in a regulated gentle balanced way; a way which is a framework that held me no matter my emotional state. The spirit of this rhythm of life wasn’t drawn so taut as to fracture if you fell out of step; nor was it so loose that you could choose to dance only to your own heart’s content. The rhythm involved being attuned to persons around you as they danced as well. Here was a balanced life where no part was exaggerated or out of proportion to another.


For me, the monastic hours are like the Grand Staff and the five lines ruled out on sheet music. They set the tempo, the bars, the repeats. They give sense, shape the space and offer a holding place. The key this piece is played in and the notes set down, are put in place by the vows. The vows are “not a profession formula, but rather a rubric.” ( They are not separate, but rather integral to each other. They are like the fine music giving artistry and meaning to the interplay of melody lines through life. The vows give coherency and strength; they recognise there is a reason for this rhythm.  Journeying through the hours, these three inner commitments keep us attuned to our inner spiritual life so that even when we may be derailed, we find renewal and new ways ‘to run on the road of God’s good words’ (trans. Wilson Hartgrove p 6) with ‘our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.’ (RB P.49) 


There are three images from the Rule which speak to me about what it means to be human; human living alongside and rubbing shoulders with others.


Towards the end of the Rule, St Benedict spells out some of the different roles in the monastery. In chapter 66 he writes about The Porter of the Monastery. The actual Latin word is ‘ostiariis’, from which we get the word - ostiary. And an ostiary is the mouth of a river, but also more pertinent here, one who keeps the door, especially the door of a church. This role of the ‘porter’ is very specific. 


The doorway referred to here is the portal which stands between the ordered self-sufficient world inside the monastery where ‘all necessary things such as water, mill, garden and various crafts may be within the enclosure’ and the much wider life outside which in Benedict’s time was unsettled, strife ridden 6th century Italy.  The Porter is at the door ‘so that the monks may not be compelled to wander outside it, for that is not at all expedient for their souls.’ The doorway to the monastery is a powerful place to situate someone.  Benedict tells us: Place there ‘a wise old man’ or ‘a sensible old man.’ A man who is mature and not himself tempted to wander off. He must also be a man of ‘fervent charity.’ He is to welcome strangers with a blessing. As always, keenly understanding the requirements of the job, Benedict makes sure that the porter is to be provided with a room near the door, and perhaps a younger brother to help him out. 


In John’s Gospel 10 we are told that Jesus is the ‘gate for the sheep,’ and that those who come in or go out, find pasture.  I heard recently Dorothy Lee talking about this image of the shepherd in John, as one who is both called to keep the sheep secure, as well as provide an environment for them in which to flourish.  This echoes to me about the nature of the porter’s role here in Chapter 66.  The doorway of the monastery to the outside world is a place of crossing over and of transition. The inner environment is to be protected, but also not overly stifled or totally removed from the influence of outside environs. 


This leads me to ask a more psychological question: what or who in me, do I place, do I choose to stand at my doorway; that interface or portal between my inner world and external environment? What inner space are we called to protect, yet at the same time not stifle to the point where we become invulnerable to the knocking call of the stranger outside?


Of the three Benedictine vows, the one which I gravitate to and yet increasingly find the most challenging, is the pledge to undergo inner renewal -‘amendment of manners’, ‘fidelity to monastic life’, ‘conversion of his life’: conversatione morum. (RB 58.17)  ‘The monastic profession is a way of life which involves conversation, communication, between the monk and God, the monk and the abbot, the monk and other monks, the monk and the surrounding world, a conversation that is prayer or prayerful,’ writes Oblate Catherine Mary Magdalene Haynes, Oblate O.S.B.  ( 


If I translate this into my own life, which is not monastic but hopefully a few stumblings on the spiritual path, then here there is recognition that the practice of awareness in conversing is one I am asked to cultivate. Stay awake, consciously unselfconscious in my own conversation with others, with God, with Scripture. We need to keep the doors of our ears open and listening, but also give time to take time to return to our inner room in which we each converse with Christ. This space inside us is a touchstone, a spring from which habits of the heart are fashioned. Here is the place for new life. Equally so, if we leave it uncultivated or fill it up only with our own ego-driven agenda, this inner place stultifies, at worst distorts us towards coercive action.


So, the porter is an image of standing at the gateway: willing to embrace the unknown stranger, welcome in, greet with the blessing of Christ; but, also to hold back, protect the inner ground that has already been prepared over and precious. There’s a boundary between that which is self-contained and self-sufficient, has integrity; but not so fenced off from an openness that allows the foreigner, the itinerant, to offer change. This is not about becoming resilient or impervious to outside influence; but about being discerning, prepared to be vulnerable because that’s the place where Christ a