Saint Benedict's legislation on work, and the effect it has had upon the course of European history, have received a full measure of praise from modern historians. The achievement of his monks in this respect during the fourteen centuries of their existence has, indeed, been almost incalculable. Yet it would be wholly false to Saint Benedict's ideal, and the ideal of the gospel behind him, to seek to explain monasticism by a recital of its external accomplishments and works.
These accomplishments are a magnificent proof that those who seek first the kingdom of God are able to do work that is both beneficent and permanent for the world. This result may seem accidental, but in reality it is a necessary consequence of a rightly ordered life. But neither Saint Benedict nor those of his followers who have approached most nearly to his spirit have ever considered their ordinary work as being more than an occupation for that part of their life which remained over from their directly religious duties.
Saint Benedict wished his monks to work because he knew that the normal man could not always be either reading or praying vocally. But to attribute to him any purpose of using his institute as a great economic or social or intellectual or even apostolic force would be neither spiritually nor historically true. He wished it to he a great supernatural force and knew well enough that the lesser good result (the material) would follow the greater (the spiritual).
THE LIFE which Saint Benedict wished his monks to lead was one in which full scope was to he given to the growth of supernatural motives and supernatural virtues. It was a life to he passed in the presence of God, with every action and activity directed towards Him. It was, therefore, to be a life without distractions, a fife of prayer. In this life there were three chief instruments, liturgical prayer, reading, and work.
The work of his Rule is an employment against idleness, as he himself says "for the good of the monk's soul." We may well think also that in Saint Benedict's sane and realist Roman mind there was a conviction that work, man's primeval task on the earth, has a strengthening, bracing, tonic effect on character and soul, and is itself a benediction, almost a sacrament.
Saint Benedict's legislation on reading has not always secured the attention it deserves. Its full implications can only be grasped by those who follow with some care a reconstruction of the daily life in Saint Benedict's monastery and discover that little less than four hours were daily devoted to reading, as compared to some six given to work.
But the monks for whom the Rule was written were not students. Their reading was not the means to any practical or intellectual end. Neither knowledge of a practical kind nor learning to be imparted to others by books or teaching was to come of it. It was not even the professional study of divinity made by a clerical body. Saint Benedict's reading was reading done for the benefit of the monk's own soul. It was what we would now call spiritual reading.
Saint Benedict, along with the holy men from whose writings he drew so much inspiration, took a broad, sane view of man's mental as well as his bodily activity. "Nothing is willed unless it is previously known" was an axiom of the schools long after his day; we cannot love God (and so pray to Him) unless we know Him. How shall they believe Him of Whom they have not heard? We cannot love Him more unless we know Him better; our minds were created to know God as our hearts to love Him; it is not enough that we have at a particular moment of our life put our signature to a creed. Saint Benedict knew that the normal mind, whatever its intellectual abilities, will only he able to advance in prayer and the love of God by an ever-repeated reading of the Bible and those commentaries upon both it and the truths of revelation it contains made by the great theologians of the early Church.
Saint Benedict's reading was to be, for each in his degree, at once a spiritual education, a safeguard of the faith, and a prayer. In a well ordered monastery when it was still possible to keep the Rule literally in the circumstances for which it was written, every monk of good will living in such retirement must soon have attained to a consciousness of the presence of God so vivid that his reading would be no obstacle, but rather an aid, to keeping his heart and mind fixed on Him. Thus there was no need, as there has been for many centuries in the distracted lives of almost all religious bodies, to set apart a fixed time for mental prayer, as it is called. For Saint Benedict's monks, the liturgy and devout reading would normally be a continuous prayer. If a monk felt that for a time reading had done its part and was a hindrance, he could, as the Rule puts it, quite naturally and simply enter the oratory and pray.
Among the direct descendants of Saint Benedict, reading and work have in a manner coalesced. They still remain real elements in every true Benedictine life, and their primary influence must always be upon the soul of the individual monk, but their secondary influence has passed far beyond the cloister into the civilization and education of the West.
3. OPUS DEI
The third great element in the monastic life of the Rule is the community prayer, the vocal liturgical adoration of God, the Divine Office, the Opus Dei (The Work of God). This long ago became in the eyes of all, the distinguishing duty of Benedictine monks throughout the world. It has been recognized so explicitly by the Church as their peculiar work that it is hard for us to set aside for a moment the associations and ideals that have grown up round Saint Benedict's primitive idea, and endeavor, with only the Rule before us, to see what Saint Benedict meant the liturgy to be to his monks. As with work and reading, so with the Opus Dei, the simplest and most natural interpretation of Saint Benedict's words is probably the best.
The Opus Dei was nothing more nor less than the monk's daily prayer, vocal because Saint Benedict, as a Christian, assumed that his monks must serve God with their voices, their gestures, and their attitudes of prayer; made in common because, as we shall see, every important action of his monks was to he done in common. The Opus Dei was liturgical in the sense that every public worship of God is liturgical. But Saint Benedict did not directly intend his monasteries to be, or foresee that they would become, centers of liturgical life. He did not order or expect that they should carry out the elaborate and solemn public worship of God which was then being brought to perfection at Rome, at Milan, at Lyons and elsewhere. He does say that nothing is to he put before that Opus Dei, but this was not for him the announcement of a policy or an ideal, but a simple interpretation for his monks of the divine command that the direct service of God must occupy the first place among the duties of a Christian.
The Divine Office was not considered by Benedict as the end or special function for which his monks existed, but as the necessary offering of service without which no monastic community had any hope or right of existence.
Such an attitude of mind towards the Divine Office is perhaps not without its value in an age when all the constituent elements of the Christian life have been isolated and developed in isolation -- liturgical prayer, mental prayer, spiritual reading, apostolic work, social work, theological study and the rest. It does not take from Saint Benedict's words any of their force. It shifts the emphasis, but only to lay it more rigorously. The Divine Office for the monk is not merely one of his works or activities. Still less, to use a current term, is it a Benedictine "stunt." It is not even a service that the individual can leave to others. It is for him what his daily or regular prayers are to a Christian in the world, the necessary minimum of his direct service of God.
This it must always remain, if the monk is to be faithful to his Rule. But in view of subsequent developments in the Divine Office we are justified in applying Saint Benedict's emphatic command, "Let nothing be put before the Opus Dei," to all the forms of solemn liturgical worship which tradition has sanctioned as part of the monastic task. But a review of Saint Benedict's ideas would be misleading which did not, here as everywhere, emphasize his love of the simple and inevitable elements of the Christian life, interpreted in the light of the gospel counsels.
We are not here directly concerned with the purely spiritual counsels of the Rule, for in these, as in matters of faith, all the saints are one. But there remains an essential condition of Benedictine life which marks it off from much of the earlier monasticism and from some subsequent monastic orders that have confessedly based themselves upon the Rule. Life in Saint Benedict's monastery was life in common, not the life of a hermit.
The monks were to pray, work, eat, and live together. The tools used in ordinary work, the clothes worn on any special occasion, were to he taken from a common store and returned there after use. The vice of private ownership was to be cut out by the roots. But the spirit informing this common life was not that of a barracks or a penitentiary. Saint Benedict's common life is, as an important reference to the Acts of the Apostles shows, the common life of the early Christians, not that of convicts or communists. The common stock is there for all to draw from, under the Abbot's survey; more is to be given one, less to another.
We cannot too often repeat, in view of the apparent austerity of the Rule, that Saint Benedict nowhere suggests that he is legislating for the notorious sinner or, indeed, for any uncommon type or temperament. His monks are ordinary men, and he will lead them in a way accessible to ordinary men. Consequently the note of humanity is found throughout the strictest legislation on community of goods. The common life is that of a family with the Abbot as its father, where the elders love the younger and the younger honor the elders. The family spirit which is such a notable feature in every true form of Benedictine life today is no development or adaptation of Saint Benedict's Rule. It is the teaching of the Rule itself.
Such are the main outlines of the life which Saint Benedict wished his monks to lead. A life of prayer, of meditative reading, and of work, lived in common under one common father, and softened by a spirit of humanity which gave to all the daily relations the help of a natural and a supernatural affection.