Benedict's Wisdom for the Ages: It's a Cenobite's Life for Me
Thus far in our engagement with the Rule of Benedict, we’ve heard a lot about what not to do if we want healthy spirituality. Benedict is pretty harsh toward the gyrovagues and sarabaites, and he makes it pretty clear that life as an anchorite is only for those who have prepared themselves very carefully. So what about the rest of us? If we were to pursue the monastic life, what would Benedict suggest? Life as a cenobite, of course! And while Benedict doesn’t say much about cenobites in his listing of the four kinds of monks, what he does say is significant. Cenobites, he tells us, "belong to a monastery, where they serve under a rule and an abbot or prioress" (p.25). Let’s unpack that a bit and see what wisdom it holds for us.
Healthy monks, Benedict insists, purposefully live as an engaged member of a community of believers. We have already seen the pitfalls of life outside of such a community in Benedict’s descriptions of the gyrovagues, sarabaites, and anchorites. We are reminded through these sobering portrayals that we all need a place of belonging and steadiness, interactions with others who will challenge and shape us, and the presence of encouraging, supportive community around us if we are to practice our faith healthily. Life among other believers can provide these very things for us if we will engage it wholeheartedly and humbly.
Much to the chagrin of the gyrovague in each of us, healthily participating in the Christian life means participating deeply in community, something that anchors us, even when we don’t want it to. But it does so in a way that is necessary for the flourishing of our souls. For while life in community demands attention, commitment, and sometimes even drudgery from us, it also provides stability, rootedness, and permanence to our lives in ways that we each need.
It is undeniable that life in community is hard, though, sometimes to the point that we would prefer to do things on our own or with a small group of likeminded people. That is the path the sarabaites chose. But Benedict knows and reminds us here that it is through relationship with others, sometimes especially those with whom we disagree, that we are best formed into holiness and Christlikeness. As much as we might drive one other crazy when we live in community together, we need one another in order to live healthily as God’s maturing people.
And none of us should even begin to think about engaging the spiritual life solitarily until we have already lived well and deeply in community with others for a long time. For it is only through community that we develop the maturity, wisdom, and strength to venture unaccompanied into realms of spiritual darkness with any hope of survival. We need the encouragement and support of our fellow believers to build and retain spiritual strength.
Regular connection to other believers is not the only aspect of healthy spirituality as Benedict prescribes it, though. Benedict also makes it very clear throughout his Rule that, in addition to living in close community, healthy monks also live under the guidance of someone other than just themselves. They do not attempt to master the spiritual life on their own, for to do so is useless folly.
Submission to godly authority, a defining aspect of cenobitic spirituality, takes a number of different forms for Benedict. While he doesn’t explicitly mention this in his initial description, cenobites, like all believers, are primarily called to surrender themselves fully to the loving authority of God. That is at the center of the Christian life, after all. And the Scriptures are the monks’ main guide on how to do so. Both their daily lives and their Rule are infused throughout with Scripture.
So far, then, when it comes to authority, those of us from the Churches of Christ are tracking with the cenobitic way of life, relatively comfortable with what it requires of its adherents. Submission to God, submission to Scripture. We’re on board with that! It’s when Benedict starts talking about things like a rule and an abbot or prioress that we get a little uncomfortable. These things are so far removed from our normal experience that we’re not quite sure how to view them or what to do with them. Serve under a rule? Serve under an abbot or prioress? What have they done to merit influence and authority? Why should I submit to them? Aren’t my own thoughts and plans and ways of doing things good enough for me? My own understanding of Scripture is as good as anyone else’s, after all. I don’t need anyone else to tell me what to do!
Egotism rears its ugly head and gets us into more trouble than we can even imagine. Knowing full well the tendencies of the human heart, Benedict required cenobites to submit themselves to something more concrete than their own varied interpretations of Scripture: the Rule that he composed and the authority of elected spiritual leaders.
Benedict required obedience to the Rule he’d written not because he was self-centered, controlling, and arrogant but because he knew there was power in it as a result of the wisdom it contained. There is power in having an agreed upon shared way of life, particularly one that constantly points back to the Scriptures. There is power in having a guidebook on how to address certain situations that come up again and again in community. And there is power in the shared willingness of a group of people to submit to something bigger than themselves, something human and fallible but still constructive. Yes, obedience the Rule is certainly practical and helpful, for it is the wisdom of experience distilled into written form. Even more than that, though, obedience to the Rule is formative, for it requires great humility and teachability, things all followers of Christ need.
The same can be said about obedience to an abbot or prioress. Benedict took great pains to protect those under the oversight of the abbot and prioress. He established a system of election in which the community selected its own leader, he outlined the many Christlike qualities of the right kind of person for the job, and he instructed abbots and prioresses to listen to the wisdom of the community as they performed their duties. Still, though, submission to an abbot or prioress wasn’t easy, nor was it intended to be. For we human beings have both God-given individual natures and sin-influenced willfulness in our lives, and both of those things make it difficult at times to humbly obey someone else’s rule, even if we believe that they have the best interests of the community in mind. Yet humble submission is what the cenobites committed themselves to, both for the sake of the community’s functioning and for their own spiritual health. For as Chittister reminds us, “Everyone in life lives under someone and something. Adulthood is not a matter of becoming completely independent of the people who lay claim to our lives. Adulthood is a matter of being completely open to the insights that come to us… so that we can become more than we can even begin to imagine for ourselves” (p. 26-27).
Life as a cenobite wasn’t easy, as you can tell. But it was worthwhile. Benedict deeply desired the positive spiritual formation of those who pursued the monastic life, and his experience gave him a great deal of insight into what it would take for that to happen. Again, words from Chittister encapsulate the simultaneous challenge and gift of the cenobitic way of life well: “In monastic spirituality, there is no escape from life, only a chance to confront it, day after day in all its sanctifying tedium and blessed boredom and glorious agitation in the communities of which we are a part at any given moment in our lives” (p. 27).
What about you? Could you commit yourself to life as a cenobite, living in intimate daily community with other believers and obediently serving under the guidance of a way of life and a trusted spiritual leader? How are you already able to do these things in your life? And how do the gyrovague, sarabaite, and anchorite in you surface in rebellion? How might God be calling you to confront and be transformed by the “sanctifying tedium and blessed boredom and glorious agitation” you encounter in your own life?
Header image: Randy OHC. St. Benedict detail in fresco - plain version. Taken June 18, 2009 at St. Benedict's Abbey, Atchison, Kansas. Retrieved from flickr.com. Some rights reserved. Saturation and contrast adjusted by Karissa Herchenroeder for use on this blog.