In 500 AD Benedict moved to Enfide in the Simbrucini mountains about sixty kilometres outside of Rome. There he joined ‘a company of virtuous men’. While he was with them, Benedict’s understanding of spirituality was radically transformed. He was convinced that preaching ‘good news to the poor’ demanded grass-roots, hands-on solidarity with them. When the abbot of a nearby monastery died, the monks begged Benedict to become their leader. He declined, knowing their reputation as a quarrelsome community. But they persisted, and Benedict eventually became their abbot. The experiment proved to be a complete disaster. The monastery was more troublesome than Benedict had imagined it would be. The monks even tried to poison him.
Benedict’s painful experience caused him to think about the nature of Christian community. Over the years, he developed what he called a ‘little rule for beginners’ in Christian community — a 100-page primer that later became known as the ‘Rule of St Benedict’. The word ‘Rule’ may sound harsh to our ears, but Benedict was determined to make sure there was ‘nothing harsh’ in his primer. Benedict’s Rule was not written just for monks and nuns, but for every person who wanted to practise the love of Christ in their ordinary, everyday life. It encouraged people ‘in all things’ — whether waking or sleeping, eating or drinking, studying or working — to ‘take care of things’. Benedict was convinced that the best way for people to learn to ‘take care of things’ was in a Christian community which encouraged a balance between individual responsibility and relational accountability. His Rule was intended to serve as a simple, practical guide to a healthy, holy, communal way of life for the members of the small Christian communities that Benedict slowly built up round Subiaco.
Benedict believed that the dynamics at the heart of a healthy, holy, communal way of life were work and prayer. He said people could not ‘take care of things’ unless they were prepared to work hard. They were unlikely to be prepared to work hard unless their work was suffused with prayer, because for nobles to voluntarily do manual labour alongside serfs was a revolutionary idea at the time. Benedict did not prescribe a particular type of work. He expected people to take up any work that was required. It was not what was done, so much as how it was done, that counted. Everything was to be done in a way that would care for others — ‘relieve the poor, clothe the naked, visit the sick, help the afflicted, bury the dead’ (Rule, 4) — and so demonstrate their love for Christ. ‘Let all guests that come be received as Christ’ (Rule, 53). ‘Let the sick be served in deed as Christ Himself’ (Rule, 36). In his Rule, Benedict said that for any community to be really viable, it needed stability and order. To enhance stability, Benedict encouraged people to commit themselves to a particular community for life.
To ensure order, Benedict encouraged the people in a community to elect their own abbot and to then submit themselves to his leadership — with the proviso that every abbot’s decisions would be subject to public scrutiny and to open debate by all the members of the community on all matters of importance. Benedict’s advice to an abbot was clear and direct. ‘It beseemeth the abbot to be ever doing some good for his brethren, rather than to be presiding over them. He must be sober and merciful, ever preferring mercy to justice, that he himself may obtain mercy. Let him keep his own frailty ever before his eyes, and remember that the bruised reed must not be broken. Let him study rather to be loved than feared’ (Rule, 64). Benedict died in 543AD. He didn’t know it at the time, but his ‘little rule for beginners’ — embodying ideas of ‘a written constitution, an elected authority limited by law and the right of the ruled to review the legality of the actions of their rulers’ — would become a critical catalyst for the development of ‘due process’. [i]
[i] Dave Andrews ‘Benedict’ in People Of Compassion Tear Melbourne 2009 p16-18