The importance of community life is another great theme of Benedict’s Rule. Prior to Benedict, religious life was the life of the hermit, who went to the desert and lived alone in order to seek God. Benedict’s genius was understanding that each person’s rough edges—all the defenses and pretensions and blind spots that keep the monastic from growing spiritually—are best confronted by living side by side with other flawed human beings whose faults and failings are only too obvious. St. Benedict teaches that growth comes from accepting people as they are, not as we would like them to be. His references to the stubborn and the dull, the undisciplined and the restless, the careless and the scatterbrained have the ring of reality. Though Benedict was no idealist with respect to human nature, he understood that the key to spiritual progress lies in constantly making the effort to see Christ in each person—no matter how irritating or tiresome.
By their monastic profession, Benedictines make three promises: stability, fidelity to the monastic way of life, and obedience. Though promises of poverty and chastity are implied in the Benedictine way, stability, fidelity, and obedience receive primary attention in the Rule—perhaps because of their close relationship with community life.
Stability means that the monastic pledges lifelong commitment to a particular community. To limit oneself voluntarily to one place with one group of people for the rest of one’s life makes a powerful statement. Contentment and fulfillment do not exist in constant change; true happiness cannot necessarily be found anywhere other than in this place and this time. For Benedictines, stability proclaims rootedness, at-homeness, and that this place and this monastic family will endure.
Likewise, by fidelity to the monastic way, Benedictines promise to allow themselves to be shaped and molded by the community—to pray at the sound of the bell when it would be so much more convenient to continue working, to forswear pet projects for the sake of community needs, to be open to change, to listen to others, and not to run away when things seem frustrating or boring or hopeless.
Obedience also holds a special place in Benedict’s community. Monastics owe “unfeigned and humble love” to their abbots and prioresses, not because they are infallible or omniscient, but because they take the place of Christ. St. Benedict carefully outlined the qualities the leaders should possess—wisdom, prudence, discretion, and sensitivity to individual differences. The exercise of authority in the Rule points more to mercy than justice, more to understanding of human weakness than strict accountability, more to love than zeal. What defines the leader of a Benedictine community is not being head of an institution, but being in relationship with all the members.
by Sister Jane Michele McClure, OSB