Thank You Saint Ben

Our modern world owes a debt of gratitude to the Rule of St. Benedict. The influence of this guidebook for monks reaches far beyond monastic communities or the Roman Catholic Church.

Saint Benedict

Written by Benedict of Nursia in the sixth century, the Rule seems draconian by today’s standards, but in context it was rather moderate. In an illiterate world, it encouraged monks to read and required them to listen to books read aloud during meals. This forced monasteries to promote literacy and preserve texts, sacred and otherwise, during the Dark Ages.

The Rule exposed monks to the thoughts and ideas of men, but it forbade curiosity and questions. It specified that, “No one should presume to ask a question about the reading, or about anything else, lest occasion be given.” As Stephen Greenblatt notes in The Swerve: How the World Became Modern:

Benedict didn’t absolutely prohibit commentary on the sacred texts that were read aloud, but he wanted to restrict its source. The superior, the Rule allows, may wish to say a few words of instruction. Those words were not to be questioned or contradicted, and indeed all contention was in principle to be suppressed. . . . Lively debate, intellectual or otherwise, was forbidden. To the monk who has dared to contradict a fellow monk with such words as, “It is not as you say,” there is a heavy penalty; an imposition of silence or fifty blows.

You can’t have it both ways, Saint Ben. Reading provides oxygen to the spark of curiosity and the resulting flames can destroy ancient forests (e.g. superstition, scholasticism), and make way for new growth (e.g. the Renascence, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution).

Growing up Catholic, I never questioned my faith until I started reading the Bible and other books for myself. This curiosity led to my becoming an Evangelical. In the decades since, it has propelled me through hundreds of other volumes and all the way out to where the church buses don’t run.

St. Benedict would not be happy with my questing soul.

I hope God is.


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