The Rule of St. Benedict is a classic spiritual text. It was written by the founder of the Benedictine monastic tradition, Benedict. He was an Italian who lived in the late fifth and early sixth century. The Rule is usually dated somewhere around 529 CE. The era of Benedict was a chaotic time in what is modern day Italy. The glory of the Roman Empire was long over. The identifiable nations of modern Europe were far from being formed and developed. It was the period known as the early Middle Ages. When I was in my early years of education, this period was known as the Dark Ages.
Christianity was now part of the fabric of the land. But Christianity had lost some of its original spirit and fervor when it became so much a part of the social culture. Since it was no longer illegal to be a Christian, it was easy---some would argue, too easy---to be Christian. People like Benedict wanted more. They wanted a life of the Spirit that would approximate how Jesus lived and that characterized those early disciples of Jesus.
So literally and figuratively, monks (as they came to be called) withdrew from mainstream society. They went to the edge of society and were counter-cultural. They purposively became marginal people. Sometimes they lived alone in the countryside or in caves. Sometimes they formed small groups of like-minded people. Sometimes they were spiritual vagabonds.
This was the scene in which Benedict decided needed some organization and some sense of order. Even serious spiritual folks need some guidelines and parameters. So Benedict wrote a Rule. The Latin word for Rule, regula, should be seen more like guidelines than hard and fast regulations. Benedict wanted to give his community a framework and structure to govern their life together.
And that Rule was widely adopted. It has now lasted 1,500 years. It still governs the array of Benedictine monasteries around the globe. It is relatively simple, practical and general, but it has been an amazingly successful instrument to enable groups of men and women to live spiritual lives together. It is even a guide that I try to follow in ways that fit my life.
The Rule is divided up so that someone like myself annually goes through the entire document three times. As I read the selection for yesterday, a phrase caught my attention. I must have read it countless times, but I don’t remember latching on to it like I did this time. The section was entitled “the instruments of God’s works.” It is indicative of the practical advice the Rule offers to fulfill God’s will, to live in obedience. The guidelines come, in part, from the biblical tradition. We are to love our enemies. Respect elders. Don’t hate. All that makes perfect sense for a good life.
I would argue that a good life is a spiritual life, whether or not one claims to be Christian (or Jewish, Buddhist, etc.). And by definition, the spiritual life would be a good life. I don’t know anyone who would argue that he or she can be spiritual and be a lousy person. By nature God is good and so should anyone be who claims to be following that God.
So after listing a few of these spiritual guidelines, Benedict concludes, “These, then, are the tools of the spiritual craft.” That was the phrase that I have read many times, but this time it jumped out at me. I like the idea of “spiritual tools.” Much of religious traditions deal with doctrine---with ideas. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that. But one could have many religious ideas and still be a lousy person!
Finally, it comes down to practicing one’s faith. Ideas are good; actions are better. “Action speaks louder than words,” is the old saying. This must surely be true in matters of faith. To perform spiritual action, we need some tools. We need to hone the “spiritual craft,” as Benedict calls it.
It is not unusual in business circles these days to hear about the tool kit or toolbox needed to perform particular skills. Perhaps this is a good analogy to the spiritual. In order to know what God desires and to actualize that Divine Desire, we need some tools of the spiritual craft.
To have these tools enables is to become crafts people of the Spirit. Imagine being an apprentice. The master says something like, “here is the tool of honesty.” Here is the tool of respect.” And so on, one finds a variety of tools of the spiritual craft. There is no way to move from being an apprentice to acquiring some mastery without practice.
I appreciate The Rule of St. Benedict for offering many of these tools. But I need to be careful and not assume that because I read it and understand it, I am thereby spiritual. Benedict would laugh at that notion. You become spiritual by applying these tools of the spiritual craft in your real life…today and again tomorrow.