Ours is a day of self-indulgence, where we are promised to “have it our way” and told “you deserve a break today”. Famous songs trumpet “I did it my way” and anything and everything, from privacy to health care to “self-expression”, has become a right. Few would argue for self-denial and some even hold that self-denial is bad and unhealthy. Abraham Maslow told us that our greatest need was self-actualization, Henry Ford taught us how to make anything faster and cheaper on an assembly line, and we soon discovered that life is really “all about us”.
Most men and women in history have either been self-indulgent or aspired to it, much like Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof sang in “If I were a rich man”. There have been a few, like the Spartans in Greece, who believed that self-discipline and self-denial were valuable, and perhaps even better, than self-indulgence. Benedict (480-540) was one such man.
Born the son of a Roman noble in Nursia in the Italian province of Umbria, Benedict was in the midst of a top class education, and probably also in the midst of torrid romance, when in about 500 AD he abandoned his studies and his beloved and sought solitude and spiritual understanding in Subiaco in the Simbruini Mountains. He lived alone in a cave for a while and later decided to found monasteries to help others. Benedict founded 12 monasteries with 12 monks each. He was a stern taskmaster, for which he was reviled by some. Monks at one monastery where he was abbot tried to poison his food, and according to legend he was miraculously delivered. Later in life he founded the famous monastery in Monte Cassino, Italy.
Benedict’s monasticism became the model of monasteries from the end of the ancient era well into the Middle Ages. His “Rule of Saint Benedict” was the guiding document for what would become the Benedictine Order. The Rule begins with moral characteristics of the Benedictine disciple, character of the abbot of the monastery, and scripturally referenced “Instruments of good work.” There follows dozens of pages of detailed instructions in just about every aspect of life for those in the monastery to follow.
In the Roman world, of which Benedict was a part, gravity, stability, authority and moderation were held as high virtues. As a result, Benedict’s Rule emphasized these things. The Roman legions, at their best, were models of order, and Benedict strove for the same in his monks. Humility, as noted in chapter 7 of the Rule, was important, and the Twelve Humilities included both a positive focus on God and His sovereignty and a negative focus on man. Benedict’s his restrictions on laughter (#10) and the posture he forced his followers to assume (#12) are injurious to health. There is also the problem that constant focus on one’s sins produces constant focus on oneself. Real humility is more self-forgeting than self-despising.
The military parallels are striking. Absolute and rapid obedience of juniors to seniors is a goal of every army. Operational necessity requires moving and fighting in austere environments, so although austerity in Benedictinism is self-imposed rather than situation imposed as in the army, it is common to both. The responsibility of seniors to care for their men parallels the responsibility of officers to do the same. One suspects that Benedictine monasteries maintained much of the military mind set of the Roman legions and passed it into the Middle Ages. The main difference is that armies pursue a secular goal and monasteries a spiritual one.
The association between the Roman legions, the Benedictines, and the armies of medieval Europe is strong. The Knights Templar, founded in the early 12th century on the Temple Mount of Jerusalem, arose directly from the monastic movement. After the Christian victory over Saladin at Montgisard in 1177, their commander Baldwin founded a Benedictine monastery, dedicated to Saint Catherine of Alexandria, at the battle site. The Knights Hospitalier also arose after the First Crusade with roots in the monastic movement
Whatever the goal, the principles of obedience, simplicity, silence, loyalty, humility and care for others are as pertinent today as when Benedict wrote them.
Postscript – Benedict on Humility (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/news/2007/feb8.html)
Brethren, the Holy Scripture cries to us saying: “Every one that excaptions himself shall be humbled; and he that humbles himself shall be excaptioned.”
“The first degree of humility, then, is that a man always have the fear of God before his eyes shunning all forgetfulness and that he be ever mindful of all that God hath commanded… .
“The second degree of humility is, when a man loveth not his own will, nor is pleased to fulfill his own desires but by his deeds carrieth out that word of the Lord which saith: ‘I came not to do My own will but the will of Him that sent Me.’
“The third degree of humility is, that for the love of God a man subject himself to a Superior in all obedience, imitating the Lord, of whom the Apostle saith: ‘He became obedient unto death.’
“The fourth degree of humility is, that, if hard and distasteful things are commanded, nay, even though injuries are inflicted, he accept them with patience and even temper, and not grow weary or give up… .
“The fifth degree of humility is, when one hideth from his Abbot none of the evil thoughts which rise in his heart or the evils committed by him in secret, but humbly confesseth them.
“The sixth degree of humility is, when a monk is content with the meanest and worst of everything, and in all that is enjoined him holdeth himself as a bad and worthless workman, saying with the Prophet: ‘I am brought to nothing and I knew it not; I am become as a beast before Thee, and I am always with Thee.’
“The seventh degree of humility is, when, not only with his tongue he declareth, but also in his inmost soul believeth, that he is the lowest and vilest of men, humbling himself and saying with the Prophet: ‘But I am a worm and no man, the reproach of men and the outcast of the people.’
“The eighth degree of humility is, when a monk doeth nothing but what is sanctioned by the common rule of the monastery and the example of his elders.
“The ninth degree of humility is, when a monk withholdeth his tongue from speaking, and keeping silence doth not speak until he is asked; for the Scripture showeth that ‘in a multitude of words there shall not want sin.’
“The tenth degree of humility is, when a monk is not easily moved and quick for laughter, for it is written: ‘The fool excaptioneth his voice in laughter.’
“The eleventh degree of humility is, that, when a monk speaketh, he speak gently and without laughter, humbly and with gravity, with few and sensible words, and that he be not loud of voice, as it is written: ‘The wise man is known by the fewness of his words.’
“The twelfth degree of humility is, when a monk is not only humble of heart, but always letteth it appear also in his whole exterior to all that see him; namely, at the Work of God, in the garden, on a journey, in the field, or wherever he may be, sitting, walking, or standing, let him always have his head bowed down, his eyes fixed on the ground, ever holding himself guilty of his sins, thinking that he is already standing before the dread judgment seat of God, and always saying to himself in his heart what the publican in the Gospel said, with his eyes fixed on the ground: ‘Lord, I am a sinner and not worthy to lift up mine eyes to heaven’; and again with the Prophet: ‘I am bowed down and humbled exceedingly.’
“Having, therefore, ascended all these degrees of humility, the monk will presently arrive at that love of God, which being perfect, casteth out fear. In virtue of this love all things which at first he observed not without fear, he will now begin to keep without any effort, and as it were, naturally by force of habit, no longer from the fear of hell, but from the love of Christ, from the very habit of good and the pleasure in virtue. May the Lord be pleased to manifest all this by His Holy Spirit in His laborer now cleansed from vice and sin.”