Chapter 4 of the Rule shows how the monastery is to be a kind of “school” of holiness. The basis for every action mentioned in the chapter are the two great commandments: loving God and loving neighbor. Every movement associated with holy living roots itself these commandments. Every action on the circumference of life flows from this center.
After that, there’s really no way to summarize the chapter, because it is a rapid-fire listing of the good works monks are to cultivate and practice. They learn to do this together, not separately. That’s an important point—especially in our time when we think too individualistically about our spiritual formation.
Benedict writes, “The workshop where we are to toil faithfully at all these tasks is the enclosure of the monastery and stability in the community” (4:78). Perhaps a brief commentary on two key words will be helpful.
First, the workshop is an “enclosure.” This is not simply a literal space, but also a way of saying that we learn to do good works by practicing them together, and then reflecting with one another on how we are doing. The “enclosure” is more like a laboratory, than a limitation. The monastery is not a way of keeping the world out, but rather a way of banding together to enter into the world in Jesus’ name. In historic monasticism, the primary way the monks did this was intercession. But monasteries and convents have also found ways to be present in their locales through acts of mercy and service. To be “enclosed” does not mean to be isolated.
Second, the workshop is a place of “stability.” One of the first mistakes we often make in our spiritual formation is becoming overwhelmed with all things we “could” do. But the spiritual life is not driven by the “coulds”—it is directed by the “shoulds.” It is in community where we allow ourselves the counsel from others in discerning and enacting our places of service. We do not have to be pushed-and-pulled by every opportunity; we can be guided into a focused, limited ministry. Stability is a quality that keeps us from “bouncing around all over the map”—which may make us busy, but also superficial—and very tired.
In other words, the list of good deeds in Chapter 4 is not meant to create freneticism among the monks. Each task has a point of application, and it is in fellowship with others that we learn where and how to put these things into practice. A holy community does not try to do everything; it only seeks to do what it does in Jesus’ name, and for God’s glory.