Esther de Waal uses the phrase “shaped by the Gospel” (p. 12) to describe the purpose of Benedict’s Rule—indeed, the purpose of any Rule of Life.
This reminds us that a Rule is a means, not an end. All kinds of problems emerge when we turn a Rule of life into a set of regulations we’re expected to keep perfectly—or else. There is no “or else” in a Rule of life. There are consequences, but not condemnations. There is only Love, which is as willing to forgive our failings as to celebrate our accomplishments.
I may have said this earlier in Oboedire, but the word “rule” has the same root as the word “trelis.” A Rule of Life is a means to promote and arrange our growth, so that we do not become wild plants growing in all directions, or in no particular direction. A Rule of Life knows what a hortaculturalist knows, that “wild and crazy growth” dissipates life and actually makes a plant sick.
Similarly, the Rule of Benedict served originally as a trelis to shape the lives of the monks in ways that produced the fruit of Christlikeness. This is the essence of what it meant (and means) to be shaped by the Gospel.
In my tradition, the Wesleyan tradition, John Wesley chose the concept of love as his keynote. He knew that some people used fear and intimidation to get people to God. But he felt these were not “gospel values” and that they would not produce real fruit, but only the appearance of devotion to God—or to an overly-demanding leader. He felt also that this approach would not produce something that lasted. Wesley believed that the only genuine fruit and the only enduring commitments would come through the avenue of love—expressed, for example, in John 3:16 and in the very incarnation of Christ himself.
Benedict didn’t want his monks to feign allegiance; he wanted them to express it from their hearts. That meant (and still means) being shaped by the Gospel. And that means being shaped by Love—coming first and foremost from God, but also from those leaders (like Benedict) who hold out helping hands in the community, not pink slips—who use rods and staffs, not whips—who (to use Wesley’s words) “watch over one another in love.”
That’s the only kind of community that is of the Gospel. Any other kind of community is counterfeit, psychotic, and dangerous.