Benedict’s Rule: Transforming Dispositions (1)

When we look at The Rule of Benedict, or any other classical Rule of Life for that matter, it can easily look like pages-and-pages of regulations and details.  But that is to misunderstand the reason for a Rule in the first place.

We named the purpose of a Rule last week when we spoke of being “shaped by the Gospel.”  That’s what any Rule is for—to be increasingly conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others (to restate Bob Mulholland’s definition of spiritual formation).

But Benedict realized that this “shaping” is not to be left to chance.  So, we move into the Rule as those who realize we are being guided, not threatened.  We are being led, not driven.  Benedict loved his fellow monks, and so he gave them a Rule.  God loves us, so we have a path to follow.  We are pilgrims, not wanderers.

Before diving into the details, we find three transforming dispositions in Benedict’s Rule.

The first is the exhortation to “listen.”  It’s the first word of the Rule and the primary disposition of the heart, from which everything else flows.  In fact, Benedict writes, “listen carefully…”

De Waal points out that Benedict later defines this as “listening with the ear of the heart,” which essentially means to listen in a way that the core of our being is addressed.  We also quickly discover that it is a listening to God and to others, which is a meditative way of fulfilling the two great commandments.

This careful listening is a slow and sustained attentiveness.  It is a rejection of speed and superficiality in favor of a message that does not come through sound-bytes and fleeting moments, but rather from what some have called “a long loving look at the Real.”  It is a message which does not even seek to “get it all at once,” but rather allows God to reveal things in succession—one thing after another—over time, until a more complete picture emerges.

Notice also that it is listening as “my son.”  Benedict is writing in the context of relationship and intimacy.  He is no guru giving out orders from the mountain, but a brother walking the same journey he is asking his brothers to walk.

Similarly, God does not “dish out demands” with corresponding threats for disobedience.  That’s pathology, not spirituality.  Instead the Word became flesh—full of grace and truth—expressed in the context of amazing grace and love.

As one of my friends said years ago, “I can love a God like that!”  Of course, because the transforming disposition of listening is nothing other than actualizing the Lover-beloved relationship.  It is communication and communion “Heart to heart.”

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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