One of the problems of history is that certain people seem to turn into what Thomas Merton called “plaster saints”—icons from the past that appear to have lived an extraordinary Christian life.
Some have looked at The Rule of Benedict (and the related monastic movement) as a kind of “super Christianity” meant for a select few.
But a look at the Rule itself shows the exact opposite to be the case, and Esther de Waal is wise to point it out by writing, “Nowhere does St. Benedict suggest that he is interested in encouraging unusual people to perform spectacular feats. His monks are ordinary people and he will lead them in ways that are accessible to ordinary people. In fact, the importance of the weak and the ordinary is one of the great guiding principles of the Rule…” (p. 30).
This has come to be referred to in the Christian tradition as “ordinary holiness.” And as it turns out, this is the only kind of holiness that’s real and lasting. The spectacular versions are artificial, fleeting, and frustrating.
That’s why the Rule moves into the details. Details are where we spend most of our time, and details are the places where we have the opportunity to live for Christ. So, by including so many details in the Rule, Benedict is not trying to be legalistic; he is trying to be realistic.
True spirituality is always attainable. Of course, the means of the attainment is grace. But God understands that anytime we conclude that something cannot be done, we will cease making an effort to do it. As Richard Foster once told me, there’s nothing more important than leaving people with the sense, “I can do that.”
Read the Rule of Benedict from that vantage point, and it ceases to be an exhaustive program and turns into an invitive lifestyle. It becomes a way of life, fueled by grace and supported by community.
Of course, the monastic expression has taken on an environment and an expression that most of us will never be called to replicate. But the principles of “ordinary holiness” found in the Rule are opportunities to practice our faith in ways that put us into the stream of the saints—not plaster saints, but real men and women who sought to glorify God and serve Christ in the details of their lives.