A friend of mine was recently describing to me some details of his travels in Thailand. He mentioned that for some Thai young men, Buddhist monasteries served an important cultural function in molding and developing the positive traits of obedience, discipline, and humility. As he related his experiences in seeing novice, shave-headed monks begging for food as part of their initiation, I began to think of comparable traditions in the West (or, rather, what was left of them).
A close study of the religious orders in the Western monastic tradition has something to teach us about the virtues of obedience and humility. These virtues have been long out of fashion. It is time they received their proper due in the molding of character.
Novice monks in Thailand
Men respond well to hierarchical institutions which are focused on the serving of a higher power, on spiritual and moral development, and on the idealistic devotion to a cause; the full range of the masculine experience is neglected when we ignore such organizations. It is important that we thoroughly study the rules of religious orders and military orders. We will discuss here the order founded by St. Benedict and his Rule. It was the first, and perhaps the most famous, of the monastic orders in Western Christendom.
Benedict was born in Nursia in the region of Umbria around A.D. 480, and educated in Rome. The era in which he flourished was an age of chaos and violence; the last Western Roman emperor had been deposed in 476, signaling the final triumph of the barbarians. Generations of invasion, famine, and pestilence had completed the ruination Italy; and the depletion of the soil was matched by the exhaustion of human arms.
In one century, urban Rome had shrunk from a metropolis of 1.5 million to less than 300,000, and it was still falling. In this age of anarchy and ignorance, men looked to institutions that offered a refuge from the sea of destitution, and the irredeemable corruption, that surrounded them.
Benedict of Nursia
As a teenager Benedict had lived as an ascetic monk in Subiaco, near Rome. Despite (or perhaps because of) his severity, his sincerity gained him local notoriety, and he was asked by wealthy men to tutor their sons. A cluster of monastic houses had grown about his habitation by 520; and when these expanded still further, he moved his community to a large hill named Monte Cassino, which overlooked the town of Casinum from a height of 1700 feet.
Benedict revolutionized monastic practice by requiring written vows of all novitiates. Until that time, monkish practice had been disorganized and an individual affair. He felt that a trial period was necessary before a firm commitment should be taken. The so-called “Rule of St. Benedict” codified the regulations and practice that would impose order amid the chaos of the age.
The first thing that strikes one about the Benedictine Rule is its communal ethic. Benedict felt that men would perform better, and more predictably, in a structured group under the control of an abbot. Novices (of which there were many) would first learn what was expected of them before being permitted initiation; if they passed this test, then they would undertake permanent vows in writing. This written oath, executed before a witness, was lain on an altar, to impress its sanctity on the mind of the adherent.
Monks were required to work: Benedict tolerated no idlers, and he believed that temptations multiplied in indolence. The abbot was chosen by the monks, and was required to consult with them on major decisions. But his word was final, and the community was required to obey him. Monks could not leave Monte Cassino without permission; they must avoid arrogant, boisterous behavior; and they must always assume a deportment of humility. All possessions of the order were held in common.
The monastery at Monte Cassino was immense; one historian described it as larger than Buckingham Palace in London. The daily regimen of the Benedictine monks was rigorous and fruitful. Manual labor was required in the fields and shops on the grounds, or in copying manuscripts. It is to these laborious scribes, patiently hunched over tables in the scriptoria, that we owe the preservation of many significant works of classic literature.
We are relieved to note that alcohol was permitted, but not the flesh of any four-footed animal. During Lent, no food was permitted until sunset. The average monk rose at two a.m. and engaged himself in communal prayer in the chapel; more prayers, called “matins” or “lauds” would follow at dawn; and still more during the day based on a complicated division of the day into canonical “hours.” Without question, the industry and activity of the monk left him little time to brood over the inequities and misfortunes of the secular world from which he had removed himself.
Benedict also provided his community with general ethical counsel, which remains unsurpassed in its simplicity and universality. Chapter II (“On What Kind of Man an Abbot Should Be”) remains a succinct guide to practical leadership. Chapter IV of the Rule (called “The Instrument of Good Works”) gives specific guidance on appropriate virtues. The ideal monk should take care:
14. To relieve the poor
15. To clothe the naked
16. To visit the sick
30. Not to do injuries, and to bear them with patience
31. To love one’s enemies
53. Not to be fond of too much talking
62. Not to desire to be called a saint, but to be one
72. After an argument, to make peace with someone before sundown
73. Never to despair of God’s mercy
All in all, it is healing counsel, and admirably practical. It goes without saying that the monastic life is not suitable for all; but to understand its attraction in the Dark Ages, we must remind ourselves that Benedict was operating at a time when secular institutions had largely collapsed. The moral and political authority of the Caesars had crumbled, and into its shell had stepped the ecclesiastical power of the nascent Church. It was an age of turbulence. During times of bankrupt moral codes and ineffective or nonexistent leadership from civil institutions, men will naturally turn to that which provides structure, rules, guidance, and hierarchy. It is a lesson we would do well to remember.
We may judge the worth of Benedict’s strict rule by the longevity of his creation. For 1500 years, it has provided continuous guidance and moral instruction. The monastery itself has been destroyed and rebuilt numerous times in its history: in 589, in 884, in 1349, in 1799, and most tragically in 1944. It has been rebuilt every time, and the monks have resumed their work. Few institutions created by man can boast of such a continuous record of quiet success. Benedict’s Rule teaches that if we seek to serve a higher calling, we must force ourselves to accept deprivation, want, and humility.
Submission is the gateway to higher things. Our constant striving and grasping for things beyond our reach creates tensions and stresses that cry out for relief. The monastic rule, whether in Thailand or in Italy, has something to teach us: nothing can be gained except through discipline, the imposition of rules, hard work, submission to authority, and self-denial. There are no shortcuts. There are no magic wands.
Across the centuries, and down the arches of the years, St. Benedict’s bearded visage calls out to us: my son, give up some of your freedom and your pride, and I can help give you your humanity.
Read More: 3 Habits Every Man Should Practice