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February 16, 2011

The Rule of St. Benedict

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Saint Benedict of Nursia is known as the “Father of Western Monasticism”. It was written as a norm for discipline in the lives of monks living in monasteries under the direction of an abbot. The notes on this page were initially based on the translation by Anthony C. Meisel & M. L. del Mastro, published by Image Books (Doubleday) in 1975.

Note Regarding Scripture Citations

All Scripture citations have been verified against the NAB. This was necessary, firstmost, to ensure the proper numbering of the Psalms in accordance with the Bible used by most Catholics in the United States at the time of this writing. Also, the Meisel & Mastro translation contains many citation deviations – some of these were found in other translations as well, indicating that they may originate from a common source. The deviations have been left in the notes, the text striken, and then placed alongside them the corrected references. Moreover, the Douay Rheims text matches much more closely to what is quoted in Meisel & Mastro than does the NAB, so it was used to search and spot check as well. As time allows, citations will also be compared to other translations of the Rule.


Chapter 1: Four Kinds of Monks. Cenobites live in a monastery, under a rule and an abbot; this is the best kind of monks and the audience of this rule. Anchorites are hermits, seasoned monks. Sarabaites live in clusters with no rule or abbot; they live in the world, guided by pleasure. Gyratory wander between monasteries and their ways are far worse than those of the Sarabaites.

Chapter 2: Qualities of the Abbot. An abbot is a father (“Abba”, Rom 8:15). He must not deviate from the Lord’s teachings and is accountable for his monks on Judgment Day (Ps 40:10). The abbot should teach by example, saving words for the monks who understand (Ps 50:16-17; Matt 7:3). The abbot should love all equally (Rom 2:11). He should reprove, entreat, and rebuke as necessary (1 2 Tim 4:2; 1 Kings 2:12+; Prov 29:19; Prov 23:14). He should not worry much about worldly things (Matt 6:33; Ps. 34:10).

Chapter 3: Counsel of Brothers. Important matters should be discussed by all of the monks, as the young may receive revelation, but minor issues require counsel of senior monks only (Eccles 32:24 Sir 32:19). Brothers should not stubbornly defend positions, as they must obey ultimately the decision of the abbot. Monks who argue with the abbot must be punished.

Chapter 4: Instruments of Good Works. This chapter is a list of seventy-two spiritual tools. For brevity, it is noted here that these items draw from various Scriptural and Traditional lists, such as the Lord’s two great commandments, the Ten Commandments, the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, the Golden Rule, the Cardinal (Deadly) Sins, the Theological Virtues, and from other guiding priciples such as humulity, suffering for the kingdom, loving your enemy, etc. The reader is reminded of the promised reward (1 Cor 2:9) and that the monestary is the monks’ “workshop”.

Chapter 5: Obedience. Obedience is the first degree of humility (Ps 17:44 18:45; Lk 10:16). Brothers leave work unfinished at a new command from the abbot just as they would (and as the Disciples did) so to walk with the Lord (Matt 7:14; Jn 6:38). Orders from superiors should be executed joyfully (2 Cor 9:7), and murmuring will be punished by the Lord.

Chapter 6: Silence. Speaking rarely is good, because it can easily lead to sin (Ps 39:1-3; Prov 10:19; Prov 18:21). No small talk or jokes.

Chapter 7: Humility. Humility combats pride (Lk 14:11; Ps 131). By our good works, the Lord erects a ladder, the sides being our body and soul and the rungs, humility and discipline. The goal is perfect contrition. This ladder has twelve steps:

  1. Keeping the commandments for God sees all (Ps 7:9 10; Ps 94:11; Ps 139:2; Ps 76:10??; Ps 18:23??), and the abandonment of self-will (Sir 18:30; Matt 6:10; Prov 16:25; Ps 14:1; Ps 38:9 10; Prov 15:3).
  2. Choosing to do the will of the Lord (Jn 6:38).
  3. Submitting to a superior in imitation of the Lord (Phil 2:8).
  4. Acceptance of suffering (Matt 10:22; Ps 27:14; Ps 44:22 23; Rom 8:36-37; Ps 66:10-11; Matt 5:39+).
  5. Confession of evil thoughts (Ps 37:5; Ps 106:1; Ps 32:5).
  6. Acceptance of depravity (Ps 73:22-23).
  7. True belief in depravity (Ps 22:6 7; Ps 88:15; Ps 119:71).
  8. Life by the rule and examples of the elders only.
  9. Silence except when answering questions (Prov 10:19; Ps 140:11 12).
  10. Restraint in laughter and frivolity (Eccles 21:23 Sir 21:20).
  11. Speech that is gentle, simple, serious…etc. (Prov 10:14 17:27).
  12. Constant awareness and sorrow for sin (Lk 18:13; Ps 38:8 9).

Chapters 8-19: The Divine Office. These chapters contain instructions on how to say the daily offices, matins, lauds, etc., even in different seasons. Of particular note, the number of Psalms to be read during each day is prescribed. These chapters are very practical, but detailed notes on them will be deferred until such time that I may actually need them.

Chapter 20: Reverence at Prayer. Prayer should be heartfelt and succinct.

Chapter 21: Deans. Deans share the abbot’s responsibilities and are chosen based on character, not seniority. Pride should be corrected no more than three times before expulsion from office.

Chapter 22: Sleep. Monks’ sleeping quarters are basically barracks. They sleep dressed and in candle light so to be prepared for the Divine Office. Elders sleep amongst the young so to encourage their rising for prayer.

Chapters 23-30: Excommunication. If punishments for certain offences, that is twice in private and once in sight of the community, are ineffective, then excommunication may be imposed, the severity of which depends on the offense. Excommunication means eating alone, and even working and praying alone without any conversation with others (1 Cor 5:5). Any visitor without permission of the abbot is also excommunicated. The abbot must care for the excommunicated with comfort and concern (Mt 9:12; 2 Cor 2:8; Ezek 34:3). It may be necessary to cut off the offender completely, like a surgeon, if all punishments are ineffective (1 Cor 5:13; 1 Cor 7:15). A brother who leaves the community, even against his will, can only return three times, and his humility must be tested. Youths and those who do not understand it may not be excommunicated.

Chapter 31: The Cellarer. One will be chosen to handle the monastery’s property and various operational tasks such as caring for the sick. He must be humble and obedient, a good steward, a fatherly figure, and a responsible person in general (1 Tim 3:13; Eccles 18:17 Sir 18:16). He must not scandalize the brothers (i.e. cause them to sin; Mt 18:6). He may have assistants and distribution should occur at convenient times.

Chapter 32: Property. Brothers will be chosen for the proper upkeep of clothing, tools, utensils, etc. An inventory will be kept by the abbot.

Chapter 33: Private Ownership. There is no private ownership within the monestary without permission of the abbot (Acts 4:3532).

Chapter 34: Apportionment of Necessities. Distribution is made according to need, and is received with humility and without complaining (Acts 4:35).

Chapter 35: Weekly Kitchen Service. All brothers perform kitchen duty unless sick or at a more important task. Saturday is for cleaning. Utensils are transfered to the next week’s kitchen staff through the cellarer who takes inventory. Extra food assist the serving brothers. Blessings are bestowed on he who states thrice Ps 86:17 upon leaving weekly service and Ps 70:12 upon entering into it.

Chapter 36: Sick Brothers. Caring for the sick is the highest priority (Mt 25:36,40). They should not be burdensome, but tolerated and also not neglected. A separate cell is used.

Chapter 37: Old Men & Children. These are usually weeker, so eating guidelines are relaxed.

Chapter 38: The Weekly Reader. One brother will read for the entire week. Weekly service is blest upon thrice chanting Ps 51:15 50:17. Meals are conducted in silence, except for the reader. Alternate eating arrangements may be necessary to accomodate fasting before Mass. Only uplifting brothers may be selected as readers.

Chapter 39: Food Apportionment. Two-dish meals at dinner and supper, a third dish if fruit or vegetables are available and a pound of bread are the monk’s daily allotment. Hard work may justify extra rations, but not to gluttony (Lk 21:34). The young receive less than the old. Only the sick eat the meat of quadrupeds.

Chapter 40: Drink Apportionment. Mens’ needs and abilities differ (1 Cor 7:7). Some may abstain, but drunkenness should always be avoided. The abbot may allow for additional wine if appropriate. Moderation is key (Eccles 19:2). No one will complain in times of less or no drink.

Chapter 41: Dining Hours. Dining hours change based on liturgical season.

Chapter 42: No Talk After Compline. Monks refrain from speaking, especially at night. Some rules for reading are inserted here. Unless requested by the abbot or accomodating guests, speaking after Compline is punished.

Chapter 43: Tardiness. Monks late for the Divine Office must sit apart and perform public penence afterward. Arriving to meals late or leaving early is punished by eating alone, deprived of wine. Drinking (wine?) is only permitted at meals, unless offered by the abbot.

Chapters 44-46: Satisfaction. Satisfaction is made by the excommunicated through humiliation through prostration at certain times, though other satisfaction for lighter offenses may be ordered by the abbot; either way, the abbot declares punishment ended. Mistakes in reading require immediate and public self-humiliation or a more severe punishment will follow, and children are whipped for this. Other offenses require immediate confession and an offer to make satisfaction; failure to do so or to cover up the offense will result in a more severe punishment.

Chapter 47: Sounding the Hours of the Divine Office. The abbot makes the call or delegates to a brother, and the chanting is done by the appointed uplifting brothers.

Chapter 48: Daily Manual Labor. Monks should not be idle. The working hours of the day are divided between manual labor and holy reading according to seasons (Easter-to-October, October-to-Lent, Lent). Saturdays are for reading. The sick may work at less-demanding tasks.

Chapter 49: Lenten Observance. The monk’s life is already like Lent. Additional prayer, reading, contrition, and abstinence are appropriate. Additional sacrifices must be approved and supported by the abbot or will be counted as vainglory.

Chapters 50-51: Travelling. Brothers travelling or working remotely will not neglect the Divine Office. A brother travelling for less than a day will not eat outside the monastery or be excommunicated.

Chapter 52: The Oratory. The oratory is a place for prayer and nothing else. Silence is kept outside of the Divine Office so not to disturb others.

Chapter 53: Guests. Guests are welcomed as Christ (Mt 25:35) and they are shown every courtesy. They are received with prayer and their feet are washed (Ps 48:9 10). A separate kitchen to which two monks are assigned each year is used to service guests to that the routine of the monestary is not disrupted. A separate guest room is kept with plenty of beds. Brothers not assigned to service guests are not permitted to speak with them.

Chapter 54: Letters & Presents. Letters and presents are not given or received except by permission of the abbot.

Chapter 55: Clothing & Shoes. A cowl and tunic are sufficient dress. A monk will be given two sets of clothing only to accomodate washing. Certain considerations are made for travel, including better-than-usual clothes. Bedding includes a mattress, coverlet, and pillow. Other necessities provided include a “belt, knife, pen, needle, towel and writing tablet”. Distribution is made according to need (Acts 4:35).

Chapter 56: The Abbot’s Table. The abbot eats with guests and travellers, or else a few brothers with seniors present.

Chapter 57: Artisans & Craftsmen. Craftsmen will practice with permission and without pride. Goods are to be sold for a price less than the secular rate.

Chapter 58: Admission of New Brothers. Admission should not be easy (1 Jn 4:6 1). Petitions must be persistent. The novitiate lasts about a year. Vows are made verbally in the oratory and in writing. Failure to keep the vows results in condemnation. Admission prayers include Ps 119:116, after which the new brother prostrates himself before each of the the others and asks for his prayers. Personal property is given to the poor beforehand or to the monastery. His clothes are kept in case he eventually chooses to leave or is otherwise expelled.

Chapter 59: Sons Given. Parents who give their sons to service must pledge to help them keep the rule in the expectation of personal property.

Chapter 60: Visiting Priests. Visiting priests must not be allowed automatically and must agree to obey the rule strictly (reference to Judas, Mt 26:50). A visiting priest may not give a meal blessing or even say Mass without permission from the abbot.

Chapter 61: Pilgrim Monks. A pilgrim monk should be allowed to stay as a guest and should be allowed to join the community upon request unless he has been disruptive. Such a “transfer” must be supported by consent from the monk’s own abbot or letters of reference (Mt 7:12).

Chapter 62: Monastery Priests. Priests and deacons may be ordained from the community, but are (even more so) obliged to obey the Rule. A rebel priest may be eventually expelled.

Chapter 63: Rank. An abbot ranks the brothers. Seniority (default) and merit (promotions/demotions) may be used as criteria, but not age. Norms in the use of titles, requests for blessings, and seating are cited as examples of the respect/love shown by a junior/senior (Rom 12:10).

Chapter 64: Election. The abbot is chosen by the whole community. An abbot who encourages wickedness may be annulled (i.e. he was never a valid choice, just as an annulled marriage was never valid from the start). Various traits are outlined, including knowledge of Divine Law (Mt 13:52), sobriety, mercifulness, prudence in punishment (Is 42:3), etc. He should be loved, not feared, wise (Mt 24:47), and obeyed with trust (Gn 33:13).

Chapter 65: Provost. The appointment of a provost is discouraged. They often think they rank equal to the abbot (ergo, pride).

Chapter 66: Porter. The porter greets people at the gates, and should be able to answer questions.

Chapter 67: Journey. Journeying brothers should request prayers before leaving, be remembered in the Divine Office, confess upon return, and never share his stories from abroad.

Chapter 68: Impossible Tasks. A brother must try to do what the abbot orders. If it is impossible, he must explain this to the abbot. If the order stands, the brother must obey.

Chapter 69: Defense. No brother will defend or protect another.

Chapter 70: Offense. No brother will strike or excommunicate another without the abbot’s permission. Punishment must be performed in moderation (Mt 7:12).

Chapter 71: Brotherly Obedience. Brothers should be obedient to each other, giving preference to the abbot and then to superiors. Disputation of orders is punishable.

Chapter 72: Good Zeal. As opposed to bitter rivalry, zeal leads away from vice and toward God. Monks should be zealous out of love for one another (Rom 12:10; cf v11).

Chapter 73: All Perfection is not Herein Attained. I might’ve titled this chapter “Just the Beginning” or “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet”. This is where Benedict explains that this is a “little Rule for beginners” and that there is much more needed for those who seek holiness. This chapter is more proof that the Catholic faith does not teach salvation by “works alone”.

The Rule Online

The Order of Saint Benedict
The Latin Library
St Benedict’s Abbey, Atchison, KS
Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1949 ed., from St Benedict’s Abbey, Atchison, KS
Christian Classics Ethereal Library, another edition., 1949 ed., from St Benedict’s Abbey, Atchison, KS

Additional Information

New Advent
Orthodox Wiki
The Online Guide to Saint Benedict of Nursia


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