Noll, Ch. 4: Benedict’s Rule (530 CE)

Noll’s chapter 4 moves from theological questions to practical ones: what might a Christian do if he/she really wants to live in an intentional way in discipleship to Jesus? What might the options be? Well, as Noll says, one way that that happened is in the phenomenon called “monasticism,” in which a person chooses to withdraw from “society” or “the world,” in order to live alone or in community. Noll does a good job of describing some of the important historical names and movements (Antony in Egypt, John Cassian, Simeon Stylites, etc.), but the focus of the chapter is the Italian monk Benedict of Nursia.

As Noll says, Benedict is truly the father of monasticism in the “West” – that is, Western Europe and eventually North America. The reason we can rightly call him by this name is that the vast majority of monastic orders that have arisen since then have been part of the Benedictine “family tree.” The groups that Noll discusses in his “Brief Outline” (starting on p. 91) came from Benedict’s original movement, either in direct descent or in responding to the dominant Benedictine movement in Western Europe.

Noll’s description of Benedict’s rule (starting on p.86) is quite accurate. Many of the most important elements of the rule come from its focus on the practical realities of communal life, like how to help the members of the community encourage one another, how to respond to the local conditions where the monastery is located, and how to account for various weaknesses in the monks themselves. Also, Benedict’s rule is not one that encourages only “spiritual work,” like prayer and worship, or only manual labor, but rather both. The link I’ve provided will give you a good sense of some of the elements of the rule, since it is still in use today.

Side note: there are still Benedictine monasteries all over the world, and so you can find good resources at their websites, like this one. Feel free to look, explore, and discover how Benedictine monks and nuns are still living in community today.

Here’s a potentially helpful link to some excerpts from Benedict’s Rule:

Here are some questions to respond to:

  1. This chapter presents the rise of monasticism as largely beneficial to Christianity. Is that how you tended to view monasticism before reading this chapter? Have your views on monasticism changed after reading this chapter? To what extent was your evaluation of monasticism affected by the presence (or lack thereof) of monastic movements in your religious background?
  2. Noll notes that knowledge of Benedict’s life does not equal our knowledge of his historical importance (p. 81). Do you find it encouraging or disheartening that work done for Christ can leave an impact that outlasts the knowledge or memory of the individual’s personality?
  3. Noll presents monasticism as a means of preserving rigorous Christianity in the face of Christendom (p. 82). In contexts where Christianity is generally accepted or at least tolerated, in what ways can the church preserve its rigorous witness? Is monasticism a viable option in areas where the church is small or persecuted?
  4. Simeon Stylites’s story is one of the odder ones of church history.  How does his narrative strike you? Did his extreme self-denial help anybody? Did it help proclaim Christ?
  5. Noll praises Benedict’s Rule for combining zeal with stability (p. 87). In religious matters, can zeal and stability be reconciled? If there is a conflict between the two, which do you favor more?
  6. Noll notes that monasticism allowed women an opportunity to actively participate in the life of the church (p. 90). Is it surprising to think that monasticism helped elevate the role of women in Christianity? Could monasticism be helpfully reclaimed by feminists today?
  7. The last portion of the chapter is a partial evaluation of monasticism from a Protestant perspective. How did you respond to that evaluation? Based on what you have read, do you think monasticism promotes legalism? How might your religious background affect your answer?

Image credit for the detail of St. Benedict from a fresco of Fra Angelico:

Suggested next click: Chapter 5

New Monasticism

benedict of nursiaMany American Christians know something about “monks” and “nuns” — people who give up their “normal” lives in various ways to live in a way that is dedicated to God.  Those dedicated lives sometimes play out in intentional communities, sometimes called “convents,” “cloisters,” or “monasteries.”  But most people do *not* know much about the history of monasticism in the Christian tradition, despite its relevance for our world.

In fact, monastic impulses go back almost all the way to the time of Jesus.  Beginning in the third century, we begin to hear stories of people going out into the wilderness in an attempt to follow Jesus more fully.  In the Western tradition that has influenced the Christianity with which most of us are familiar, the most important early movement was that of Benedict of Nursia at Monte Cassino in Italy.  In fact, Benedictine monasteries still exist all over the world, still living out the ancient ideals with which their movement was founded.

But I don’t want to discuss “ancient monasticism” today — you can read about that in many good places — but rather a phenomenon called “new monasticism,” which you may know something about.  New monasticism is a movement that has arisen in the last 20 years or so, and it tends to be rather like the “coenobitic” (or “communal”) monasticism of the ancient world.  Further, it tends to be a rather urban phenomenon; most new monastic communities are not going out into the desert or mountains, but rather trying to transform neighborhoods and cities from within.

New monasticism is an attempt to revive the ideals of ancient monasticism in our modern world, and just as ancient cloisters were different, so new monastic communities are different.  Some highly emphasize a form of poverty, with members selling all their possessions and holding a common bank account.  Many emphasize chastity, whether by having men’s and women’s houses, or by having a number of chaste, single members.  A challenging virtue for many new monastic communities is that of obedience; the members are influenced both by American individualism and by our ideals of democracy, so that leadership and authority can be challenging things to negotiate.

Why are these relevant for us?

  • First, these are people who are trying to follow Jesus in a radical, thoroughgoing way.  And you know how compelling such intense lives can be in our culture.
  • Second, most new monastic communities are indeed communal, and people in our fragmented, individualistic society really value communities in which people can find authentic relationships with other human beings.
  • Third, many people in our world are rather anti-authoritarian or anti-establishment, and new monastic communities often exist outside the bounds of traditional church structures.  It’s not that the people involved are not part of a church, but that the communities themselves are not under the authority of a particular church leader.  Also, the communities themselves may not be anti-establishment, but people may be drawn to them because they can seem that way.

new monasticism

So, what if you want to know more?  Well, a first step is to learn about some of the “new monastic” communities that are well-known in American Christianity.  Two examples are the Simple Way community associated with Shane Claiborne, and the Rutba House in North Carolina, for whom Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove often serves as something of a spokesperson.   Then, you might spend a little time reflecting on and learning more about the movement/impulse as a whole, as in this news story or this feature piece.  And finally, you might look around and see if there is anything like this in your hometown.  For example, students from the university where I teach have founded a couple of these movements.  I have had wonderful conversations with many of them about their common work.  You may find your own faith challenged and stretched… and then manifesting itself in new ways in your life!

Image credits: and