The originality of the Rule of Benedict (RB) has long been debated, but it is now clear that he incorporated many parts of an older and much longer text called the “Rule of the Master” (RM). Thus Sister Aquinata writes that Benedict “was not so much a gifted inventor as a good selector and editor” (3). Nevertheless, even with the “borrowed” material in his Rule, she detects a clear voice that is Benedict’s: “the words of Sacred Scripture, of the Fathers and his own life experience have grown into a whole within Benedict’s heart” (5). It is this heart that she aims to reveal in her study.
First published in German in 1986, this edition from Liturgical Press was translated by Matilda Handl, O.S.B. and Marianne Burkhard, O.S.B. Organized in six chapters, with an Introduction and Conclusion, the book examines parts of the Rule of Benedict that elucidate both its distinctive message and lived experience. Though at first glance, the selections seem random, they have a logic to them that captures the Rule as a whole. Beginning with the first word in the Prologue, “Listen,” the study starts at the monastery gate, moves through key qualities of monastic life, (the monk’s zeal and the Rule’s justice in chapters 72-73), and returns to the gate, this time facing out to re-connect to the world (Chapters 58 and 53 on receiving brothers and guests). Notably, the book begins with an extensive bibliography of primary sources, revealing it as a work of careful and detailed research.
Each section of the book is organized in the same way, beginning with a general comment about the significance of the chapter for the Rule as a whole, followed by an overview of what is in the chapter, and then a line-by-line exegesis. In an excursus, the author then selects a central idea and explores its cultural and linguistic background. For example, in the opening section entitled “Listen,” she examines the first four lines of the Prologue, explaining the connection between RB and RM. After briefly outlining the core ideas, with linguistic precision, she lays bare the meanings, antecedents, and implications of words and phrases:
Though one of the stated goals of the book is to make the message of Benedict’s Rule clearer for today, it always interprets him in light of the circumstances of his time. The author resists the “what would Benedict do today” approach in favor of interpretations based on solid literary, historical and Biblical analysis.
The book also challenges some of the critical interpretations of authorship. For example, she argues against the scholarly opinion that Chapter 73 was written by someone else and appended to the Rule. Instead, she makes the case that this chapter is in accord with other passages in the Rule and is likely an epilogue that explains the purpose of the entire Rule (77).
The one disappointment for me as a reader is the conclusion. I would like to have seen a more narrative thread here rather than an outline of key interpretative points. Though I greatly appreciate the methodical approach to the exegesis of the text, I found myself wanting, at the end, a livelier and more personal picture of the Rule and its author.
I was drawn to this book because of my own research interests in monastic life and my on-going search for good studies suitable for an undergraduate course in Medieval Christian Writers. Sister Aquinata’s book serves both ends, at least in part. This is a model of scholarly exegesis, steeped in patristic and Biblical studies and aimed at those who work closely with the Rule. Given this, I would use this book in its entirety with graduate students, and in excerpts with undergraduates. Though undergraduates would require some preparation in early Church history or New Testament studies to grasp the content, they have here an excellent model for doing close textual analysis.