11 July 2020

The rule of Saint Benedict
has shaped Anglican prayers
and created popular myths

An icon of Saint Benedict (right) and Saint Francis (left) in Saint Bene’t’s Church, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Today is the Feast of Saint Benedict. Although not included in the Calendar of the Church of Ireland, Saint Benedict is named today [11 July] by the Church of England in Common Worship as the ‘Father of Western Monasticism,’ and in the calendar of the Episcopal Church and other member churches of the Anglican Communion.

Anglican spirituality is rooted in Benedictine spirituality, an approach to life and prayer that arose from the monastic community of Saint Benedict in the sixth century.

At the beginning of his academic career, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was a reader or lecturer at Buckingham College, a hostel for Benedictine monks studying in Cambridge. Later, the Anglican Reformation took the essentials of Benedictine spirituality and prayer life and made them immediately accessible through the Book of Common Prayer, giving the Anglican Reformation a clearly Benedictine spirit and flavour.

The basic principles that shape the Book of Common Prayer are Benedictine in spirit. For example, the spirituality of the Rule of Saint Benedict is built on three key elements that form the substance of the Book of Common Prayer: the community Eucharist; the divine office; and personal prayer with biblical, patristic and liturgical strands woven together.

The Anglican Benedictine monk and theologian, Dom Bede Thomas Mudge, believed the Benedictine spirit is at the root of the Anglican way of prayer in a very pronounced way. The example and influence of the Benedictine monastery, with its rhythm of the daily office and the Eucharist; the tradition of learning and lectio divina; and the family relationship among an Abbot and his community, have influenced the pattern of Anglican spirituality.

In a unique way, the Book of Common Prayer continues the basic monastic pattern of the Eucharist and the divine office as the principal public forms of worship.

On a regular basis, through the day, in the office and in their spiritual life, Benedictines pray the psalms. The church historian Peter Anson believed that Cranmer’s great work of genius was in condensing the traditional Benedictine scheme of hours into the two offices of Matins and Evensong. In this way, Anglicanism is a kind of generalised monastic community, with the Book of Common Prayer preserving the foundations of monastic prayer.

As a monastic form of prayer, the Book of Common Prayer retains the framework of choral worship but simplified so that ordinary people in the village and the town, in the parish, can share in the daily office and the daily psalms.

In recent years, three of the most interesting commentaries of the rule of Saint Benedict have been written by leading Anglican writers: Esther de Waal, a well-known writer and lecturer on theology, spirituality and Church History and the wife of a former Dean of Canterbury; Elizabeth Canham, one of the first women ordained priest in the Episcopal Church (TEC), and who lived for almost six years in a Benedictine monastery; and Canon Andrew Clitherow.

Working in the Scriptorum in Ealing Abbey … study is a major theme in the Rule of Saint Benedict (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Rule of Saint Benedict has also given rise to a popular legend about ‘two stout monks.’ According to this church myth, the Rule of Saint Benedict includes this advice:

If any pilgrim monk come from distant parts, with a wish to dwell as a guest in the monastery, and will be content with the customs which he finds in the place, and do not perchance by his lavishness disturb the monastery, but is simply content with what he finds: he shall be received, for as long a time as he desires.

If, indeed, he finds fault with anything, or exposes it, reasonably, and with the humility of charity, the Abbot shall discuss it prudently, lest perchance God had sent him for this very thing.

But if he has been found lavish or vicious in the time of his sojourn as guest, not only ought he not to be joined to the body of the monastery, but also it shall be said to him, honestly, that he must depart. If he does not go, let two stout monks, in the name of God, explain the matter to him

In my stays in Ealing Abbey and Glenstal Abbey, or on my visits to Rostrevor Abbey, Mount Melleray or Roscrea Abbey, I have never heard this legend. But it is still repeated wherever priests are gathered together.

A version of this passage was included, with some errors in a translation of Chapter 61 of Saint Benedict’s Rule, in the book Select historical documents of the Middle Ages (1892), translated and edited by Ernest Flagg Henderson, and reprinted in 1907 in The Library of Original Sources, vol IV, edited by Oliver J Thatcher.

Another version was published in Hubbard’s Little Journeys (1908), but that translation omits the recommendation that the guest might become a potential permanent resident, and replaces the words ‘lavish or vicious’ with ‘gossipy and contumacious’ and the words following ‘he must depart’ were originally ‘lest, by sympathy with him, others also become contaminated.’

However, no phrase corresponding to the last sentence about ‘two stout monks’ appears in the Rule of Saint Benedict. Yet it is a popular myth, with several reputable publications repeating the error. Indeed, although one source attributes the passage to a Chapter 74 in the Rule of Saint Benedict, the rule contains only 73 chapters.

An early source for the quotation is the University of California, Berkeley faculty club, which for years posted a version of the passage on its bulletin board in Gothic script, but without attributing the quotation to Saint Benedict.

As people in Ireland wait to see whether social distancing guidelines are observed in the streets around popular pubs in many cities this weekend, perhaps we need not just more policing but a few stout monks too.

‘Prayer … is at the same time root and fruit, foundation and fulfilment’ … grapes on the vine in the cloister garden in Ealing Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A prayer of Saint Benedict:

Gracious and Holy Father,
Give us wisdom to perceive you,
Intelligence to understand you,
Diligence to seek you,
Patience to wait for you,
Vision to behold you,
A heart to meditate on you,
A life to proclaim you,
Through the power of the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ, Our Lord. Amen.

The Front Door at Ealing Abbey … prayer is not about making God some kind of private getaway from life (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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