The reason we have written this rule is that, by observing it in monasteries, we can show that we have some degree of virtue and the beginnings monastic life. But for anyone hastening on to the perfection of monastic life, there are the teachings of the early church writers, the observance of which will lead them to the very heights of perfection. What page, what passage of the inspired books of the Old and New Testament is not the truest of guides for human life? What book of holy writers does not resoundingly summon us along the true way to reach the Creator? Then, besides the Conferences of the early church writers, their Institutes and their Lives, there is also the Rule of Basil. For observant and obedient monastics, all these are nothing less than tools for the cultivation of virtues; but as for us, they make us blush for shame at being so slothful, so unobservant, so negligent. Are you hastening toward your heavenly home? Then with Christ’s help, keep this little rule that we have written for beginners. After that, you can set out for the loftier summits of the teaching and virtues we mentioned above, and under God’s protection you will reach them. Amen.
To commit to the way of the Rule is to commit to being a gentle ascetic of the ordinary, the everyday. The Rule is submerged in the ordinary and everyday because it is in this that a commitment to each other has the best chance of becoming an ascesis (Greek: ἄσκησις, an “exercise” or a “training”) in the art of love. Love is what love does now. It is revealed in the practice of loving presence and action now. Humble acts of everyday kindness, acts that do not encourage attention on the actor, these are what grow us in love.
Community is where awareness of need becomes action: we unpack the dishwasher, we pick up the milk and bread on the way home, we water the plants, we hug our children, we stop and listen. We go out of our way to do the things that love and heal those we have chosen to live with. As we do this we come to understand that attempting to meet our own needs without others can cause an implosion into selfishness. In this implosion we forget others and we forget our deeper selves.
The Rule undercuts this implosion by showing us that loving others is part of loving ourselves. As we love others we experience the internal qualities and movements of love. Over time we lose the compulsed drive to satisfy ourselves first. With this experience of love’s life we become better equipped to love ourselves. There is less chance that self attention will be subverted by the ego. As we attend to ourselves with this love we then naturally want to love others.
The Rule then, at its heart, is a communal exercise of attending to the present moment with growing love. This is all that is required. Benedict is aware, however, that this simple way is, time and time again, lost to us because of laziness and negligence. Three times in this chapter he asks us to be observant of the Rule and of the teachings of “the early church writers”. Start with the Rule, he says, observe it, attend to what it says in growing obedience, that is, growing responsiveness to the life of love that it engenders and encourages. To be negligent is to be inattentive. As we pray, work, and live together, how we attend is transformed by Divine Love. To attend with this love is to “put on the new self”, allowing the divine image that we are to become conscious and obvious.
…put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and…be renewed in the spirit of your minds…put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph4:22-24).
This chapter shows us, as many chapters of the Rule show, that the Rule is a text of hope. It points to the deeper good that we are while compassionately making room for the ways we fall short. As we together grow in a humble awareness of our lack, and in the good that we already are, the Rule lays out a way into this goodness, into wholeness, into holiness. It is a way that includes our negligence and what motivates our negligence.
As this negligence is included, attended to and loved, we become more and more humble. Once humility takes hold in us the God life in us is set free. Humility is the soil, the humus, from which a full faith in a liberating God can grow. Humility is the unspoken word in this chapter – as it is in so many chapters of the Rule.
The Rule is not about perfectionism, a striving so that we might live correctly and be worthy of attention. Its perfection is this fullness of faith, a fullness that embraces negligence and loves it.
The humble accept that they are always beginning. Practicing the Rule, something “written for beginners”, keeps fresh in us the humble ‘beginners mind’, a mind ready to learn. It is the same mind that a meditation practice encourages. In the internal (meditation) and external (community) practice of attention we are always beginning – always going back to the mantra, always going back to the other. What we experience during the practice of these internal and external aspects of our pilgrimage is, over time, attention becoming loving attention. Loving action flows from loving attention. Spirituality, in both its internal and external dimensions, if it is to be transformative of action and attention, must be practical.
Both Benedict and John Main recommend the establishment of this practice of attentive loving first. It is best to keep the reading to a minimum in the early stages. Practice is everything. After this practice of attention has been established enough there will be the opportunity to read other guides. The experience of beginning draws us into reflection. Reflection, however, must serve the practice if we are to continue in love and holiness.
And may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we do for you, so that your hearts are strengthened in holiness to be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. (1Thess3:12-13).