Quote from the Rule of St. Benedict
"Listen, o son, to the precepts of the teacher and incline the ear of your heart; both willingly accept and effectively fulfill the admonition of a devoted father, so that you may return through the labor of obedience to Him from whom you withdrew through the sloth of disobedience. To you, therefore, my speech is now directed, you who by renouncing your own wants take up the most strong and noble arms of obedience, to be a soldier for the true king, Christ the Lord."
- Rule of St. Benedict prologue, vv. 1-3
Photo to the right is of a stained glass window from St. Procopius Abbey's former choir chapel. The window is now located at our school, Benedictine University.
monks before St. Benedict often lived austere lives: many lived in the desert;
some ate very little and possessed few things; some were extremely disciplined
in reciting numerous psalms and prayers each day. They were heroic in their
But St. Benedict knew that not everyone was capable of this. Further, he knew what the saintly monks before him knew, namely, that these heroic feats were not at the very heart of conversion.
Instead, to achieve ongoing conversion and to grow in holiness, one needs to overcome self-will. Self-will is that tendency within us to want to get our own way, simply because it is our own way. It pops up in different parts of our lives and it manifests a deep self-centeredness that is debilitating because it gets in the way of loving God and neighbor – in which is found our true fulfillment.
So, St. Benedict set up a way of life that is moderate, and does not require heroic feats of the kind indicated above. Rather, his way of life counsels practices that overcome self-will.
St. Benedict therefore counsels listening. “Listen” is the opening word in his Rule for Monasteries. Listening makes us go beyond the clamor of our own wants, to hear what God wants and also to hear what others can teach us or what they require of us.
St. Benedict also counseled obedience as a way to overcome self-will. Obedience in the monastery is to be given first of all to God, then to the monastic rule of life and to the superior, and then to others. Obedience clearly opposes self-will by leading us to do what another wants rather than what we ourselves want. It conforms the monk to Christ who was obedient to the Father.
St. Benedict also emphasized humility as a way to overcome self-will. Humility does not require hating oneself or beating up on oneself. It means not being ruled by a puffed up view of oneself. It is easy to justify getting your own way if you have an overinflated view of yourself. But as St. Paul says, “love does not insist on its own way” (1Cor 13:5). Humility is needed to resist self-will, and to love genuinely.
In sum, St. Benedict teaches a moderate way of life with a balanced mix of prayer and work and other activities. The emphasis is on overcoming self-will, so as to be free to seek God by loving Him and our neighbors. This way of life leads to peace, another theme in St. Benedict’s teaching.
In the following pages, we will say more about St. Benedict’s teaching. Above we spoke of what St. Benedict wanted us to overcome — namely, self-will — but in the following we will focus on what, in turn, he wanted us to strive for. He wanted us to strive for good zeal and the works that flow from it. We will see this by first looking at the well-known Benedictine theme of balance.