The Vow of Stability:
A Premodern Way through a Hypermodern World

by Gerald W. Schlabach

Paper presented at Bluffton College conference on “Anabaptism & Postmodernity,” 6-8 August 1998. Substantially the same paper later appeared as “Stability amid Mobility: The Oblate’s Challenge and Witness” in the American Benedictine Review, 52:1 (March 2001), and then with further revisions as chapter 3 of Unlearning Protestantism: Sustaining Christian Community in an Unstable Age.

I was travelling an on-ramp to the Ohio Turnpike one weekend last May just as an old Carole King song came up on my tape deck. My family was with me as brash orange cones flashed by, for the interstate highway needs a third lane to accommodate more and more traffic in our mobile society. Just at this moment, however, Carole King voiced the unease of our hypermodern world: “So far away. Doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore?… I sure hope the road don’t come to own me.”

On this particular day, however, the road was taking me to an abbey of Benedictine monks in Cleveland, where I was to commit myself to a much older, premodern road, by becoming a Benedictine oblate. Oblation simply means offering. Benedictine oblates are people who are not monks but who dedicate themselves to the service of God and neighbor according to the Rule of St. Benedict, insofar as their state in life permits. Specific commitments include the practice of lectio divina, praying the Psalms through some portion of the daily liturgy of hours, and working in the world as unto God.

I learned about all of this quickly enough once I discovered that it is possible for someone who is not Roman Catholic to become a Benedictine oblate. Knowing that there are good historical arguments for considering monasticism in general — and the Benedictine sensibilities of Michael Sattler in particular — to have supplied at least one formative influence on early Swiss Anabaptism,[1] the oblate option had instantly seemed a precise and concrete way to express the growing but otherwise abstract sense in which I am a “Catholic Mennonite.”[2]

Some lessons I did not expect, however. Benedict’s rule requires a “vow of stability” — the uniquely Benedictine commitment to live in a particular monastic community for life. At first, this may seem to apply least of all amid other ways of life. Yet precisely because it contrasts so sharply with the fragility of most commitments in our hypermodern society, the Benedictine vow of stability may speak more directly to our age and churches than anything else in the Rule. Application must be by analogy; my academic dean knows that I have yet to take a vow of stability, in anything like the technical Benedictine sense! And one cannot understand the vow of stability apart from the Benedictines’ two other vows — conversion of life and obedience, which in turn requires us to face questions of authority. Still, what I wish to argue is this:

It is no use rediscovering any of our church’s roots, nor discerning innovative ways to be faithful to our church’s calling, if we won’t slow down, stay longer even if we can’t stay put indefinitely, and take something like a vow of stability. Slow down — because postmodernism may really be hypermodernism. Stay longer — because there is no way to discern God’s will together without commitment to sit long together in the first place. A vow of stability — because it is no use discerning appropriate ways to be Christian disciples in our age if we do not embody them through time, testing, and the patience with one another that our good ideas and great ideals need, in order to prove their worth as communal practices.

As one Mennonite church leader remarked to me concerning the impact of constant mobility on our congregations: “It’s getting so the Abrahamic thing to do is to stay put.”[3]

Post-, Late- or Hyper-modern?

Postmodernism, however, seems to thrive on the problem of instability, not confront it. If there’s any such thing.

Perhaps this conference will yet convince me that those phenomena which bear the name “postmodern” are distinct enough from modernity to deserve the name. My argument here is simply agnostic on the matter, for the difference between late modernity and postmodernity often seems to me to be more a matter of pace and presumption than of kind. In my longer paper I offer a list of reasons for suspecting that postmodern phenomena and thought are simply modern phenomena proceeding at a more frantic pace — and modern thought both gaining and losing confidence in itself more intensely. Maybe there is such a phenomenon as postmodernity, but those who propose postmodernism as a guide through it, will have to forgive the skeptical for simply calling it hypermodern, until otherwise convinced. And if they want to demonstrate that they are listening to multiple voices and “others,” they will have show themselves vulnerable to the wisdom of premodern voices such as that of the 6th century’s St. Benedict.[4]

Actually, one does not even have to stretch backward that far. For at least a few of the most incisive voices on the contemporary scene are calling us to decompress, slow down, stay in place, and commit ourselves to places for the long haul, precisely so that the planet can provide a human home over a long haul.

Throughout his many essays, the farmer-poet-environmentalist Wendell Berry has been arguing tenaciously that our very humanity may depend on local communities that sustain a relationship with the land. In “The Work of Local Culture,” for example, Berry laments that we have come to accept as a norm that our resources and our children will move away and never return home. Education systems prepare youth for an indeterminate career anywhere (and probably elsewhere) rather than to return home and be of use to a place and community. Berry recognizes that cycles of adolescent rebellion are necessary, but unless adolescents have viable economic opportunities for returning to their parents and meeting them as fellow sufferers and friends, whole generations become locked into the permanent adolescence of rebellion and mere critique, untethered by a corresponding responsibility for reconstruction. Contemporary scholarship itself reflects this permanent adolescence, he observes.[5]

If Berry’s plea for a return to rural community seems too much of a stretch, then perhaps we can hear the arguments of academic city-dweller Scott Russell Sanders of Indiana University in Bloomington. Sanders challenges those who urge us “to deal with difficulties by pulling up stakes and heading for new territory.”[6] The national culture is wrong when it tells us that “the worst fate is to be trapped on a farm, in a village, in the sticks, in some dead-end job or unglamourous marriage or played-out game.” “People who root themselves in places are likelier to know and care for those places,” he insists, “than are people who root themselves in ideas.”[7] In our hemisphere, people rooted in ideas rather than places have been the ones who have committed the worst abuses against land, forests, animals and human communities — and hardly without shedding their bigotry. Those who do not value their own places are unlikely to value others’, he argues. For unless one is “placed” one merely collects sensations as a sightseer, lacking the local knowledge that grounds and measures global knowledge. “Those who care about nothing beyond the confines of their parish are in truth parochial, and are at least mildly dangerous to their parish; on the other hand, those who have no parish, those who navigate ceaselessly among postal zones and area codes, those for whom the world is only a smear of highways and bank accounts and stores, are a danger not just to their parish but to the planet.”[8]

Stability in the Rule of St. Benedict [9]

One does not have to speculate about what St. Benedict would have thought of the hypermodern propensity to move on, try to reinvent ourselves, and keep trying to construct lifestyle enclaves to our liking — without sticking to any one project long enough to create authentic community. Following St. Benedict’s prologue, the first chapter in his rule proper describes four kinds of monks. The first two are cenobites or monks living in community (RB 1.1-2), and anchorites or hermits living alone (RB 1.3-5). Cenobitic monasticism had developed out of anchoritic monasticism in the deserts of Egypt, the mountains of Syria, and beyond, during the third and fourth centuries. At first, new or prospective monks simply sought out experienced ones to guide them, and attached themselves as apprentices to these spiritual masters they called father or mother, abba or ama. Benedict knew the history that had turned clusters of hermits into ordered communities well enough that he commended anchorites as well as cenobites, even though he seems to have preferred and obviously wrote for cenobitic communities.[10]

The third and fourth categories of monks in his typology were another matter. “Sarabaites” (RB 1.6-9) were “the most detestable kind of monks” who thought they could form small communities of two or three without the aid of either an experienced master or a rule to order their life over time.[11] They were sheep trying to construct their own sheepfolds not the Lord’s, without the aid of a shepherd.[12] Their law was their own fancy: “Anything they believe in and choose, they call holy; anything they dislike, they consider forbidden.” Yet a fourth kind of monk was even worse, the “gyrovagues” (RB 1.10-11), who drifted all their lives from monastery to monastery, staying only a few days. “Always on the move, they never settle down, and are slaves to their own wills and gross appetites.” The sarabaites were “detestable,” but the gyrovagues were “in every way … worse.” We might say that the sarabaites were trying to form “intentional communities” on the strength of intention alone, without accepting the need for some structure based on time-tested experience to even out the peaks and troughs of whim, passion, and mere enthusiasm for the idea of community. If the gyrovagues were worse, it was precisely because they were even more hyper. Think monks on MTV!

So what Benedict meant by stability, along with the other Benedictine vows of obedience and conversion of life, is quite clear already in chapter 1. Of course there may have been good historical reasons for insisting on stability in the unstable sixth century that do not apply to our own. But his reasons for stability may pertain more to our own century than we like to recognize. In the closing paragraph of the first edition of his book After Virtue, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre baited his readers famously by suggesting that we await “another — doubtless very different — St. Benedict.”[13] According to MacIntyre, “the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers, they have already been governing us for quite some time” — polling, managing, manipulating, and creating our consumer preferences through corporate and governmental bureaucracies alike. Meanwhile, theorists of modern democracy fail to account for the moral life as anything more than emotivism, thus reducing moral action itself to consumeristic choice. According to MacIntyre, our hope then is in new and localized forms of community life, constituting traditions of virtue wherein Aristotelian apprenticeship not Kantian autonomy shapes the moral life. Such communities must divest their hope in empire, and shape their lives through narratives capable of countering its illusions. Only within such communities and traditions — which pass on their virtues through narratives and the heros or mentors who embody them — will intellectual, civil, and moral life survive the competing wills-to-power that are preying upon us.

MacIntyre does not quite convince me that we require a “doubtless very different” St. Benedict. But he does point to ways that our own hypermodern age is more like Benedict’s early medieval one than we may like to admit. Television preachers afflict conservative Christians, and theological fads afflict liberal ones; in other words, itinerant “gyrovague” Christianity cycles all around us, without the discipline of sustained community life. Further, as Stanley Hauerwas has noted, the “voluntary community” for which Anabaptists once died has degenerated — in this liberal society where most organizations are voluntary — into the marketing of churches and “church shopping” among all sectors within all traditions.[14] Thus, even if these groups have far more than the two or three members that Benedict imagined, they are still “sarabaite” in their desire for community only on their own terms. All this occurs in a larger socioeconomic context where most days are far too like the sixth century insofar as marauding bands of advertisers, poll-takers, and other well-groomed MacIntyrian “barbarians” comprise a danger to Christian faithfulness that is far more subtle and ubiquitous than either the Roman Empire or the modern nation-state.

In this light we may begin to approach from afar the famous opening paragraph of Benedict’s prologue, which to modern ears can at first sound irretrievably authoritarian and hierarchical.

Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from a father who loves you; welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice. The labor of obedience will bring you back to him [Christ] from whom you had drifted through the sloth of disobedience. This message of mine is for you, then, if you are ready to give up your own will, once and for all, and armed with the strong and noble weapons of obedience do battle for the true King, Christ the Lord (RB Prol. 1-3)

Benedict’s stated intent was to “establish a school [schola] for the Lord’s service” (RB Prol. 45; cf. Prol. 14), or a “workshop” in which to learn to exercise the “tools of the spiritual craft” (RB 4.75-78) that were needed for Christian perfecting. As he concluded his rule he called it in fact a “little rule … for beginners” (RB 73.8; cf. 73.1). In the trust that monks had entered the monastery out of a desire to grow into the likeness of Christ by conforming their habits and practices to community life,[15] the rule conceives of their growing virtue as a paradoxical advancement in humility (RB 7). And it includes a worrisome number of calls for instant obedience to the commands of one’s abbot and the renunciation of all self-will (RB Prol.1-3; 4.61; 5; 7.19-21,31-35, 33.4). Benedictines themselves have recognized the danger of absolutist authority here.[16] But skeptics must themselves recognize a simple fact: It was not supposed to be easy to enter a Benedictine monastery in the first place. “Do not grant newcomers to the monastic life an easy entry,” wrote Benedict (RB 58.1).

The obedience to authority that Benedict called for, then, both requires and creates stability, but is not coerced obedience. It is the obedience of an apprentice who has sought out someone who knows the life one longs to live better than one can know it oneself, at least without a master who has advanced in the craft of living this life and is in position to thwart one’s favorite illusions. This is exactly what one has asked for by approaching an abbot-father (or abbess-mother[17]) in the first place, and the opening paragraph of Benedict’s prologue is simply a reminder. The abbot is one’s superior (maior), but the term is a play on words, for the one who has hierarchical authority is first of all to be one who is “better” or more advanced in the communal search for God to which one has committed oneself.[18] The “master” whom one must obey is a magister — not as in “slavemaster” but as in “master craftsperson” or “teacher.”[19] No human system precludes every possibility of abuse, but the community that elects an abbot as its leader for life should be seeking someone who is already well-schooled in the virtues that all are seeking (RB 64.2-3). If the monks themselves have entered the community for the right reasons, the power of position will not be something for which they themselves are competing; if anything they will be trying to avoid it.[20]

Benedict countered some of the potential for abuse in the abbot system, though probably only some of it.[21] Above all, he warned the abbot and would-be abbot that they do not have absolute power in the community. For one thing, the abbot is himself subject to the rule (RB 3.10-11; 64.20),[22] which is in turn a distilled application of Scripture to community life.[23] All learn the rule from the very beginning of their monastic lives (RB 58.9-16; 66.8), and they are to meditate daily on the Scripture (RB 48; 4.55-56). A truly thriving monastery will thus be full of people whose consciences are being formed by the rule, and by Scripture; such people will know that their abbot dare not guide or command them in ways that violate Scripture, rule or conscience (RB 2.4-5). For another thing, Benedict warned the abbot or abbess repeatedly: you will give account on judgment day; God is the owner of the sheepfold, not you, and you will be examined about those entrusted to you (RB 2.7,11-15,30,39; 3.11; 64.7,20; 65.22).

In any case, Benedict also required certain procedures that favored intra-community accountability. In guiding the lives of the monks, an abbot’s directions were not to come with legalistic one-size-fits-all rigidity; rather he was to adapt them to the need, personality, and circumstance of each monk (RB 2.23-29; 27; 37; 64:7-19). This necessarily required two-way communication. Benedict also made provision for monks to object to commands that seemed impossibly burdensome to them (RB 68). On major community matters, Benedict expected the abbot to make a final decision, but not before taking counsel from the entire community (RB 3). The main reason he gave should warn us against caricaturing the system from outside as crudely authoritarian: “The reason why we have said all should be called for counsel is that the Lord often reveals what is better to the younger” (RB 3:3). If this were not enough, Benedict encouraged hospitality toward visiting monks (RB 61; see also RB 53) and insisted that the abbot receive their “reasonable criticisms or observations” — for “it is possible that the Lord guided [them] to the monastery for this very purpose (RB 61.4).

So is this system democratic? authoritarian? participatory? Is it perhaps what “aristocracy” — the rule of the virtuous or excellent — would mean if that term took its meaning more often from Christian virtues of humility, compassion, and vulnerability to the presence of “the least” among us? Or is it something else that we will not be able to recognize much less name unless we have learned to look respectfully at traditional premodern societies (both ancient and contemporary), from within?

John Paul Lederach once told me about the practices of a South American indigenous tribe. When a clan needs to make a decision, all the men in the group gather in a circle. (No, they do not include women; the point here is not that the procedure is perfect.) One-by-one, from youngest to oldest, each shares his counsel. No one loses face, since the words of those more elder are expected to supersede those who have already spoken. Yet all do speak and all do hear. At last the eldest speaks, having had time and opportunity to hear from all, and the word of the eldest constitutes the group’s decision. End of meeting. It is an -ocracy for which we have no prefix — and modern conceptions of democracy will not supply one.

In any case, Benedictines read their rule within their community, as their community’s text. They do not treat it as a historical artifact, but neither do they read it like fundamentalists. What most commends the model of stability in the text — together with its pattern of authority, obedience, and measured openings for loyal dissent — is precisely that it has engendered a tradition in which flexibility, adaptation, critique, and reform are possible within the nurture of deep continuities. The Rule of St. Benedict itself calls for flexibility at a number of points. It closes with a chapter reminding monasteries that “this rule [is] only a beginning of perfection” (RB 73). Benedictines have taken this to authorize careful and thoughtful adaptation as circumstance demands and communal wisdom counsels.[24]

But the point is not really to create the perfect monastery. The Cistercian contemplative Thomas Merton once commented on the significance of the Benedictine vow of stability by stressing the very realism of Saint Benedict. Benedict, he observed, “introduced this vow into his Rule precisely because he knew that the limitations of the monk, and the limitations of the community he lived in, formed a part of God’s plan for the sanctification both of individuals and of communities.” In making this vow, “the monk renounces the vain hope of wandering off to find a ‘perfect monastery.'” That requires deep faith, and a recognition that finally, “it does not much matter where we are or whom we live with, provided we can devote ourselves to prayer, enjoy a certain amount of silence, poverty, and solitude, work with our hands, read and study the things of God, and above all love one another as Christ has loved us.”[25]

Of course, it is clear from Merton’s biography that this recognition did not come easily. Nor am I quite ready to say that just any community will do. What I am saying is that any true and sustainable community will need the virtues of mutual patience and mutual submission that the vow of stability requires and engenders.

In their struggle against oppression, patriarchy, and abusive authority, some may imagine and promote radically egalitarian forms of community along liberationist, feminist, or supposedly Anabaptist lines, and assume that a premodern patriarch such as Benedict can offer little counsel. My response is simply this: Write to me when you get halfway to your utopia, and tell me whether you do not need some vow of stability more than ever, to see you through. That reply, however, requires unpacking.

Reply to Objections

The most obvious objection to any attempt to retrieve Benedictine stability for other communities is the one I have already had to anticipate: that the vow of stability comes linked so closely with that other vow of obedience to hierarchical authority, that we had better stear clear. Let me summarize and extend my response to this objection with a chain of replies:

1. For what it is worth, historical and textual studies indicate that Benedict significantly — even drastically — reduced the paternalistic language of the most important sources he used in redacting his own rule. Where Benedict pruned he most often removed harsh legalisms and metaphors that would make monks into the “sons” of an abbot whose fatherhood over them was that of a Roman head of family.[26] Where Benedict inserted his own original material he most often showed great pastoral sensitivity or required abbots to be more collegial.[27] Benedict’s sparing language of the abbot as a father exhorting a son thus reflected Hebrew wisdom literature more than Roman politics,[28] and he retained language that made the abbot a master because monastic life was unimaginable without the structure of apprenticeship.

2. What is arguably most important about democracy are the ways that it holds powerful leaders accountable.[29] But if we study premodern traditional cultures carefully and respectfully we begin to notice that modern democracy does not have a monopoly on accountability. Christian polities should strive toward the accountability of all, but in fact, modern democratic processes do rather poorly at holding their electorates accountable. When congregationalist polities, using modern democratic processes, allow dysfunctional churches to run out one pastor after another, we have only exchanged one abuse of authority for another. And where congregational participation is a matter of consumeristic taste, we gain the accountability of the marketplace but undermine growth in discipled Christian virtue. At minimum, then, patterns of accountability in premodern communities deserve a second look if not a reappropriation.

3. Adding together points 1 and 2, then, we should begin to develop a critical distance from the paradoxically authoritarian hold that modern anti-authoritarianism has upon us. The kind of counsel-taking, fear of God, and vulnerability to “the least” of those in Benedictine monasteries may not convince us that Benedict’s abbot is adequately accountable. But we should at least gain enough charity towards premodern texts, and enough humility about the limits of our own hypermodern sensibilities, to appropriate the wisdom in vows of stability, in order to help negotiate our way through a hypermodern world.

4. Before we pass over the wisdom of a vow of obedience, however, we might ask ourselves: Do we really want to excise altogether the apprenticing shape of Christian life and community? Let us call our spiritual magistri “teachers” or “mentors” if that is more palatable than “masters.” Let us remind them, as Benedict did, that the obedience of their apprentices is ultimately to Christ. Let us even spread them throughout Christian communities that are discerning God’s will collectively rather than one-on-one. But let us remind ourselves that all learning in the Christian life involves unlearning — that putting on Christ by growing more fully into our baptism involves a putting off of old habits and illusions that die hard. For that, we need guides with enough authority and integrity to confront us with lessons we so fear to learn, that we may not learn them at all unless we obey before we fully understand or desire. No such guides are themselves free from sin and thus none should be exempt from accountability; furthermore, true authority bears no rightful power without the integrity that earns our trust. But unless we grant the probability that some members of the community know and embody the Christian life in fuller and more trustworthy ways than others, then there is hardly any point in speaking of Christian growth at all — much less yearning to grow — for we thereby give up on the very possibility of our own growth in Christ.

5. In any case, here is the rub: Christian communities that structure their life together with polities that are more egalitarian than the Benedictine polity ostensibly is, are going to need more protracted processes of participatory discernment as they seek to discern God’s will for them collectively. And for that they are going to require more not less of a vow of stability! Consensus takes long to reach. Good intentions and the initial romance of community life wane. Patience frays and righteous conviction turns to anger. The elusive option of starting over with a group of one’s like-minded is never absent from any non-Catholic church, is far too accessible in all Anabaptist ones, and is especially tempting in the modern milieu where voluntarism is nothing we need to die for anymore. So a figurative vow of stability is actually going to be much harder to make stick than stability in the technical Benedictine sense — yet all the more crucial! We are probably being far more modern or hypermodern than Anabaptist if we think otherwise.[30]

6. So as I say, write to me when you get half way to utopia, because there is good reason to think you are going to need something like a vow of stability more than ever — to be patient and longsuffering enough with one another that God has the space to take you the other half of the way.

A Not-So-Innovative Conclusion

MacIntyre’s call for a new and “doubtless very different” St. Benedict”[31] missed one crucial point. At least as a writer, Benedict was not very original; most of his rule is a thoughtful redaction from earlier, often longer, documents on monastic life. His innovation was simply the wise and enduring balance he struck between solitary and communal ways of searching for God, asceticism and realism, insularity and hospitality, rigor and flexibility. And if Benedict was rarely altogether original, he sensed no need to claim originality. Neither do I.

Someone might observe that the core message of the present paper need not have referred to matters Benedictine at all, for what has long been called the “second baptism” of monastic vows coincides strikingly with the meaning of first baptism as the Anabaptists believed themselves to be recovering it. My message might then have simply been: let us take seriously our baptism, our church commitment, and the “giving and receiving of counsel” that both are supposed to entail; let us also support these primary commitments with stronger secondary commitments to family, neighborhood, place, and the land. But of course, that might not sound “glamorous” enough to deserve a new paper.

So one lesson of premodern ways is that we might not need to say as many new things as we think. But one reality of our hypermodern world, however, is that we might need to hear old lessons through voices that are new and a bit exotic for us. Either way, though, the lesson is that what we need may not be a new theory or -ism at all, but the virtue of patience, and the practice of hunkering down to stay together through the long haul, as we listen to God’s voice.

The Psalm that most often begins the daily cycle of prayer in Benedictine monasteries is Psalm 95: “Come, let us sing to the Lord and shout with joy to the Rock who saves us.” The Lord our God, it proclaims, is “the great king over all the gods,” and bears in hand earth, mountains, seas, and dry land. Come, it urges, let us bow down, for we belong to this very God as the people of God’s pasture, the flock that God leads. And then suddenly, the Psalm issues a warning: “Today, listen to the voice of the Lord: Do not grow stubborn [or hard-hearted], as your [forebears] did in the wilderness…. Forty years I endured that generation. I said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray and they do not know my ways.’ So I swore in my anger, ‘They shall not enter into my rest.'” And there the Psalm abruptly ends.

The stability of the Benedictine way does not claim to be a stability written into the fabric of the universe. But for the enabling grace of God it is a humanly made vow, and a postmodernist may well call the stability that issues from it a socially “constructed” order. But it renews itself each day… by listening. And it listens… from the living assumption that something is there beyond us, and beyond our every ability to construct reality, to which we must listen. Thus it finds its stability not in the unreliable hardness of our own hearts, but in the socially-embodied conviction that God has a will to voice and a hand to lead. God is the stable rock, the rock who saves. In the stability of God and God’s purposes, in fact, lies our deepest freedom. Hardness and unresting burden (as the Psalmist warns and the Benedictines repeat) lie not in God but in hearts that go some other way. In praying and seeking to live out the stability of God our saving rock, the Benedictines thus proclaim a freedom that the hypermodern world can barely know, a freedom not to change everything always, a freedom even to sustain premodern ways, a freedom to conserve, a freedom to obey, a freedom to stay.

Let distant Anabaptist relatives listen too.


1. The following secondary sources represent a debate over the exact causal links between Sattler’s Benedictinism and the Swiss Anabaptism that coalsced under his leadership at Schleitheim in 1527, but the debate itself makes clear that there was some kind of influence and suggests certain abiding affinities: Arnold Snyder, “The Monastic Origins of Swiss Anabaptist Sectarianism,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 67, no. 1 (1983): 5-26; The Life and Thought of Michael Sattler (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1984); “Michael Sattler, Benedictine: Dennis Martin’s Objections Reconsidered,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 61, no. 3 (July 1987): 262-79; Dennis D. Martin, “Monks, Mendicants, and Anabaptists: Michael Sattler and the Benedictines Reconsidered,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 60, no. 2 (April 1986): 139-64; “Catholic Spirituality and Anabaptist and Mennonite Discipleship,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 62, no. 1 (January 1988): 5-25. Also see Eoin De Bhaldraithe, “Michael Sattler, Benedictine and Anabaptist,” Downside Review, April 1987, 111-31. Still, my argument does not depend on the strength of the historical links between Benedictines and Anabaptists. Issuing in what may be the longest enduring communal life of discipleship that church history has seen, the Benedictine tradition would deserve our deepest respect and consideration, even if it had done nothing whatsoever to help form our own Anabaptist tradition.

2. Like many people in recent years I first learned about Benedictine oblates from Kathleen Norris’s best-selling book, The Cloister Walk (New York: Riverhead Books, 1987), but all I needed to decide to explore this option was the raw fact that non-Roman Catholics could become oblates, which appears in her first paragraph.

3. Sherm Kauffman, executive secretary of the Indiana-Michigan Conference of the Mennonite Church, and a former pastor.

4. For a plea that cross-cultural understanding extend to premodern communities, see Dennis D. Martin, “Journey to a Far Country: Premodern History as Crosscultural Education,” Conrad Grebel Review 11, no. 3 (Fall 1993): 249-63. Also see the opening and closing essays in Robert L. Wilken, Remembering the Christian Past (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1995), 1-23.

5. Wendell Berry, “The Work of Local Culture,” in What Are People For? (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990), 153-69. For a discussion of “fidelity” that parallels somewhat the practice of “stability,” see Wendell Berry, “The Body and the Earth,” in The Unsettling of America Culture and Agriculture (New York: Avon, 1977), 120-23.

6. Scott Russell Sanders, “Settling Down,” in Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), 102. Sanders notes that he quarrels with Rushdie “because he articulates as eloquently as anyone the orthodoxy that I wish to counter: the belief that movement is inherently good, staying put is bad; that uprooting brings tolerance, while rootedness breeds intolerance; that imaginary homelands are preferable to geographical ones; that to be modern, enlightened, fully of our time is to be displaced” (103).

7. Ibid., 106.

8. Ibid., 114.

9. All quotations from the rule (abbreviated as RB) are taken from Saint Benedict, RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in English, edited by Timothy Fry, O.S.B. (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1982). I am also consulting Terrence G. Kardong, Benedict’s Rule: A Translation and Commentary (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1996). (abbreviated as BR). Finally, I am indebted to Fr. Michael Brunovsky, O.S.B., the oblate director at St. Andrew Svorad Abbey in Cleveland who is well trained in patristic and monastic history, for various clarifications concerning the rule.

10. RB 1 has provided terrain for a long and continuing debate over the conceptual relationship between anchorism and cenobitism. 1.3-5 seems to present anchorites as graduates of cenobitic communities who are now strong enough to go out and wrestle with the devil and their own vices in one-on-one combat. Yet that would seem to make monastic community life into something merely instrumental; besides, 1.13 calls the cenobites the strong or (as Kardong translates) “most vigorous” of monks. See BR pp. 31, 43, 599-600.

11. Cf. RB 1.2 where cenobites are described as “those who belong to a monastery, where they serve under a rule and an abbot.”

12. Cf. RB 2.7 in which the abbot-shepherd is reminded that he is not actually the owner of the sheepfold, since the owner is rather the Lord God.

13. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2d ed. (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 263. For a short monograph that applies MacIntyre’s thought to the challenge of Christian mission in modern culture, and frames its proposals as “a new monasticism,” see Jonathan R. Wilson, Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World: Lessons for the Church from MacIntyre’s After Virtue. Christian Mission and Modern Culture (Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 1997).

14. Stanley Hauerwas, In Good Company: The Church as Polis (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995), 26, 73.

15. “Habits and practices [of] community life” approximates the initial meaning of conversatio morum (Prol. 49; 58.17) rather than “conversion of life,” which became one of the three traditional Benedictine vows. But of course the point of conformity to the former was growth in the latter. See Kardong’s discussion of RB 58.17 in BR pp. 473-74 and 483).

16. The Benedictine commentator Kardong suggested that as Benedict added to his rule over time he began to recognize the dangers in this formula, and inserted a new chapter calling for abbots to exercise their authority with gentle discretion (RB 64, in contrast to RB 2; see BR p. 541), along with a key chapter inviting monks to object to impossibly burdensome commands in a way that would elicit truly pastoral guidance from their superior (RB 68; see BR p. 572). Even so, Kardong himself recognized that in another chapter (RB 71) Benedict abjectly failed to “take account of community life in any realistic sense” for although he began the chapter with a call for mutual obedience (but also see RB 72), he ended by insisting on the “capitulation and self-accusation” of junior monks to seniors, and no such system “can be said to be healthy” (BR p. 586). Still, Kardong’s harsh criticism of the saintly founder of his abbot attests to possibilities of critique and accountability with the order that outsider observers may not always discern. See also Terrence Kardong, O.S.B., “RB 71.6-9 in the Light of Gandhi’s Non-Violence,” Tjurunga 27 (1984): 3-16.

17. Throughout this article I refer to the “abbots” of male monastic communities because this is the nomenclature in Benedict’s text.

18. See BR 2.1, p. 49.

19. In any case, Kardong notes that Benedict, in redacting a more succinct and workable “rule” out of longer and harsher sources such as the anonymous “Rule of the Master,” drastically reduced the number of references to the abbot as a “master” or “father,” and to the monk as “son,” thus reducing paternalistic overtones as well. See BR pp. 5, 66.

20. Commenting on the first draft of this paper, Kardong noted that this in fact tends to be the case today, though not necessarily for reasons Benedict would have expected: “There is no question that Benedict makes his abbot a huge factor in the life of the monk and the monastery. So much so, that I think it scares the daylights out of modern monks. Hence monasteries have a tough time finding anyone who is willing to be abbot! In reality, most abbots today are anything but authoritarian. American abbots tend to be rather shy and retiring; some do not do much teaching in the monastery. At any rate, the problem is the same all over society: where to find people with vision?”

21. See note here.

22. Kardong notes that Benedict never reversed the order of the repeated pair “under a rule and an abbot,” thus implying the clear priority of the rule over the abbot (BR p. 36; see RB 1.1,6-8; 3.7-9; 23.1).

23. See RB chapters 4 and 7 for what are only the most marked examples of this distillation. Cf. BR pp. 36, 117.

24. Since Vatican II, many Benedictine congregations have been electing their abbots until age 65, rather than for life, with longer terms possible only through re-election. Another obvious example is that, according to Kardong (BR 251), “there may not be a single monastery in the world today that carries out literally [Benedict’s] prescriptions for punishing monks,” particularly through corporal punishment.

25. Merton, The Sign of Jonas, 9-10.

26. Cf. RB 2.7, where God is decisively made the paterfamilias or owner of the sheepfold, and the abbot is a shepherd who must give account. Those who would reject this image of God will have to excise those parables by which Jesus himself spoke of God as a land- or vineyard-owner.

27. See Kardong, BR pp. 5, 8, 22, 32, 62, 75, 254-255, 403, 431-432.

28. See BR pp. 5, 66-67 on RB Prol.1. Although the filial language of the rule’s opening words is prominent, it is also unique, for as Kardong points out, the only other place where the RB refers to the monk as “son” (RB 2.29) is a biblical quotation.

29. Cf. John Howard Yoder, “The Christian Case for Democracy,” in The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 151-71.

30. I do not have the time or expertise in sixteenth century sources to prove my suspician that the contentious students of Harold S. Bender’s “Anabaptist Vision” have been far to quick to read their own late-twentieth-century anti-authoritarianism back into formative Anabaptism. One example, from a scholar who actually tries hard to avoid such things, may however illustrate the grounds for suspician. In his biography of Michael Sattler, Arnold Snyder rightly sought to show points of both continuity and discontinuity between Sattler’s Benedictine and Anabaptist thought. Comparing Benedictine and Anabaptist processes of discernment he argued that in the latter, the community not its leaders decide, and the Holy Spirit witnesses through their unity and unanimity. Snyder concluded that “the monastic community is obedient to Christ via its obedience to the Rule and its abbot” while “the Anabaptist community is to be obedient directly to Christ, his Word and his Spirit.” (Snyder, The Life and Thought of Michael Sattler, 191-92.) A footnote on this page, however, leads the reader to a letter of Sattler’s admonishing the church of Horb to assemble constantly for prayer and breaking of bread. “In such meeting together you will make manifest the heart of the false brothers, and will be freed of them more rapidly.” (John H[oward] Yoder, ed., The Legacy of Michael Sattler (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1973), 62.) How? The letter does not say. But since no actual community can beg the question of who the “false brothers” are in the way that the letter seems to do, a more sensible reading is that some one or some party within the group has only achieved “unanimity” by deciding which voices count. The criticism here is not of Sattler, for elsewhere he in turn provides ways to make the community’s shepherd accountable (see article 5 of the Schleitheim Confession, in Yoder, The Legacy of Michael Sattler, 38-39.). The criticism is of recent historiography that tends to romanticize sixteenth-century Anabaptist communities as radically egalitarian, in order to legitimize anti-authoritarian assumptions that may actually derive from late modernity. If I am right that Snyder erred at this point, his mistake was not so much egregious as symptomatic.

31. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2d ed. (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 263.