Sacraments: What the Rule Says

A sacrament is defined as a visible sign of an inward grace. The Catholic tradition has seven sacraments: Baptism, Eucharist, Confirmation, Reconciliation, Matrimony, Holy Orders, Anointing of the Sick. 

They are a constant in the life of the devout Catholic, and yet St. Benedict does not mention the word "sacrament" in the Rule. Rev. Timothy Fry argues that Benedict wrote his Rule primarily for monks, but "its sound principles for working together and living together have proved relevant to people of all classes of society through fifteen hundred years" (The Rule of St. Benedict in English, The Liturgical Press, p.9).

Moreover, he says, "Benedict's Rule offered definitive direction and established an ordered way of life that gave security and stability" (p. 11). How could it be relevant, however, if the sacraments, the very basis of the Catholic religion, are never mentioned? Or are they mentioned, over and over again in terms of life in community, but not by the specific names that we call them?

Some clues from the Rule

Benedict begins in the Prologue by reminding us to "see how the Lord in his love shows us the way to life" (Prologue 20). We are called to be "clothed…with faith and good works," to "set out on this way, with the Gospel for our guide, that we may deserve to see him who has called us to his kingdom" (Prologue 21).

In other words, those who follow the Rule are called by Benedict to be sacrament, to be outward visible signs of inward grace. We are to act differently from the world, putting the love of Christ before all else (4:20-21), by placing our hope in God alone (4:41), listening to holy reading and devoting ourselves often to prayer (4:55-56) and, finally, never losing hope in God's mercy (4:74).

We are to live in humility and obedience, doing not our own will, but the will of God (5:13). We are to erect a ladder of our lives on earth with our body and soul as the sides and the steps of humility and discipline (7:8-9). It is through ascending these steps of humility and discipline that we will arrive at that "perfect love of God which casts out fear," and we will be cleansed of our vices and sins (7:67, 70).

Connecting to the Sacraments

Moreover, Benedict underscores the importance of prayer by specifically designating Psalms to be read during the different hours and the manner of celebrating the office during different seasons. He reminds us to consider "how we are to behave in the presence of God and his angels," making our minds in harmony with our voices (19:6-7), praying "with the utmost humility and sincere devotion" because, as Benedict says, "God regards our purity of heart and tears of compunction, not our many words" (22:2-3).

Surely, in these words Benedict is talking about both Eucharist, the central act of worship in the Roman Catholic Church, but also what Jeffery D. Von Lehman refers to as a "concrete encounter of the community with Jesus," and Reconciliation, the action of God who uses the sacrament to reconcile us to Himself by restoring sanctity in our souls.

Perhaps Benedict also refers to Baptism, a rebirth to a new and supernatural life as we are received into the community by doing the will of God, and Confirmation, reflecting maturity and a coming of age whose effect is to give strength of faith.

All of these sacramental characteristics are repeated in Chapter 53, when Benedict discusses the reception of guests, who are to be welcomed as Christ. The monks are to show "all humility" to a guest and every kindness, and "great care and concern are to be shown in receiving poor people and pilgrims" (53:6; 15), recalling the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation.

Reading further into the Rule, Benedict describes the qualifications of the deans (21), the monastery cellarer (31), the reader for the week (38), the artisans (57), the priests (62), the abbot and the prior (64, 65), and the porter (66). All of them are called by the abbot or by each other to be what they are and to do what they do.

All of these people are clearly called and have a vocation to the assignment they have been given within the community, and thus their call is sacramental, similar to the sacraments of Marriage, a lifelong union symbolizing the divine union between Christ, the bridegroom and His Church, and Holy Orders, the continuation of Christ's priesthood through apostolic ministry.

Signs of Grace

And finally, in Chapter 36, Benedict addresses the issue of the sick brothers, reminding us that "care of the sick must rank above and before all else so that they may truly be served as Christ," being patiently borne with and suffering no neglect (36:1; 5-6). In the same way, the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick brings spiritual and even physical strength during an illness and conveys graces and imparts gifts of strengthening against anxiety, discouragement and temptation.

Thus, as Scott P. Richert says, "When we participate [in the sacraments] worthily, each provides us with graces - with the life of God in our soul. In worship, we give to God what we owe Him; in the sacraments, He gives us the graces to live a truly human life."

So it is with Benedict in the holy Rule. Although Benedict never mentions the word "sacrament," the Rule is filled with the idea of sacrament, in order that the monks show to each other "the pure love of brothers; to God, loving fear; to their abbot, unfeigned and humble love."

Through the sacraments, we Christians are outward signs to each other of an inward grace. And through living the Rule of Benedict, the monks - and others who follow the Rule- remain in right relationship not only with each other and their fellow humankind, but also with God.

Catherine Byers, oblate
Nineveh, IN 

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