Spiritual Warfare and The Rule of St. Benedict

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By Maria Keller, University of Notre Dame

Note: The author mentions that St. Benedict entered combat with the powers of evil to “merit salvation.” However, it is important to make the distinction as Catholics between reaching salvation on our own merits, versus cooperating with the freely-given grace of God. God calls each of us into relationship with Him; we can “merit” heaven only in so far as in freely choosing to cooperate with His plan, by doing what He tells us, i.e., by following His commandments (cf. John 14:15, 1 John 2:3).

St. Paul says in his Letter to the Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God–not because of works, lest any man should boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Christ redeemed every person ever created, through His death on the cross. In addition, He longs that each person will be saved, by cooperating with His grace.

However, none of us merits heaven because of our deeds; we only “merit” heaven insofar as we have cooperated with the grace of God in turning to Him, even at the last moment, to accept His grace by following His commandments. So we are not saved by “faith alone,” but must cooperate with His grace by “works.” Nevertheless, we are saved by grace, and in fact God gave us actual grace to accept His grace! By his mercy, we have accepted that grace. Doing penance can help us to accept that grace. But the penance itself and all our actions do not “merit” salvation insofar as climbing to heaven on our own merits; rather, we reach heaven by choosing to cooperate with His grace working in our lives.

The following was a college essay written by Maria Keller. It has been edited and approved by Ariel Hobbs. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

The Rule of St. Benedict calls its audience to spiritual warfare, with the twin weapons of self-knowledge and sacrifice. The desire for spiritual self-preservation is also a necessary component of monastic life. I propose interpreting The Rule through a lens of militaristic language and heroic virtue. In the early Church, Christian martyrs replaced the Greco-Roman heroes of the past. Achilles’ rage becomes hatred of sin; Hector’s fear becomes horror at the prospect of Hell. However, once the Church became an established institution, martyrs all but disappeared. Monasticism replaces martyrdom of the past. Spiritual heroism requires an understanding of one’s physical and spiritual weaknesses and strengths. This understanding determines how one can best serve the community and grow in virtue. Cenobitic self-sacrifice is the total sacrifice of one’s desires for the sake of personal and communal holiness.

For St. Benedict, the first defense in spiritual warfare is an understanding of one’s spiritual and physical weaknesses. Benedict claims that “the labor of obedience will bring [one] back to him from whom [one] had drifted through the sloth of disobedience” (15). Benedict recognizes that his audience is spiritually broken, and he has no expectation that monks, even the holiest of anchoritic monks, will overcome the “vices of body and mind” (20). Benedict’s audience is any Benedictine monk or any man preparing to enter the monastery. Monks are commanded to “every day with tears and sighs confess [one’s] past sins to God in prayer” in order to “change from these evil ways in the future” (28). Reflecting on one’s past spiritual failures serves to help monks turn away from sin in the future. Moreover, keeping one’s sins in mind helps one develop true humility. Mourning these sins is necessary for remaining on the path of righteousness.

In addition to lamenting one’s sins and spiritual faults, spiritual heroism also means understanding one’s own physical weaknesses, particularly an understanding of one’s mortality. A sense of urgency runs through The Rule, accompanied by memento-mori-style spirituality. Benedict urges his monks “while there is still time, while [they] are in [their] bodies and have time to accomplish all these things by the light of life–[they] must run and do now what will profit [them] forever” (18). He further urges them to “day by day remind yourself that you are going to die” (28). The purpose of these commands is two-fold: to help the monks to develop humility, and to encourage them to repent. Once monks have developed an understanding of their own weaknesses and strengths, they can properly align their own will with the will of the monastery.

Benedict accommodates the physical weaknesses of the monks, while still encouraging them to grow in virtue and resist temptations. Benedict provides the monks with half a bottle of wine a day, extra food for the ill, and mercy for those who need it. He recognizes that his monks are fallen and broken, and therefore need a degree of mercy. Benedict urges his monks to “never lose hope in God’s mercy” (29). He commands abbots to “exercise the utmost care and concern for wayward brothers because it is not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick” (Matthew 9:12, 51). The purpose of the monastic life is to make broken men whole and virtuous men spiritual warriors; this can only be achieved if one understands one’s weaknesses and receives mercy from the community for spiritual faults.

Self-sacrifice, in addition to understanding oneself, is necessary for heroic virtue. The greatest of sacrifices is the handing over of one’s will to the monastery. Benedict declares his audience is only those who are “ready to give up [their] own will, once and for all, and armed with the strong and noble weapons of obedience to do battle for the true King, Christ the Lord” (15). Total obedience to the monastery and to one’s superiors is absolutely necessary in order for communal life to flourish, and for the band of spiritual warriors to grow stronger.

Sacrifice within The Rule is characterized by language of heroic virtue. Heroic virtue is attractive to monks in the same way that Greco-Roman heroes were attractive to ancient readers. A similar modern example of this desire would be the inclination to enter the military. Life within the monastery is both the battle itself and preparation for a greater battle. Benedict urges his readers to “prepare [their] hearts and bodies for the battle of holy obedience to his instructions” (18). Cenobitic monasticism is clearly preparation for the greater battle that is anchoritic monasticism. Eremites are “trained to fight against the devil” through the “first fervor of [communal] monastic life” (20). 

From that perspective, harmonious communal life is not the ultimate end of monastic life. Instead, community life prepares one for a solitary life of great virtue and intense spiritual combat in order to merit salvation (20). If communal harmony was the sole purpose of the religious life, cenobitic monks would never seek to graduate to anchoritic monasticism, which involves greater sacrifice and harsher spiritual battles precisely because one must separate oneself from the world and from others. Cenobitic monasticism is a continuous war with concupiscence and temptation and prepares one for greater battles as an eremite. The monastic life is fearsome, and Benedict commands his monks to “not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation” (19). Monks should fear both temptation and God’s wrath. Even the “abbot himself must fear God” (26). Monks ought to “live in fear of judgment day and have a great horror of hell” (28). Fear in the monastic life is similar to fear on the battlefield: it serves the purpose of spiritual self-preservation, so one can avoid sin, grow in virtue, and maintain hope in attaining eternal life.

The Benedictine life requires one to sacrifice one’s will. Benedict commands monks to “hate the urgings of self-will” (28). The monastic vow requires one to give up one’s will in order to more perfectly align it with the will of the community, and through the will of the community with God’s will. In the monastery, “no one is to follow his own heart’s desire” (26). It involves living strictly and avoiding indulgence. This sacrifice is not only lifelong but also immediate, even if it means “lay[ing] down whatever they have in hand, leaving it unfinished” (30). Self-sacrifice involves giving authority over oneself to the abbot. This decision involves tremendous trust in the abbot’s individual virtue and ability to lead the whole community to greater virtue.

The abbot is given the power to hand out verbal, social, and physical punishments for monks failing to be virtuous. Different positions within the monastery involve different sacrifices and risks. The abbot has to take on especially taxing sacrifices to serve the community: in particular, responsibility for the spiritual wellbeing of those under his authority. The abbot must remember that “anyone undertaking the charge of souls must be ready to account for them” (25). This sacrifice is paradoxical, as is all sacrifice within the monastic life. The sacrifice of one’s will seems to set one on the path to internal peace. However, this peace is never promised by Benedict; rather, intense, lasting spiritual warfare is expected and necessary for the formation of virtue and to merit salvation.

The monastic life strengthens one’s sense of spiritual self-preservation. Spiritual authorities of the time often believed that religious life was the only path to salvation. Cenobitic monks hand over their souls to the abbot to prepare themselves to hand over their souls to God. The abbot is called to care for the souls within his monastery; he is responsible to a certain degree for their salvation as well as his own. Sacrificing one’s will to a community is necessary for spiritual self-preservation—at least until one is prepared to live a holier, but perilous, life outside of the monastery walls as an eremite. Brothers care for and guide one another; know each other’s spiritual and physical weaknesses, and attempt to lead one another to live more virtuously. Somewhat paradoxically, monks are called to graduate to more intense spiritual warfare as they grow in virtue. Although more intense spiritual battles seem perilous, continuous spiritual battle prevents monks from becoming prideful or slothful. Therefore, by prudently entering more fearsome spiritual battles, monks actually attempt to preserve their spiritual wellbeing and merit salvation.

The monastic life is ordered around forming a tight-knit band of spiritual warriors, dedicated to pursuing heroic virtue in order to merit salvation. However, it is ideally ordered to form great spiritual leaders, who can shape the minds of future monastics. True spiritual heroism rests on a foundation of self-sacrifice and understanding of one’s own and others’ foibles. Sacrifice involves turning away from all personal desires and aligning one’s will with that of one’s superiors. Understanding one’s own weaknesses can bring humility and greater motivation for self-preservation. The Rule is a handbook for the new medieval hero: one defined by spiritual rather than physical strength.

Works Cited

St. Benedict of Nursia. The Rule of St. Benedict in English. Edited by Timothy Fry. Liturgical Press, 1981.

Edited By: Ariel Hobbs

One Response

  1. Cooperation with God’s grace requires us to receive God’s grace by humility towards Him.
    The type of humility that opens us up to grace is well-described in 1Peter 5:5-7 which says: “Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble. Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time: Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you” (see also James 4:6-10, Philippians 4:6-7, Proverbs 3:5-6, Psalms 37:7, 55:22, Isaiah 26:3-4, 55:7-9, and Galatians 5:22-23).

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