Stoicism & The Rule of St. Benedict: Living a Stoic and Christian Contemplative Life

Stoicism & The Rule of St. Benedict

Angela Gilmour

My very simplistic, grass roots feedback on Stoicism and Christianity is a comparison of my experiences in following the Rule of St Benedict as a member of the Lay Community and my participation in the 2013 Stoic week as part of my personal development.  The resources are from the contemporary paraphrase of the Rule “Always we Begin Again”. St Benedict was born into a world of turbulence and violence in 480CE seventy years after the fall of Rome.  The core values of his rule are Stability, Obedience and Conversion of Life through the practice of openness and transformation.

Overarching Similarities Between Stoicism & Benedictine Spirituality

1. The first aspect of Stoicism, is that each of us has the capacity to make ourselves happy by developing virtues such as wisdom, justice and self control and by broadening our outlook on world.

St Benedict urges his followers to listen with the heart and the mind and to take up the greater weapon of fidelity to a way of living that transcends understanding. The first rule is simply this:

Live this life, and do whatever is done, in a spirit of thanksgiving.

Abandon attempts to achieve security, they are futile.

Give up the search for wealth, it is demeaning.

Quit the search for salvation, It is selfish.

And come to comfortable rest, in the certainty that those who participate in this life, with an attitude of thanksgiving will receive its full promise.

2. The second main aspect of Stoicism that resonates with me is that each human being and animal naturally wants to benefit others by their engagement in life as part of a family, community and as a member of a single brotherhood of like minded people.

St Benedict in the contemporary paraphrase of the Rule “Always we Begin Again” at the beginning of each day, open your eyes to receive the light, of the day, and listen to the voices and sounds that surround you.  Resolve to treat each hour as the rarest of gifts and be grateful for the consciousness that allows you to experience it. Give thanks that our awareness is a present from we know not where, or how, or why

Rise for the joy of the true work that each of us do this day and considerately cheer one another on.

Life will always provide matters for concern.  Each day, however, brings with it reason for joy. Every day carries the potential to bring the experience of heaven; Have the courage to expect good from it.

Be gentle with this life and use the light of life, to live fully in your time.

3. The third aspect of Stoicism is Human Sociology and the understanding that our beliefs inform emotions and desires and that the more we understand the more we are able to change.

Mainstream psychology and related disciplines have traditionally treated belief as if it were the simplest form of mental representation and therefore one of the building blocks of conscious thought. Philosophers have tended to be more abstract in their analysis, and much of the work examining the viability of the belief concept stems from philosophical analysis. Benedict was a keen observer of human nature and realised that people often fail.  He was concerned to help the weak and consequently the purpose of the rule was to regulate and arrange all matters that souls may be saved and the brothers may go about their activities without justifiable grumbling.  He looked to the heart and sought a spirit of willingness and sincerity for the reformation and healing of each individual member of the community.

4. The final element of Stoicism that resonates with me is “The View form Above” or stepping out of ourselves and seeing the bigger picture. To be aware of our insignificance in the grand scheme of things to purge us of our over attachment to trivial things by expanding our minds and yet being aware how we as human beings interrelate internationally and that what happens in one part of the world affects the whole.

St. Benedict urged his followers to keep their death very much in mind and to live each day as if it was the last.  One of the most important tools of the rule is to find God (The Logos) in our daily lives, the people we meet and the world around us.  Benedict asks us to live in the present moment. He urges his followers to be respectful of the earth and its creatures and to be aware of how one life connects with others.  To be mindful of the impact of our decisions and habits on people we cannot see.

Stoic Philosophical Exercises and Benedictine Contemplative Practices

Stoic Exercises: Early morning meditation – upon waking take a few moments to compose yourself, rehearse your day ahead and plan how to make yourself a better person whilst accepting some things are beyond your control.  To read a text and pick a philosophical principle or virtue to rehearse and repeat to yourself, then imagine how you would act if you showed more wisdom.

During the day – you should pay attention to how you are living in the present moment.  How are you doing with your goals for the day whilst being gentle but constantly monitoring yourself throughout the day.

Late Evening Meditation – reckon up each daytime deed and review where you went wrong and what you achieved and what is left undone.  How have you acted and what have you done well.

Benedictine Lay Community Exercises – to help with the “Conversion of Life” members of the Lay Community are encouraged to wake up and give thanks for their life resolving to treat each hour as the rarest of gifts and to joyfully experience the true work that we will do this day respecting the people we come into contact with.  The cornerstone of Benedictine Spirituality is Lectio Divina an ancient form of prayer that encourages us to listen with the ears of our hearts. You need to quietly and calmly read a passage from Scripture or by Philosophical or Spiritual writers. Read the passage through slowly; meditate on what you have read to see if a line or word resonates with you.  Talk to God about the reasons for this resonance and then review the day ahead and how you can use this tool during the day.

During the day – at the end of each task take a minute or two to review how things are progressing.  At lunch time read the passage through again or reflect on the revelation or change you are trying to make and give thanks for your progress or ask for help for your failings. Try to take your meals with family or friends and not alone.  Try to practice moderation in all things. Slow down when you feel overwhelmed and try to ensure each day that you have balance – time for God, time to work, time for yourself and time for each other.

Late Evening – when you prepare for bed review the day.  What has been the best part of the day and what was the worst part of the day and why?  The positives usually outweigh the negatives.  Give thanks for the joy in your life and ask for help with the challenges and forgiveness for our failings but most importantly try to resolve any conflict or grievance “Don’t let the sun go down on your Anger.”

Angela Gilmour is a retired widow living in Surrey, U.K. She has lived and worked in the UK, Africa and South America and still enjoys travelling and experiencing different cultures.  She is a questioning cradle Catholic who learnt at a very early age that the only person who can make you happy is you. 

10 thoughts on “Stoicism & The Rule of St. Benedict: Living a Stoic and Christian Contemplative Life”

  1. Insightful post! I was just reflecting on the similarities between Ignatian Spirituality and Stoicism. I believe all great spiritual practices teach you how to be indifferent to your external world while still being an engaged and productive member of it. The Principle and Foundation of the Exercises of St. Ignatius and Enchiridion one are both wonderful examples of this. Now you add Benedict, well done.

  2. Angela, thank you for such a compassionate and contemplatitive insight into your philosophy for life. Best wishes for continued happiness.

  3. I know this sounds pretentious, but I am a philosopher. Well, I’ve a degree anyway.

    I am following Stoicism Today not as a follower of Stoicism, but as one who does not agree with it (at least in parts); simply if i want to do philosophy I have to read what I agree with or disagree with and try to be critical (in a good sense; not out to destroy). Previous encounters with Stoicism would be Marcus Aurelius and Boethius; not great arguers for their position, I think.

    I found the Benedictine position to be quite interesting – more centred on people than on God. given what little I know of that time, I am surprised he was not executed as a heretic. Don’t pursue faith as it lacks humility.

    Issue I have with Stoicism is that it seems (remember I have read little on it) is that it is rather busy on telling you how to live (more gently than christianity) rather then examining how. How does a committed Stoic react to that? (Looking for arguments or being pointed to the books – I am aware of the Stanford Encyclopedia, but more interested in finding out different views. After all, you may think that Stanford misrepresents Stoicism).

    1. I respect your critical attitude, Seneca actually encouraged critical thinking. But I feel there’s a difference between academic and practical philosohpy. The best argument for Stoicism is when it is helpful in day to day life (for me it is). This is for everyone to find out (by trial and error and practice).

      Having said that, I would recommend William B. Irvine’s book ‘A Guide to the Good Life’ or Donald Robertson’s ‘Teach yourself Stoicism’.

      1. How could I forget about Seneca? Too much concentration on the Greeks, I suppose.

        ‘I feel there’s a difference between academic and practical philosohpy’ is a statement most academic philosophers would take issue with, for an extreme example, Peter Singer, who may the best example of someone who follows what he says, but most of the academics (within the limits of being human) would follow what they say.

        ‘The best argument for Stoicism is when it is helpful in day to day life (for me it is). This is for everyone to find out (by trial and error and practice)’. It is also (of course) the most difficult to convey to other persons (at least to those of us who want arguments, it is. I have no doubt that Stoicism can help with facing the challenges of living, but then is it not part of ‘being British’, that is, facing adversity without a great public display of emotions (or is that just a caricature of Stoicism).

        Thank you for your comments and for the book recommendations.

  4. Thank you for a very interesting post. I find fascinating the similarities between the stoic exercises and the rules of st Benedict. It is obvious that much of the ideas behind monastic life were borrowed from ancient philosophical schools, mainly Stoicism. However, I wonder how compatible are the ideals of Stoicism with the Christian faith to you. As a former Catholic beliver , I have practised some spiritual exercises in monastic communities in the past. I found following the rules deeply engaging and much in communion with the cycles of nature, in particular with the daily hours and the seasons of the Christian Calendar.
    However, I always struggled with the acceptance of the root of the faith, that is the idea of a personal God who came to Earth in human form in a particular historic time to save Humanity. I always found strange the idea of sin and forgiveness, in the sense that it seemed to condone all forms of moral excesses if you truly repented and believed in the tale of this particular God (or set of Gods) . In a sense much of the christian spirituality seems to me to be centered in getting you closer to this God as a real personal entitiy. I have found the practice of stoicism, in my limited experience, as a way of getting in communion with my true self and with Nature, but not as a personification but as an entity far beyond the constraints of our little planet, our evanescent culture or our sense of Justice. We came from it and we will return to it but there is no need for a reward in the form of an eternal life, as we can make our life as perfect as it can be by accepting ourselves and using Reason to distinguish between good and evil.
    In any case I am sure that you are deeply sincere in your approach and I have the utmost respect for your beliefs.

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