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History, Twentieth-century Changes, Monasticism As The Institutional Matrix Of Spirituality, What Do We Know About St. Benedict?

The "idea of monasticism" invites a misconception, because monasticism is not an idea but a practice. It is a discipline of life, encapsulated in a vow to obey a rule. Monasticism is not a theory about the good life, and still less an escape from practicality, but rather a commitment to live according to a rule handed down from a founder. In its classical Western form deriving from St. Benedict (c. 480–547), a rule directs a monastic to spend a lifetime in one cloister under one abbot following one routine. This secluded way of life begets institutions, some of them highly complex, and these in turn nurture the kind of inner life that in the early twenty-first century is called "spirituality." Monastic orthopraxy regulates behavior through conformity to a rule, and contrasts with doctrinal orthodoxy that regulates belief through a magisterium or teaching office. Implausible though it may seem, a rule shields monastics from obsession with theorizing. Day in and day out, monastics live an ethos that others may merely preach. To this extent Christian monasticism resembles Rabbinic Judaism. Both pivot on obeying rules, and both tend to disregard niceties of belief. A crucial difference pertains, however. Whereas Jews affirm that the mandates of Torah come from God, Christians acknowledge that any rule comes from a human lawgiver.

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