23.2.15

Minimalist Monday: 10 Simplifying Lessons from The Rule of St. Benedict

Whether you're Christian or not, some interesting insights can be gained from The Rule of St. Benedict. For those constantly overwhelmed by physical possessions, internal clutter and society's spiralling superfluity, The Rule of St. Benedict, can be a mighty tool towards living a happier and more minimalistic lifestyle.

So, who was St. Benedict and how can his spirituality help those aspiring to minimalism today?

Benedict was a 6th century monk from Nursia near Rome, who first lived as a hermit before establishing various monasteries and writing a Rule to guide monastic living. His Rule is still used today in many monasteries and convents as well as being followed by many lay people.

Whilst many Christians practise the traditions of fasting, prayer and giving to charity during the forty days of Lent, the Benedictine way of life is like a permanent Lenten journey. At the heart of St. Benedict's Rule is his message to listen to God's voice in the everyday. However, Benedictine life is not about total abstinence. Instead it's about moderation, humility and serving others. 

Some UK readers may remember that the Benedictine way of life was the subject of two BBC TV series The Monastery and The Big Silence broadcast about ten years ago. The aim of these projects was to enable people from different walks of life and different religions or non-religions to experience monastic life for a sustained period of time and thus to reveal to the participants and viewers new insights into their inner lives and spirituality. 

I didn't watch the TV series at the time – I was probably too busy collapsing in front of something far less meaningful on the box after a demanding day working and dealing with my own two young children, if I remember correctly - but the results were fascinating and can be read here. Similar TV series were later broadcast in the USA and Australia. 

Now, whilst we can't easily give up our current lives to seek spiritual guidance in a Benedictine community there are simple ways we can incorporate St. Benedict's ideas and values into our everyday lives.

Eat simply - Eat modest amounts of simple food but always have enough to share with visiting guests. The Benedictine ideal is neither affluence nor poverty. 

Set limits - Live in a minimalistic but comfortable home. Have just enough clothes to meet your needs.

Live an alternative non-consumerist lifestyle – Don't be afraid to be counter-cultural. St. Benedict preferred solitude to the decadence of society and was determined to live out the gospel in the midst of a complex world.

Embrace humility – Stop chasing perfection and recognise both your human weaknesses and your capacity for greater self-knowledge. Don't expect reward and recognition for everything you do. Being humble doesn't have to mean losing your self-confidence. 

Seek quiet – Disconnect from technology more. Just as Jesus withdrew to a quiet place to pray and escape the busy social whirl of his ministry, Benedictine life can teach us the value of moments of quiet contemplation in our age of multimedia communication. Learn to appreciate the beauty of nature and make time for moments of silence and stillness as much as you can. 

Be a good household manager - Many of St. Benedict’s ideas for running a monastery make good sense: to value and respect basic commodities such as water, to look after all created things, to not be wasteful and to repair things and recycle as much as possible. 

Limit your possessions - And as for personal challenges beloved of many minimalists (100 less things, Project 333) St. Benedict can teach us a thing or two! Each Lent it's customary for monks to submit a list of their personal possessions (a poverty bill) to the abbot as a means of examining their relationship to stuff and also to assess what they can live without. Modern Benedictine communities value and enjoy the usefulness of possessions yet practise restraint in terms of attachment and ownership. Ultimately, personal ownership is seen as a vice because material things derive from God's creation. 

Respect other faiths – Benedictine followers have great respect for different Christian traditions, other faiths and an openness to sharing their lives with the non-religious. They have strong links with Buddhist monks whilst recognising their differences. Different faiths can learn from each other, find common paths and unite through prayer. 

Cultivate discipline – Don't be put off by the discipline of monastic life – it doesn't come easily to the monks at first. Instead try improving your self-discipline in incremental steps. If you feel you need to stop bad habits do so gradually. Reduce sugar from your diet one foodstuff at a time, don't cut out alcohol completely but practise moderate drinking instead. As you cut out these distractions and obstacles gradually you'll slowly encounter the keys to unlocking what's been stopping you seeking ultimate fulfilment. 

Give something up for a day – Paula Huston's Simplifying the Soul: Lenten Practices to Renew Your Spirit gives imaginative daily prompts useful to anyone interested in trying out St. Benedict's ideas. Paula Huston is an American author and Benedictine oblate (a lay Christian who is associated with a Benedictine community). Each day in Lent there is a simplifying idea to try (clear out a junk drawer, scrub a dirty corner) followed by guidance on how to go about each simplifying act together with thoughts on how they might enrich your spirituality. I like the variety of the daily actions. Doing something extra (invite a lonely person in for tea and conversation) or giving something up (email, TV) for just one day seems more interesting and easier to follow than giving up one thing for the duration of Lent. Also, by doing so many different acts hopefully there will be less sense of failure  and new lessons and habits may be borne. And there's no reason why these practices can't be followed outside of Lent.


Early church tradition is rich in the wisdom of soul simplification and offers a multitude of spiritual disciplines to counteract the temptations that muddles our lives. ~ Paula Huston


Abbot Christopher Jamison who featured on the The Monastery has since written two books Finding Sanctuary and Finding Happiness. The message of his books is similar to the findings of the TV series: seeking happiness through consumption and chasing status is not a successful route to long lasting fulfilment. Rather, discipline, moderation and simple pleasures are 'stepping stones to steady our nerve as we make our choices about where to go next in search of happiness.'

The Rule of St. Benedict is accessible to anyone regardless of their religious beliefs. It certainly offers some fresh new ideas to ponder and try out if simplicity's your thing.




Simplicity is harder to follow than fashion but a far more rewarding journey.   


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21 comments :

  1. Wearing humility with pride. Right on trend! If you really want to 'simplify' it's easy, just give up the life you have (if it is so heavy and weighs you down so), give away your possessions and belongings and do good works and give to those far less fortunate than yourself. You wouldn't be burdened with all your stuff then would you? Why not give your excess salary away by sponsoring a child in a developing country? Not going to do that though I bet. We don't need lessons on how to run our lives I think. Thanks all the same. Just lead by example rather than dictate as an authority, its far more effective than inflating ones ego and less see through this this superfluous waffle which is just like watching the money lenders in the temple. But then is 'simplicity really your thing'? Probably not.

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    1. Easy there, cowboy. No one is "telling you how to run your life." It's a blog on simplifying. If it's not really your "thing" go read something else. Don't know what you're pissed at, but I bet it's not St. Benedict.

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    2. The first comment puzzles me. If you don't like the blog, don't read it. Not sure why you felt the need to comment - seems like an unnecessary (and unproductive) vent. Perhaps we all could sometimes reflect on why we do things before we do them. It would make the world a more pleasant place as I hope the first person in this string wouldn't have pressed 'publis' had she/he done so. Personally I found the blog interesting and thought-provoking, even if I didn't necessarily agree with all of it. I am the wiser for having read it, so 'thank you' from me, Claire.

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  2. Well, I appreciate any thoughts from all areas/religions. I don't follow any particular religion but am still interested in what people have to say and their views. If every one was the same, it would indeed be a boring world!
    I did not feel dictated too, rather given suggestions. Thank you for this thought provoking post.

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  3. A post that really made me think, and the idea of giving up something different each day throughout the period of Lent sounds so much more fulfilling than struggling to give up one thing.

    I noticed at our housewarming party yesterday two of the guests were talking about what they had given up for Lent, one was struggling and one had already succumbed to temptation, how much better if they could have moved on to a different thing each day and kept the thoughts fresh and the motivation high.

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  4. I love this post - and so timely during Lent. Thanks for sharing these thoughts!

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  5. A lovely thought provoking post. Thanks very much.

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  6. I am not religious, and yet I am fascinated by the religious orders - I think they got/get a lot right. Thank you for your perceptive post.
    I think I saw a rerun of that series so will follow with interest what the results were, thanks for the link!

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  7. Hey Claire,
    This post has really helped me today. I have had a difficult time of late, and am sinking under the weight of stuff. Literally and metaphorically. I have saved this, and feel sure that I will return to it often. Your blogs always comforts and calms me. Thank you.
    Leanne xx

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  8. Thanks for a thought provoking post Claire. I think the Anonymous poster above has some serious hostile issues that they need to deal with, I have actually no idea what they are on about but just wanted to let you know I enjoyed your post (posts), thanks again.
    Jenni

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  9. Thanks Claire for again providing your readers with "ideas to ponder and try out if simplicity's your thing". I certainly didn't feel I was being dictated to nor did I detect any superfluous waffle. Then again I've read all your posts and know you are generously sharing the ideas, influences and resources you discover on your journey without preaching or promoting yourself as a faultless example of minimalism or anything else.

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  10. Hi Claire, many thanks for such a thoughtful and interesting post. One I will come back to from time to time, I know.
    All good wishes
    Deborah

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  11. I love your post, thank you for such an interesting view of St. Benedict's ideas and values :)

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  12. in answer to no 1 comment, your opinion is totally extreme and aggressively written. over the time Claire has written posts on minimalism she has elequontly spoke on all aspects of simplicity. No one would endeavour to take her words to heart if they were written in the same slant as your comment. She is a true inspirational role modal for simplicity,

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  13. I didn't feel dictated to either, so thank you, Claire, for such an interesting post. I think that giving up something different every day is a great idea because I know some very religious people who decide to give up something for Lent each year but fail after a few days. That makes the whole idea pointless, I think. I will try the 'one thing for a day' denial so thank you x

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  14. Hello from Florida. Seeking simplicity & meaning often feels counter-cultural so I appreciate your posts and your readers who value the same ideals. I've been reading up on the Rule of St. Benedict since attending mass at a Benedictine monastery a few months ago. I've been trying to listen for God's voice. Sometimes my hearing leaves a lot to be desired.

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  16. I liked this thought provoking post. I am not a follower of any specific faith but I "get" spirituality and this has reminded me to tap in to that. Negativity...pah, shake it off!

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  17. The Benedictine community seems to have beautiful, simple values. I imagine you would feel drawn to the depth and stillness of this community especially now Claire. I hope you can find some quiet moments to honour this place with all that has happened. Take care, Heather X

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  18. What a fascinating post. I have found it very interesting reading. (Mrs L H)

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  19. Wonderful post Claire, thank you. I have recently finished reading Alain de Botton's 'Religion for Atheists' and this post ties in beautifully. I was brought up in and surrounded by religiosity and faith. Though I no longer subscribe to some of the dogma I respect the essence of the message and the feeding of a person's spiritual need. St Benedict had a beautiful message that shouldn't be lost. Thank you.

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Thanks for reading and leaving your comments. Keep in touch xo