Chapter 22: how the monks are to sleep


All the monks shall sleep in separate beds.

Why are you making this more complicated than it needs to be?

When I first read this chapter I was struck by how context is important when reading this document.

What is being described by St. Benedict in this chapter seems very odd to my modern brain and to enforce this on modern day monks would be a bigger deal than St. Benedict seems to be giving it credit.

If possible they should all sleep in one room.

They will sleep in their robes, belted but with no knives.

The younger brothers should not be next to each other. Rather their beds should be interspersed with those of their elders.

Each suggestion brings with it big questions:

Why do you need to even mention that monks sleep in separate beds or even that they not take knives to bed?

Why sleep in one room? Surely then you’d not need to be concerned about elders interspersing younger monks; I’m guessing they are likely to talk into the night!

So here is some context that has helped me to feel settled and to hear what God is saying through St. Benedict.

In Europe in those days it was uncommon for average people to have their own bedrooms. Families slept in one room. It was a luxury even for parents to have their own private room. Monasteries were a spiritual family and did pretty much the same thing… By our modern standards nothing was terribly private in Benedict’s cenobitical monasteries…They also slept fully clothed. This was to keep them ready to rise to meet Jesus in prayer at vigils around two or three o’clock in the morning…Few people actually had nightclothes in those days. The average person slept in regular clothes and used his cloak as a cover. The monks were no different. (John Michael Talbot, Blessings of St. Benedict (Minnesota: Order of Saint Benedict, 2011) p.23)

In those days sleeping arrangements were different and therefore the view of bedrooms was different. Today we see a bedroom as a private space, one that, generally speaking, is considered deeply intimate and personal. Teenagers become possessive over this space, demanding privacy and solitude. The clutter and mess is allowed in that space because they have authority and ownership over it.

None of these issues of privacy and solitude would be raised in a monastery at the time of St. Benedict but other concerns were being addressed. These seem so alien to us and from our different culture/context it seems the solution would be to change in line with our modern approach. Indeed that is what modern monasteries have done. The issues being raised here, I think, are the probability of younger, un-disciplined monks talking together late at night and then not being able to get up to pray. Also the issue of unity and familial understanding of the monastery; the fact that this chapter follows the chapter on the appointment of deans with its implicit sense of hierarchy beyond Abbot and monk is telling, I think.


The Family not The Business

I am more convinced that the major issue with the Church of England at the moment is that we are discovering the cost of treating the Body of Christ like a business/institution. I have explored this distinction between organism and organisation before and continue to see how this conversation needs to be had and acted on. The monastery, in the Rule of St. Benedict, is seen more in terms of organic and familial. This does not mean that there is not structure or guidelines but these are more flexible and therefore useful.

If we treat a church in the terms of business then hierarchy rules and is the structure in which we exist. This brings with it questions of power and authority and people’s roles define them rather than their character and relationships with others. Someone is treated a certain way because of what they do rather than how they are known and they invest in relationship. Leaders then become figures treated with suspicion and thus are forced to assert authority or earn trust and respect. From this sense of needing to justify their position we get the whole culture of models of leadership that are systematised and objective.

I find the thought of hierarchy and the way authority is expressed within it difficult and, at worst, abusive. I baulk at its imposition upon me and obedience is not easy. Obedience in the familial settings seems more understandable to me and I wonder if others in my generation feel the same. I wonder if this is at the heart of why ‘millenials’ (or whatever you want to call people my age) struggle with the church (see ‘Chapter 5: obedience‘ post). I wonder if it is not the content of our worship or the beliefs we explore and journey with but the way we structure ourselves that put them off. What if they were invited to be a part of a community akin to a large family? There would be the authority figures within that community which were not enforced but emerged like any family. There would be those that were elected to teach and those who were looked to to organise but all would be natural and organic.

It is natural, when entering a new community or family, to be tentative and inquisitive. It feels wrong to enter it and demand you are heard and that everything should change to fit you but equally there is an organic process that is usually assumed within families that new members are accommodated but there is a natural order to family life as to authority and power. This image of the church as family comes naturally to me but it has been abused by the church as we stress the ‘family of God’ image but live out a ‘business of God’ model.

I’ll finish with this short piece written by the Lindisfarne Community:

Leadership in monastic communities was traditionally by the Abbot or Abbess (in the desert tradition Abba and Amma), meaning father or mother. In other words, leadership was seen to be of a familial relationship rather than, say, the hierarchy of military order or, as we would have it today, the bureaucratic efficiency of the modern business corporation. Monastic community is more akin to an extended family with parental care and oversight.

Of course, in the ancient world obedience to parental authority was a primary requirement and in the ancient Rules were rigorously enforced. Modern sensibilities find those practices too strict, not to say psychologically damaging. Nonetheless, the notion of spiritual parenting remains valid if reinterpreted through the lens of our modern social construction of the parental task: unconditional love and care, setting an example, creating boundaries in which to exercise freedom, a wise and gentle correction when necessary.

Abbots and Abbesses in their turn, were in relationship with bishops who acted as spiritual advisers to the monastic community. This practice of mutual accountability is much needed as a counter to contemporary radical individualism.


How do we recapture the organic understanding of the church? How does a parish church become, for those without a family environment to flourish within, ‘home’, with all its instinctive distribution of authority and participation? How do we re-structure or re-imagine the church to release these natural gifts of God as He portray in Scripture? I would suggest it starts with those who currently sit in authority.

For those who find themselves higher on the hierarchical ladder to step down and take the bold move of following Christ who did not consider equality with God something to be grasped. It takes someone who is perceived by others to hold power to relinquish and hand it over, to surrender it and live out, radically, vulnerability and intimacy in relationship. This is highly costly but I get the sense that it is what God wants of His church for today.

Loving Father, you welcome us into your family as heirs of your Kingdom and as adopted children. You encourage us to take our place and to participate in the working of this family. You hold us and teach us as we grow and learn. We are sorry for what we’ve made your church. Help us, particularly those of us who perpetuate the hierarchical divisions that have seemed necessary, to risk relationship above position and to live out the organic and familial images that you spoke through your Son Jesus Christ, who said the Kingdom of God is like a Father who had two sons…

Come, Lord Jesus.