Monasteries of the Heart

Monks in Our Midst: Anne McCarthy OSB on The Rule of Benedict as a System to Break Oppressive Patterns 

Is there anything that the 1,500-year-old Rule of Benedict has to say about dismantling oppressive systems like racism and sexism? I believe the answer is yes, when we understand the context. 

Benedict lived in the chaotic, collapsing Roman Empire, a stratified, hierarchical society of privilege and domination, with land-owning men at the top, and servants, women, children, and property at the bottom. The male head-of-house enjoyed rights of citizenship and influence, and was the only voice and authority on all matters regarding his land and property. 

In the midst of this society, Benedict organized a monastic community based on relationships of equality and love, where citizens and servants lived together. To avoid replicating society’s oppressive structures inside the monastery, Benedict needed a system that would break down oppressive patterns. 

The structure he created is an anti-oppressive system of rank based solely on the date and time of entrance into the monastery, not on wealth or prior status or position. An illiterate peasant who entered one day was recognized as senior to a wealthy official who arrived the following day. This ranking is not a new hierarchy of domination. There are no perks or privileges accorded to one’s rank, except if there aren’t enough chairs. In that case, the junior monk (one who came to the monastery more recently) gives the chair to the senior who has been there longer. Rank is also used in determining order, for example, when monastics line up in procession they go in rank by date of entrance. 

Need, not rank, is the basis for the distribution of goods. The best food in the monastery goes to the sick who are weak. 

Rank does not determine positions or assignments. Those are based on an individual’s gifts and on the guidance of the spirit. 

Love is the one thing that flows down through Benedict’s rank. He says that as we progress on the monastic path, we are to increase in love, which means seniors who have been in the monastery longer are expected to love more. The seniors are to love their juniors and the juniors are to respect their seniors. 

What can this teach us today in a society rooted in white supremacist and patriarchal worldviews and structures? Our whiteness grants us privilege in access to education, employment, healthcare, and safety of mind and body. White privilege is subtle and deep. In today’s grossly unequal society, Benedict’s teaching calls those of us who benefit from these unjust systems and standards to actively work to change them. 

As white women, we know this experience of injustice from a different perspective, as women in a male-dominated world. Women know what it is to experience oppression, to be overlooked, invisible, silenced, paid less, victimized, and abused. Women of color face the greatest amount of discrimination and oppression, while men, particularly white men, sit atop social stratification. We can use what power and voice we have to advocate against systems of injustice, while following the lead of movements of people of color trying to create a more equitable world. 

What can we learn from Benedict’s anti-domination structure to help us in this struggle? We can apply his lessons to the structures and systems of our lives, our communities and our society. When we are at table, especially decision-making tables, ask, “Who is missing?” And, “How do we include them? What needs to change to ensure that those affected by decisions participate in making them? What policies are widening the growing racial wealth and income gap, and what changes are needed to narrow that gap? What structures would promote racial and gender diversity in applicant pools for employment?” 

Benedict’s teaching compels us to participate in creating and supporting social structures and policies that institute relationships based in equality, respect, and love. 


This piece originally appeared in the Benedictine Sisters of Erie's Fall/Winter 2020 Mount Magazine (pg 8). 



Reflection Questions: 

  1. What does this piece bring up in you?
  2. How have you or how might you create structures or communities based on equality, respect, and love?


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