Saint Benedict is uncompromising when it comes to the essentials. Monks must pray. They must pray frequently, earnestly, and attentively. They must pray the psalms—all of them. At the same time, however, Saint Benedict is a realist. He has the humility to recognize that his particular style might not be best for everyone. And so he gives his successors permission to adapt the Rule as circumstances dictate.
Herein lies a paradox at the heart of the monastic life: flexibility on the one hand, and uncompromising certainty on the other. Finding this balance is very difficult, and it takes a great deal of practice, wisdom, and humility. The trick is to know which of your convictions are essential and which really ought to be more flexible. As Saint Augustine said, “unity in essentials, freedom in non-essentials, charity in all things.” But it’s hard sometimes to know what’s essential and what isn’t, which is why monks have an abbot and everyone has a bishop. That way, we can be flexible and open-minded without having to worry about compromising our integrity. Put briefly, obedience is where we draw the line.
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