1 The monks are to sleep in separate beds. 2 They receive bedding as provided by the abbot, suitable to monastic life. 3 If possible, all are to sleep in one place, but should the size of the community preclude this, they will sleep in groups of ten or twenty under the watchful care of seniors. 4 A lamp must be kept burning in the room until morning. 5 They sleep clothed, and girded with belts or cords; but they should remove their knives, lest they accidentally cut themselves in their sleep. 6 Thus the monks will always be ready to arise without delay when the signal is given; each will hasten to arrive at the Work of God before the others, yet with all dignity and decorum. 7 The younger brothers should not have their beds next to each other, but interspersed among those of the seniors. 8 On arising for the Work of God, they will quietly encourage each other, for the sleepy like to make excuses.
Commentary by Philip Lawrence, OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert
In the previous chapter, Saint Benedict talks about dividing the monks so that they can be under the care of deans. Here his preference is clearly that they all sleep in one room–but if it is necessary, again they can be divided and sleep in smaller groups.
One of the aspects of this chapter and the previous chapter is that monks should have seniors guiding them. In the Rule of the Master, from which Saint Benedict takes so much, it almost seems as if one cannot trust the monks. In the Rule of Benedict, it seems more that Saint Benedict wants to try to keep the discipline strong and clear. Saint Benedict seems to recognize the weakness of the monks and goes about structuring his monastery so that there is a clear discipline. On the other hand, his way of treating of the faults of the monks seems to indicate that there would always be a challenge in keeping the discipline and that monks would always fail.
This seems to be a clear and strong experience from monasteries throughout all of monastic history. There is the challenge of a strong discipline and the other challenge of not making the monastic life so uptight that there is no room for faults to happen.
Another point that we can hear in this chapter is that the monks of Saint Benedict’s time really have no privacy at all. They pray together, they eat together, the sleep in the same room, they will do lectio together, etc., That they sleep without knives is to avoid accidents. That they sleep clothed is so that they are always ready to rise and pray. We hear again this strong emphasis from the Rule on being ready to pray and giving oneself over to prayer.
At the end of this Chapter, we find the admonition to quietly encourage one another because the sleep make excuses. Life has not changed at all in this aspect. This is another instance of Saint Benedict recognizing human weakness and dealing with it ever so gently.
May we too pursue a strong and disciplined monastic life even while we always treat the faults and failings of others with gentleness and compassion.