In his novitiate conferences on the Rule of Saint Benedict, Thomas Merton introduces young men embarking on monastic life to the guiding document of that life. He emphasizes the importance of considering the Rule from a perspective that is neither narrowly legalistic nor overly intellectualized, but marked rather by commitment to the goal of Benedictine monasticism, which is not just to obey the Rule but to love and serve God. The Benedictine life, according to Merton, is "simply living the Gospel without fanfare. . . . The mainspring of everything in St. Benedict is the love of Christ—in Himself, in the poor, in the monastic community, in the individual brethren. . . . This is the key to the monastic life and spirit." Merton gives particular attention to the prologue, in which he finds "the theological foundation of the whole spiritual doctrine of St. Benedict"; key chapters on the abbot and the monastic community, including consideration of monastic work, spiritual reading, and poverty; and especially chapter 7, on the degrees of humility, which he considers the heart of the entire Rule. In these conferences, Merton presents a spiritual commentary on the Rule that provides insight both on his role as a director of prospective young monks and on the foundation of his own commitment to monastic and contemplative life.
Patrick F. O'Connell is associate professor in the departments of English and theology at Gannon University, Erie, Pennsylvania. A founding member of and former president of the International Thomas Merton Society, he edits The Merton Seasonal and is coauthor (with William H. Shannon and Christine M. Bochen) of The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia. He has edited three previous volumes of Thomas Merton’s monastic conferences for the Monastic Wisdom series: Cassian and the Fathers; Pre-Benedictine Monasticism; and An Introduction to Christian Mysticism.