unHagiography: what modern-day social innovators can learn from the life and times of St. Benedict

At yesterday’s call, @Bembo Davies tried to make parallels between the protagonists of early monasticism and individual modern-day unMonasterians (“are you St. Francis?” “Huh…”). This prompted me to look into that particular piece of history in search for good stories and inspiration – therefore proving that you don’t need to be religious to be inspired by the lives of the saints!

I eschewed Francis (too charismatic for comfort) and zeroed in on St. Benedict, regarded by many as the founder of Western Monasticism. And sure enough, Benedict’s life and times provide plenty of good advice to anybody wishing to start or join an unMonastery. Even a cursory glance will tell you that:

1. Benedict was evidence-oriented. He did experiments and trusted their results. Far from being entrenched in his belief, he appears to be worlds away from a bureaucratic style of management: his leadership style is nothing if not adaptive. According to St. Gregory, he first tries to live in a cave as a hermit; later accepts to become the abbot of a monastery in the neighborhood, but does not do such a great job (“the experiment failed: the monks tried to poison him” – source); he then proceeds to establish his own first monastery at Subiaco, fragmenting the community of monks into 12 independent mini-monasteries of 12 monks each; later yet, he organizes the Monte Cassino monastery on completely different principles, with all monks under the same roof. Modern-day unMonasterians can do worse than copy his try-fail-mutate-iterate heuristics.

2. Benedict valued and prioritized action over idle disputes. Ora et labora, pray and work, was his precept. Working is, for Benedict, the only possible path to a good, meaningful life; anything else has too much temptation and restlessness in it. When in doubt, his followers are given tools, shown a lawn to trim or a tree to fell and told to get on with it. Good, solid people don’t set out to Change The World: that would be an arrogant stance, surely inspired by the devil (I’m looking at you, Silicon Valley). God can flatten any work of man at any moment by crashing a comet onto planet Earth or something, so Benedict’s crew works for the inherent pleasure and meaning of making good, clever, beautiful things. This strategy ended up giving them (and the Western world) monasteries as centers of production, healing, learning and hospitality; monks came to be regarded as the Christian ideal. Nowadays, unMonasterians toil away to build hacks not because they really think they can defeat the apocalypse, but because it’s the right thing to do and it’s fun. And you never know, we could even win.

3. Benedict protocolized. While at Monte Cassino, he writes the Rule as a guide to people wishing to live together in a monastery. The Rule is really a remarkable document, that unMonasterians (especially those leading new settlements) would do well to spend some time brooding over. If you have any experience with online community management, you will find the Rule eerily familiar: it has roles with different levels of access and authorization (abbott, cellarer, brethren); a moderation policy to prevent flame wars from distracting monks for doing God’s work (and their own); a very modern idea of the higher echelons as a service to the rank-and-file monks, rather than as their lords. Most importantly, the Rule does not specify a set of goals and activities to reach them: it never says “build a library and a scriptorium and start copying manuscripts to preserve knowledge as the Roman Empire goes down in flames”, or “build extra space to lodge travelers, since the Early Middle Ages are low on inns”. Yet, benedictine monasteries did end up doing those things and others: following the Rule can result in many outcomes, all beneficials from the point of view of Benedict and his crew. Most of them could not possibly have been foreseen by Benedict himself. Since it is a document of instructions, the Rule is software; since it does not carry out a specific task but enables a variety of mutually consistent outcomes, it is not an app. The Rule is a protocol. And what a protocol! It spread all over the world; arguably transformed (mostly for the better) Middle Ages Europe; is still in use after a millennium and a half; and has spread beyond the Catholic church (it is used in some Orthodox and even Lutheran contexts). I can’t think of many other protocols with that kind of track record. Benedict may have been the Supreme Ninja Mage Lord Protocol Hacker of all time.

4. Benedict decentralized. Consistently with the protocol nature of the Rule (and, one suspects, with his own mindset as a protocol hacker), Benedict never actually founded an order. Benedictines are not an order in a strict sense; each monastery is a sovereign institution, with no hierarchy among them. The Rule acts as a communication protocol across monasteries. As a result, many flavors of benedictine abbeys evolved over the centuries (for example the Camaldolese) by mutation and natural selection – this was explicitely enabled by the Rule, which declares itself as “only a beginning” in its final chapter, much in the fashion of TCP/IP being “only a beginning” for, say, video streaming. Mutation, however, did not always result in outright speciation. Most benedictine houses federated loosely into national or supra-national congregations starting in the early 14th century; and in fact Pope Leo XIII was able to establish a Benedictine Confederation chaired by an Abbott General without the whole thing blowing over. This happened in 1893 – 1300+ years after the writing of the Rule!

5. Benedict avoided sterile conflict – and so went viral. My research has been very amateurish – literally a day’s project, but I could not find evidence of power struggles between the early monastic movement of the 6th century and the Church’s hierarchy. Instead of going for Vatican politics, Benedict appears to have focused on running things at home in Monte Cassino and distributing copies of the Rule to whoever wanted one. As a result, more and more people adopted the Rule for their own monastery projects. This way, no one had to waste time negotiating who would be in whose order, who would be the Abbot General and who a second-echelon abbott and stuff like that. The Rule was (still is) good, solid, open source software. People obtained a copy and went about their way. People who used it were more likely to run a successful monastery than people who did not; and so, by the time of Charlemagne, all Europe was infrastructured with successful monasteries running on the Rule. Unlike what happened, say, to the Franciscans, there was no need to do politics to get the church to accept the new movement. Indeed, Pope Gregory I the Great (got the top job in 590, a mere 50 years after Benedict’s death) was himself a monk and endorsed liberally monasticism (he is often called the co-founder of Western Monasticism). This adoption pattern will be familiar to the likes of (Linux’s) Linus Torvalds and (Wikipedia’s) Jimmy Wales.

There is something in studying the lives of saints, after all. UnMonasterians could do worse than devote some serious time in studying the benedictine ways as a protocol for societal impact in social innovation. This consists of the Rule (software), the physical arrangement of the monasteries and abbeys (for example, single cells for monks to sleep in are a part of the protocol governing monastic life that is encoded in stone walls rather than in the Rule), and the history of how it all played out. The church has had hagiography (literature on the lives of saints) for a long time as a path to inspiration, and it might be unMonasterians could use their own unHagiography. Something for a session at lote3, maybe?

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Bravo - most useful inquiry

A brilliant cross-fertilisation that brings much nourishment to our as yet unknown tradition.  Long may we ferment thus.

​This is yet another example of the richness of working within an imagative matrix that is so full of historical associations.  Mining the metaphor for useful, applicible wisdom.

Of course, the entire unMo is predicated upon a miracle or two, if it has to be accompanied by the heavens revealing themselves unto us puny mortals, so be it.

Most definately this should expand into an unMo session:  Re-booting Tradition.

The single cell solution echos a suggestion that has been spoken about somewhere - although I expect that excavating our own lies beyond our mandate.

One practical thing whilst I have your ear: at some point yesterday, you used the example of an installation of an industrial-size dish washer.  This awoke a concern: we were warned about the humidity problems with the sassi dwellings; such a machine needs state of the art ventilation and/or an appropriate technology alternative mega-fix which at the same time allows for human inhabitation throughout the complex - Painting the walls with a silica gel solution or something.  Perhaps the electron accellerator at Cern has faced similar subterranean climatic challenges?

Yes it was indeed me contributing to the hosts wanted for LOTE#3 space page anonymously; I started writing before logging in or something, and couldn’t find an editing function to go in and fix things … Thanks.

And if you want to play the game…

(I mean, the vaguely role-playing game in which each of us adopts a protagonist of the monastic movement) … I feel closest to Gregory: a monk as a young man, goes into a foray in the Church’s hierarchy (he got a gig as Pope Pelagius II’s apocrisiarius – a sort of diplomat – to the Western Emperor’s Court in Ravenna), tries to go back to being a monk, is dragged back into the hierarchy, still manages to spend some time writing and studying. Most of what we know of Benedict’s life we know from Gregory’s Dialogues! Should I need to choose a role, I would be a sort of lower-grade Gregory, trying to bridge the gap between the mainstream and the (un)movement.

Amazing Post

This is truly a brilliant post Alberto. I wanted to make a quick reply to flag two essential pieces of reading that I’m currently working through.

I too have been delving into the metaphor and seeking to understand the Rule. The more I read the more I realise that what the unMonastery is seeking to manifest is very much grounded in the emergence of monastic life, as this realisation grows it’s beginning to feel less like unMonastery and more like reMonastery. In some sense at least.

Two books that strike at the core of this thinking is Agamben’s The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form-of-Life, Bembo yours is in the post. Then this http://www.strelka.com/press_en/less-is-enough/?lang=en > LESS IS ENOUGH by Pier Vittorio Aureli. Both of which are very recent and I would at some point, perhaps during the time of unMonastery in Matera like to invite both of them to speak at our new home.

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This is really great stuff

I’m really enjoying the bent of this. Andrew Taggart, another fellow traveller (Dark Mountain contributor and more) has much to say on St Benedict:


Reading again, I am taken by this section:

The last motif, which also calls for phronesis, is perhaps the most vexing and least accessible in abstract terms. A robust institution can persist only if students are able to make progress, external challenges can be met, and leaders new and old can maintain their legitimacy. Simmer-Brown points out that a monastery is unlike a representative democracy or a monarchy in that legitimacy is conferred upon a new superior through some collective assent to the wisdom of whoever—regardless of age, “expertise,” or qualifications—embodies wisdom. However, since neither popularity nor lineage can grant legitimate au- thority, the transfer of power is always uneasy and potentially disastrous. Here, practitioners showed good sense, offering no pat solutions or potted guidelines; individually and collectively, they recognized the need for in situ conversations.

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Perhaps it is useful …


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Buy a book? I’m ok thanks :slight_smile:

Great to have you back!

[Jorge Couchet], long time no see. Welcome back :slight_smile:

And [Alex Fradera], I don’t think we’ve met but I know who you are through mutual friends. Looking forward to more exchanges :slight_smile:

Ah, Alberto! Good to ‘see’ you - actually we have met, at the last edgemeeting in Brussels, where I worked on the first pass of the unMonastery content :slight_smile:

It’s certainly come a way since!

Whoops, right

You are right, [Alex Fradera], of course. Nadia reminded me of your role in #LOTE2. And yes, the unMonastery is certainly picking up steam. Are you going to apply for the residencies?

The challenge …

Thanks! A bit busy lately :slight_smile:

The “challenge format” is interesting and also the topic being discussed.  Open Ideo belongs to IDEO (a kind of creative agency) and the challenges are a crowdsourced way to get inspiration from people in order to atack some problems …

Not sure about challenges

I know about IDEO, and even know someone who works there. I am no fan of the challenges format, because they tend to be exploitative and waste a colossal amount of time if the challenger does not put skin in the game of you (as the challenged person) addressing it. The Stanford Social Innovation Review has a paper making this point forcefully and, for me convincingly.  The unMonastery does relatively well on this account, because it offers something for your time: bed, board, a social role as innovator-in-residence in a real-life community, and the company of smart and dedicated fellow unMonasterians.

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Great post…

Thanks for this…it is the kind of analysis/synthesis that makes me happy to be a part of Edgeryders.

ahhh - the blessings of doing ones homework

Ben’s re-monastery is useful; I was moving towards neo monastery.

By all means let us mine the threads of Catholicism for all they are worth; in addition I’m going to take a peak at the pre-christian tradition.  After all, if palaeolithic hermits have been camped out along the Gravina, we have a lot of digging to do.

I was interrogating a friend the other day: she regularily returned home to Vietnam and usually took a stint of a week or two in the buddhist monasteries that dot the country.  In their tradition, the major administrative decision is to appoint the calmest, happiest monk to lead the kitchen work…

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Snippets of Monastic Wisdom

What a great post by Alberto and an interesting discussin that followed. Gaia in her post wrote this: “The job of the unMonasterians is now to work hard and be nice to each other – not too light a request when living and working in the same space as up to ten people for up to four months.”

While visiting the Stony Point Center, a multi-faith intentional community I was given a book called “Essential Monastic Wisdom. Writings on the Contemplative Life”, written by Hugh Feiss [Order of St. Benedict]. It includes quotes on issues like Mutual Support, Work, Peace, Simplicity, Authority, Hospitality, et al. Shall it be interesting / worthwhile for the unMonasterians, I would be happy to share on a regular basis (say 2-3 times a week) an excerpt from the book. I figured this would be better than shipping the book to Matera. I will give you a small sample below.

“There’s to be acceptance to people that come from very different places (using this metaphorically as well as literaly). There is to be willingness to hear “reasonable criticisms or observations” and to learn from the example of others…In a world that builds barriers, puts up walls, keeps the other ut, and is looking for certainty, we turn to the Rule and find a man who insists on balance, mutual respect, reciprocity, openess. [Benedict]…refused to live with a clsed mind.”      Esther de Waal, A Life-giving Way

“Complaining is the acid that shrivels our own sould and the sould of the community around us as well”          Sr. Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict

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Look who’s come home!

[TOOLosophy], great to hear from you! Sure, snippets of monastic wisdom are always a good thing for the people trying to bring you the unMonastery. So what have you been up to? Got another ryde to share? :slight_smile:


As unMonk at the moment in Matera i would love that you would do this! :slight_smile: Thank you!

That makes 2 of us :slight_smile:

I agree with [Cristiano Siri] - the ones you’ve shared already have been quite apt!

Good to see you in these parts again [Toolosophy] when might you pay us a visit?

Tough Ryde, Good TImes

Hey guys!

Thank you all for the responses. I’m happy to do this.

  1. Where do you think would be the best place to post the passages from the book so that it has enough visibilty, accessibity? Shall I keep writing in this thread, create a new one, post on the unMnastery FB page, or else?

  2. The book (obviously) has many references to God. I don’t know the team’s views of faith/spritual stuff so I’ll try to have some sort of ballance in the quotes I will select. Given the fact  that unMon is a secular project, in some instances the G word can work a substitute for community/local population. After all, everthing is up for enterpretation anyways.

  3. I would love to be a part of the unMon team. I have applied for the first call, but since then have realized that there are far more suitable awesome people to make a real difference on the ground. At the moment I don’t think I have the necessary skills and experience to do it. But if I can be of help from the internet in a way or another, I am glad to do it!

  4. Alberto, no big ryde worth mentining, but a route I am trying to map out and ryde it! I am drafting an email to you long enught to explain what I want to do and ask for advice and short enough not to bore you.

Some ideas

Hi [TOOLosophy]!

For question 1 I would suggest to create a new wiki inside the unMonastery group, where you 2-3 times a week post an excerpt, editing the wiki and adding it on the bottom as the example in the end of this comment.

For question 2 I would go not modifying the original text. It will be then each one interpretation to feel what is God for her.

Thank you! :slight_smile:

13 february excerpts

“There’s to be acceptance to people that come from very different places (using this metaphorically as well as literaly). There is to be willingness to hear “reasonable criticisms or observations” and to learn from the example of others…In a world that builds barriers, puts up walls, keeps the other ut, and is looking for certainty, we turn to the Rule and find a man who insists on balance, mutual respect, reciprocity, openess. [Benedict]…refused to live with a clsed mind.”

 Esther de Waal, A Life-giving Way

“Complaining is the acid that shrivels our own sould and the sould of the community around us as well”

Sr. Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict

17 february excerpts

“There’s to be acceptance to people that come from very different places (using this metaphorically as well as literaly). There is to be willingness to hear “reasonable criticisms or observations” and to learn from the example of others…In a world that builds barriers, puts up walls, keeps the other ut, and is looking for certainty, we turn to the Rule and find a man who insists on balance, mutual respect, reciprocity, openess. [Benedict]…refused to live with a clsed mind.”

 Esther de Waal, A Life-giving Way

“Complaining is the acid that shrivels our own sould and the sould of the community around us as well”

Sr. Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict