Benedict and Augustine are two founders of styles of Christian community life. Both wrote a Rule that gave a high degree of form and consistency to religious life in Europe for over 1,000 years. More is learned about both by viewing them in contrast. God and the Church used the differing talents of both these men.
Neither Augustine nor Benedict was the founder of Christian monasticism, since they both lived at least two centuries after its beginnings in Egypt, Palestine, and Asia Minor. Benedict became a monk as a young man and thereafter learned the tradition by associating with monks and reading the monastic literature. Benedict was caught up in the monastic movement but ended by channelling the stream into new and fruitful ways. This is evident in the Rule which he wrote for monasteries and which was and is still used in many monasteries and convents around the world today.
The Benedictine tradition was the dominant form of vowed religious community life in Europe from the seventh to at least the eleventh century. Benedict lived from approximately 480 to 547. Scholars debate the dating of the Rule of Benedict, though they generally agree that it was written in the second third of the sixth century. Augustine (356-430AD) lived over a century before Benedict (480-547AD). Before Benedict came, some had called Augustine the master of the interior life. Without Augustine who taught how to reintegrate the fragments of a broken civilisation from within, the retreat of Benedict to the enclosure of the monastery walls might easily have turned into mere flight.
But in part because of Augustine the Benedictine monastery became the heart of medieval culture, the spiritual force that motivated the building of a new civilisation. Letter 211 of Augustine was read and re-read by Benedict, who borrowed several important texts from it for insertion in his own Rule. The chapter in the Rule of Benedict on the labour of monks is manifestly inspired by the treatise by Augustine called "De opere monachorum" ("The Work of Monks"). This work by Augustine has done so much towards furnishing an accurate statement of the doctrine commonly accepted in religious orders. The teaching concerning religious poverty is clearly formulated in Augustine's sermons "De vitâ et moribus clericorum suorum" ("The Life and Customs of Clerics"). The authorship of Augustine of these two works is sufficient to earn him the title of Father of monks and religious.
The Rule of Benedict was uppermost until with the coming of the mendicant tradition in the eleventh century, after which, in the words of the late Tarsisius van Bavel O.S.A. in 1996, the Rule of Augustine "spread like fire among stubble." In length the Rule of Benedict (c. 530-560 AD) differs greatly from the Rule of Augustine (c. 397 AD). The former contains seventy-three chapters of varying length, even though Benedict described it as "a little rule for beginners." It is comparable in length to the Gospel of Matthew. With its seventy-three chapters, it contrasts sharply with the Rule of Saint Augustine. In a rule of only eight chapters, Augustine developed this less obsequious guide to religious life about the year 397AD.
In the latter Rule, the fundamental ideas are constituted around community, love and the human heart rather than detailed rules for prayer cycles and ascetic renunciation. The Rule of Augustine emphasises the way of interiorisation such that obedience to regulations is merely a symbol of inward transformation. The early Victorine canons embraced the Rule in 1113, as did the later Dominicans when their order received papal recognition in 1216.The Rule of Augustine enabled these orders to move more freely among congregations and thereby fulfil teaching roles and the preaching of vocations.
Among the various groups of hermits in Tuscany who were part of the "Little Union" of the year 1244 which began the Augustinian Order, there is no definite evidence available that very many of them having the Rule of Augustine before 1244, although it is known that some of them had previously adopted the Rule of Benedict. As far as their influence on and importance for later monastic living in the Catholic Church is concerned, Augustine and Benedict can be given equal credit. The importance of Benedict lies is his achievements as an organiser.
He codified the monastic legislation of his era. In this, he brought forth no new ideas, but he compiled his material with skill from the Church traditions then available to him. On the other hand, Augustine had by the power of his spirit illuminated and deepened the earlier Christian monastic ideals that had come from the East. Augustine gave Western monasticism its spiritual and ecclesial foundation, and detailed its role in and its responsibility for the entire church. Under his influence Christian monasticism in the West was proclaimed not as an escape from the world in the quest of personal holiness and personal salvation, but as one particular way to salvation through service within the Church.
Especially when considered together, these two Rules were a significant formative influence on the Church in Europe for over a thousand years. The most famous section of the Benedictine Rule is Chapter 72: The Good Zeal of Monks. It is a summary statement of what Benedictine monastic life is all about. "This then, is the good zeal which monks must foster with fervent love.
They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other, supporting with the greatest patience the weaknesses of others in health or behaviour, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another. No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else. To their fellow monks they show the pure love of brothers; to God, loving fear; to their Abbot, unfeigned and humble love. Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life."
Prior to the rise of the monastic way of life within the Christian religion, martyrdom was the greatest example of heroism in the early Church. Once the age of martyrs came to an end, some Christians looked for another way of radical commitment. Just as the martyrs had given their lives to follow Christ, individual monks went out into the desert to "give their lives" to Christ as a witness against the evils of society. Eventually as these monks began to cluster together, a conscious communitarian dimension became added to this. By the time of Augustine in the fourth century, and the more so again by the time of Benedict in the sixth century, monastic life had an attraction to many people who did not also feel called to make a drastic "flight from the world" by moving out of society and by going to the desert
The apostolic form of community life after the style of Augustine at Hippo made available a monastic living that was undertaken in a town while its members actively served the local church. Even as a bishop, Augustine gave example of this lifestyle by living in community with the principles of community prayer and of all possessions being held in common. As a refinement to the practice of Augustine, Benedict focused even more on the "retreat" aspect of monasticism by building the monastery more geographically distant from the local church activity. He also further "enclosed" the monastery, both physically with bricks and mortar and legislatively via his detailed Rule.
In compiling his Rule, Benedict was aware of the rules of many leaders of individual monasteries of his day. It was the Rule of the Master which left the strongest impact on the shape and structure of the Rule of Benedict. The Rule of the Master had been written in Italy some few years before Benedict had first read it. Benedict copied many sections of the Rule of the Master verbatim. He deleted many sections of the Rule of the Master that were extreme, and added his own perspective to monastic life. The Rule of the Master looked upon the abbot as the final word for the will of God, and actually quoted Scripture out of context to prove this point. The tone of the Master's community was one of fear, competition, and of blind obedience to the abbot.
While the Rule of Benedict remains primarily in the tradition of the monks of the Egyptian desert as mediated by Cassian and the Rule of the Master, the next most important frequent source to which Benedict turned was Augustine. Benedict used the writings of Augustine to temper the harshness of the Rule of the Master and, on top of all this amalgamating, he added his own insights, accumulated practical experience and wisdom. The humanity (in Italian, the special word umanita) of Augustine and his concern for fraternal relationships contributed to the Benedictine Rule some of its best known and most admired qualities. And rather than the detailed instructions of Benedict for prayer cycles and ascetic renunciation, the basic ideas of Augustine centred on community, love and the human heart.
Augustine emphasised the way of interiority (interioridad in Spanish, and interiorita in Italian) whereby the external observance of rules was to be merely a symbol of inner spiritual change and growth. The whole purpose of the process of formation by Augustine was the inner growth or transformation of the individual from the initial resistance or pain or fear. This caused a gradual growth towards a maturity in spontaneity, love and joy, a love that expels fear, and joy that compensates all the toil during the journey. Augustine clearly indicated that it was the fruits of the grace (gratia, in Latin) of God and the work of the Holy Spirit that underpinned this transformation. This is especially evident in his treatise, De Spiritu Et Littera, ("On the Spirit and Letter"). This activity of the Holy Spirit consists in transforming our delight in anything within us that works against God's grace. The Holy Spirit transforms this into spiritual desire and spiritual pleasure.
Augustine must be credited for these two major emphases within the monastic journey: its communal aspect and the inner transformation of the individual. The Benedictine scholar, Dom Boniface Borghini, wrote that the monastic teaching of Augustine "influenced all subsequent religious life." Saint Benedict paid tribute to it, medieval monks were inspired by it, and today, too, one can say, at the risk of arousing protest, that the majority of Benedictine monasteries are organised along the lines of Augustinian concepts in their service of the Church. The spiritual tradition of the monastery is based, directly or indirectly, on the ascetical intuitions of Augustine. (Cf. Borghini, Revista di ascetica e mistica, 12 (1967) p.173)
Citations or allusions to Augustine in the Rule of Saint Benedict. Many citations and allusions are listed, but the site contains a caution from Professor O'Donnell that Benedict possibly did not consciously intend or even be aware of every single one of these allusions. http://www.osb.org/rb/augben.html
Benedictine history in England. A summary. http://www.aedificium.org/MonasticLife/BenedictineOrder.html
On Barbarism and Benedict. An article in Crisis magazine by Regis Martin. It is a reflection upon Saint Benedict and his evangelization, and its relevance for today.http://www.crisismagazine.com/2014/on-barbarism-and-benedict