by Therese Horvat
Special to The Leaven
ATCHISON — Increased popular interest in the spirituality of St. Benedict is what originally sparked the decision of Sister Judith Sutera, of Mount St. Scholastica here, to undertake a modern translation of the Rule written by the saint and to write an accompanying commentary.
The fruits of her labor, published this month by Liturgical Press, is called “St. Benedict’s Rule: An Inclusive Translation and Daily Commentary” and has received positive advance reviews from religious and laity who value the saint’s wisdom and spirituality.
Sister Judith explains that St. Benedict compiled the Rule for a group of men striving to live in a monastic community in sixth-century Italy. She describes him as a “synthesizer” who drew upon other sources, made meaningful modifications and invited subsequent adaptations that worked for a particular group or community.
St. Benedict’s Rule, she added, is the oldest, continuous tradition of monastic rule in the Western world.
The Benedictine Sister of Mount St. Scholastica wanted to provide a translation with language that provided gender-neutral language that would resonate with mixed audiences in retreats or other settings. Her commentary offers historical context and applications of the Rule to contemporary life.
“We think of ‘rules’ as ‘do’s and don’ts,’” explained Sister Judith. “But St. Benedict’s Rule is wisdom literature and not a legal document. This Rule served as the means by which St. Benedict’s followers could measure their efforts to achieve right living.”
“St. Benedict was trying to form communal life that models the peaceable kingdom,” the author added. “His theology of the ordinary focuses on praying regularly, listening to the word of God, living a good life, serving one another, always doing the next right thing and welcoming everyone as Christ. This is what makes the Rule so simple and useful for everyone.”
Process of translation
The original Latin version of the Rule and authoritative English translations were foundational to Sister Judith’s work. She strived to preserve the meaning and theology inherent in St. Benedict’s original text.
She replaced gender-specific pronouns (e.g., he, she, him, her) with more inclusive words, such as “they.” She substituted other words for those that implied or conveyed gender.
For example, the word “abbot” recurs in the document St. Benedict wrote for the community of male monks. The word’s Aramaic origin “abba” means “father.” In place of “abbot” in her translation of the Rule, Sister Judith inserted the word “superior.” For the masculine word “monk,” she used either “monastic” or “member of the community.”
“I basically changed language that needed tweaking to be more gender-neutral,” she said.
But there were exceptions. Possibly because of heresies at the time, St. Benedict did not call Jesus by name in the Rule, but referred to him as “Lord” to affirm his divine nature. While some may take exception to this language because of its association with domination, Sister Judith retained the word as St. Benedict’s name for Jesus. In her introductory notes, she writes that this leaves “intact Benedict’s sense of the subjection of all people to the ‘Lord of all’ and for which any word that compromised that image did not seem to work.”
Commentary aids in understanding
The translation and commentary follow the customary dating system whereby monasteries read the Rule straight through three times during the year. Sister Judith composed two paragraphs of commentary for each day’s translation: The first gives historical background; the second discusses relevance to contemporary life. Three practical questions follow, one for each date the passage is read throughout the year.
For example, after the first entry in the prologue that discusses prayer and good works, one of the questions is: “Can I thank God each time I do the right thing today and ask for strength any time I realize I am resisting God’s will?”
In a later entry addressing hospitality, a question prompts reflection on welcoming those a person finds difficult to welcome.
Two versions of the book are now available in paperback through Liturgical Press (litpress.org). One is the stand-alone translation; the other pairs the translation and commentary. Sister Judith is pleased that the book has received good press from highly respected reviewers. One observes: “Judith Sutera’s translation of the Rule reads like most modern English texts; its inclusivity feels natural. I imagine if Benedict had written his Rule today, it would have sounded a lot like this.”
Sister Judith realizes there will be those who prefer the language of the original text. Her intended audiences include people reading the Rule for the first time, young adults accustomed to more inclusive language, Benedictine oblates, members of religious communities and other denominations, liturgists and persons interested in probing deeper into Benedict’s spirituality.
She says her greatest joy will come from attracting readers who find her book helpful on their spiritual journeys.
“If the translation and commentary can get more laity and young people involved in St. Benedict’s spirituality,” she concluded, “I think he will be all for it.”