The Rule of St. Benedict: 25 Books Every Christian Should Read

One of the oldest manuscripts of The Rule of St. Benedict, a manuscript hand copied in 810, kept at St. Gallen Medieval Library, in Switzerland. We visited there and I got to spend a couple of hours with this old text, written in Latin. Photo by Thomas Robinson.

The first part of this blog post is an excerpt from Ancient Paths, a book I wrote on The Rule of St. Benedict, published by Paraclete Press in 2010. In this excerpt, I review the theme of walking as a picture of a life of faith, as portrayed in Scripture, as well as in the life and writings of St. Benedict. One of the most influential Christian books from the past is The Rule of St. Benedict. In the second half of this blog post, I offer a bibliography of excellent books on The Rule of St. Benedict, on Benedictine spirituality, and on monastic spirituality for non-monastics.


This is what the LORD says: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls. But you said, ‘We will not walk in it’ (Jeremiah 6:16).

One of the most common pictures of faith in Scripture, the metaphor of journey, is found in historical settings, poetic and prophetic expressions, prayers and songs, in the life of Jesus, as well as in pastoral instructions on living the Christian life in the New Testament. Psalm 25 offers a classic example of this language of pilgrimage as a way of understanding faith among the ancient Hebrew poets:

Show me your ways, O LORD, teach me your paths; guide me in your truth and teach me . . . He instructs sinners in his ways. He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way. All the ways of the LORD are loving and faithful… He will instruct him in the way chosen for him. My eyes are ever on the LORD, for only he will release my feet from the snare (Psalm 25:4-5, 8-10, 12, 15; italics added for emphasis).

The lead metaphor of faith in this psalm is pilgrimage, as the Psalmist calls upon God for guidance along the path of faith, asking that his feet be released from the snare so that he may walk without hindrance along the way of the Lord.

In the ancient world, the Hebrew people were a pilgrim people, traveling mostly on foot, often migrating great distances to find refuge, food or land. Abraham journeyed on foot across vast distances of middle-eastern terrain, placing his faith in the LORD who called him from Hur to go on pilgrimage to the land of Canaan. “The LORD had said to Abram, ‘Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you’ (Genesis 12:1).” Four generations later, Joseph was sold as a slave into Egypt, traveling by foot across the desert lands of the Negev into the fertile region of the Nile Delta, eventually inviting his extended family to travel south on foot over the same desert terrain to join him in Egypt. After four hundred years in bondage as slaves in Egypt, the people of Israel were brought out of slavery, led by God’s outstretched hand, with Moses as their guide. They were a pilgrim people, traveling on foot by faith in the LORD, journeying toward the land of promise. The historic exodus and pilgrimage of ancient Israel became the leading paradigm of the Jewish faith as celebrated in the annual feasts of Passover and Tabernacles.

Annually, the Jewish people sing together the great Psalms of pilgrimage, celebrating the journey of faith up to Jerusalem where they join together to remember the great wonders of the Lord from the stories of pilgrimage of the past. The Book of Psalms includes a short songbook of prayers for pilgrims, including Psalms 120-134, known as The Songs of Ascent. These prayer songs were sung on pilgrimage as the people traveled up to Jerusalem for the annual festivals of faith. Many other psalms express faith as a pilgrim journey. A classic example of this language is found in Psalm 84, where the psalmist celebrates the walk of faith along ancient paths as faithful Jews walked on foot in their annual pilgrimage towards Jerusalem to celebrate the festivals of faith in community.

Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage. As they pass through the Valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools. They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion (Psalm 84:5-7).

Born into this ancient Jewish understanding of faith as pilgrimage, Jesus drew his first breath in Bethlehem, while his Jewish parents were traveling far from their home in Nazareth. Before returning to the north, they journeyed on foot even further from home, exiled into Egypt to escape the threat of death from political leaders of their day. The first formative years of Jesus’ life were experienced as a journey along ancient paths, as his parents sought refuge on foreign soil.

Throughout his three years of ministry as an adult, Jesus was mostly on foot, journeying from village to village, meeting people along the road and calling them to follow him along the path of faith. Kenneth Wuest writes of the verb found in Mark 2:14, “It was ‘Follow with me’. The pronoun is in the associative-instrumental case. . . . Our Lord did not therefore merely command Levi to become His follower. He welcomed him to a participation in His companionship. And this ‘with me’ companionship, was not one of an Indian-file nature, one following after another. It was a side by side walk down the same road.”[2] In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offered a parable describing faith as a choice between two paths. Travelers choosing the wide gate, walk upon the broad road that leads to destruction. Pilgrims entering through the small gate, walk upon the narrow path that leads to life (Matthew 7:13-14). In this parable, faith is understood as a journey along a road or path. Some walk in the direction of death; others in the direction of life.

Similarly, Jesus used the language of pilgrimage in two of the seven ‘I am’ declarations from the Gospel of John. As a way of describing his identity and purpose, Jesus claimed, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows after me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life . . . .  I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me (John 8:12; 14:6).”[3] In both of these declarations, Jesus described the spiritual life as a path to walk upon in pursuit of eternal life. In the first Jesus declared himself the light along the path. In the second, Jesus described himself as the path upon which people walk to God.

In the opening and closing chapters of the Gospel of Luke, readers discover the metaphor of journey as a description of a life of faith in Jesus Christ. In the opening of Luke’s gospel narrative, Zechariah’s song, sung at the birth of John the Baptist, portrays Jesus as “the rising sun [who] will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace (Luke 1:78-79).” At the end of his gospel narrative, Luke records one of the most detailed resurrection appearance stories in all four gospel accounts, employing this same paradigm of journey. Offering a story of pilgrimage as an expression of an encounter with the risen Lord, Luke relates the story of two Jewish people walking home “in the shadow of death.” In this account, Jesus joins the two grieving people along the path, walking the rest of the seven miles with them to their home village of Emmaus. As Jesus walks with them on their journey home, they are kept from recognizing him, even though he speaks with them along the path and opens the Scriptures to them. When they arrive at their village in the evening, though Jesus acts as if he is going on farther. The two travelers beg him to stay the night, welcoming Jesus into their home. At the moment when Christ takes bread, gives thanks, breaks the loaf and gives it to the two travelers, their eyes are opened and they recognize the risen Lord Jesus. At that moment, the Lord disappears from them. The two then ask each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us (Luke 24:32)?” Though the two had walked a seven mile journey by foot earlier that day, they immediately rush back along those same seven miles in order to tell the others they had seen the risen Lord (see Luke 24:13-35).

The Emmaus Road encounter with the risen Christ offers believers a powerful insight into the life of a spiritual pilgrim. People who are walking in darkness and in the shadow of death are joined along the path by a Stranger who opens the Scriptures to their hearts and minds. In the darkness of the night of grief, while walking along the way, their lives are kindled with holy flame as the “rising sun from heaven” illuminates their path. As pilgrims welcome the Stranger into their home, they break bread and give thanks together. At this Eucharistic moment, their eyes are opened to see the risen Lord in their midst. The journey of faith continues as the people of the resurrection hasten along ancient paths, the light of the risen Christ shining in their hearts. Full of the light of life, these pilgrims hurry through the night to tell others of the new and living hope found in the risen Lord Jesus Christ.

The earliest followers of Jesus entered into a new way of life, a journey that demanded a daily commitment of their whole life together. One of the earliest names given to the first believers in Jesus Christ is the Way or the followers of the Way (Acts 9:2; 22:4). As Don Postema writes of followers of Christ, “We are all on a journey, a spiritual pilgrimage. Whether we are wanderers or sitters, we are on the Way (Acts 19:23).”[4] Many of the letters and instructions given to the believers in the New Testament were written as practical guidance for people walking the way of Jesus Christ. Traveling across the pages of the New Testament, readers come upon reference after reference to journey and pilgrimage imagery employed as a basic understanding of the Christian life. One such picture of the Christian life is found in the Peter’s first letter. “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps (1 Peter 2:21).”

Traveling thousands of miles on foot throughout his life as an itinerant missionary to the Gentiles, Paul also described faith as a journey, calling the Romans to “walk in the footsteps of the faith (Romans 4:12),” and asking the Corinthians to “follow the way of love (1 Corinthians 14:1).” Paul understood the Christian life as a journey with Christ, a life of imitating Jesus, as evidenced in his letter to the Ephesians, when he wrote, “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (Ephesians 5:1-2).” In his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul urges the people to imitate him: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1).” Inspired by Peter and Paul, the early church sought to imitate the life of Christ, practicing a spirituality of following Jesus Christ in their daily lives by living as Jesus lived, or following “in his steps.”[5]

Following in the steps of the New Testament writers, Benedict of Nursia also described Christian spiritual formation as a journey believers take together with Christ along a pathway. Writing in the prologue of his communal guidebook,Benedict called believers into a faith pilgrimage. “See how the Lord in his love shows us the way of life. Clothed then with faith and the performance of good works, let us set out on this way, with the Gospel for our guide (RB Prologue 20-21).” The metaphor of journey was a favorite of Benedict in his ancient guidebook for Christian spiritual formation.One of the most influential Christian documents in western civilization, the Rule has governed the daily life of Christian spiritual formation among hundreds of thousands of monks over the past fifteen hundred years. In the prologue of the Rule, Benedict included a variety of pilgrimage references including such verbs as walk, drift, run, lead, follow, progress, arrive. Also in the prologue, Benedict described the Christian life with a variety of journey phrases, including “the way of life,” “set out on this way,” “the Gospel as our guide,” “road that leads to salvation,” “progress in this way of life,” and “run on the paths of God’s commandments (RB Prologue).” Offering a bookend like symmetry in his writing, Benedict employs this same metaphor of journey in the last sentence of the Rule, where he described faith as hiking into a mountainous country led by God’s guidance. “After that, you can set out for the loftier summits of the teaching and virtues we mentioned above, and under God’s protection you will reach them (RB 73.9).

In Benedict’s day, as in the time of the New Testament writers, the most common mode of travel was by foot along pathways. Thus, the journey metaphor offered ancient readers a natural way to understand the process of Christian spiritual growth. What is unique to Benedict is the manner in which he conceived the Christian spiritual journey. Benedict understood Christian growth as a daily communal pilgrimage guided by Jesus Christ, under wise human guidance as pilgrims traveled together toward their eternal home. According to Benedict, Christian spiritual formation was a journey that began with a three-fold commitment, including the lifelong vows of stability, fidelity and obedience. “When he is to be received, he comes before the whole community in the oratory and promises stability, fidelity to monastic life and obedience (RB 58.17).”[6] In this vision of spiritual formation, growth occurs relationally, as people journey together along the ancient path of life in Christ, a life of stability, fidelity and obedience in community. 

[1] The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1984).

[2] Kenneth Wuest, Word Studies in the Greek New Testament, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1950), 52.  

[3] The seven ‘I am’ statements of Jesus (Greek: Ego emi) in the Gospel of John include “I am the bread of life (John 6:35),” “I am the light of the world (John 8:12),” “Before Abraham was born, I am! (John 8:58),” “I am the good shepherd (John 10:11),” “I am the resurrection and the life (John 11:25),” “I am the way and the truth and the life (John 14:6),” “I am the vine (John 15:5).”

[4] Don Postema, Space for God: Study and Practice of Spirituality and Prayer (Grand Rapids, MI: CRC Publications, 1983), 9.

[5] One of the most widely read Christian spiritual classics of all time, The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a’ Kempis, a fifteenth century devotional book, describes the Christian life as imitating Christ by following in his footsteps. Another well-loved book on imitating Christ, the novel by Charles M. Sheldon, In His Steps (New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House Publishing, 2004), invites readers to consider “what would Jesus do,” then asks us to follow ‘in his steps’ along the path of Christ.  

[6] Benedict combined the traditional monastic vows of poverty and chastity into a new promise he called conversatione morum, or conversion of life. Benedict retained the classic cenobitic vow of obedience, but added a new communal vow of stability.


I offer here a list of my favorite books on Benedictine and monastic spirituality. I’ve put into bold print those books that are the best commentaries on The Rule of St. Benedict.

De Waal, Ester. A Life-Giving Way: A Commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict. 1995
________. Living With Contradiction: An Introduction to Benedictine Spirituality. 1998
________. Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict. 2001
• D’Avila-Latourette, Victor-Antione. Sacred Feasts: From a Monastery Kitchen. 2009
• Casey, Michael, OCSO. Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina. 1996
________. 74 Tools for Good Living: Reflections on the 4th Chapt of Benedict’s Rule. 2014.
Chittister, Joan. The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century. 2010
________. Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today. 1990
________. Illuminated Life: Monastic Wisdom for Seekers of Light. 2010
________. Monasteries of the Heart: A New Way to Live a Meaningful Life. May, 2011
• Feiss, Hugh, OSB. Essential Monastic Wisdom: Writings on the Contemplative Life. 1999
• Fry, Timothy. RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in English. 1981
• Homan, Daniel, OSB, & L.C. Pratt. Radical Hospitality: Benedict’s Way of Love. 2002
________. Benedict’s Way: An Ancient Monk’s Insight for a Balanced Life. 2001
• Jamison, Christopher. Finding Sanctuary: Monastic Steps for Everyday Life. 2006
• Kardong, Terrence. Benedict’s Rule: A Translation and Commentary. 1996
________. Benedict Backwards: Reading the Rule in the 21st Century. 2017
________. Day by Day with St. Benedict. 2005
• Macchia, Stephen. Crafting a Rule of Life: An Invitation to the Well-Ordered Way. 2012
• Marett-Crosby, Anthony. The Benedictine Handbook. 2003
McQuiston, John II. Always We Begin Again: The Benedictine Way of Living. 2011
• Merton, Thomas, OCSO, The Seven Storey Mountain. 1948
________. Thoughts in Solitude, 1958
• Monks of New Skete. How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend. 2002
________. Rise up with a Listening Heart: Reflecting and Meditating with the Monks of New Skete. 2004
• Nouwen, Henri J.M. The Genesee Diary, 1976
_________. The Way of the Heart. 1981
_________. Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith. 2006
• Norris, Kathleen. The Cloister Walk. 1997
Okholm, Dennis. Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants. 2007
• Paintner, Christine. The Artist’s Rule: Nurturing Your Creative Soul with Monastic Wisdom. 2011.
Robinson, David. Ancient Paths: Discover Christian Formation the Benedictine Way. 2010
________. Soul Mentoring: Discover the Ancient Art of Caring for Others. 2015
________. The Sacred Art of Marriage: 52 Creative Ways to Grow Your Married Life. 2016
________. The Busy Family’s Guide to Spirituality: Practical Lessons for Modern Living from the Monastic Tradition. 2009
• Scherb, Madeline. A Taste of Heaven: A Guide to Food and Drink Made by Monks and Nuns. 2009
Swan, Laura OSB. Engaging Benedict: What the Rule Can Teach Us Today. 2005
________. The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, Lives and Stories of Early Christian Mothers. 2001
• Tomaine, Jane. St. Benedict’s Toolbox: The Nuts and Bolts of Everyday Benedictine Living. 2015
________. The Rule of Benedict: Christian Monastic Wisdom for Daily Living. 2017.
• Tvedten, Brother Benet OSB. How to Be a Monastic and Not Leave Your Day Job: An Invitation to Oblate Life. 2006
Vest, Norvene. Preferring Christ: A Devotional on the Rule of St. Benedict. 2004
________. No Moment Too Small: Rhythms of Silence, Prayer and Holy Reading. 1994
• Wilson-Hartgrove, Jonathan. New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today’s Church. 2008
________. The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture. 2010