monastery by Jose Luis Mieza Photography

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

About a year ago a group of people close to Edgeryders and to me dreamed up something called the unMonastery. The dream snowballed into the prototype of a radical, uncompromising project: more or less, build an institution to embed global expert knowledge aimed at the common good into a local community, and do it so that it lasts a couple of centuries at least. Don’t try to build sustainability via a business models (business models are flimsy, they just don’t last over that time scale), build it through a kind of symbiosis between the unMonastery and the host city. Against all odds, this idea has come true, and you can apply to be an unMonasterian right now.

Anyway, this journey prompted me to look into the history of early (Western) monasticism 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 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.
  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 beneficial 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 were “forked” 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. I look forward to further exploring this path.

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