The Rule of Benedict: Insights for Power ExchangeAug 15th, 2012 | By Severus_Snape | Category: Columns, Contributors, Madison Community of Faith
It is my conviction that kink is grounded in all things real. Many things that we consider kinky today were commonplace yesterday: 1950s’ household speaks for itself, corporal punishment was practiced universally and remains a standard disciplinary practice in some contemporary cultures, I just got stuck by four needles in the doctor’s office, various BDSM toy-torture devices derive from real torture devices… well, you catch my drift, I hope. All of it has happened before, is still happening, and will happen again (hopefully consensually and for fun purposes, but I am not holding my breath–two words for you: Abu-Ghraib).
Power exchange is a time-honored dynamic. While consent may have not entered into it in its various historical incarnations, power exchange, as such, has always been present–and is very much present today–simply because of how society works. I would like to invite you on a journey through a manual on How-To-Do-Power-Exchange-Well which is hailed as one of the foundational stones of the Western civilization: The Rule of Saint Benedict.
Written in the mid-sixth century by a relatively young monk, Benedict, Regula Benedicti, or simply the RB in the monastic jargon, draws heavily from other monastic rules of common living, most notably from the Rule of the Master. The RB, with its brevity, gentleness, and refusal to idealize the Holy at the expense of the Real, stands out from other monastic Rules as a revolutionary document. It remains such.
Monastic life presupposes voluntary commitment to the community under the authority of the Abbot or Abbess. The RB provides guidance on how to live well together and offers practical insights on leadership, authority, discipline, follow-though, and obedience. It is an invaluable manual of how to practice voluntary power exchange for the purpose of harmonious, happy, and holy living.
When I entered into a collared relationship with my partner, I made the Rule of Benedict our (!) required reading. I am convinced that no book on living in a kinky relationship can provide as much food for thought as the RB.
The Rule opens with the word “Listen:”
Listen carefully to my instructions and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from the one who loves you; welcome it and faithfully put it into practice.
From the very first sentence the Rule offers a perspective on obedience, which is the key element of any power exchange. In Benedict’s view, obedience is inseparable from love. It is an attitude and a learning tool for wholeness and health. The monk (submissive) is told point blank from the get go that (s)he is loved. The goal of obedience is not to crush a person, not to beat the person into submission, but to invite the person to grow. Orders are to be given lovingly; they are to be adhered to with an open mind and heart. In my hand I hold my sub’s copy of the Rule (The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages by Joan Chittister, OSB) and see a gloss that she has written under the title: “To birth souls of steel and light.” Itself a quote from a commentary on the Rule, it summarizes the purpose of a relationship based on holy listening. Further in the Rule, obedience will be shown as a two way street: a monk (submissive) has to listen to God, the Abbot, the community, and his/her own heart; likewise the superior (dominant) has to listen to wisdom other than his/her own. Mutual listening in trust, reverence and respect is the furnace burning with the fire of love where souls of steel and light are forged.
… Therefore we intend to establish a school for God’s service. In drawing up its regulations we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome.
Power exchange is not easy, and submission to the will and guidance of another can be frightening. Dominance comes with its own set of frightening challenges and responsibilities. Dominance and submission both require work, but it is meant to be a gentle work: not harsh, not burdensome, not soul-crashing. Oppression simply has no place in a healthy relationship.
The good of all concerned, however, may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and safeguard love. Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow from the outset.
In the school of service, both partners are partners in power. Strictness may be applied only for the purpose of safeguarding love, not for anything less. The good of all concerned is the measure of the relationship. In the world of rabid individualism it is a hard lesson to learn, and the road is bound to be narrow from the outset. Both the dominant and the submissive partner are called to leave their egos at the door when entering the school of service.
To be continued…
Author’s Note: Quotes from: Joan Chittister, OSB. The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages. Crossroad, NY. 1992. All quotes from the RB are taken from this book. It is a very good contemporary translation of the Rule, and the commentary is simply unparalleled in wisdom and insight.