Work and Prayer: the Rule of St Benedict for Lay People by Dom Columba Cary-Elwes (Burns & Oates, £6.95) David Twiston Davies IT HAS occurred to me more than once on the way home from a retreat with a car full of recalcitrant offspring, how much easier life would be if one could restore immediate peace with St Benedict's words: "Listen carefully, my child... Readily accept the advice of your loving father.
However later, on turning to the Rule when they were all in bed, even my tired and exasperated brain grasped that being a Benedictine abbot is no soft option.
An abbot is, above all, the representative of God, and St Benedict does not let him forget that he has responsibility for the souls of his brethren.
Hc is vested with autocratic authority but should remember that the best way of bringing about change is by example. Use argument and persuasion as well as rebuke, the saint reminds him, for different temperaments require different handling.
How many other parents have not uneasily realised after a trying incident, such as a long car journey, how they fall down in this respect, I wonder.
The Rule, of course, has two basic functions. It lays down regulations for the opus dei, the work of praising God, and provides perceptive tips for living in loving community with one's fellow human beings.
In Work and Prayer Dom Columba Cary-Elwes provides a chapter-by-chapter commentary on a new translation by Dame Catherine Wybourne to show how it can be
fruitfully used by laymen and women.
Dorn Columba has no delusions. For many of us, the effort of getting to Sunday Mass seems to drain all the spare resources available; and any attempt to apply the Rule to family life with any fullness would only result in total chaos.
He points out that democracy is as hopeless for a family today as it seemed to a government in the ancient world; yet St Benedict was a great believer in consensus, insisting that the views of the young should be considered seriously.
The rule is also informed by a rich awareness of the values of obedience and discipline; any straying monk is referred to as "brother".
But the saint knows how to distinguish between what is essential and what is not, so that while he clearly disapproved of wine drinking he accepted that this was part of his monks' Italian culture.
As one progresses through the text one gradually appreciates the saint's rich streak of common sense. He not only has advice on how to sing the psalms but what kind of man should be cellarer, and even what to do when commanded to do the impossible.
No community today attempts to follow the Rule, written 1,500 years ago, to the letter. It is hard to justify for instance, the advice on taking child postulants, a practice which could only have been justified in St Benedict's day by the anarchy of sixthcentury Italy.
The book's greatest value, however, is that it prepares for the moment, perhaps late at night, when one can sit in silence to listen out for the voice of God.
David Twiston-Davies is a Catholic journalist working for the Daily Telegraph.