Enlarging the Heart

Daily readings from the Rule of Saint Benedict

By a Benedictine of Saint Cecilia's Abbey, Ryde

"... as we progress in our monastic life and in faith, our hearts shall be enlarged, and we shall run with unspeakable sweetness of love in the way of God's commandments."

(From the Prologue of the Rule of Saint Benedict)

St Benedict wrote his Rule for monks some fifteen centuries ago. Driven by his love of Christ, he wanted to establish his monastery as a "school of the Lord's service": a place where people who truly seek God could find him; places where "authentic Gospel values prevail"(1); where nothing whatever would be preferred to Christ. The Rule of St Benedict spread all over Europe, and had an enormous influence on the life and spirituality of the Latin Church. It continues to inspire monks, nuns, and countless lay people throughout the world today. Like many monasteries we divide the Rule into sections so that the whole Rule is covered over a period of three months. The commentaries will follow the sequence of the sections.

(1) Pope John Paul II, to Benedictine Abbots, 23 September 1996

CHAPTER 39: THE FOOD ALLOWANCE Nov 17 We think it sufficient for the daily meal, whether at the sixth or the ninth hour, that there be at all the tables two dishes of cooked food because of the weaknesses of different persons; so that he who perhaps cannot eat of the one may make his meal of the other. Therefore, let two cooked dishes suffice for the brethren; and if there is any fruit or fresh vegetables, let a third dish be added. Let a full pound of bread suffice for each day, whether there be but one meal or both dinner and supper. If they are to take a second meal, let a third part of the pound be reserved by the cellarer, to be given to them at supper. But if the work has been rather heavy, it shall be in the discretion and power of the Abbot to make some addition, if he thinks it expedient, provided that excess be avoided above all things, that no monk be ever guilty of surfeiting; for nothing is more unworthy of any Christian than gluttony, as our Lord says: "Take heed to yourselves, lest perhaps your hearts be overcharged with self-indulgence and drunkenness"(Lk 21:34). Let not the same quantity be allowed to children of tender years, but a smaller amount than that allowed to their elders, so that frugality may be observed in all things. All, however, except the very weak and the sick, are to abstain from eating the flesh of four-footed animals.

Now that St Benedict has legislated for those responsible for providing and serving meals, he takes up food itself. In addition to dinner and supper, monasteries today have breakfast which was unusual in ancient times. Our food is simple but substantial, and includes our own fruit and vegetables and some meat. The bread allowance is unrestricted. St Benedict's chapter includes other teaching, and he insists on 2 principles: compassion and self-control. The key words are "sufficiency" and moderation. By these is meant not eating as little as possible, but eating simply and in moderation, avoiding excess. While St Benedict recognizes that the quantity will vary with each individual, he stresses the interior attitude of moderation. Here he invokes the Gospel, where the Lord warns against anything that might weigh us down or cause a lack of vigilance in view of the great day of the Master's return. In the refectory as in the dormitory, the monk should ponder the return of the Lord, remaining "light", and ready and available. St Benedict is saying let people have what they need but let them forego what they don't, so they can run through life unburdened This belongs to every Christian as St Benedict notes: between the monk and all Christians there is no difference, except perhaps in the attitude of a more exclusive attention to the Lord present and to come.

CHAPTER 38: OF THE READER FOR THE WEEK Nov 16 There shall always be reading at table while the brethren are eating. Yet he should not presume to read there who by mere chance shall have taken up the book; but let him who is to read throughout the week enter on his office on Sunday. He who is entering on this service shall, after Mass and Communion, ask of all to pray for him that God may keep from him the spirit of pride. And let this verse be thrice said in the oratory by all, he himself beginning it: "Dómine, lábia mea apéries, et os meum annuntiábit laudem tua " ("O God, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise") (Ps 51:17). Then, having received the blessing, let him enter on his duties as reader. The most profound silence shall be kept at table so that the whispering or voice of no one save that of the reader alone be heard there. The brethren will so help each other to what is necessary as regards food and drink that no one may have need to ask for anything. Should, however, something be required, let it be asked for by means of some sign rather than by words. Let no one ask any question there concerning what is being read or anything else, lest occasion be given to the Evil One; unless perhaps the superior should wish to say something briefly for the edification of the brethren. The brother who is reader for the week shall receive refreshment before he begins to read, because of the Holy Communion, and lest it be too hard for him to fast so long. After the meal he shall eat with the weekly cooks and servers. The brethren are not to read or sing according to rank; but only those are to discharge these duties who can do so to the edification of the hearers.

St Benedict here returns to questions concerning the refectory. Just as the kitchen and table servers provide their brethren with nourishment for the body, the refectory reader provides food for the soul. In the course of the meal, the monks are to concentrate on two things: the words of the reading and the needs of their neighbour. Following monastic tradition, St Benedict enjoins a religious silence during the reading. This silence creates the climate for the conversation the monk has with God throughout the day. It allows us to really listen to God whether he speaks to us through the reading or in the intimacy of our hearts. But the written word is not the only source of God's word. The brothers are to be attentive to each other's needs as they eat and drink. In all this we have a little summary of the Christian life: attention to the Word of God and to neighbour.

CHAPTER 37: OF OLD MEN AND CHILDREN Nov 15 Although human nature itself is inclined to consideration as regards these ages, namely, that of old men and children, yet the authority of the Rule should also provide for them. Let their weakness be always taken into account and let the full rigour of the Rule as regards food be in no way exacted in their regard; but let a kind consideration be had for them, and let them eat before the regular hours.

This chapter naturally follows the preceding one and shows St Benedict's compassion and common-sense. After dealing with sick brethren, he now turns to those whose weakness is not due to illness but simply to age. These two stages of life have much in common, and both have something to give. In their simplicity, wisdom and life of prayer, old age is an age of being over having and doing. It is an image of what our monastic life is: in opposition to measuring everything in terms of efficiency and success, the elderly give the example of disinterestedness, of giving something or giving themselves with no thought of return. They provide the Community's memory, the historical sense, which gives us a sense of identity. And their weakness points to the interdependence of a monastic community which consists of more than one generation. We need each other. Because it is a period of life involving hardship and suffering, the elderly remind us of the importance of patience, and of the power of God which is manifest in weakness. They remind us to look to God throughout our whole life, since He is the goal of our pilgrimage. "In old age, they will bear fruit" (Ps 92:14)

CHAPTER 36: OF SICK BRETHREN Nov 14 Before all things and above all things care is to be taken of the sick, so that they may be served in very deed as Christ Himself; for He has said: "I was sick and you visited Me"; and, "As long as you did it for one of these My least brethren, you did it for Me." But let the sick themselves consider that they are being served for the honour of God, and not grieve the brethren who are serving them by superfluous demands. Yet, they shall be patiently borne with, because by serving such as these a more abundant reward is obtained. Therefore, the Abbot shall take the greatest care that they suffer no neglect. Let a cell be set apart for the sick brethren, and one be appointed to serve them who fears God and is diligent and careful. Let the use of the baths be granted to the sick as often as it shall be expedient; but to those who are well, and especially to the young, it shall be seldom permitted. The use of meat, too, shall be permitted to the sick and to the very weak, that they may recover their strength. But when they have recovered their strength, let them all abstain from meat in the accustomed manner. Let the Abbot take all possible care that the sick be not neglected by the cellarers or those appointed to serve them; for he is held responsible for whatever failures his disciples are guilty of.

The themes of service and love continue in this beautiful chapter on the sick. The great concern for the sick is based on the words of Christ; again we see how Scripture is a very living thing for St Benedict. One of the great teachings of the Rule is that Christ is recognized in diverse ways, in all with whom we live and have to deal. Our action is his action; our love is his love. Here we see St Benedict establishing, as it were, a little monastery for the sick within the monastery: they have a particular place, special brothers or sisters are appointed to look after them, a less rigorous timetable, provision for hygiene and nursing, and an adapted diet. St Jerome admired the great solicitude of the monks of Egypt on this point: "If any of them fell ill, the monks set about nursing him so well that he had no occasion to desire wither the pleasure of towns or even the affections of a mother." Unless a serious necessity demands it, no sister or brother is cared for outside the monastery. They are cared for at home, in the monastery, as much as possible. In the infirmary they remain as wholly monks or nuns, even more so for their closer imitation of Christ in their suffering. And as our Declarations (or Constitutions) point out, the entire Community is to share this solicitude for the sick: "Furthermore, all the nuns shall always be ready and eager to look after the sick whenever the need may arise, whether to watch by them at night, or to render them special services, so that the charity which should animate the nuns in all things and always, may show itself even more deeply towards those who suffer, and who have in this way a closer resemblance to our Lord."


©SBVM 2013