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 67: OF THE BRETHREN WHO ARE SENT ON A JOURNEY April 25, Let the brethren who are about to be sent on a journey commend themselves to the prayers of all the brethren or of the Abbot; and at all times, at the conclusion of the Divine Office, let a remembrance be made of all who are absent. On returning from a journey, the brethren on that same day shall lie prostrate on the floor of the oratory at the conclusion of each of the Canonical Hours and beg the prayers of all for their transgressions, in the event that they may have had occasion on their journey of seeing or hearing something evil or may have fallen into idle talk. And let no one presume to relate to others what he may have seen or heard outside the monastery, for this is often a pitfall of destruction. If anyone presumes to do so, let him be subjected to the regular penance. He shall be similarly corrected who presumes to leave the enclosure of the monastery or go out anywhere or do anything, however small, without the permission of the Abbot.

These final chapters of the Rule return to some key elements of the monastic life: tomorrow's chapter treats of obedience; this chapter gives us a deepening lesson about stability. It shows that stability involves not only not wandering with the body, but also not wandering with the eyes, ears, memory and imagination. The eyes or ears which want to take in everything find nothing. Seeking God involves a deliberate decision not to be captured by the merely superficial in favour of a commitment to union with Him. This involves allowing one's deepest longings to become central so that what is superficial or peripheral falls away.

CHAPTER 66: OF THE PORTER OF THE MONASTERY April 24, Let there be placed at the gate of the monastery a wise brother of mature age who is able to understand and reply in all matters, and whose grave habits will not permit him to wander about. This porter is to have his cell near the gate, that they who come may always find someone at hand to make a response. As soon as anyone shall knock, or a poor person shall beg for charity, he shall answer, "Thanks be to God," or, "God bless you"; and then, with all the gentleness of the fear of God, let him quickly respond in the fervour of charity. If the porter stands in need of assistance, let him have with him one of the younger brethren. The monastery, if it is possible, ought to be so constructed that all things necessary - such as, water, a mill, a garden, a bakery, and the various workshops - may be contained within it, so that there may be no need for the monks to go abroad, for this is not at all healthful for their souls. Moreover, we wish this Rule to be read frequently in the community, that none of the brethren may excuse himself on the plea of ignorance.

St Benedict insists that everything necessary for his monks should be within the monastery walls. Enclosure is a primitive, constant and universal element in the monastic life of both monks and nuns. Its practice long pre-dates any legislation. Enclosure-with the material and physical separation implied the limited contacts with the exterior-corresponds to a general idea of the monastic life shared by both men and women, as a life of separation from the world. Some sayings of the Desert Fathers support the view of voluntary exile, wandering. Yet on the whole, the tradition shows that great discernment is required in the matter of changing one's abode. The literature more frequently extols the importance of staying in one place, remaining in the cell-the privileged place for one who would learn the ways of the desert-and combating the restlessness that could endanger the monastic life and ruin interior recollection. "Just as fish die if they stay too long out of water," Antony used to say, "so the monks who loiter outside their cells or pass their time with men of the world lose the intensity of inner peace." A Desert "Mother" Amma Syncletica said: "If you find yourself in a monastery do not go to another place, for that will harm you a great deal. Just as the bird who abandons the eggs she was sitting on prevents them from hatching, so the monk or the nun grows cold and their faith dies, when they go from one place to another."

April 23, If, however, the circumstances of the place require it, or the community asks for it reasonably and with humility, and the Abbot judges it expedient, let the Abbot himself choose whomsoever he will, with the counsel of the brethren who fear God, and himself appoint a Prior. Let the Prior, however, reverently execute what is commanded him by his Abbot, and do nothing contrary to his will or ordinance; for the more he is raised above others so much the more should he be solicitous in observing the precepts of the Rule. If the Prior is found to be vicious or deceived by the loftiness of pride, or be proved to be contemptuous of the Holy Rule, let him be reprimanded by word of mouth until the fourth time; if he does not amend, let the correction of regular discipline be used in his regard. And if even then he does not improve, let him be deposed from the office of prior and another who is worthy be appointed in his place. If afterwards he is not peaceful and obedient in the community, let him even be expelled from the monastery. Nevertheless, let the Abbot bear in mind that he is to give an account to God of all his judgements, lest perhaps the fire of envy or jealousy be burning in his soul.

The prior or prioress in a Benedictine monastery is the first assistant to the Abbot or Abbess. In most monasteries to this day he or she is appointed by the abbot or abbess as St Benedict recommends. This chapter so full of failings and problems is nevertheless shot through with a spiritual atmosphere. The reasonable and humble request of the community recalls chapter 31 on the cellarer and chapter 61 on pilgrim monks and the spirit in which we should make all our requests or suggestions. St Benedict speaks of God-fearing brethren, that is, those who are ever mindful of the presence of God. That expression denotes a religious climate, the sense of the divine presence, from which flows the life of the individuals and the community as a whole. Finally there is the reference to the Holy Rule. The Rule itself is part of the sacred sphere which should envelop the monastery.

CHAPTER 65: OF THE PRIOR OF THE MONASTERY April 22, It very often happens that by the appointment of a prior grave scandals arise in monasteries, since there are some who, puffed up by the evil spirit of pride and considering themselves to be second abbots, usurp absolute authority, and so nourish scandals and cause dissensions in the community; especially is this the case in those places where the Prior is appointed by the same Bishop or the same Abbots as appoint the Abbot himself. The extreme folly of this usage is easily evident; for from his very entrance into office an incentive to pride is given him, in that the thought suggests itself to him that he is exempt from the authority of his Abbot, since he has been appointed by the very same persons by whom the Abbot himself was appointed. The consequence is that there arise envy, quarrels, backbiting, jealousy, dissensions, and disorders. And since the Abbot and the Prior find themselves at variance with each other, it follows of necessity that their souls are in danger by reason of this dissension. And those who are subject to them, while pandering to one party or the other, themselves run headlong to perdition. These evils and dangers are imputable particularly to those who by their appointment placed such men in power. We foresee, therefore, that it is expedient for the preservation of peace and charity, that the government of his monastery be left exclusively in the hands of the Abbot. And if possible let all the affairs of the monastery be attended to, as we have already arranged, by deans, according as the Abbot shall appoint; so that, the authority being shared by many, no one may become proud.

"...for the preservation of peace and charity." The Benedictine motto is Pax, peace; the word pax is often found above the door of our monasteries. "It [peace] is the word," writes Dom Marmion, "that best sums up, even in the eyes of seculars, the characteristic harmony of our life." The pursuit of peace requires more than a burst of good feeling; as for love and joy, it demands long-term, dogged effort, and faith. In the Prologue we are told to seek peace and pursue it. This is not something that simply happens; it must be sought, desired, pursued. This peace is something into which we must pray and discipline ourselves. This is not to say that it is a human achievement; peace like the other gifts and fruits are put into our hearts by the Spirit. But if they are gifts freely given, there is also a sense in which they are not given away. They must be intensely desired, sought, practised. As we saw in the agape talk, the gratuitous gifts of God never preclude labour on our part. We have received Christ's peace, as we have received his joy and love, but it remains necessary to purify our hearts, to accept the gift, to enter into and deepen the gift.

April 21, Let him who has been appointed Abbot always bear in mind what a burden he has taken on himself, and to whom he will have to give an account of his stewardship; and let him know that it behoves him rather to serve his brethren than to lord it over them. He must, therefore, be well versed in the Divine Law, that he may know whence to bring forth new things and old; he must be chaste, sober, merciful; and always exalt mercy above judgment that he himself may find mercy. Let him love the brethren whilst he hates their vices. And in the very correction of the brethren let him act prudently and not go to excess, lest, seeking too vigorously to cleanse off the rust, he may break the vessel. Let him ever keep his own frailty before his eyes and remember that the bruised reed must not be broken. By this we do not mean that he should suffer vices to grow up, but that he could cut them off prudently and with charity, according as he shall see that it is best for each, as we have said; and let him seek rather to be loved than to be feared. Let him not be turbulent and overanxious, over-exacting and headstrong, jealous and prone to suspicion, for otherwise he will never have rest. In his commands themselves, whether they concern God or the world, let him be prudent and considerate. Let him be discreet and moderate in the tasks which he imposes, bearing in mind the discretion of holy Jacob when he said: "If I cause my flock to be overdriven, they will all die in one day." Taking, then, this and other models of discretion, the mother of virtue, let him so temper all things that the strong may still find something they will do with zeal, and the weak may not be disheartened. And above all let him observe this present Rule in all things; so that having ministered well, he may hear from the Lord what that good servant heard who gave to his fellow servants their measure of wheat in due season: "Amen, I say to you, he shall set him over all his goods."

Mercy is mentioned twice in this passage. The Abbot is to be a revelation of the merciful love of God, which was the central content of His Son's mission. The Abbot is to tell of God's mercy by witnessing to it, proclaiming it and seeking to incarnate it. As Bl John Paul reminded us in his encyclical on Divine Mercy, mercy is a truth about God; it is not simply a soothing pious notion. The Abbot is to contemplate the Father in order to help his children discover that transforming love which is God's mercy. St Benedict desires here to put the abbot on guard against impatience and to exhort him to enter into the long patience of love which is one of the secrets of the heart of God, the secret of the mercy of God. As he makes clear, this is never a question of turning a blind eye to faults, still less of being an accomplice. True love is always lucid and demanding. Complicity or false indulgence is always degrading for those we love. Our Lord never capitulated before wrong-doing. "Go and sin no more." His way of mercy and love is to call us to grow. But if Our Lord is never the accomplice, He does not break the bruised reed, nor judge before the hour. He, like his abbot, knows how to wait, to give us time to grow through the uncertainties of a life in which the good and the less good are always mixed up. Before the reality of the world and of our lives, St Benedict invites the abbot to respect the slow work of God, to imitate his patience and mercy, which never gives up on any of his creatures.

CHAPTER 64: OF THE APPOINTMENT OF THE ABBOT April 20, In the appointment of an Abbot let this principle be observed, that he be made Abbot whom the entire community, inspired by the fear of God, shall choose unanimously, or whom even a majority of the community - however small - shall choose after more mature deliberation. Let him who is to be appointed be chosen because of the merit of his life and because of his learning, even though in the community he may be lowest in rank. But if all the community with one accord (which God forbid) should elect one who would connive at their evil ways, and these wicked doings should somehow come to the knowledge of the bishop to whose diocese the place belongs, or of the abbots or neighbouring Christians, let them take measures to prevent the plans of these wicked men from prevailing, and appoint a worthy steward over the house of God, knowing that for this they shall receive a good reward if they do it with a pure intention and for the love of God; whereas, on the other hand, they will sin if they are negligent in this matter.

St Benedict has two whole chapters on the abbot. Here he is concerned with the abbatial election. He shows himself more democratic than some earlier rules which prescribed that a new abbot be appointed by the previous one. But while recognizing the Community's right to choose its shepherd, St Benedict attaches only a relative value to the procedure. Even when unanimous, a bad choice should be removed. He seems less concerned with juridical forms as with the result: obtaining a worthy steward for God's house, and authentic vicar of Christ. To obtain this goal, any means seems good to him. The monastery is God's house. When St Benedict speaks of setting up a worthy steward, he is evoking the gospel (Lk 12; 42). The same evangelical image will appear at the end of this chapter. Steward of Christ, put at the head and at the service of his fellow co-servants, the abbot fulfils a sacred task for which he must have holiness of life and an ability to teach.

April 19, Let the junior brethren reverence their seniors, and the seniors love their juniors. In calling each other by name, let no one address another by his simple name alone; but let the seniors call the juniors Brothers, and the juniors call their seniors Fathers, by which is understood paternal reverence. But let the Abbot, since he is looked upon as representing Christ, be called Lord and Abbot; not that he has taken it to himself, but for the honour and love of Christ. He himself is so to consider it, and so to act as to be worthy of such a dignity. Wherever the brethren meet one another, let the junior ask a blessing from the senior. When the senior passes by, let the junior rise and give him place to be seated; nor let the junior presume to sit down unless the senior bid him do so, fulfilling thereby what is written: "With honour anticipating one another." Let young children and boys take their rank in the oratory and at table under discipline. Outside, also, or wherever they may be, let them be under close watch and discipline until they come to the age of understanding.

What does St Benedict mean by senior? As we have seen, not the eldest. We can get an idea from other chapters in the Rule. It means having experience, wisdom, stable and solid virtue. As is said of deans, it means to be of good repute and holy life (ch 21), capable of giving good advice is asked (ch 46 and tools of good works); They oversee good order in dormitory, refectory, and during lectio. For St Benedict seniors are of great importance in community life and its goal: holiness. In short being a senior is much more than a social rank. To be a senior, no matter what one's age, means to precede others by one's virtue, especially humility, compassion, uprightness, wisdom. That is why St Benedict insists on teaching us not to see in physical age a right in conferring seniority over others. Those who pretend to deserve their brethren's consideration by reason of their years of profession or priesthood are far from the spirit of the Rule, as are those who make much of honorary titles. Only obedience, humility, charity and good works count.

 

©SBVM 2013