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

Jan 17, Let all, therefore, follow this Rule as their guide, and let no one decline from it rashly. Let no one in the monastery follow his own will, neither should anyone presume insolently to contend with his Abbot either within or without the monastery. But if one should presume to do so, let him be subjected to the regular punishment. The Abbot, on the other hand, is to do all things with the fear of God and in the observance of the Rule, since he must know without doubt that he must render to God, the most just Judge, an account of all his decisions. If matters of less importance concerning the good of the monastery are to be treated, let him take counsel with the seniors only, as it is written: " Do thou nothing without counsel and thou shalt not repent when thou hast done."

The Rule for St. Benedict is only indispensable, it is central; it is the universal point of reference: "In all things let all follow the Rule as master, nor let anyone depart from it" (chapter 3); the abbot himself "should do all things in the fear of God and observance of the Rule" (Ibid.). At the end of Chapter 66, St. Benedict enjoins that the Rule should be read aloud frequently in order that no one may plead ignorance. The Rule is the clearest expression of the terms of the life to which the novices engage themselves; it must be repeatedly presented to them "so that they may know on what they are entering" (chapter 58). Rules are important in the spiritual life. A Rule can be an enormous help to ordinary Catholics and Christians who want to follow Christ more closely. This is not to reduce our living faith, our love of God, and discipleship of Christ to a list of rules. The word Rule really means regular: A Rule of life enables us to live our lives in regular contact with God. It is at the service of our faith and discipleship. Our wills are often weak; we allow many other things to get in the way and take priority. This is where a personal Rule of Life can be invaluable. A rule of life is a pattern of spiritual discipline that provides structure and direction for growth in holiness. Like the sticks we put in the ground to support young plants, to orient and support their growth, a Rule of life is there to support the development of living individuals and communities. The plant is not stifled by the stick but is able to unfold itself around the axis, finding there its centre and support to mount upwards. So too, as the Church's tradition shows in its rules for religious life, the human being, tending towards God with all its liberty intact, moves around a Rule of life given to it. We have need of a rule of life to direct our ascent to God, guarding it from inconstancy and our own fragility.

CHAPTER 3: Calling the brethren to council Jan 16, Whenever anything of importance is to be done in the monastery, let the Abbot assemble the whole community and himself declare the matter to be treated. And having received the advice of the brethren, let him weigh it within himself, and then do what he shall judge to be most expedient. Moreover, we have said that all are to be called to council because it is often to the younger that the Lord reveals what is better. However, the brethren are to proffer their several opinions with all the subjection of humility, and none should presume to maintain pertinaciously his own opinion, but should rather let the matter rest with the discretion of the Abbot, that all may submit to whatsoever he may consider the better course to follow. Yet, even as it behoves the disciples to obey their master, so also is it incumbent on him to administer all things wisely and justly.

This is a remarkable chapter in the Rule for St Benedict recognizes that the abbot has no monopoly on inspiration and that truth is often found in the process of listening to others. Even in affairs of lesser importance (tomorrow's passage), consultation should always be made. Here St Benedict says if the issue is important, the whole community should be summoned for God often reveals what is best to the younger. So attentive is St Benedict to seeking the truth that he exhorts the abbot to attend to any possible channel, even visiting monks from outside the community (chapter 61). There is no question here of majority rule: the abbot takes all possible information into consideration before making a decision. In Benedictine communities, the only question of government by consensus is that all agree to follow whatever is decided. Ultimately, as St Benedict recognizes, it is Christ who speaks and commands, "the Lord reveals". It is He whom both abbot and monks desire to obey.

Jan 15, Above all, let him not, while disregarding or undervaluing the salvation of the souls committed to him, be over solicitous in regard to things transitory, earthly, and perishable; let him always bear in mind that he has taken upon himself the government of souls, of whom he must one day render an account. And lest he should plead in excuse his want of temporal things, let him remember that it is written: "Seek first the kingdom of God and His justice, and all these things shall be given you besides"; and again, "There is no want to them that fear Him." And let him know that he who hast undertaken the government of souls, must prepare himself to render an account. And no matter how large the number of brethren that he has under his care may be, let him be absolutely certain that on the day of judgment he is to render an account to the Lord of all these souls, and without doubt likewise of his own. And thus being ever fearful of the coming judgment of the shepherd concerning the sheep committed to him, whilst he is careful of the accounts of others, he becomes solicitous also of his own. And whilst he ministers by his admonitions towards the betterment of others, he himself becomes freed of his own defects.

"Seek first the kingdom of God..." St Benedict does not want his abbot to be anxious about material concerns; material cares should be an opportunity for him and for us to turn to God. Both the abbot and ourselves need to learn how to live with a certain abandon to the day in a confidence and love ceaselessly renewed, as Jesus invites us to do in the Sermon on the Mount where he would have us learn from the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. . God will give us all we need if we cast all concern for ourselves onto Him. This calls for faith in God's love. Each of us is utterly important to God; we can afford to relax a bit and let him look after us. We tend to think that unless we take care of ourselves no one will. But faith tells us that there is One who never takes His eyes off us, so much so that not a hair of our head is lost.

Jan 14, The Abbot ought always to remember what he is and what he is called; and that from him to whom much is given much shall likewise be required. Let him consider how difficult and arduous a task he has undertaken - namely, that of ruling souls, and of adapting himself to the dispositions of many. Let him so accommodate and suit himself to all according to the character and intelligence of each one, winning some by kindness, others by reproof, others again by persuasion, that he may not only suffer no loss in the flock committed to him, but may even have cause to rejoice in the increase of a virtuous flock.

The image of the flock here reminds us that the abbot is above all a shepherd. But the flock committed to him is not his, but the Lord's. The Lord is the Master of the sheepfold; the abbot is the attendant. This truth should console the abbot. The flock is definitely in better hands than ours. It is in the hands of Him who brings about everything according to his will and who blesses all work undertaken for his glory. Thus when difficulties accumulate and obscure the horizon, faith tells the abbot that a work which comes from God is always brought to fulfilment in His good time. Confident in providence, the abbot is invited to follow the star and with the Virgin Mary await the dawn with confidence. The abbot is also to share in Christ's love for the flock entrusted to him. This is not just any kind of love, not just a purely human, sentimental affection, but the desire to feed the flock, to help them grow spiritually, to shepherd, pasture them, to feed them with what will bring them close to God. And that means too that the diet provided may not always be enjoyable. Sometimes it means telling the flock things they do not want to hear. The responsibility for shepherding has an austere side. There are some things cows and sheep cannot eat for their own good!

Jan 13, In his preaching let the Abbot invariably follow as his rule that injunction of the Apostle: "Reprove, entreat, rebuke"; that is, suiting his actions to circumstances, mingling gentleness with severity, let him show now the rigour of a master, now the loving affection of a father; in other words, he should sternly reprove the undisciplined and the restless; the obedient and the meek and the patient ones, on the other hand, he ought rather to entreat to advance in holiness; but such, however, as are not amenable to correction and are contemptuous of authority, we charge him to rebuke and punish. Let him not shut his eyes to the faults of offenders; but as soon as they make their appearance, let him do his utmost to pluck them out by the roots, remembering the fate of Heli, the priest of Silo. Those of good disposition and understanding let him correct for the first or second time with words only; but such as are not upright and are hard of heart, proud, and disobedient, let him chastise at the very first offence with stripes or other corporal punishments, knowing that it is written: "The fool is not corrected with words." And again, "Thou shalt beat thy child with the rod and thou shalt deliver his soul from death."

In the mind of St Benedict the abbot also has a duty to correct. The rule recalls that the parent who ignores or goes along with the faults of his children does not truly love them. Generally speaking we all agree with this and approve of his doing so in any direction opposite our own! If he turns the correction in our own direction, do we persevere in these dispositions? Or do we assume he is showing a lack of understanding or fairness? By our vow of conversion of life, we promise to give ourselves to the amendment of our faults, and this is something done with the assistance of our superiors. They are obliged to help us overcome those things that we are not aware of or not strong enough to right for ourselves. It is often not easy for them. We should be grateful for the opportunity of growing, of taking a step forward, grateful that they have not given up on us. Our reaction is born of ourselves rather than the other person or circumstances.

Jan 12, Let him make no distinction of persons in the monastery. Let not one be loved more than another, unless he be found to excel in good works or in obedience. Let not one of noble birth be raised above him who was formerly a slave, unless some other reasonable cause intervene. If, however, justice should demand, and it should seem good to the Abbot to do so, he may promote a brother from any rank whatsoever; but otherwise let them all hold their respective places, because, whether bond or free, we are all one in Christ and bear an equal burden of service under one and the same master: "Because with God there is no respect of persons." Only for one reason we are distinguished in His sight: namely, if we are found to be eminent in good works and in humility. Therefore, let equal charity be shown by him to all, and an equal measure of punishment be meted out to all according to their respective deserts.

The abbot's love is mentioned three times in this chapter, two of the three in today's passage. St Benedict returns often to it in the Rule, especially in chapters 64 and 72. Everything in this chapter-the forbearance and gentleness of the abbot, his need to correct sometimes-all that finds its full meaning in the light of love. Monastic tradition is full of the language of love between abbot and sons. In one of the letters of the great spiritual father, St Anthony, considered the first monk, we find: "My sons in the Lord, day and night I beg my Creator, through the Spirit poured into me, to open your hearts that you may understand my love for you" (Letter 4). And then there is this description of Anthony's death: "When he had finished speaking, his disciples kissed him. He stretched out his feet and looking fondly at his companions, rejoicing in their presence, he remained in bed, happiness showing in his face." (Vita, 66)

 

©SBVM 2013