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

July 23, Should anyone, through his own negligence or fault, fail to come to table before the verse - so that all may say the verse and the other prayers before meals in common, and sit down to table together - he shall be reprimanded the first and second time he is guilty of this offence. Should he commit the same offence the third time, he shall be excluded from the common table and shall take his meals alone; moreover, he shall be deprived of his portion of wine until he shall have made satisfaction and amended. He who is not present at the verse which is said after meals shall undergo the same punishment. Let no one presume to take any food or drink before or after the appointed time. However, if something is offered to anyone by the superior, and he disdainfully refuses it, and then afterwards wishes to have what he refused, let him not have either this or anything else until he makes proper satisfaction.

For St Benedict presence at the common meal is almost as important as presence at the common prayer. The high regard St Benedict has for punctuality and instant obedience may seem strict unless we understand his sacramental concept of community life. The totality of life within the monastery is the "service" which a monk renders to the lord Christ as the true King. All the communal demands made on us because of our membership in the monastic family-punctuality at meals and office, mutual obedience, responding to requests-are acts of worship and service, outward expressions of our inner religion before God. The monastic life is not something other than the common life: we are by faith to see the uncommonly religious character of the communal life we live with each other.

CHAPTER 43: OF THOSE WHO COME LATE TO THE WORK OF GOD OR TO MEALS July 22, At the hour of Divine Office let each one, as soon as he hears the signal, lay aside whatever he may be engaged with and respond with all speed, yet also with gravity, that no occasion be given for levity. Let nothing, then, be preferred to the Work of God. Should anyone come to the Night Office after the "Glória" of the 94th Psalm - which for this reason we wish to be said very deliberately and slowly - let him not stand in choir in his usual place, but in the lowest place, or in a place which the Abbot may have set apart for such negligent ones, until at the completion of the Office he may do penance by public satisfaction. We have thought that these should stand in the lowest place, or apart from the others for this reason, that, being seen by all, they may be brought by very shame to a sense of duty. Moreover, if they should remain outside the oratory, there might be someone who would either return to bed and sleep, or else sit outside and give himself to idle talk and thus furnish occasion to the Evil One. Let him enter, therefore, that he may not miss the entire Office, and may amend for the future. At the day hours, if one should come to the work of God after the Verse and the "Glória " of the first psalm that is said after the Verse, let him stand in the last place, as we have ordered above; and let him not presume to join himself to the choir in their chanting until he has made satisfaction, unless, perhaps, the Abbot may give him permission to do so; but even then, he is to make satisfaction for his fault.

St Benedict calls the office, the Work of God. It is the work of God for he is the object and also our work of prayer and praise in response to God's work. Now in monastic literature, the work of God referred first to the life of asceticism in general, convinced as they were that theory were undertaking a great labour. "The same [Abba Theodore] came one day to see Abba John, and during their conversation he said to him, "When I was at Scetis, the works of the soul were our work, and we considered manual work to be subordinate; now the work of the soul has become subordinate and what was secondary is the chief work.'" "In his youth Abba John questioned an old man, 'How have you been able to carry out the work of God in peace? For we cannot do it, not even with labour.' The old man said, 'We were able to do it, because we considered the work of God to be primary, and bodily needs to be subsidiary; but you hold bodily necessities to be primary and the work of God to be secondary; that is why you labor, and that is why the Saviour said to the disciples, "Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well."' (Matt. 6.33)" The monks of Scete are described as being energetic in doing the work of God. It referred to the whole monastic way of life, everything the monk had to do to become and remain a monk. St Benedict understands the work of God in this broad sense when he calls the monk a workman (prologue) and the monastery a workshop where he plies the tools of the spiritual craft. (ch 4). But this phrase, the work of God, was certainly a reality which included the liturgy, praying the psalms. For example, one elder visits another and they say: 'let us do the work of God and eat afterwards.' One recites the entire Psalter while the other recites the two great prophets. Morning comes and they forget to eat. Indeed for the early monks the work of works was prayer. Prayer sums up in itself and presupposes the toil and sweat of all the other virtues. "The whole complex of virtues tends towards the perfection of prayer" (Cassian, Conf. 9:7). This is a line of thought which leads to the Opus Dei in the Benedictine sense. All this is called the work of God because it is done in the service of God, a duty done in relation to him. For St Benedict to reserve the title Opus Dei to the liturgy was a new way of expressing the primacy of prayer. It was not a new way of understanding it. It is the work of God in the monk as well as the monk's work for God. The whole of the monk's life is the work of God, the service to which he has committed himself. This work finds its fullest and clearest expression in prayer; prayer including liturgical prayer sums up the whole of the monastic commitment. That is why St Benedict can justifiably call the work of prayer the Work of God.


©SBVM 2013