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 7: Of humility May 26, The Sacred Scripture cries out to us, brethren, saying, "Everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled and he who humbles himself shall be exalted." In saying this it teaches us that all exaltation is of the nature of pride, which vice the Prophet shows that he took care to avoid, saying: "Lord, my heart is not proud, nor are my eyes haughty, nor have I walked in great matters, nor in wonderful things above me." And why? "For if I were not humbly minded, but had exalted my soul, as a child that is weaned from its mother, so would my soul likewise be rewarded."

The desert sayings are filled with questions about the meaning of humility and how to acquire and cultivate it. John of Thebaid: 'First of all the monk must gain humility, for it is the first commandment of the Lord who said, 'Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven For Abba Poemen (No 49). Humility is as vital as the breath of life itself; Amma Syncletica said that it was humility that holds a monk's life together and makes salvation possible. None of the other practices could save a monk because none could so effectively overcome the natural human tendency to rely on oneself, to look to one's own achievements for one's happiness and well-being, in response to someone who wanted to know the good of fasting and keeping watch, Abba Moses replied: "They make the soul humble". (Moses 18b or 5 in extra sayings under his name). The early monks were very aware that works of ascetic alone could not bring one close to God (cf Syncletica, 16) Humility was perceived as especially effective in helping one to overcome the attacks of demons (Anthony 7). For the early monks, cultivating humility meant moving in two directions: being reconciled to one's own weakness and the sense of one's utter dependence on the mercy of God. These two movements were connected: by understanding themselves as weak and sinful, they were more open to receive the mercy of God. "The divine work of humility is considering oneself a sinner, inferior to all. . .not paying attention to others' sins but always to one's own, praying to God ceaselessly" (Nau 323. ) Their acute sense of weakness was perceived as one of the clearest signs of humility, most often expressed as "just having begun along the way" by those who lived long years and who were the most highly esteemed. (Pambo 8; Sisoes 4)- An indicator of their deep self-knowledge and of how much space they had allowed within for God.

CHAPTER 6: Of silence May 25, Let us act in conformity with that saying of the Prophet: "I said I will guard my ways lest I sin with my tongue; I have put a bridle on my mouth; I was dumb and was humbled and kept silence from good things." Here the prophet shows that if we ought at times for the sake of silence to refrain even from good words, much more ought we to abstain from evil words on account of the punishment due to sin. Therefore, on account of the importance of silence, let permission to speak be rarely given even to the perfect disciples, even though their words be good and holy and conducive to edification, because it is written: "In the multitude of words there shall not want sin." And elsewhere: "Death and life are in the power of the tongue." For to speak and to teach are the province of the master; whereas that of the disciple is to be silent and to listen. Therefore, if anything is to be asked of the superior, let it be done with all humility and subjection of reverence, lest one seem to speak more than is expedient. Buffoonery, however, or idle words or such as move to laughter we utterly condemn in every place, and forbid the disciple to open his mouth to any such discourse.

Silence also has a place in the teaching and life of Our Lord. Christ revealed the Father as much by silence as by speech. The Fathers of the Church were amazed by the Christmas mystery of a Verbum infans, the Divine Word who had become a baby who cannot speak. Christ's revealing work begins in hiddenness and silence of his Mother's body. His public ministry, as the gospels show, is regularly punctuated by prayer. His human words proceed from silence, the silent contemplation of the Father. In his teaching, he insists that in prayer we are not to heap up empty phrases; elsewhere he stresses "Let what you say be simply yes or no; anything more comes from evil" (Mt 5:33). He is speaking of oaths here, but his words are capable of a wider application. The most pointed teaching of our Lord on dangerous or careless words comes in Mt. 12:34-37. Finally there is the almost unbroken silence in which he experiences his passion. In his trial and passion Jesus speaks mostly through silence, making no answer to his accusers. St. Ambrose says: "The Lord worked our salvation by keeping silence." This was not the oppressed silence of the terrorized victim, because the passion was something the Saviour chose to do for us. "The Lord worked our salvation. . ." what seemed to be merely borne and suffered is at another level the fruit of the highest spiritual fruitfulness. Then there is the silence of the Lord's sleep on Holy Saturday, the silence which is the place of gestation of Easter joy. St. Ignatius of Antioch in his Epistle to the Ephesians (19:1) speaks of the virginal conception, birth and death of the Lord as "three eloquent (or as another translation puts it, "loud-crying") mysteries accomplished in silence." Human silence is a fitting expression of divine silence in which according to Ignatius the Word comes forth. In each case what such silence speaks of is ultimately the greatness of the Father, his transcendence of all we can say of him but also wonder at his saving plan.


©SBVM 2013