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 42: THAT NO ONE MAY SPEAK AFTER COMPLINE March 21, Monks ought to have a zeal for silence at all times, but especially during the hours of the night. Therefore at all times, whether on days of fasting or on other days, let this be the rule: if it is not a fast day, as soon as they have risen from supper, let them all assemble together and let one read the Conferences or Lives of the Fathers, or indeed anything else that may serve to edify the hearers; but not the Heptateuch, or the Books of Kings, for it would not be of profit to those of weak understanding to hear those parts of Scripture at that hour; at other times, however, they may be read. If it is a fast day, then shortly after Vespers let them assemble for the reading, as we have said. Four or five pages are to be read, or as much as the time allows, so that during the time consumed by this reading all even such as may be occupied in some work assigned them - may come together. All, therefore, being assembled, let them say Compline; and on coming out from Compline no one shall be allowed thereafter to speak to anyone. But if one is found to have violated this rule of silence, let him be subjected to severe punishment - unless the presence of guests make it necessary, or, perhaps, the Abbot give one a command. But even this must be done becomingly and with all gravity and moderation.

St. Benedict attaches the greatest importance to this spirit of silence, using the word gravitas. This word appears 6 times in the Rule, and 5 of these specify a manner of speaking, as it does here. It means literally, quantity, amount; figuratively there is the idea of seriousness, dignity, "weighty." The word gravitas doesn't mean gloom or solemnity; it denotes a certain dignity, seriousness, weight in speaking. It appears in the preface at Profession where it asks that the nun be possessed with a gentleness full of gravity (gravis lenitas). Our silence should reflect the seriousness, the weightiness of monastic life, a seriousness which results from an awareness of God's presence, from the purpose of our life which is to seek God. As Mother Abbess has put it, "The monk or nun values silence because its opposite would not be in keeping with the ultimate seriousness of our monastic life. By seriousness is not meant solemnity or long faces, but a deep realization of the purpose of the life we lead and a renouncement of shallowness and triviality which could vitiate it. We are people in earnest about attaining eternal life; we are serious about seeking God and living in his presence with the humble desire to sharing in his work of redemption of all man." So St. Benedict does not demand a total silence, but a restraint of speech, and a way of speaking which is in complete harmony with the nature and end of our life. The true monk is he who when he must speak does so with gentleness, which is at once respect for God and for others, with humility, gravity, and with as few words as possible. Instead of being simply a negative precept--do not speak--St. Benedict teaching is positive--peace and serenity. Smiling is a silent, extra manifestation of this peace, joy and contentment. As Dom Belorgy has noted, smiling is both worship, (a way of saying to God that we are happy to serve him) and an apostolate (encouraging others to serve him with joy).

CHAPTER 41: AT WHAT HOURS THE BRETHREN ARE TO TAKE THEIR MEALS March 20, From the holy feast of Easter until Pentecost the brethren shall dine at the sixth hour and take their supper in the evening. From Pentecost, throughout the summer, if the brethren have not to work in the fields or if the heat of the summer is not oppressive, let them fast on Wednesdays and Fridays until the ninth hour; but on the other days let them dine at the sixth hour. Indeed, dinner at the sixth hour may be the rule every day, at the discretion of the Abbot, should they be employed at field labour or should the heat of the summer be excessive. In general, let him so temper and arrange all things that souls may be saved and that the brethren may fulfil their tasks without any murmuring. From the 14th of September until the beginning of Lent, let the brethren always dine at the ninth hour. During Lent, however, until Easter let them dine in the evening. Yet this evening meal is to be so regulated that they shall not need the light of lamps while eating. Let all things be finished while there is yet daylight. Indeed, at all times, whether on days of two meals or on fast days, let the hour of meals be so regulated that everything be done by daylight.

Fasting, in our days, has become one of the most neglected spiritual practices. Because of misunderstandings regarding the nature of fasting, Christians tend to fast very little, or disregard fasting altogether. Yet fasting was practised by Christ himself. After prayer and fasting for forty days in the wilderness, he victoriously faced the temptations of the devil (Matthew 4:1-11). The Lord asked his disciples to use fasting as an important spiritual weapon to achieve spiritual victories (Matthew 17:21; Mark 9:29; Luke 2:37). The example of the Lord was followed by his disciples (Acts 14:23; 27:9; 1 Corinthians 7:5; 2 Corinthians 11:27, etc.), and St Paul expressly speaks of fasting as a means by which Christians are to commend themselves as servants of God (2 Corinthians 6:5). In the Church's tradition, fasting is much more than a penance. Fasting for the Christian has two aspects: physical and spiritual, outward and inward. On the outward level fasting involves physical abstinence from food and drink; yet rules about eating and drinking must never be treated as an end in themselves, for fasting has always an inward, spiritual purpose. Man is a unity of body and soul, and our fasting is a practice that involves both. So fasting will also include abstinence from evil thoughts, desires, and deeds. Fasting is part of the struggle against weaknesses and defects to acquire purity of heart. It fosters prayer. It is a way of preparing the body for the resurrection, opening it to grace, and making it more receptive to God's word. Renouncing taste for earthly nourishment develops the taste for God. It is to liberate oneself from dependence on the things of this world in order to concentrate on the things of the Kingdom of God. According to St. Seraphim of Sarov, fasting is an "indispensable means" of gaining the fruit of the Holy Spirit in one's life.

CHAPTER 40: THE DRINK ALLOWANCE March 19, "Each one has his own gift from God, one in this way, and another in that." Hence, it is with some hesitation that we undertake to determine the measure of nourishment for others. However, making due allowance for the infirmity of the weak, we think that a hemina of wine a day is sufficient for each. But let those to whom God grants the gift of abstinence know that they shall receive their reward. If either the nature of the place, or the labour, or the heat of summer requires more, it shall be in the power of the superior to grant it, care being taken in all things that self-indulgence or drunkenness does not creep in. Although we read that wine is by no means a drink for monks, yet, since in our days the monks cannot be convinced of this, let us at least agree to this, that we do not drink to satiety, but sparingly, because "Wine maketh even the wise to fall away." Should, however, the nature of the place be such that not even the above-mentioned measure can be had, but much less, or even none at all, let those who dwell there bless God and not murmur. This above all do we admonish, that they be without murmuring.

"Each one has his own gift from God, one in this way, and another in that," a citation taken from St Paul in 1 Cor 7:7. Later St Benedict will refer to the "gift" of abstinence. The monastic "gift" consists in renunciation, sacrifice: renunciation in food and drink, of independence and speaking, of property and prestige, and other abstentions which make up the way of being a monk and nun. Each of these is a gift of God which makes us renounce some relative good in view of His absolute good. All these renunciations liberate something for God: celibacy (which is the context of 1 Cor 7:7) frees us to love more; poverty and restrictions in food and drink frees us from slavery to material things; obedience liberates our will for the service of God and others. Our renunciation is a conscious, deliberate effort to open ourselves to the action of God, to grow into the new life Christ has come to bring; it is first and foremost a work of God's grace, but in and through a free human activity. Asceticism is a gift and work of God in us. It is a human activity which prepares us to welcome the gift of God and is already a response to it.

CHAPTER 39: THE FOOD ALLOWANCE March 18, 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.

Christians belong to a religious tradition which begins with a fall, connected with breaking a fast in Paradise, when Adam ate the forbidden fruit, and ends with the hope of a never-ending banquet. In between there is our Lord and his forty days of fasting, and the gift of his body and blood, in the form of the bread and wine from which we receive our daily nourishment. In such a framework eating and fasting are by no means negligible values. Hence the religious dignity of our meals; hence too the need to avoid gluttony and exercise control in the on-going effort to reconquer our interior unity and order. Like the Eucharist, the monastic meal is both sacrifice and meal. The demand for sacrifice is given in St Benedict's insistence on moderation; the meal in the focus on the communal nature of our meals and sharing. To eat and drink is a liturgical action, with prayer before and after. Liturgical times even mark St Benedict's menu plan, as we shall see in tomorrow's chapter.


©SBVM 2013