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 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!


©SBVM 2013