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 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.

CHAPTER 42: THAT NO ONE MAY SPEAK AFTER COMPLINE July 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 at 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.

Monks ought to have a zeal for silence at all times," or "should practise silence at all times." We should carry it around with us. It is something we practise, have zeal for, not something we fall into out of a bad mood. We should study to make an effort to build silence. Our normal state of affairs is not chatter. There is a silence that can spring from a sense of inferiority or superiority or a bad mood. But ours is a silence of union with others and confidence in each one's good will. We do it to create the necessary conditions for hearing the voice of God. To give it the high relief it should have, we need special times of particular silence, like the night silence. Silence is a sign that the Community is at ease with and united in the real task of living for God.

CHAPTER 41: AT WHAT HOURS THE BRETHREN ARE TO TAKE THEIR MEALS July 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.

We do not fast because there is anything in itself unclean about the act of eating and drinking. Food and drink are, on the contrary, God's gift. Christians fast, not because they despise the divine gift, but to make themselves aware that it is indeed a gift. We fast to purify our eating and drinking, and to make them no longer a concession to greed but as sacrament, a means of communion with the Giver. So there is no question here of saying that fasting is a good thing because food and drink are bad things. That would be a kind of Gnosticism, a disparaging of God's creation. Food is not bad in itself; it is neither pure nor impure. As our Lord says, only what comes from the heart of man deserves such designations. St Thomas Aquinas says that if we have that negative attitude to food our fasting is without Christian value. For him, fasting is part of the virtue of temperance, or self-control, which deals with acting rightly in areas of food, drink, and sexuality. Temperance restrains the passions, ordering us towards our true good in this life and the next. And in all this he stresses that the worst vice is to lack proper esteem for the goodness of the world God has made, to fail to take delight in the world God has made for our good. Nevertheless, for St Thomas, fasting is part of the natural law; it is found in all religious traditions. In fact if we do not fast we fail in our common humanity.

CHAPTER 40: THE DRINK ALLOWANCE July 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 ." 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.

As in the previous chapter, this chapter concludes with the word "measure". Both chapters speak of frugality and warn against over-indulgence. Both speak of abstaining, and the tone of both is cautious and accommodating, reflecting St Benedict's awareness of the diversity among his monks. Everything is viewed from the diversity of God's gifts. The Scripture verse which opens this chapter is applied by St Paul to chastity (1 Cor 7:7), but St Benedict applies it to abstinence. The gift is from God; God gives the strength to abstain, and He will also give a special reward. "… one in this way, and another in that": One may have the gift of abstaining from wine, another from sleep, while others may have the gift of patience, obedience, putting their neighbour first. The Rule always respects the uniqueness of individuals with their unique gifts. Abstinence is a gift from God and a gift to God.

CHAPTER 39: THE FOOD ALLOWANCE July 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, accept the very weak and the sick, are to abstain from eating the flesh of four-footed animals.

St Benedict is saying let people have what they need but let them forego what they don't, so they can run through life unburdened. This belongs to every Christian as St Benedict notes: between the monk and all Christians there is no difference, except perhaps in the attitude of a more exclusive attention to the Lord present and to come. This point reminds us that monastic life does not constitute a Christian life different from that of others in the Church; monastic life as Dom Gueranger noted, "is simply the excellent fruit of Christianity", " a form and modality of the Christian life" (Dom Delatte), faithful for the ideal that comes from the Gospel. Wherever the Gospel is preached, wherever the Church spreads, there will always be found those who wish to live out its message more fully, to dedicate themselves to a deeper understanding and more thorough observance of Christ's commands and counsels. "The monk," wrote Dom Gueranger, "is simply someone who takes his Christianity seriously."

CHAPTER 38: OF THE READER FOR THE WEEK July 17, There shall always be reading at table while the brethren are eating. Yet he should not presume to read there who by mere chance shall have taken up the book; but let him who is to read throughout the week enter on his office on Sunday. He who is entering on this service shall, after Mass and Communion, ask of all to pray for him that God may keep from him the spirit of pride. And let this verse be thrice said in the oratory by all, he himself beginning it: "Dómine, lábia mea apéries, et os meum annuntiábit laudem tua " ("O God, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise") (Ps 51:17). Then, having received the blessing, let him enter on his duties as reader. The most profound silence shall be kept at table so that the whispering or voice of no one save that of the reader alone be heard there. The brethren will so help each other to what is necessary as regards food and drink that no one may have need to ask for anything. Should, however, something be required, let it be asked for by means of some sign rather than by words. Let no one ask any question there concerning what is being read or anything else, lest occasion be given to the Evil One; unless perhaps the superior should wish to say something briefly for the edification of the brethren. The brother who is reader for the week shall receive refreshment before he begins to read, because of the Holy Communion, and lest it be too hard for him to fast so long. After the meal he shall eat with the weekly cooks and servers. The brethren are not to read or sing according to rank; but only those are to discharge these duties who can do so to the edification of the hearers.

St Benedict here returns to questions concerning the refectory. He desires that the prayer for the reader takes place not in the refectory, but in the oratory, the place of prayer, after Mass and Holy Communion. In this way, St Benedict brings out the interior connection between Holy Communion and the Word of God in the mouth of the reader. Both are the presence of Christ. Both require humility and reverence and both build up community. For St Benedict the reader is not to project himself, but to allow God to speak through him, so that God can truly work in the reader and in those who listen, so that all may be edified. That is why St Benedict exhorts the reader to ask all to pray for him. To read in this way is a grace for which we must ask.

CHAPTER 37: OF OLD MEN AND CHILDREN July 16, Although human nature itself is inclined to consideration as regards these ages, namely, that of old men and children, yet the authority of the Rule should also provide for them. Let their weakness be always taken into account and let the full rigour of the Rule as regards food be in no way exacted in their regard; but let a kind consideration be had for them, and let them eat before the regular hours.

As we have seen, these two stages of life have much in common, and both have something to give. After dealing with sick brethren, he now turns to those whose weakness is not due to illness but simply to age. They are both stages of weakness and dependence. Every child is entrusted, defenceless into another's hands. He has to let himself be clothed, fed, carried, looked after. Similarly the elderly and those who are dying no longer have control over themselves; they must let others look after them. The Son of God freely entered into this condition of dependence when He became incarnate. And He continues to entrust Himself to His Church; He allows the Church to have control over Him and His sacrifice. He entrusts to her administration not only the fruits of His life and his sacrifice, but His very self in the Eucharist. Finally, he gives Himself into the hands of anyone who becomes a 'mother' to Him by doing the will of the Father. This being 'handed-over' is the final fruit of His life of action and free obedience to His Father's will. We too have to learn how to be led and to be in this way more surrendered, available to the Father's will.

CHAPTER 36: OF SICK BRETHREN July 15, Before all things and above all things care is to be taken of the sick, so that they may be served in very deed as Christ Himself; for He has said: "I was sick and you visited Me"; and, "As long as you did it for one of these My least brethren, you did it for Me." But let the sick themselves consider that they are being served for the honour of God, and not grieve the brethren who are serving them by superfluous demands. Yet, they shall be patiently borne with, because by serving such as these a more abundant reward is obtained. Therefore, the Abbot shall take the greatest care that they suffer no neglect. Let a cell be set apart for the sick brethren, and one be appointed to serve them who fears God and is diligent and careful. Let the use of the baths be granted to the sick as often as it shall be expedient; but to those who are well, and especially to the young, it shall be seldom permitted. The use of meat, too, shall be permitted to the sick and to the very weak, that they may recover their strength. But when they have recovered their strength, let them all abstain from meat in the accustomed manner. Let the Abbot take all possible care that the sick be not neglected by the cellarers or those appointed to serve them; for he is held responsible for whatever failures his disciples are guilty of.

The theme of service and love continues in this beautiful chapter on the sick. The great concern for the sick is based on the words of Christ; again we see how Scripture is a very living thing for St Benedict. St Benedict says the care of the sick is to be a priority, and he bases this above all on the words of Jesus in the scene of the Last Judgment. St Benedict will invoke the same passage of the gospel in the chapter on guests. In the previous chapter, which recalled Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, we saw the example of Jesus serving his disciples, showing himself the servant of man, ever providing for his needs. Here we see the other side of the mystery: Jesus is served in each of his brothers or sisters, revealing his presence in all human distress. In the one, he acts and gives; in the other, as in this chapter, he suffers and receives. In the monastery, Jesus is both the one whom we serve and the model of our service. And if the sick are to be served like Christ, they must behave as members of Christ and not "sadden" their attendants by their unreasonable demands.

July 14, On Sunday, as soon as Lauds are ended, both the incoming and the outgoing servers for the week shall cast themselves on their knees before all and ask their prayers. He who is ending his week shall say this verse: "Benedíctus es, Dómine Deus, qui adiuvísti me et consolátus es me." (Blessed are you, O God, who have helped me and comforted me" (Dan. 3:52; Ps 86:17). After this has been thrice repeated, let him receive the blessing. He who is entering on his office shall then follow and say: "Deus, in adiutórium meum inténde; Dómine ad adiuvándum me festína."("O God, come to my assistance O God, make haste to help me" (Ps 70:2) This also is to be repeated thrice by all; and having received the blessing, let him enter on his office.

The blessing of the weekly servers in the midst of the Community is a custom which we still observe today. The essential mark of fraternal love, according to St John, is that it loves "not in word and speech but in deed" (1 Jn 3:18). It will dedicate itself to humble and fervent service, following the example of our Lord who washed the feet of his disciples and instructed us to do the same, i.e. love and serve in lowly ways. Not only must we translate our ideals into action, but we must also see our actions in the light of our ideals. We serve for the sake of love of God and of neighbour. The kitchen and refectory service provides a chance for the strong to help the weak so that both may serve. Our Lord has given us the Community as an expression of his own love for us; and the Community enables us to accept his love and respond to it. If we do not serve one another, we are just a group of individuals living alone together.


©SBVM 2013