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 62: OF THE PRIESTS OF THE MONASTERY August 17, If an abbot desires to have a priest or a deacon ordained for his community, let him choose from among his monks one who is worthy to perform the priestly office. Let him who is ordained beware of arrogance and pride, and presume to do nothing that is not commanded him by his Abbot, knowing that he is now all the more subject to the regular discipline. Let him not by occasion of his priesthood forget the obedience and discipline of the Rule, but let him progress ever more and more in the Lord. Let him always keep the place due to him according to his entrance into the monastery except during the exercise of his priestly functions, or unless the election of the community and the will of the Abbot should decide to promote him out of consideration for the merit of his life. Nevertheless, he should know that he is to obey the commands given him by the deans and the Prior; should he presume to act otherwise, let him be treated not as a priest but as a rebel. And if, after being frequently admonished, he does not correct himself, let even the bishop be brought in as a witness. If after his faults have been repeatedly made known to him, he still does not amend, let him be cast forth from the monastery; but this shall be done only after his obstinacy has become such that he will not submit to or obey the Rule.

"Every baptized Christian," writes Abbess Cecile Bruyere, "is priest and king in the secret temple of his own soul." The visible Church and its liturgy are designed to waken us to the liturgy of heaven. But it ought also to make us aware of the liturgy of the heart, in which the Christian becomes the temple and his heart, the altar of a spiritual and interior sacrifice and liturgy. The God toward whom our desire tends is already within our heart. In prayer we enter into contact with the depths of our soul which is already God's dwelling place as St Paul teaches us: Christ lives in me (Gal 2:20) Our body is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1Cor 6:19) The Spirit of God prays within us (8:26). St Peter too speaks of "offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 2:5). The fathers often speak of an interior liturgy of the heart. The heart is an inner house, a sanctuary, the temple of God in us, so that God is at home there. In the heart a complete liturgy is celebrated, although an invisible and wholly interior one, with a spiritual priesthood and an unbloody sacrifice. A hymn of St Ephrem gives us a good example of this interior liturgy of the praying Christian: "They are ordained priest for their own sake, the sacrifice they offer is their ascesis, fasting is their sacrifice, praying their night vigil, penitence and faith their sanctuary. Their mediations are their burnt offerings, self-control is their peace offering. Their chastity is their temple veil, their humility a sweet smelling incense. Their pure heart is the high priest....Unceasingly their lips offer up his sacrifice. The depth of their heart is the holy of Holies where is set up the altar of atonement." From this it follows that the whole Christian life and the struggle it implies are imbued with a deep priestly significance. "If I renounce everything I possess, if I carry the cross and follow Christ, I have offered a holocaust on the altar of God. Or if I burn up my body in the fire of charity... I have offered a holocaust on the altar of God. ... if I mortify my body and abstain from concupiscence, if the world is crucified unto me and me unto the world, then I have offered a sacrifice on the altar of God, and I am become a priest of my own sacrifice" (Origen). The basis of this is the grace of our Baptism.

August 16, But, if, during that time, he was found to be one hard to please and viciously inclined, not only should he not be admitted into the community, but he should be told courteously to depart, lest others should be corrupted by his wickedness. But if he is not such as to deserve to be cast forth, he should be received as a member of the community, not only in the event of his own asking, but even by persuading him to stay, that others may be taught by his example, and because, wherever we are, we serve the one Lord and fight under the one King. Moreover, if the Abbot perceives him to be one who is deserving, he may place him in a somewhat higher rank. The Abbot may promote not only a monk but also any of the aforesaid priests or clerics to a rank higher than that accorded them at their entrance, if he perceives their lives to be such as to merit this promotion. But let the Abbot take care never to receive into his community a monk from any known monastery without the consent of his Abbot and without letters of recommendation; because it is written: "See thou never do to another what thou wouldst hate to have done to thee by another."

St Benedict is concerned with good relations with other houses, the respect we should have for other communities. We need to help and rejoice in one another. "Fraternal spiritual relations and mutual cooperation among different Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life are sustained and nourished by the sense of ecclesial communion. Those who are united by a common commitment to the following of Christ and are inspired by the same Spirit cannot fail to manifest visibly, as branches of the one Vine, the fullness of the Gospel of love. Mindful of the spiritual friendship which often united founders and foundresses during their lives, consecrated persons, while remaining faithful to the character of their own Institute, are called to practise a fraternity which is exemplary and which will serve to encourage the other members of the Church in the daily task of bearing witness to the Gospel. Saint Bernard's words about the various Religious Orders remain ever timely: "I admire them all. I belong to one of them by observance, but to all of them by charity. We all need one another: the spiritual good which I do not own and possess, I receive from others ... In this exile, the Church is still on pilgrimage and is, in a certain sense, plural: she is a single plurality and a plural unity. All our diversities, which make manifest the richness of God's gifts, will continue to exist in the one house of the Father, which has many rooms. Now there is a division of graces; then there will be distinctions of glory. Unity, both here and there, consists in one and the same charity"."(Vita Consecrata 52)

CHAPTER 61: HOW MONKS WHO ARE TRAVELLING ARE TO BE RECEIVED August 15, If a travelling monk arrives from distant parts and desires to dwell in the monastery as a guest, and if he is content with the manner of life which he shall find there, and does not trouble the monastery by his unreasonable demands, but is simply satisfied with what he shall find, let him be received for as long a time as he may wish. If, however, he censures or points out anything reasonably and with humble charity, let the Abbot weigh the matter prudently, lest perchance the Lord may have sent him for this very purpose. If later on he is willing to promise stability, let not his wish be denied, especially since during the time he was entertained opportunity was given for ascertaining his manner of life.

The kind of visiting monk who is welcome to join the community is the one who is content with what he finds, with what is customary. This is repeated twice in today's passage and once tomorrow. Contentment expresses the ability to see God in the midst of things as they really are, a receiving of what is offered to us, letting things be as they are, and not wanting to make everything adapt to us. It is contentment which enables the abbot to be receptive to comments and criticisms of strangers. Contentment is to see reality in its sacred independence, to see, judge and act from a point of rest in ourselves, where God is present.

CHAPTER 60: OF PRIESTS WHO WISH TO DWELL IN THE MONASTERY August 14, If anyone of priestly rank asks to be received into the monastery, let not permission be too quickly granted him. Yet if he perseveres resolutely in his request, he is to know that he shall be obliged to the full rigour of the Rule and that nothing will be relaxed in his favour, according to that which is written: "Friend, for what purpose hast thou come?" Nevertheless, it may be granted to him to hold rank after the Abbot, to give the blessing, and to celebrate Mass, if so the Abbot commands him. Otherwise, let him presume to do nothing, knowing that he is subject to the discipline of the Rule, and should rather give to all an example of humility. If an appointment is to be made, or deliberation is taken regarding a matter in the monastery, let him keep the place which was assigned to him at his entrance into the monastery and not that which was granted to him out of reverence for his priesthood. If any cleric should similarly desire to be admitted into the monastery, he may be placed in a middle rank; but to him, too, this shall be granted only if he promise observance of the Rule and his own stability.

The discipline of the Rule is mentioned several times here. Discipline means different things: practical conduct, regularity, good order, correction. Here it refers to the sum of monastic observances and submission to these observances. The Rule for St Benedict is not only indispensable; it is central. It is the reality constantly to be adverted to, the universal point of reference "Let all, therefore, follow this Rule as their guide, and let no one depart from it" (Ch. 3). At the end of chapter 66, St Benedict enjoins that the Rule be read aloud frequently so that no one can plead ignorance. The Rule is the clearest expression of the terms of life to which novices and clerics engage themselves. The one who enters the monastic life studies the Rule, sees how it is lived in the monastery to see if he can identify with it. To become a monk is to embrace the whole way of life as set out by the Rule. This is the way he follows Christ. Christ is the one for whom the Rule is observed. He is its origin and end. The Rule is a mode of the presence of Christ, as the Abbot is.

CHAPTER 59: OF THE SONS OF THE NOBILITY OR OF THE POOR WHO ARE OFFERED August 13, If perchance any nobleman offer his son to God in the monastery, and the boy himself be of tender years, let the parents make the petition of which we have spoken above. Then, together with the offerings, let them wrap the petition and the hand of the child in the altar cloth, and so offer him. As regards their property, they must in the same petition promise under oath that they will never, either themselves or through an intermediary, or in any way whatsoever, give him anything or offer him opportunity of possessing anything. Or else, if they are unwilling to do this, and desire to offer something as an alms to the monastery for their own merit, let them make a donation of the property which they wish to give to the monastery, reserving for themselves, if they so wish, the income thereof. By this means every opportunity is to be forestalled for the child to come to any knowledge of how he might have been circumstanced in the world; for because of this knowledge he could be deceived and brought to ruin (which God forbid), as we have learned by experience. Those who are poorer are to do in like manner. But those who have no property at all shall simply make the petition, and offer their son together with the oblation before witnesses.

Although children are no longer offered or dedicated by their parents, this chapter is precious for showing that the profession ceremony took place during Mass. Yesterday St Benedict said that the monk, when he makes his vows, is to place his vow chart on the altar, to be offered along with the sacrifice of Christ. All our vows are in the Eucharist. The Eucharist itself expresses the life of our Lord, poor, chaste, obedient. Poverty is expressed in the appearance of bread and wine, poor, simple food. It is the expression of chastity, the most intense self-gift of God to us in this life. The Eucharist is founded on the act of absolute love of Jesus; it reminds us ceaselessly that one cannot live the Christian life without loving, and that the measure of this love is the measure of that of Christ. This is what our consecrated chastity is about. The Eucharist is also the fruit of Christ's sacrificial obedience to the Father. In the Eucharist Christ is obedient to the words of the priest. The Eucharist calls us to ongoing conversatio, conversion of heart, as expressed by the kiss of peace and Pater which precede it. Conversatio is the living out of the paschal mystery, a continual dying to sin and rising to life in Christ, the mystery of faith which we celebrate and practise in the Eucharist. As expression and symbol and celebration of our unity, it can be seen in the context of our conventual unity, at the heart of our stability. Indeed, the Eucharist--the most intense, "concentrated" form of Christ's presence--should help to develop within us an awareness of the different modes of Christ's presence in our life: in our sisters, in the guests, in the poor, in the Word of God. "What a monstrance of God every being would be for us if we could see in them the divine thought which is their true identity!" wrote Dom Delatte. "We love because there is God in our neighbour; just as the Eucharist is an extension of the Incarnation, so our neighbour is an extension of the Eucharist."


©SBVM 2013