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

March 23, Should anyone, through his own negligence or fault, fail to come to table before the verse - so that all may say the verse and the other prayers before meals in common, and sit down to table together - he shall be reprimanded the first and second time he is guilty of this offence. Should he commit the same offence the third time, he shall be excluded from the common table and shall take his meals alone; moreover, he shall be deprived of his portion of wine until he shall have made satisfaction and amended. He who is not present at the verse which is said after meals shall undergo the same punishment. Let no one presume to take any food or drink before or after the appointed time. However, if something is offered to anyone by the superior, and he disdainfully refuses it, and then afterwards wishes to have what he refused, let him not have either this or anything else until he makes proper satisfaction.

The refectory is not a cafeteria, where one eats on the run. As we have seen St Benedict clearly situates means within the coenobitic vocation, that is, within a vocation to communion. "...so that all may say the verse and the other prayers before meals in common, and sit down to table together." We gather as a family and celebrate our shared food by sharing it, just as we celebrate our shared faith by receiving the same Eucharist at Mass. A very early text brings together these two tables: "One of the fathers used to say that three things are important for monks to whom they should be attached with fear and trembling and spiritual joy: communion in the holy mysteries, the common table, and washing the feet of the brethren." The refectory is an extension of the Lord's Table because at both we express our oneness and affirm the presence of God at the centre of that oneness. This was so important for St Benedict that exclusion from the common table was a form of excommunication. Our common meals express and foster a sense of community, as we see in the Gospels. Here his rule for presence at table is at least as firm as it is about presence at prayer.

CHAPTER 43: OF THOSE WHO COME LATE TO THE WORK OF GOD OR TO MEALS March 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.

In the context of the Divine Office, to hasten is the expression of a love that impels. We do not drag our feet to meet someone we love. When we go to prayer we are going to meet God and our sisters. We are hastening towards God and his praise, so this haste will not be any kind of haste: it will have a character indicative of its goal, what St Benedict calls gravitas that is with a sense of sobriety, self-control, dignity. "Laying aside whatever he may be engaged with and responding with all speed" recalls the gospel: "They left everything and followed Him" (Luke5:11). To be chosen by Christ and to choose Him imply a letting go. This capacity to let go for the sake of the Beloved is also part of what it means to love. We can also express this love by choosing to arrive a little early from the Work of God, the Divine Office, in order to express our desire to be with Christ, to unite myself to him in His own praise to the Father and to unite myself with the Community of sisters, being with them under the gaze of Christ.

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.

CHAPTER 38: OF THE READER FOR THE WEEK March 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. Just as the kitchen and table servers provide their brethren with nourishment for the body, the refectory reader provides food for the soul. The reader in the refectory, like the reader at Mass or the Divine Office, is a real servant of the word; it is a ministerial act in which we strive to embody the word and "serve" it to the community so that they may in turn embody it and be brought to life by a life-giving word. The refectory reader receives a blessing. The verse is taken from the Office, which suggests that reading is a sort of praise. The function of reading in a monastery always has a certain solemnity.

CHAPTER 37: OF OLD MEN AND CHILDREN March 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.

This chapter naturally follows the preceding one and shows St Benedict's compassion and common-sense. After dealing with sick brethren, he now turns to those whose weakness is not due to illness but simply to age. People often speak of the paschal mystery; we participate in it throughout our life in different ways. But at the end of our earthly life, there will be this very particular way of entering into the paschal mystery: what makes for the greatness and dignity of our ageing, suffering and death is this close participation in the redeeming death and entrance into the resurrection of our Lord. When we reach the age when we diminish physically and lose strength, there is a sense in which the value of our life increases in the measure in which we enter further into the life of Christ, into the mystery of his passion, death and resurrection. This is the true meaning of our death which allows us to put illness, old age and suffering in their true place. The elderly and the dying are not "finished" people; on the contrary, they are people who are preparing to enter another life. There is no death; there are only two lives. They are preparing to enter into the fullness of life, to see God face to face. Thus they are a source of life and grace to us.


©SBVM 2013