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 58: OF THE MANNER OF RECEIVING BRETHREN Dec 11 He who is newly come to enter religion is not to be easily admitted, but, as the Apostle says: "Test the spirits to see whether they are of God." If, therefore, he that comes persevere in knocking at the gate and is seen to endure patiently for four or five days the affronts and the difficulties made as to his entrance, and to persist in his petition, let him be allowed to enter and let him stay in the guest house for a few days. Afterwards, let him be placed in the novitiate, where he is to meditate, take his meals, and sleep. Let a senior be assigned to him who is skilled in gaining souls, who shall watch over his conduct most minutely and consider carefully whether he truly seeks God, and is zealous for the work of God, for obedience, and for the things that humble him. Let him be told all the difficulties and trials whereby one goes to God. If he promises perseverance in his stability, after the lapse of two months let this entire Rule be read to him and let the following words be addressed to him: "Behold the law under which you desire to fight; if you can keep it, you may enter; if you cannot, you may freely depart." If he still perseveres, let him be taken back to the novitiate where, with all patience, he is again to be tried. And after the lapse of six months, let the Rule be read to him again, that he may understand into what he is entering. Should he still stand firm, let this same Rule be read to him again four months later. If then, having deliberated with himself, he promises to observe all things that are commanded him, let him then be received into the community; but let him know that from thence forward, being bound by the law of the Rule, he may not leave the monastery, nor shake off from his neck the yoke of the Rule which after such prolonged deliberation he was free either to refuse or to accept.

The primary question for St Benedict is whether the novice is truly seeking God. Seeking God is a wonderful expression of the life of faith, of the fact that we spend our whole lives entering more deeply into our monastic vocation. It is a search in which our whole being is engaged, and it is not for something but for Someone. And this is because God has searched for and found us in the first place. Seeking God in the monastic vocation presupposes that God is someone who has revealed himself to us--isn't that the meaning of the word vocation which means call? God is saying, you would not be seeking me, if I had not already found you, to paraphrase Pascal. For St. Benedict, as for Scripture, this search is reciprocal: God has sought us out first in our vocation, and for that reason we can talk of being able to search for God--and find him. The very search is the finding. Seeking does presuppose finding. Our entering the monastery implies that we have found God. Our life is not only about seeking God but being able to find Him. Seeking and finding often go together in the Bible. "You will seek the Lord your God, And you will find him, if you search for him with all your heart and with all your soul" (Deut. 4:29); "You will seek me and find me; when you seek me with all your heart, I will be found by you, says the Lord " (Jer.29:13-14); "The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it" (Mt. 13:43-46). The novice is to be tested to see if he is truly seeking God. Now this seeking is to be manifested in 3 ways: the opus Dei, obedience and difficulties. These things are the search and cannot be separated from it. First, St Benedict asks: Does the novice show eagerness of heart in the worship of God? The monk is a man of prayer. Secondly, does the novice show willingness of mind for the docility of obedience? For St Benedict obedience is the concrete means by which the monk follows Christ, is responsive to his teaching and imitates his example and shows his love for the Community "What one is looking for here is genuine growth in the ability to see beyond immediate issues and progressively to situate one's responses on the plane of spiritual values" (Fr Michael Casey). Finally, is the novice able to seek and find God in his trials and difficulties, in the Cross? To have a true monastic vocation one has to have the capacity, the willingness, the readiness to accept all the difficulties in living for God. Is the novice determined to bear with patience and courage all the surprises, all the trials he may meet in the monastic life; is he ready to respond to the new whenever and however it may appear? This is a very important part of our vocation if it is to be real, and not merely the satisfaction of certain vague religious emotions. Our difficulties and weaknesses do have a role to play in that mystery of transformation whereby God turns us into a new being.

CHAPTER 57: OF THE CRAFTSMEN OF THE MONASTERY Dec 10 Should there be craftsmen in the monastery, let them exercise their crafts with all humility and reverence, if the Abbot so commands. But if one of them grows proud because of the knowledge of his craft, in that he seem to confer some benefit on the monastery, let such a one be taken away from this craft and not practice it again, unless perchance, after he has humbled himself, the Abbot may bid him resume it. If any of the work of those craftsmen is to be sold, let those through whose hands the business is to be transacted see to it that they presume not to mingle into it any dishonesty. Let them be mindful of Ananias and Saphira, lest perchance they, and all who deal dishonestly with the goods of the monastery, should suffer in their souls the death which these incurred in the body. In setting the price of these things, let not the sin of avarice enter in; but let the goods always be sold somewhat cheaper than is done by men of the world, that in all things God may be glorified.

St Benedict recognizes the value of gifts and talents within a community. The development of the spiritual life does not mean the suppression of gifts. The challenge is how to put those gifts at the service of holiness. St Benedict wants to ensure that gifts and skills do not get in the way of striving or sanctity. Obedience and humility come before all material profit: St Benedict would rather lose money than lose a soul. The integration of our gifts and the striving for sanctity is not just a question of a peaceful co-existence. It is rather to subordinate our gifts to a living faith so that our vision of things will not be simply in terms of one's gift but in terms of Christ, God's will and the Body of Christ- that in all things God may be glorified. The whole of a monk's life reflects his choice of God, his desire for the Kingdom and his zeal to develop purity of heart.

CHAPTER 56: OF THE ABBOT'S TABLE Dec 9 Let the table of the Abbot be always with the guests and strangers. But whenever the guests are few in number, it shall be in his power to invite any of the brethren he may wish. Let him take care, however, that one or two of the seniors be left with the brethren for the sake of discipline.

St Benedict places the abbot in the front rank of those who show hospitality for the honour and edification of the guests. He who represents Christ in the monastery shares a common table with those whom the monastery receives as Christ. He wanted the leader of the community to be a model of that gift of self to the stranger and guest.

Dec 8 Those who are sent on a journey are to receive underclothing from the wardrobe, and on their return are to give it back washed. Moreover, their cowls and tunics must be somewhat better than those which they usually wear; these they are to receive when setting out on their journey, and give back when they return. For their bedding let a mattress, a blanket, a coverlet, and a pillow suffice. These beds must be frequently inspected by the Abbot, because of private property which may be found therein. If anyone is discovered to have what he has not received from the Abbot, let him be most severely punished. And in order that this vice of private ownership may be completely rooted out let all things that are necessary be supplied by the Abbot: that is, cowl, tunic, stockings, shoes, girdle, knife, pen, needle, handkerchief, and tablets; so that all plea of necessity may be taken away. And let the Abbot always consider that passage in the Acts of the Apostles: "Distribution was made to each according as anyone had need." Therefore let the Abbot take into account the infirmities of those who are in need, and not the ill will of the envious. Nevertheless, in all his decisions, let him think of the divine retribution.

St Benedict renews here the condemnation of private ownership and the norms for distribution according to need. But here St Benedict addresses the Abbot explicitly, insisting that the needs of the brethren are to be satisfied by him. The abbot functions as a mediator between the God who is Providence and His servants. The abbot provides for the upkeep of the brothers in the name of the Lord. On the other hand, St Benedict warns the brethren against discontent and jealousies which might arise over unequal distribution according to need (see Chapter 34). The abbot has to guard against strict uniformity as well as favouritism in such a way as to allow charity to reign.

 

©SBVM 2013