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

Nov 13 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-a custom which we still observe today-not only orients the monk towards the service of the Community; it also brings together the two dimensions of work and prayer. This chapter reminds us that all our life, all our activity, even the most humble, should be consecrated by prayer. St Benedict has those beginning their week of service and the whole Community with them and for them ask the help of God and give thanks for that help at the end of their week. Note the union of the whole community, asking with one heart for divine grace for those in particular need. The community is not just a juxtaposition of individuals, but a communion of individuals. All take an interest in the needs of others and pray for them. These weekly prayers are a source of strength and help for our sisters who serve us, and for all they are a precious opportunity to practise fraternal charity.

CHAPTER 35: OF THOSE WHO SERVE BY WEEK IN THE KITCHEN Nov 12 All the brethren, except those who are hindered by sickness or by some occupation of great moment, shall serve each other by turns, so that no one be excused from duty in the kitchen, for thereby a very great reward is obtained and love increased. Helpers, however, are to be given to the weaker brethren, that they may perform this duty without being overburdened; thus let all have helpers according as the number of the community or the situation of the place may require. If the community is large, let the cellarer be excused from the service in the kitchen; likewise any others, as we have said, who are engaged in matters of greater utility. But let the rest serve one another in turn with all charity. Let him who is retiring from this week's service on Saturday set everything in cleanly order. He is to wash the towels with which the brethren wipe their hands and feet; and both he who is finishing his service and he who is entering on it are to wash the feet of all. The utensils connected with his office he is to deliver up clean and in good condition to the cellarer, who in turn shall then consign them to him who is entering on his office, that he may know what he gives out and what he receives back. An hour before the meal these weekly servers shall receive, over and above the appointed allowance, a portion of wine and bread, so that they may serve their brethren at mealtime without murmuring or excessive fatigue. On solemn feast days, however, they are to keep the fast until after Mass.

Service is the key word in all these chapters which began with that on the bursar in chapter 31. It recalls the definition of the monastery as a school of the Lord's service (see commentary for May 8th) To serve makes us go out of ourselves, towards the Lord and others. Our whole life tends towards Christ, whether in imitation of his service or as serving him. But we serve the whole Christ, the entire Church gathered up into Him. The monastery is a place where we serve the Community because of their relationship to Christ. It is by means of our humble service that we find Christ who did not come to be served but to serve. In the early Church, "servus Dei," "servant of God", was a technical term of consecration. St. Monica said to her son St. Augustine when he decided to become a monk -- "You have left the world to become His servant." "Servant' is a technical word for the religious state; he had been consecrated already. From the 4th century on, the monastic life was understood as being a service of God. The Benedictine Rule speaks the same language: to be a monk is to enter into a holy service. And as Blessed John Paul II brought out recently in his exhortation on the Consecrated life (Vita Consecrata , 6), this service is a special form of imitating the Incarnate Word, the Son of God: "From the first centuries of the Church, men and women have felt called to imitate the Incarnate Word who took on the condition of a servant." In opposition to the "non serviam" ("I will not serve") of Lucifer, of Adam and of Israel, the monk, together with Our Lady and the saints, serves. All the elements which make up the Rule --obedience, humility, silence, the daily fidelity, love and service of the Community -- flow from that. So for St. Benedict, the monastery is a school of the Lord's service; it's something that we do for God's sake, a way to live for God's sake rather than our own. We desire to be disciples of him who said the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve; the Son whose Mother wished to call herself nothing but a handmaid of the Lord. There can never be a more beautiful title for us, to be called servants of the Lord and of our sisters in Christ.

CHAPTER 34: WHETHER ALL SHOULD RECEIVE IN EQUAL MEASURE WHAT IS NEEDFUL Nov 11 As it is written, "Distribution was made to each one according as he had need"(Acts 4:35). By this we do not mean that there should be respect of persons (which God forbid); however, let consideration be had of infirmities. Accordingly, when one requires less, let him give thanks to God and be not distressed; when, however, one requires more, let him be humbled at his infirmity, and not grow arrogant because of the charity shown him. Thus all members shall be in peace. Above all things let not the evil of murmuring be manifest for any cause whatsoever, by any word or sign at all. If anyone is found guilty in this, let him be subjected to more severe discipline.

St Benedict follows the chapter on private ownership with a chapter insisting that people be given what they need, again invoking a text from the Acts of the Apostles. Although everything in the monastery belongs to all, distribution is not made equally. It is made according to the degree of necessity of each. He recognizes that some are able to get along with less than others. The strong ones, those who need less, are invited to give thanks and not be sad. On the other hand, the weak, those who need more, should in their turn be urged to humility. Thus all the members in the Body of Christ who are organically bound together will be at peace. This is what St Benedict desires above all, that the house be at peace and in harmony, that real needs are catered for and differences be accepted. For this to happen grumbling, which is opposed to joy and peace, must be eliminated. If the Abbot is to be attentive to individual needs, the Community must play its part in building up the family life which this chapter reflects. In the monastic family strong and weak are bound together, kept in peace, by mutual acceptance love, and understanding. "Monks also maintain a lasting union of intimacy and possess all things in common as they hold that everything which belongs to their brothers is theirs, and that everything which is theirs belongs to their brothers" (Cassian, Conferences 24:26)


©SBVM 2013