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

May 29, We are indeed forbidden to do our own will by the Scripture when it says to us: "Turn away from thy own will." And so, too, we beg of God in prayer that His will may be done in us. Rightly, therefore, are we taught not to do our own will when we hearken to that which the Scripture says: "There are ways which seem to men right, but the ends thereof lead to the depths of hell." Or again, when we pay heed to what is said of the careless: "They are corrupt and have become abominable in their pleasures." As to the desires of the flesh, let us hold as certain that God is always present to us, as the prophet says to the Lord: "Lord, before Thee is all my desire."

For St Benedict humility then is a fundamental attitude which becomes concrete in the various situations the monk finds himself facing. It is the climate in which all the monastic virtues flourish, a climate in which one takes with the utmost seriousness the presence of God, a climate of complete and trusting dependence on God. In this sense humility is much greater than modesty or self-depreciation (the latter is really a form of pride). It is the permanent disposition to live in complete submission to the deepest spiritual realities, to renounce one's own judgment in order to follow the will of God. The degrees then describe from what can be seen the fundamental intention, the fundamental aims of the monk and whether he is truly seeking God. The conviction and constancy which resist the trials of circumstances and time will show whether or not we are humble.

May 28, The first degree of humility, then, is that a monk, always keeping the fear of God before his eyes, should avoid with the utmost care all forgetfulness, and be ever mindful of all that God has commanded. Let him ever reflect in his heart upon the fire of hell, which shall consume for their sins those who despise God, as well as upon the everlasting life which has been prepared for those who fear Him. And keeping himself at all times not only from sins and vices - whether of the thoughts, the tongue, the eyes, the hands, the feet, or his own self-will - but also from carnal desires, let him always consider that at all times he is being watched from heaven by God, and that his actions are everywhere seen by the eye of the Divine Majesty, and are every moment reported to Him by His Angels. Of this the Prophet informs us when he shows how God is ever present to our thoughts, saying: "The searcher of hearts and reins is God." And again: "The Lord knows the thoughts of men, that they are vain." And he also says: "Thou hast understood my thoughts afar off." And: "The thought of man shall confess to thee." In order, therefore, that he may be on his guard against evil thoughts, let the humble brother say ever in his heart: "Then shall I be blameless before Him, if I shall have kept myself from guilt."

St Benedict in fact does not begin with an abstract definition of humility. It is not a question of a definition and then a judgment about whether one conforms or not. Indeed his understanding of humility is very wide: it begins in this first step with the perception, the understanding and acceptance of the dependence of a finite being before divine transcendence, of the creature before its Creator, of a sinner who turns towards love. This means that for St Benedict one can begin the spiritual journey proper, the journey towards the love of God and love of the brethren, only on condition of accepting this liberating dependence, that without him we can do nothing. This awareness of the presence of God makes the monk more aware of his faults, bad tendencies, one's self-assertiveness (2nd degree). The humble monk will be obedient to his superiors out of love (3rd) Then humility branches out in every direction to include patience and perseverance (4th), the loving acceptance of the inevitable in a spirit of faith; humility is about opening one's heart which establishes us in simplicity and loyalty, and creates a profound unity in our life (5th). Another sign of humility is being content (6th), in accepting all the conditions of the monastic life and not being particular; another sign is the sense of our unworthiness before God (7th). In the 8th degree, it is also shown to be a community virtue. It is through the actions of the common life that humility is engendered, thrives, grows, bears fruit. In the 9-11 degrees, it involves recollection, silence, speech, self-control; the 12 degree shows humility fully flowering in the monk to include body and soul. The monk lives continually under God's gaze, love casts out all fear, humility invades the monk's entire being. The conscious awareness in the depths of one's heart and in bodily expression of the true relationship of the human being (humus) to his Creator. At the root of humility is not self-humiliation but the more or less unexpressed assertion: by myself I am nothing and can do nothing, except insofar as I am helped by him who is everything and all-powerful.

May 27, Wherefore, brethren, if we wish to gain the summit of humility and speedily to attain to that heavenly exaltation to which we can ascend only by the humility of this present life, we must, by actions which will constantly elevate us, erect that ladder which Jacob beheld in his dream and on which Angels appeared descending and ascending. This descent and ascent we must understand without doubt as being nothing other than that we descend by exaltation and ascend by humility. The ladder itself thus erected is our life in this world, which the Lord, having respect to our humility of heart, lifts up even to heaven. The sides of this ladder we declare to be our body and soul, in which our divine vocation has placed divers rungs of humility and discipline which we must ascend.

In the ladder image St Benedict conceives of the whole life of a person as a mounting towards heaven, body and soul, outer and inner. When considering the "steps" of the ladder, it is not helpful to think in terms of progression of degrees; or rigorous steps, each to be accomplished before the other. The degrees are less steps to be attained one after the other but rather signs of virtue which can and ought to be ascended simultaneously. They are less stages as signs by which we may know whether we are truly humble. Stages in spiritual life can be worrying for some. It is important to see that the stages in question cover vast areas, so vast as to be indefinable. As St Benedict's ladder suggests, it is far better to understand stages as pointing out a direction that is relevant wherever we are on the journey. When spiritual writers speak of stages or ladder they are saying: we can't be static, faith is a movement, and life is a series of choices. It is living faith that matters, not a consciousness of it, not a satisfying awareness of the security of faith or prayer or whatever.

CHAPTER 7: Of humility May 26, The Sacred Scripture cries out to us, brethren, saying, "Everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled and he who humbles himself shall be exalted." In saying this it teaches us that all exaltation is of the nature of pride, which vice the Prophet shows that he took care to avoid, saying: "Lord, my heart is not proud, nor are my eyes haughty, nor have I walked in great matters, nor in wonderful things above me." And why? "For if I were not humbly minded, but had exalted my soul, as a child that is weaned from its mother, so would my soul likewise be rewarded."

The desert sayings are filled with questions about the meaning of humility and how to acquire and cultivate it. John of Thebaid: 'First of all the monk must gain humility, for it is the first commandment of the Lord who said, 'Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven For Abba Poemen (No 49). Humility is as vital as the breath of life itself; Amma Syncletica said that it was humility that holds a monk's life together and makes salvation possible. None of the other practices could save a monk because none could so effectively overcome the natural human tendency to rely on oneself, to look to one's own achievements for one's happiness and well-being, in response to someone who wanted to know the good of fasting and keeping watch, Abba Moses replied: "They make the soul humble". (Moses 18b or 5 in extra sayings under his name). The early monks were very aware that works of ascetic alone could not bring one close to God (cf Syncletica, 16) Humility was perceived as especially effective in helping one to overcome the attacks of demons (Anthony 7). For the early monks, cultivating humility meant moving in two directions: being reconciled to one's own weakness and the sense of one's utter dependence on the mercy of God. These two movements were connected: by understanding themselves as weak and sinful, they were more open to receive the mercy of God. "The divine work of humility is considering oneself a sinner, inferior to all. . .not paying attention to others' sins but always to one's own, praying to God ceaselessly" (Nau 323. ) Their acute sense of weakness was perceived as one of the clearest signs of humility, most often expressed as "just having begun along the way" by those who lived long years and who were the most highly esteemed. (Pambo 8; Sisoes 4)- An indicator of their deep self-knowledge and of how much space they had allowed within for God.

CHAPTER 6: Of silence May 25, Let us act in conformity with that saying of the Prophet: "I said I will guard my ways lest I sin with my tongue; I have put a bridle on my mouth; I was dumb and was humbled and kept silence from good things." Here the prophet shows that if we ought at times for the sake of silence to refrain even from good words, much more ought we to abstain from evil words on account of the punishment due to sin. Therefore, on account of the importance of silence, let permission to speak be rarely given even to the perfect disciples, even though their words be good and holy and conducive to edification, because it is written: "In the multitude of words there shall not want sin." And elsewhere: "Death and life are in the power of the tongue." For to speak and to teach are the province of the master; whereas that of the disciple is to be silent and to listen. Therefore, if anything is to be asked of the superior, let it be done with all humility and subjection of reverence, lest one seem to speak more than is expedient. Buffoonery, however, or idle words or such as move to laughter we utterly condemn in every place, and forbid the disciple to open his mouth to any such discourse.

Silence also has a place in the teaching and life of Our Lord. Christ revealed the Father as much by silence as by speech. The Fathers of the Church were amazed by the Christmas mystery of a Verbum infans, the Divine Word who had become a baby who cannot speak. Christ's revealing work begins in hiddenness and silence of his Mother's body. His public ministry, as the gospels show, is regularly punctuated by prayer. His human words proceed from silence, the silent contemplation of the Father. In his teaching, he insists that in prayer we are not to heap up empty phrases; elsewhere he stresses "Let what you say be simply yes or no; anything more comes from evil" (Mt 5:33). He is speaking of oaths here, but his words are capable of a wider application. The most pointed teaching of our Lord on dangerous or careless words comes in Mt. 12:34-37. Finally there is the almost unbroken silence in which he experiences his passion. In his trial and passion Jesus speaks mostly through silence, making no answer to his accusers. St. Ambrose says: "The Lord worked our salvation by keeping silence." This was not the oppressed silence of the terrorized victim, because the passion was something the Saviour chose to do for us. "The Lord worked our salvation. . ." what seemed to be merely borne and suffered is at another level the fruit of the highest spiritual fruitfulness. Then there is the silence of the Lord's sleep on Holy Saturday, the silence which is the place of gestation of Easter joy. St. Ignatius of Antioch in his Epistle to the Ephesians (19:1) speaks of the virginal conception, birth and death of the Lord as "three eloquent (or as another translation puts it, "loud-crying") mysteries accomplished in silence." Human silence is a fitting expression of divine silence in which according to Ignatius the Word comes forth. In each case what such silence speaks of is ultimately the greatness of the Father, his transcendence of all we can say of him but also wonder at his saving plan.

May 24, But this very obedience will then only be acceptable to God and pleasing to men if what is commanded be done without hesitancy, tardiness, lukewarmness, murmuring, or a manifestation of unwillingness; because the obedience which is given to superiors is given to God; for He Himself has said: "He who hears you hears Me." And this obedience ought to be given by the disciple with a ready will, because "God loves a cheerful giver." For if the disciple obeys with ill will, and murmur not only with his lips but also in his heart, even though he fulfil the command, nevertheless he will not be acceptable to God, who regards the heart of the murmurer; for such a deed he receives no reward; nay, he rather incurs the punishment of murmurers, unless he amends, and makes satisfaction.

"God loves a cheerful giver." "Cheerfulness is a sign of a generous and mortified person, who forgetting all things, even herself, tries to please God in all she does for souls. Cheerfulness is often a cloak which hides a life of sacrifice, continual union with God, fervour and generosity. A Person who has this gift of cheerfulness often reaches a great height of perfection. For God loves a cheerful giver, and He takes close to his heart the religious who loves." (St Teresa of Calcutta)

CHAPTER 5: Of obedience May 23, The first degree of humility is obedience without delay. This obedience is characteristic of those who prefer nothing to Christ; who, on account of the holy service to which they have obliged themselves, or on account of the fear of hell, or for the glory of eternal life, as soon as anything has been commanded by their superior, as though it were commanded by God Himself, cannot suffer a moment's delay in fulfilling this command. It is of these that the Lord said: "At the hearing of the ear they have obeyed Me." And again to teachers He says: "He that hears you hears Me." Therefore, such as these, immediately putting aside their private occupation and forsaking their own will, with their hands quickly disengaged and leaving unfinished what they were about, with the instant step of obedience, fulfil by their deeds the word of him who commands; and so, as it were at the same instant, the command of the master and its perfect fulfilment by the disciple are, in the swiftness of the fear of God, speedily carried out together by those upon whom presses the desire of attaining eternal life. These, therefore, seize upon that narrow way of which the Lord says: "Narrow is the way that leads to life"; inasmuch as they, not living according to their own will, neither obeying their own desires and pleasures, but walking according to the judgment and command of another, live in community and desire to have an Abbot over them. Such as these, without doubt, fulfil that saying of the Lord: I came "not to do My own will, but the will of Him Who sent Me."

St Benedict sees obedience as important for the renunciation of self-will. The heart of original sin is the inclination to do our own will contrary to the will of God, the tendency to follow our own desires of the moment even when they bring us to the greatest evil. But the way of conversion, holiness, is the way of renunciation of self in order to love God more than ourselves, in order to love not merely the small good of a satisfaction of our own desires, but the great good, the universal and perfect good desired by God. In this universal good, we find not merely satisfaction but peace and happiness which is the loving plan of God. That is why St Benedict says there is no love of Christ without the foundation of obedience by which we renounce our attachments and self-love in order to unite ourselves to Christ. The meaning of our obedience is deeply spiritual: the interior transformation worked by complete dedication to the will of Christ. The monk obeys in order to unite himself to Christ. The task commanded is secondary. One obeys in order to serve and to enter into God's plan of salvation.

May 22, 63. To love chastity. 64. To hate no man. 65. To have no jealousy or envy. 66. Not to love strife. 67. To fly from vainglory. 68. To reverence one's seniors. 69. To love one's juniors. 70. To pray for one's enemies in the love of Christ. 71. To make peace with those with whom one is at variance before the setting of the sun. 72. And never to despair of God's mercy. Behold, these are the instruments of the spiritual art, which, if they be constantly employed by day and by night, and delivered up on the day of judgment, will gain for us from the Lord that reward which He Himself has promised: "Eye has not see, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man, what things God has prepared for those who love Him." And the workshop in which we are to labour diligently at all these things is the enclosure of the monastery and stability in the community.

To love chastity. St Benedict says not merely to observe chastity or practise it, but to love it. The first and essential mark of consecrated persons is that they have embraced a life of dedicated chastity for the sake of the kingdom, for the sake of Christ. To love chastity: St Benedict indicates a positive approach that turns upside down all notions of repression or mere obligation. It represents an attitude of mind that is not denying, but affirming. Our chastity begins by belonging to Christ and ends by belonging to everyone; its sets we free to love God and each one with whom we come into contact with an undivided heart. It enables us to devote our whole lives to the single-minded task of loving Christ, in whom we find all men. It is, as St John Paul II put it, "a reflection of the infinite love which links the three Divine Persons in the mysterious depths of the life of the Trinity, the love to which the Incarnate Word bears witness even to the point of giving his life, the love "poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit" (Rom 5:5), which evokes a response of total love for God and the brethren." There must be more love in us because we are chaste.


©SBVM 2013