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 46: OF THOSE WHO COMMIT ANY OTHER FAULTS July 26, If anyone, while engaged in any sort of work, whether in the kitchen, in the cellar, in serving, in the bakery, in the garden, in any occupation, or in any place does anything amiss or breaks or loses anything or offends in any way whatever, and does not come at once before the Abbot or the community and of his own accord do penance and confess his fault, let him be more severely punished if it is revealed by another. If however, the guilt of his offence is hidden in his own soul, let him manifest it to the Abbot only or to the spiritual seniors, who know how to heal their own wounds and not to disclose or publish those of others.

As we have seen, St Benedict suggests that the routine repentance for external and visible faults - breaking or damaging things - can help guide us in matters of deeper inward weaknesses and tendencies. In the fifth step of humility and in the chapter 4, the tools of good works, St Benedict had urged us to dash at the feet of Christ our troublesome thoughts and to lay them open to our spiritual father. In this opening of the heart, it is good to distinguish between those thoughts that only touch the surface and disappear-it's best not to pay any attention to these-and those that return with a certain insistence and power. This practice includes both positive and negative "stirrings" of the heart. The desert fathers recommended a continual watching at the door of the heart and asking the persistent thoughts: "Are you for us or against us?" Frequently we are not able to distinguish the wolf from the lamb; that is why it is important to have a guide in order not to mistake proud, vain obsessive movements for the will of God or the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. All this is not a question of self-analysis. It is rather a considered and attentive observation, a simple intuitive judgment that looks carefully at everything and notes what remains ambiguous. All this is peacefully done, without long interior debates. It is about developing an instinct for the good.

CHAPTER 45: OF THOSE WHO MAKE MISTAKES IN THE ORATORY July 25, If anyone, while reciting a psalm, responsory, antiphon, or lesson, makes a mistake and does not make satisfaction, humbling himself before all, let him be subjected to more severe punishment, inasmuch as he refused to repair by humility the fault he committed through negligence. Boys shall receive corporal punishment for similar faults.

The sense of the word translated here by infidelities or distraction literally means in the Greek to be carried away into captivity. The idea is carelessness or distraction can lead one to forget the meaning of salvation. As we have seen, St Benedict never expects perfection but he does require a sense of responsibility. Here he follows monastic tradition which teaches us not to be too easy-going even in small matters. In the oratory especially, at the Work of God, where all is sacred, a mistake calls for humble satisfaction. To fail in humility is always a serious fault for St Benedict, but even more so in the oratory where everything recalls the presence of God.

CHAPTER 44: HOW THOSE ARE TO MAKE SATISFACTION WHO ARE EXCOMMUNICATED July 24, He who for more serious faults is excluded from the oratory and the common table must, at the hour when the Work of God is being performed in the oratory, lie prostrate at the door of the oratory in silence; and thus, with his face to the ground and his body prone, let him cast himself at the feet of all as they go forth from the oratory. And let him do this until the Abbot judge that he has made due satisfaction. Then, when the Abbot bids him, let him come and cast himself at the feet of the Abbot and then of all the brethren, that they may pray for him. After which, if the Abbot so orders, let him be received back into the choir, but in the rank the Abbot shall appoint him; yet so that he presumes not to intone a psalm or a lesson or perform any other duty in the oratory unless the Abbot again command him. Moreover, at every hour, when the Work of God is ended, let him cast himself on the ground in the place where he stands, and so make satisfaction until the Abbot bids him cease from this penance. He who for lighter faults is excluded only from the common table is to make satisfaction in the oratory as long as the Abbot bids him do so; he shall continue until he gives him his blessing and says that he has made sufficient satisfaction.

Until he gives him his blessing. The idea and act of blessing permeates the Rule. The name Benedict means blessed. St Benedict is always giving blessings, whether over things like food (25) or over all the brethren (chs. 9 and 11) or for individuals, like the weekly servers (38) or here over the excommunicated. Twice he reminds us to pay back a curse with a blessing (chs 4 and 7). He also wants us to seek a blessing from one another (63) or from guests and visitors (53, 66). But above all, seven times day and once at night, St Benedict and his monks bless God in the public prayer of the Church. Blessing is a divine and life-giving action, the source of which is God the Father. The one who is blessed has no greater desire than to return the blessing as St Paul does in the opening of his letter to the Ephesians. The Benedictine is almost by definition one who realizes what blessings he has received in Christ and who wants to make his whole life an act of blessing God in adoration, thanksgiving, and self-surrender.

July 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.

For St Benedict presence at the common meal is almost as important as presence at the common prayer. The high regard St Benedict has for punctuality and instant obedience may seem strict unless we understand his sacramental concept of community life. The totality of life within the monastery is the "service" which a monk renders to the lord Christ as the true King. All the communal demands made on us because of our membership in the monastic family-punctuality at meals and office, mutual obedience, responding to requests-are acts of worship and service, outward expressions of our inner religion before God. The monastic life is not something other than the common life: we are by faith to see the uncommonly religious character of the communal life we live with each other.

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

St Benedict calls the office, the Work of God. It is the work of God for he is the object and also our work of prayer and praise in response to God's work. Now in monastic literature, the work of God referred first to the life of asceticism in general, convinced as they were that theory were undertaking a great labour. "The same [Abba Theodore] came one day to see Abba John, and during their conversation he said to him, "When I was at Scetis, the works of the soul were our work, and we considered manual work to be subordinate; now the work of the soul has become subordinate and what was secondary is the chief work.'" "In his youth Abba John questioned an old man, 'How have you been able to carry out the work of God in peace? For we cannot do it, not even with labour.' The old man said, 'We were able to do it, because we considered the work of God to be primary, and bodily needs to be subsidiary; but you hold bodily necessities to be primary and the work of God to be secondary; that is why you labor, and that is why the Saviour said to the disciples, "Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well."' (Matt. 6.33)" The monks of Scete are described as being energetic in doing the work of God. It referred to the whole monastic way of life, everything the monk had to do to become and remain a monk. St Benedict understands the work of God in this broad sense when he calls the monk a workman (prologue) and the monastery a workshop where he plies the tools of the spiritual craft. (ch 4). But this phrase, the work of God, was certainly a reality which included the liturgy, praying the psalms. For example, one elder visits another and they say: 'let us do the work of God and eat afterwards.' One recites the entire Psalter while the other recites the two great prophets. Morning comes and they forget to eat. Indeed for the early monks the work of works was prayer. Prayer sums up in itself and presupposes the toil and sweat of all the other virtues. "The whole complex of virtues tends towards the perfection of prayer" (Cassian, Conf. 9:7). This is a line of thought which leads to the Opus Dei in the Benedictine sense. All this is called the work of God because it is done in the service of God, a duty done in relation to him. For St Benedict to reserve the title Opus Dei to the liturgy was a new way of expressing the primacy of prayer. It was not a new way of understanding it. It is the work of God in the monk as well as the monk's work for God. The whole of the monk's life is the work of God, the service to which he has committed himself. This work finds its fullest and clearest expression in prayer; prayer including liturgical prayer sums up the whole of the monastic commitment. That is why St Benedict can justifiably call the work of prayer the Work of God.

CHAPTER 42: THAT NO ONE MAY SPEAK AFTER COMPLINE July 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 at 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.

Monks ought to have a zeal for silence at all times," or "should practise silence at all times." We should carry it around with us. It is something we practise, have zeal for, not something we fall into out of a bad mood. We should study to make an effort to build silence. Our normal state of affairs is not chatter. There is a silence that can spring from a sense of inferiority or superiority or a bad mood. But ours is a silence of union with others and confidence in each one's good will. We do it to create the necessary conditions for hearing the voice of God. To give it the high relief it should have, we need special times of particular silence, like the night silence. Silence is a sign that the Community is at ease with and united in the real task of living for God.

CHAPTER 41: AT WHAT HOURS THE BRETHREN ARE TO TAKE THEIR MEALS July 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.

We do not fast because there is anything in itself unclean about the act of eating and drinking. Food and drink are, on the contrary, God's gift. Christians fast, not because they despise the divine gift, but to make themselves aware that it is indeed a gift. We fast to purify our eating and drinking, and to make them no longer a concession to greed but as sacrament, a means of communion with the Giver. So there is no question here of saying that fasting is a good thing because food and drink are bad things. That would be a kind of Gnosticism, a disparaging of God's creation. Food is not bad in itself; it is neither pure nor impure. As our Lord says, only what comes from the heart of man deserves such designations. St Thomas Aquinas says that if we have that negative attitude to food our fasting is without Christian value. For him, fasting is part of the virtue of temperance, or self-control, which deals with acting rightly in areas of food, drink, and sexuality. Temperance restrains the passions, ordering us towards our true good in this life and the next. And in all this he stresses that the worst vice is to lack proper esteem for the goodness of the world God has made, to fail to take delight in the world God has made for our good. Nevertheless, for St Thomas, fasting is part of the natural law; it is found in all religious traditions. In fact if we do not fast we fail in our common humanity.

CHAPTER 40: THE DRINK ALLOWANCE July 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 ." 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.

As in the previous chapter, this chapter concludes with the word "measure". Both chapters speak of frugality and warn against over-indulgence. Both speak of abstaining, and the tone of both is cautious and accommodating, reflecting St Benedict's awareness of the diversity among his monks. Everything is viewed from the diversity of God's gifts. The Scripture verse which opens this chapter is applied by St Paul to chastity (1 Cor 7:7), but St Benedict applies it to abstinence. The gift is from God; God gives the strength to abstain, and He will also give a special reward. "… one in this way, and another in that": One may have the gift of abstaining from wine, another from sleep, while others may have the gift of patience, obedience, putting their neighbour first. The Rule always respects the uniqueness of individuals with their unique gifts. Abstinence is a gift from God and a gift to God.


©SBVM 2013