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).


©SBVM 2013