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 6: Of silence Sept 24 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.

Our modern mentality tends to see life as based on talk and noise, to the extent that these are almost ends in themselves. Silence from this point of view is something meaningless and frustrating. The monk sees it the other way round. The monk's life is basically a silent life which at times flowers into speech. Words are used sparingly and only when really needed: to praise God, to instruct and chant, to communicate. Silence can be frightening to the insecure until they sense the presence of God at the heart of silence. Pascal in the 17th C could say that most of the world's ills spring from an inability to sit quietly in solitude. Silence and solitude force us to face ourselves and our inner core. To be sure there are varieties of silence. Not all silences are gifts. There is the silence of suppressed speech; the silence that freezes out our neighbour. But there is also the silence whereby we make a gift of space, space for each other's thoughts, and not least for the dwelling on the thought of God. Bl John Paul II has gone so far to say that "holiness is accepted and can be cultivated only in silence of adoration before the infinite transcendence of God" Silence was not an end in itself. By outwardly guarding the gate of the mouth and guarding useless talk, the monk began to achieve that inner silence which enabled him to fix his mind, heart and soul on God. There can be no real relationship with God without silence. Silence prepares for that meeting and silence follows it. Silence is filled with the presence of the living God who speaks. Our silence opens us up to hear God's word. It is a silence of presence, a silence for presence. As Mother Abbess put it in one of her conferences on silence, "when we are silent we acknowledge that what God will say to us is of the greatest importance . . . in listening we proclaim ourselves infinitely less than he." Opening ourselves to God in silence will render us more open to our brethren in word and deed. Our words and deeds will come out of a silence filled with God, or at least from a silence which is seeking to be so filled. One of the great mysteries of silence is its fruitfulness; our silence should educate us in responsibility for the words we use. We are responsible for saying words that build up community and nurture others. Speaking is a social act. Our words resound not only through the space outside us but in the hidden depths of the souls of others. The word is a bearer of consolation and comfort, but also of disunity and destruction. One of the ways in which we make and remake community is through the words we speak to each other. As servants of the word of God, we should be aware of the power of our words, a power to heal or to hurt, to build or destroy. God spoke a word and the world came to be, and now God speaks the Word that is his Son, and we are redeemed. Our words share in that power. There must be a deep reverence for language, sensitivity to the words we offer our brothers and sisters. With words we can offer resurrection or crucifixion, and the words that we speak are often remembered, kept in our brothers' heart, to be reflected upon, returned to, for good or ill, for years. (Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, "The Wellsprings of Hope.")

Sept 23 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.

St Benedict is concerned with the interior qualities of obedience. Obedience should be given "with a ready will", with a good heart, as another translations puts it. A mere external performance is not enough. The will itself, the heart, which only God can see should be handed over with joy, for God loves a cheerful giver. If this fundamental good will is lacking, the material performance of the act remains without recompense. Grumbling or murmuring implies a lack of generosity, good will in obedience. Thus obedience becomes an expression of our "Yes" to God, of that ongoing gift of self that wants and chooses only what God wants and chooses. . In a homily given on 11 April, Pope Francis said, "I obey, I do not follow my own will, how am I free? It seems like a contradiction. It is not a contradiction. In fact, the word "'obey' comes from Latin; it means to listen, to hear others. Obeying God is listening to God, having an open heart to follow the path that God points out to us. Obedience to God is listening to God and it sets us free".

CHAPTER 5: OF OBEDIENCE Sept 22 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."

In the Christian spiritual tradition, obedience is a basic virtue: obedience to the Lord, to the Gospel, to the Church (Matthew 18:17), to the leaders of the Church (Hebrews 13:7), to one's parents and elders, to "every ordinance of man" (I Peter 2:13, Romans 13:1), "to one another out of reverence for Christ." (Ephesians 6:21) There is no spiritual life without obedience, no real freedom or liberation; it is the means of attaining "the glorious liberty of the children of God." (Romans 8:21) Our obedience to God's commandments is the exclusive sign of our love for Him and His Son. He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him (John 14:21-24) The word obedire comes from ob-audire, to listen, to listen carefully to pay attention: "My people would not listen to me, Israel would not obey me" (Ps 80). The religion of the Bible is essentially a religion of the word that must be heard and responded to, a religion of obedience to the revelation of God in the law and the prophets from law and the prophets to St Paul's obedience of faith. The beginning of true obedience to hearken to another and respond. It is a state of openness, a willingness to listen combined with the recognition that this responsiveness may involve changing one's life in accordance with what one hears. Obedience is the thread which runs through the whole life of Our Lord: from the incarnation in Mary to his death for us on the Cross, the Son obeys the Father. "My food is to do the will of the Father" (Jn 4:34); "I always do what pleases Him." In consequence he shows himself freely obedient to all that incarnates this will: Jewish law, his parents, authority. As St Benedict recognizes, Jesus obeyed God in all that He did. But Christ is not only the model of our obedience; he is the Lord whom one obeys. "He who hears you hears me (Lk 10:16). To obey like Christ; to obey Christ - these are the two poles of obedience. There is no diminishment in obedience to God, nothing shameful or demeaning. On the contrary, to do the will of God is glory and life. It is the highest dignity of man, his greatest joy and delight. (Cf. Psalm 118 (119)) It is the way of perfection for all, even for the man Jesus Himself. The obedience of Christ is the exact antithesis of the disobedience of Adam. Christ's work of salvation is a work of obedience to God. Through it the disobedience of humanity is redeemed and those who believe in Christ are made capable of returning to the Father. For St Paul obedience is the key for the work of Jesus (Rom 5:5), the meaning for his life and death. In the prologue to his Rule, he speaks of obedience as the way by which we return to God. For St Benedict as for St Paul the whole drama of the history of salvation comes down to the question of obedience to God.


©SBVM 2013