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 22 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. No one is to be late; no one is to eat before or after meals or on their own. Meals are more than an act of feeding ourselves; in a monastery they are not just personal acts. The refectory is not a cafeteria, where one eats on the run. 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." The meal is a place where we learn to be more truly children of God and brothers and sisters of one another, in other words, people in communion, who grow in the ability to give and receive, who grow in their ability to share. It is a place where we learn the fundamental reality of receiving what we need, in the measure of our true need. This reality is opposed to taking what one wants for oneself. "Let no one presume to take any food or drink before or after the appointed time." In our culture of fast food, we bear witness in some way to our life of communion, by the manner in which we share food, by receiving everything as gift, and by our service of one another.

CHAPTER 43: OF THOSE WHO COME LATE TO THE WORK OF GOD OR TO MEALS Nov 21 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.

Before addressing late-comers, St Benedict begins this chapter by urging his monks to hasten to the work of God, the liturgy of the hours, communal divine worship. Here he is defending the office from a certain activism; at the sound of the bell, the monk drops what he is doing, drops his own work, to attend to God's work. "Let nothing, then, be preferred to the Work of God." If we are mindful of God, a signal to go to the Divine Office is not an interruption. We are not the work we do; we are children of God and to stop work is to recall this. The Divine Office, or Liturgy of the hours, prayed seven times a day, is like the Sabbath, the seventh day, for the Hebrews. It is a reminder of God's lordship. One who believes in God's providence and presence is able to let the world go for one day every week, to rely on God to maintain the world and take care of his people. Benedictines are able to leave work, even work of importance to the monastery, several times a day to appear with the community gathered in God's presence. "Let nothing, then, be preferred to the Work of God": This formula also echoes one of the tools of good works in Chapter 4: "Let nothing be preferred to Christ." For the Benedictine, our love of Christ is expressed by our life of continual prayer of which the Office is the principle act and most sure support. The liturgy makes present the mystery of Christ.

CHAPTER 42: THAT NO ONE MAY SPEAK AFTER COMPLINE Nov 20 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.

The night silence, or great silence, after compline is as old as monasticism itself. Already we find St Pachomius in the early 4th century prescribing it in his rules. Night is a time of particular intimacy with the Lord. Indeed in Scripture there exists a sort of genealogy of nights, from the night of Abraham (Gen 12-21) which revealed his future descendants, to Jacob's night (Gen 28) when he wrestled with God and Solomon's night when the Lord visited him in a dream right up to the night of the nativity (Lk 2:8) and the O vere beata nox night of Easter and the eschatological night which will be broken by a great cry: "At midnight, behold the bridegroom comes, go out to meet him" (Mt 25:6). Night is a privileged time for silence in monasteries, a privilege moment when the monk is more turned towards God, a moment of God's special nearness and presence.

CHAPTER 41: AT WHAT HOURS THE BRETHREN ARE TO TAKE THEIR MEALS Nov 19 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.

Fasting "represents an important ascetical practice, a spiritual arm to do battle against every possible disordered attachment to ourselves. Freely chosen detachment from the pleasure of food and other material goods helps the disciple of Christ to control the appetites of nature, weakened by original sin, whose negative effects impact the entire human person" (Pope Benedict, Message for Lent 2009). When we fast we deny our bodily impulses, our spontaneous appetite for food and drink, not because these impulses are in themselves evil, but because they have been disordered by original sin and require to be purified through self-discipline. Fasting confronts our tendency to grab and snatch at material things, to see them only as sources of our satisfaction. The world and food are there for us to enjoy, but limits are set to this order. Not everything is to be enjoyed by consuming it. Fasting signifies a radical change in our relation to God and the world. God, not the self becomes the centre, and the world is seen as his creation, not something for our own gratification. Fasting is part of a true order of things which does not separate body and soul in the spiritual effort. External disciplines impose concrete renunciations to signify and support our movement towards God. Too often today we are content to disdain such practices and to think that our spiritual journey consists in a purely interior progress. A genuine interior life can only grow through the body. As St. Paul affirms: 'Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. . . Glorify God in your body' (1 Cor 6:19-20).

 

©SBVM 2013