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 38: OF THE READER FOR THE WEEK July 17, There shall always be reading at table while the brethren are eating. Yet he should not presume to read there who by mere chance shall have taken up the book; but let him who is to read throughout the week enter on his office on Sunday. He who is entering on this service shall, after Mass and Communion, ask of all to pray for him that God may keep from him the spirit of pride. And let this verse be thrice said in the oratory by all, he himself beginning it: "Dómine, lábia mea apéries, et os meum annuntiábit laudem tua " ("O God, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise") (Ps 51:17). Then, having received the blessing, let him enter on his duties as reader. The most profound silence shall be kept at table so that the whispering or voice of no one save that of the reader alone be heard there. The brethren will so help each other to what is necessary as regards food and drink that no one may have need to ask for anything. Should, however, something be required, let it be asked for by means of some sign rather than by words. Let no one ask any question there concerning what is being read or anything else, lest occasion be given to the Evil One; unless perhaps the superior should wish to say something briefly for the edification of the brethren. The brother who is reader for the week shall receive refreshment before he begins to read, because of the Holy Communion, and lest it be too hard for him to fast so long. After the meal he shall eat with the weekly cooks and servers. The brethren are not to read or sing according to rank; but only those are to discharge these duties who can do so to the edification of the hearers.

St Benedict here returns to questions concerning the refectory. He desires that the prayer for the reader takes place not in the refectory, but in the oratory, the place of prayer, after Mass and Holy Communion. In this way, St Benedict brings out the interior connection between Holy Communion and the Word of God in the mouth of the reader. Both are the presence of Christ. Both require humility and reverence and both build up community. For St Benedict the reader is not to project himself, but to allow God to speak through him, so that God can truly work in the reader and in those who listen, so that all may be edified. That is why St Benedict exhorts the reader to ask all to pray for him. To read in this way is a grace for which we must ask.

CHAPTER 37: OF OLD MEN AND CHILDREN July 16, Although human nature itself is inclined to consideration as regards these ages, namely, that of old men and children, yet the authority of the Rule should also provide for them. Let their weakness be always taken into account and let the full rigour of the Rule as regards food be in no way exacted in their regard; but let a kind consideration be had for them, and let them eat before the regular hours.

As we have seen, these two stages of life have much in common, and both have something to give. After dealing with sick brethren, he now turns to those whose weakness is not due to illness but simply to age. They are both stages of weakness and dependence. Every child is entrusted, defenceless into another's hands. He has to let himself be clothed, fed, carried, looked after. Similarly the elderly and those who are dying no longer have control over themselves; they must let others look after them. The Son of God freely entered into this condition of dependence when He became incarnate. And He continues to entrust Himself to His Church; He allows the Church to have control over Him and His sacrifice. He entrusts to her administration not only the fruits of His life and his sacrifice, but His very self in the Eucharist. Finally, he gives Himself into the hands of anyone who becomes a 'mother' to Him by doing the will of the Father. This being 'handed-over' is the final fruit of His life of action and free obedience to His Father's will. We too have to learn how to be led and to be in this way more surrendered, available to the Father's will.

CHAPTER 36: OF SICK BRETHREN July 15, Before all things and above all things care is to be taken of the sick, so that they may be served in very deed as Christ Himself; for He has said: "I was sick and you visited Me"; and, "As long as you did it for one of these My least brethren, you did it for Me." But let the sick themselves consider that they are being served for the honour of God, and not grieve the brethren who are serving them by superfluous demands. Yet, they shall be patiently borne with, because by serving such as these a more abundant reward is obtained. Therefore, the Abbot shall take the greatest care that they suffer no neglect. Let a cell be set apart for the sick brethren, and one be appointed to serve them who fears God and is diligent and careful. Let the use of the baths be granted to the sick as often as it shall be expedient; but to those who are well, and especially to the young, it shall be seldom permitted. The use of meat, too, shall be permitted to the sick and to the very weak, that they may recover their strength. But when they have recovered their strength, let them all abstain from meat in the accustomed manner. Let the Abbot take all possible care that the sick be not neglected by the cellarers or those appointed to serve them; for he is held responsible for whatever failures his disciples are guilty of.

The theme of service and love continues in this beautiful chapter on the sick. The great concern for the sick is based on the words of Christ; again we see how Scripture is a very living thing for St Benedict. St Benedict says the care of the sick is to be a priority, and he bases this above all on the words of Jesus in the scene of the Last Judgment. St Benedict will invoke the same passage of the gospel in the chapter on guests. In the previous chapter, which recalled Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, we saw the example of Jesus serving his disciples, showing himself the servant of man, ever providing for his needs. Here we see the other side of the mystery: Jesus is served in each of his brothers or sisters, revealing his presence in all human distress. In the one, he acts and gives; in the other, as in this chapter, he suffers and receives. In the monastery, Jesus is both the one whom we serve and the model of our service. And if the sick are to be served like Christ, they must behave as members of Christ and not "sadden" their attendants by their unreasonable demands.


©SBVM 2013