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 40: THE DRINK ALLOWANCE Nov 18 "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 away." 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.

The opening words strike a note of diffidence and modesty. Aware as he is of differences in human needs and capabilities, St Benedict is uneasy about setting up norms in the matter of food and drink. But he repeats here what he said in chapter 34 on the distribution of necessities: when one's needs are less than well-met God should be especially thanked. It is a grace to be called to detachment. Happiness consists not in possessing and consuming much but in having few needs and satisfying them at little expense. The asceticism of our life is not based on striving after greater austerities but on the cheerful acceptance of circumstances, whether it be food, drink or anything else. The asceticism of our life is to live day by day with great generosity, "blessing God and not murmuring." And Abbot Parry of Ramsgate adds in his commentary on this chapter: "If you do the one (bless God) you are infallibly saved from the other (grumbling). It is a useful tip in any matter in which short commons are involved. Indeed it is more: for to have learnt to bless, praise and thank God from the heart in adverse circumstances, be they important or trivial, is a big step towards spiritual joy."

CHAPTER 39: THE FOOD ALLOWANCE Nov 17 We think it sufficient for the daily meal, whether at the sixth or the ninth hour, that there be at all the tables two dishes of cooked food because of the weaknesses of different persons; so that he who perhaps cannot eat of the one may make his meal of the other. Therefore, let two cooked dishes suffice for the brethren; and if there is any fruit or fresh vegetables, let a third dish be added. Let a full pound of bread suffice for each day, whether there be but one meal or both dinner and supper. If they are to take a second meal, let a third part of the pound be reserved by the cellarer, to be given to them at supper. But if the work has been rather heavy, it shall be in the discretion and power of the Abbot to make some addition, if he thinks it expedient, provided that excess be avoided above all things, that no monk be ever guilty of surfeiting; for nothing is more unworthy of any Christian than gluttony, as our Lord says: "Take heed to yourselves, lest perhaps your hearts be overcharged with self-indulgence and drunkenness"(Lk 21:34). Let not the same quantity be allowed to children of tender years, but a smaller amount than that allowed to their elders, so that frugality may be observed in all things. All, however, except the very weak and the sick, are to abstain from eating the flesh of four-footed animals.

Now that St Benedict has legislated for those responsible for providing and serving meals, he takes up food itself. In addition to dinner and supper, monasteries today have breakfast which was unusual in ancient times. Our food is simple but substantial, and includes our own fruit and vegetables and some meat. The bread allowance is unrestricted. St Benedict's chapter includes other teaching, and he insists on 2 principles: compassion and self-control. The key words are "sufficiency" and moderation. By these is meant not eating as little as possible, but eating simply and in moderation, avoiding excess. While St Benedict recognizes that the quantity will vary with each individual, he stresses the interior attitude of moderation. Here he invokes the Gospel, where the Lord warns against anything that might weigh us down or cause a lack of vigilance in view of the great day of the Master's return. In the refectory as in the dormitory, the monk should ponder the return of the Lord, remaining "light", and ready and available. St Benedict is saying let people have what they need but let them forego what they don't, so they can run through life unburdened This belongs to every Christian as St Benedict notes: between the monk and all Christians there is no difference, except perhaps in the attitude of a more exclusive attention to the Lord present and to come.

CHAPTER 38: OF THE READER FOR THE WEEK Nov 16 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. Just as the kitchen and table servers provide their brethren with nourishment for the body, the refectory reader provides food for the soul. In the course of the meal, the monks are to concentrate on two things: the words of the reading and the needs of their neighbour. Following monastic tradition, St Benedict enjoins a religious silence during the reading. This silence creates the climate for the conversation the monk has with God throughout the day. It allows us to really listen to God whether he speaks to us through the reading or in the intimacy of our hearts. But the written word is not the only source of God's word. The brothers are to be attentive to each other's needs as they eat and drink. In all this we have a little summary of the Christian life: attention to the Word of God and to neighbour.


©SBVM 2013