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 4: The tools of good works May 19,
- First of all, to love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy strength.
- Then, to love thy neighbour as thyself.
- Next, not to kill.
- Not to commit adultery.
- Not to steal.
- Not to covet.
- Not to bear false witness.
- To honour all men.
- Not to do to another what one would not have done to oneself.
- To deny oneself in order to follow Christ.
- To chastise the body.
- Not to seek after luxuries.
- To love fasting.
- To refresh the poor.
- To clothe the naked.
- To visit the sick.
- To bury the dead.
- To help in affliction.
- To console the sorrowing.
- To keep aloof from worldly actions.
- To prefer nothing to the love of Christ.
It is very revealing of St Benedict’s spirituality that his tools of good works begin with the two-fold commandment of love. Everything in his Rule-the liturgy, community life, enclosure expresses the fundamental option for God and Christ; and St Benedict in his Rule teaches how to receive Christ in others and in ourselves. The Church has taught that the contemplative nun fulfils this great commandment of love: “The contemplative nun fulfils to the highest degree the First Commandment of the Lord: “You will love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, with all your mind” (Lk 10:27), making it the full meaning of her life and loving in God all the brothers and sisters. She moves towards the perfection of charity, choosing God as “the one thing necessary” (cf. Lk10:42), loving him exclusively as All in all. .. This is the reason why the earliest spiritual tradition spontaneously associated complete withdrawal from the world (27) and all works of the apostolate with this kind of life, which thus becomes a silent emanation of love and superabundant grace in the pulsing heart of the Church as Bride.” (Verbi Sponsa, Instruction on the Contemplative Life and on the Enclosure of Nuns, 13 May 1996).
May 18 ,
Let all, therefore, follow this Rule as their guide, and let no one decline from it rashly. Let no one in the monastery follow his own will, neither should anyone presume insolently to contend with his Abbot either within or without the monastery. But if one should presume to do so, let him be subjected to the regular punishment. The Abbot, on the other hand, is to do all things with the fear of God and in the observance of the Rule, since he must know without doubt that he must render to God, the most just Judge, an account of all his decisions.
If matters of less importance concerning the good of the monastery are to be treated, let him take counsel with the seniors only, as it is written: ” Do thou nothing without counsel and thou shalt not repent when thou hast done.”
The Rule for St. Benedict is only indispensable, it is central; it is the universal point of reference: “In all things let all follow the Rule as master, nor let anyone depart from it” (chapter 3); the abbot himself “should do all things in the fear of God and observance of the Rule” (Ibid.). At the end of Chapter 66, St. Benedict enjoins that the Rule should be read aloud frequently in order that no one may plead ignorance. The Rule is the clearest expression of the terms of the life to which the novices engage themselves; it must be repeatedly presented to them “so that they may know on what they are entering” (chapter 58).
Rules are important in the spiritual life. A Rule can be an enormous help to ordinary Catholics and Christians who want to follow Christ more closely. This is not to reduce our living faith, our love of God, and discipleship of Christ to a list of rules. The word Rule really means regular: A Rule of life enables us to live our lives in regular contact with God. It is at the service of our faith and discipleship. Our wills are often weak; we allow many other things to get in the way and take priority. This is where a personal Rule of Life can be invaluable.
A rule of life is a pattern of spiritual discipline that provides structure and direction for growth in holiness. Like the sticks we put in the ground to support young plants, to orient and support their growth, a Rule of life is there to support the development of living individuals and communities. The plant is not stifled by the stick but is able to unfold itself around the axis, finding there its centre and support to mount upwards. So too, as the Church’s tradition shows in its rules for religious life, the human being, tending towards God with all its liberty intact, moves around a Rule of life given to it. We have need of a rule of life to direct our ascent to God, guarding it from inconstancy and our own fragility.
CHAPTER 3: Calling the brethren to council May 17,
Whenever anything of importance is to be done in the monastery, let the Abbot assemble the whole community and himself declare the matter to be treated. And having received the advice of the brethren, let him weigh it within himself, and then do what he shall judge to be most expedient. Moreover, we have said that all are to be called to council because it is often to the younger that the Lord reveals what is better.
However, the brethren are to proffer their several opinions with all the subjection of humility, and none should presume to maintain pertinaciously his own opinion, but should rather let the matter rest with the discretion of the Abbot, that all may submit to whatsoever he may consider the better course to follow. Yet, even as it behoves the disciples to obey their master, so also is it incumbent on him to administer all things wisely and justly.
This is a remarkable chapter in the Rule for St Benedict recognizes that the abbot has no monopoly on inspiration and that truth is often found in the process of listening to others. Even in affairs of lesser importance (tomorrow’s passage), consultation should always be made. Here St Benedict says if the issue is important, the whole community should be summoned for God often reveals what is best to the younger. So attentive is St Benedict to seeking the truth that he exhorts the abbot to attend to any possible channel, even visiting monks from outside the community (chapter 61). There is no question here of majority rule: the abbot takes all possible information into consideration before making a decision. In Benedictine communities, the only question of government by consensus is that all agree to follow whatever is decided. Ultimately, as St Benedict recognizes, it is Christ who speaks and commands, “the Lord reveals”. It is He whom both abbot and monks desire to obey.