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 44 How those are to make satisfaction who are excommunicated July 24,
He who for more serious faults is excluded from the oratory and the common table must, at the hour when the Work of God is being performed in the oratory, lie prostrate at the door of the oratory in silence; and thus, with his face to the ground and his body prone, let him cast himself at the feet of all as they go forth from the oratory. And let him do this until the Abbot judge that he has made due satisfaction. Then, when the Abbot bids him, let him come and cast himself at the feet of the Abbot and then of all the brethren, that they may pray for him. After which, if the Abbot so orders, let him be received back into the choir, but in the rank the Abbot shall appoint him; yet so that he presumes not to intone a psalm or a lesson or perform any other duty in the oratory unless the Abbot again command him. Moreover, at every hour, when the Work of God is ended, let him cast himself on the ground in the place where he stands, and so make satisfaction until the Abbot bids him cease from this penance. He who for lighter faults is excluded only from the common table is to make satisfaction in the oratory as long as the Abbot bids him do so; he shall continue until he gives him his blessing and says that he has made sufficient satisfaction.
The term “satisfaction” is frequent in these chapters 43-46. What does this mean? It refers to the objective redemption of a debt or penalty. As such it is in a different category than terms like guilt or punishment. Satisfaction implies the good will, the complete willingness of the monk to do what is necessary to make amends concerning any offence against God and the Community. St Anselm and St Thomas made satisfaction the cornerstone of the theology of the atonement. Our redemption, our liberation was an act of satisfaction. And they stress that Jesus did this freely and out of love.
St Thomas teaches that in certain circumstances there is a need for satisfaction. Sin produces a disharmony between man and God which needs to be erased if a proper relationship with God is to be established again. It is not simply a question of refraining from sin; repentance is in order, a turning back. “If someone is parted from another, that person is not reunited to the other as soon as the movement ceases; the person needs to draw nigh to the other and return by a contrary movement” (St Thomas , Ia, IIae, 86, 2) He also thinks that restitution, compensation, restores the balance of justice. Finally he sees satisfaction as having a healing effect: “Satisfaction can be defined in two ways: one way is with respect to present or past faults which it heals by recompense….Satisfaction may also be defined with regard to future faults, from which one is preserved by satisfaction.”
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.
The refectory is not a cafeteria, where one eats on the run. As we have seen 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.” We gather as a family and celebrate our shared food by sharing it, just as we celebrate our shared faith by receiving the same Eucharist at Mass. A very early text brings together these two tables: “One of the fathers used to say that three things are important for monks to whom they should be attached with fear and trembling and spiritual joy: communion in the holy mysteries, the common table, and washing the feet of the brethren.” The refectory is an extension of the Lord’s Table because at both we express our oneness and affirm the presence of God at the centre of that oneness. This was so important for St Benedict that exclusion from the common table was a form of excommunication. Our common meals express and foster a sense of community, as we see in the Gospels. Here his rule for presence at table is at least as firm as it is about presence at prayer.
CHAPTER 43: OF THOSE WHO COME LATE TO THE WORK OF GOD OR TO MEALS
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.
In the context of the Divine Office, to hasten is the expression of a love that impels. We do not drag our feet to meet someone we love. When we go to prayer we are going to meet God and our sisters. We are hastening towards God and his praise, so this haste will not be any kind of haste: it will have a character indicative of its goal, what St Benedict calls gravitas that is with a sense of sobriety, self-control, dignity. “Laying aside whatever he may be engaged with and responding with all speed” recalls the gospel: “They left everything and followed Him” (Luke5:11). To be chosen by Christ and to choose Him imply a letting go. This capacity to let go for the sake of the Beloved is also part of what it means to love. We can also express this love by choosing to arrive a little early from the Work of God, the Divine Office, in order to express our desire to be with Christ, to unite myself to him in His own praise to the Father and to unite myself with the Community of sisters, being with them under the gaze of Christ.