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 65: OF THE PRIOR OF THE MONASTERY August 22,
It very often happens that by the appointment of a prior grave scandals arise in monasteries, since there are some who, puffed up by the evil spirit of pride and considering themselves to be second abbots, usurp absolute authority, and so nourish scandals and cause dissensions in the community; especially is this the case in those places where the Prior is appointed by the same Bishop or the same Abbots as appoint the Abbot himself. The extreme folly of this usage is easily evident; for from his very entrance into office an incentive to pride is given him, in that the thought suggests itself to him that he is exempt from the authority of his Abbot, since he has been appointed by the very same persons by whom the Abbot himself was appointed. The consequence is that there arise envy, quarrels, backbiting, jealousy, dissensions, and disorders. And since the Abbot and the Prior find themselves at variance with each other, it follows of necessity that their souls are in danger by reason of this dissension. And those who are subject to them, while pandering to one party or the other, themselves run headlong to perdition. These evils and dangers are imputable particularly to those who by their appointment placed such men in power.
We foresee, therefore, that it is expedient for the preservation of peace and charity, that the government of his monastery be left exclusively in the hands of the Abbot. And if possible let all the affairs of the monastery be attended to, as we have already arranged, by deans, according as the Abbot shall appoint; so that, the authority being shared by many, no one may become proud.
The Benedictine Cardinal Basil Hume once commented that the Rule seems to have been written intentionally for a monastery that functioned imperfectly (In Praise of St Benedict). Time after time the Rule conveys a realistic appreciation of human nature. Here St Benedict is very aware of human rationalization: the internal voices of the prior (telling him what a great man he is) are given almost as a quotation! St Benedict wants those in authority to create conditions that will minimize eruptions of pride and self-will.
Let him who has been appointed Abbot always bear in mind what a burden he has taken on himself, and to whom he will have to give an account of his stewardship; and let him know that it behoves him rather to serve his brethren than to lord it over them. He must, therefore, be well versed in the Divine Law, that he may know whence to bring forth new things and old; he must be chaste, sober, merciful; and always exalt mercy above judgment that he himself may find mercy. Let him love the brethren whilst he hates their vices. And in the very correction of the brethren let him act prudently and not go to excess, lest, seeking too vigorously to cleanse off the rust, he may break the vessel. Let him ever keep his own frailty before his eyes and remember that the bruised reed must not be broken. By this we do not mean that he should suffer vices to grow up, but that he could cut them off prudently and with charity, according as he shall see that it is best for each, as we have said; and let him seek rather to be loved than to be feared.
Let him not be turbulent and overanxious, over-exacting and headstrong, jealous and prone to suspicion, for otherwise he will never have rest. In his commands themselves, whether they concern God or the world, let him be prudent and considerate. Let him be discreet and moderate in the tasks which he imposes, bearing in mind the discretion of holy Jacob when he said: “If I cause my flock to be overdriven, they will all die in one day.” Taking, then, this and other models of discretion, the mother of virtue, let him so temper all things that the strong may still find something they will do with zeal, and the weak may not be disheartened. And above all let him observe this present Rule in all things; so that having ministered well, he may hear from the Lord what that good servant heard who gave to his fellow servants their measure of wheat in due season: “Amen, I say to you, he shall set him over all his goods.”
In his two chapters on the Abbot, St Benedict supplies a profile of the personal qualities that should mark the abbot’s dealings with others, insisting on mercy, discretion, and avoidance of excess. St Benedict recommends a sense of proportion, prudent moderation, patience, a care and regard for others, seeing what is best in each case, sensitivity to the needs of both the strong and the weak, so that “the strong may still have something to long after, and the weak may not draw back in alarm”. This prudence also consists in demanding of each what she is capable of giving, by stimulating the negligent and moderating the presumptuous. The observance must be such, as the 13th c Barnwell Observances put it, and that “an elephant can swim in it and a lamb walk in it safely.” He must therefore consider the varying strengths and qualities of individuals, and the needs of the old and the sick. The action of the abbot or abbess, noted one of our abbesses, is like that of “the sun, as it causes the things of nature to grow, developing everything according to its own shape and colour”.
CHAPTER 64: OF THE APPOINTMENT OF THE ABBOT August 20,
In the appointment of an Abbot let this principle be observed, that he be made Abbot whom the entire community, inspired by the fear of God, shall choose unanimously, or whom even a majority of the community – however small – shall choose after more mature deliberation. Let him who is to be appointed be chosen because of the merit of his life and because of his learning, even though in the community he may be lowest in rank. But if all the community with one accord (which God forbid) should elect one who would connive at their evil ways, and these wicked doings should somehow come to the knowledge of the bishop to whose diocese the place belongs, or of the abbots or neighbouring Christians, let them take measures to prevent the plans of these wicked men from prevailing, and appoint a worthy steward over the house of God, knowing that for this they shall receive a good reward if they do it with a pure intention and for the love of God; whereas, on the other hand, they will sin if they are negligent in this matter.
A Benedictine abbot is the foundation of a community life. St Benedict has 2 chapters on the abbot, one at the beginning and one at the end of his Rule. In a sense it is the abbot who engenders and assembles the coenobitic society. Pachomius, who is considered the founder of the coenobitic, communal life, is called by his successor, Theodore, “the man by whom the large community has become one single body and one single spirit.” An abbot is not just a solution to the problem of government; he fosters and preserves the community and is expressive of it. The abbot, the representative of Christ, a man of God, is endowed with a mission of teaching and governing souls. That is what comes first for St Benedict.