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
We are indeed forbidden to do our own will by the Scripture when it says to us: “Turn away from thy own will.” And so, too, we beg of God in prayer that His will may be done in us. Rightly, therefore, are we taught not to do our own will when we hearken to that which the Scripture says: “There are ways which seem to men right, but the ends thereof lead to the depths of hell.” Or again, when we pay heed to what is said of the careless: “They are corrupt and have become abominable in their pleasures.” As to the desires of the flesh, let us hold as certain that God is always present to us, as the prophet says to the Lord: “Lord, before Thee is all my desire.”
“We beg of God in prayer that His will may be done in us” Here St Benedict recalls the Lord’s prayer, may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. We turn away from our own will in order to embrace God’s will. Our will is given to us that it may be united in love to him from whom it came. Listen to St Teresa of Avila: ‘We can promise easily enough to give up our will to someone else, but when it comes to the test we find it the most difficult thing in the world to do perfectly. But God knows what each of us is able to bear, and when he finds a valiant soul, he does not hesitate to accomplish his will in that person.
I want to make sure you know what you are giving him when you say, “Your will be done.” You are asking that God’s will may be done in you; it is this and nothing else you are praying for. You need not be afraid he will give you wealth or pleasures or great honours or any earthly good thing; his love for you is not so weak as that. He sets a far greater value on your gift and desires to reward you generously, giving you his kingdom even in this life. Would you like to see how he treats people who make this petition without reserve? Ask his glorious Son, who made it genuinely and resolutely in the garden. Was not God’s will accomplished in him through the trials, the sufferings, the insults, and the persecutions he sent him until at last his life was ended on the cross?
You see then what God gave to the one he loved best of all, and that shows you what his will is. These things are his gifts in this world, and he gives them in proportion to his love for us… Fervent love can suffer a great deal for his sake, while lukewarmness will endure very little. I myself believe that love is the gauge of the crosses, great or small, that we are able to bear’. (Way of Perfection.)
The first degree of humility, then, is that a monk, always keeping the fear of God before his eyes, should avoid with the utmost care all forgetfulness, and be ever mindful of all that God has commanded. Let him ever reflect in his heart upon the fire of hell, which shall consume for their sins those who despise God, as well as upon the everlasting life which has been prepared for those who fear Him. And keeping himself at all times not only from sins and vices – whether of the thoughts, the tongue, the eyes, the hands, the feet, or his own self-will – but also from carnal desires, let him always consider that at all times he is being watched from heaven by God, and that his actions are everywhere seen by the eye of the Divine Majesty, and are every moment reported to Him by His Angels. Of this the Prophet informs us when he shows how God is ever present to our thoughts, saying: “The searcher of hearts and reins is God.” And again: “The Lord knows the thoughts of men, that they are vain.” And he also says: “Thou hast understood my thoughts afar off.” And: “The thought of man shall confess to thee.” In order, therefore, that he may be on his guard against evil thoughts, let the humble brother say ever in his heart: “Then shall I be blameless before Him, if I shall have kept myself from guilt.”
The first degree of humility is mindfulness of God, what St Benedict, following the Bible, calls the fear of God. If fear of the Lord is basically awareness of God’s presence, forgetfulness is the great obstacle. The two ideas come together in Deuteronomy 8:11: “Take care you do not forget the Lord your God, neglecting his commandments, customs and laws”. Israel is often reproached because she forgets the things God has done for her, the marvellous deeds He has shown her. So in the Bible, especially in Deuteronomy the people are exhorted again and again to remember-both the past favours of God and their obligations to Him. For God does not forget them.
Fear of the Lord is a gift of the Holy Spirit which stimulates the soul to shake off its forgetfulness, its sleep and to become active in putting into practice what it knows to be right. Living in the presence of God, being aware of that presence is the opposite of a carefree, thoughtless existence where nothing is reflected upon and anything is allowed to happen. Mindfulness of God is a flight from heedless living; it has the effect of rendering a person alert, diligent, watchful of himself. It is the opposite of a false sense of security, smugness, complacency.
Wherefore, brethren, if we wish to gain the summit of humility and speedily to attain to that heavenly exaltation to which we can ascend only by the humility of this present life, we must, by actions which will constantly elevate us, erect that ladder which Jacob beheld in his dream and on which Angels appeared descending and ascending. This descent and ascent we must understand without doubt as being nothing other than that we descend by exaltation and ascend by humility. The ladder itself thus erected is our life in this world, which the Lord, having respect to our humility of heart, lifts up even to heaven. The sides of this ladder we declare to be our body and soul, in which our divine vocation has placed divers rungs of humility and discipline which we must ascend.
In the ladder image St Benedict conceives of the whole life of a person as a mounting towards heaven, body and soul, outer and inner. When considering the “steps” of the ladder, it is not helpful to think in terms of progression of degrees; or rigorous steps, each to be accomplished before the other. The ladder is not a programme of exercises to reach the summit. They are more milestones on the road to God. They offer a description, indications, for the kind of inward growth that is taking place in the monk who is going forward, a description of the kinds of changes at the level of behaviour and attitudes. For Cassian, indeed, it is a matter not of steps or degrees, but of signs, (Indicia) The degrees of the ladder are really signs, by which it may be known whether a monk is truly humble. . It has been said that humility is more like an escalator than a ladder: we need all the steps all the time; we do not graduate from one to the next. Or to use St Thérèse’s image of a lift: “We live in an age of inventions. We need no longer climb laboriously up flights of stairs; in well-to-do houses there are lifts. And I was determined to find a lift to carry me to Jesus, for I was far too small to climb the steep stairs of perfection…. It is your arms, Jesus, that are the lift to carry me to heaven.” Here too it is the Lord who draws up the ladder. For both St Therese and St Benedict there is no question of earning eternal life by one’s own efforts. Humility is the necessary condition for God’s act of exaltation. It is the capacity for receiving God’s action.