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
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.”
St Benedict in fact does not begin with an abstract definition of humility. It is not a question of a definition and then a judgment about whether one conforms or not. Indeed his understanding of humility is very wide: it begins in this first step with the perception, the understanding and acceptance of the dependence of a finite being before divine transcendence, of the creature before its Creator, of a sinner who turns towards love. This means that for St Benedict one can begin the spiritual journey proper, the journey towards the love of God and love of the brethren, only on condition of accepting this liberating dependence, that without him we can do nothing. This awareness of the presence of God makes the monk more aware of his faults, bad tendencies, one’s self-assertiveness (2nd degree). The humble monk will be obedient to his superiors out of love (3rd) Then humility branches out in every direction to include patience and perseverance (4th), the loving acceptance of the inevitable in a spirit of faith; humility is about opening one’s heart which establishes us in simplicity and loyalty, and creates a profound unity in our life (5th). Another sign of humility is being content (6th), in accepting all the conditions of the monastic life and not being particular; another sign is the sense of our unworthiness before God (7th). In the 8th degree, it is also shown to be a community virtue. It is through the actions of the common life that humility is engendered, thrives, grows, bears fruit. In the 9-11 degrees, it involves recollection, silence, speech, self-control; the 12 degree shows humility fully flowering in the monk to include body and soul. The monk lives continually under God’s gaze, love casts out all fear, humility invades the monk’s entire being. The conscious awareness in the depths of one’s heart and in bodily expression of the true relationship of the human being (humus) to his Creator. At the root of humility is not self-humiliation but the more or less unexpressed assertion: by myself I am nothing and can do nothing, except insofar as I am helped by him who is everything and all-powerful.
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 diverse 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 degrees are less steps to be attained one after the other but rather signs of virtue which can and ought to be ascended simultaneously. They are less stages as signs by which we may know whether we are truly humble. Stages in spiritual life can be worrying for some. It is important to see that the stages in question cover vast areas, so vast as to be indefinable. As St Benedict’s ladder suggests, it is far better to understand stages as pointing out a direction that is relevant wherever we are on the journey. When spiritual writers speak of stages or ladders they are saying: we can’t be static, faith is a movement, and life is a series of choices. It is living faith that matters, not a consciousness of it, not a satisfying awareness of the security of faith or prayer or whatever.
CHAPTER 7: OF HUMILITY Jan 25,
The Sacred Scripture cries out to us, brethren, saying, “Everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.” In saying this it teaches us that all exaltation is of the nature of pride, which vice the Prophet shows that he took care to avoid, saying: “Lord, my heart is not proud, nor are my eyes haughty, nor have I walked in great matters, nor in wonderful things above me.” And why? “For if I were not humbly minded, but had exalted my soul, as a child that is weaned from its mother, so would my soul likewise be rewarded.”
The desert sayings are filled with questions about the meaning of humility and how to acquire and cultivate it. John of Thebaid: ‘First of all the monk must gain humility, for it is the first commandment of the Lord who said, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven For Abba Poemen (No 49). Humility is as vital as the breath of life itself; Amma Syncletica said that it was humility that holds a monk’s life together and makes salvation possible. None of the other practices could save a monk because none could so effectively overcome the natural human tendency to rely on oneself, to look to one’s own achievements for one’s happiness and well-being, in response to someone who wanted to know the good of fasting and keeping watch, Abba Moses replied: “They make the soul humble”. (Moses 18b or 5 in extra sayings under his name). The early monks were very aware that works of ascetic alone could not bring one close to God (cf Syncletica, 16) Humility was perceived as especially effective in helping one to overcome the attacks of demons (Anthony 7).
For the early monks, cultivating humility meant moving in two directions: being reconciled to one’s own weakness and the sense of one’s utter dependence on the mercy of God. These two movements were connected: by understanding themselves as weak and sinful, they were more open to receive the mercy of God. “The divine work of humility is considering oneself a sinner, inferior to all. . .not paying attention to others’ sins but always to one’s own, praying to God ceaselessly” (Nau 323. ) Their acute sense of weakness was perceived as one of the clearest signs of humility, most often expressed as “just having begun along the way” by those who lived long years and who were the most highly esteemed. (Pambo 8; Sisoes 4)- An indicator of their deep self-knowledge and of how much space they had allowed within for God.