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

 

May 28, 

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.

 

May 27, 

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.

 

CHAPTER 7:  OF HUMILITY May 26, 

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.”

 

Humility is an exclusively biblical virtue.  “God alone is naturally humble,” said Rupert of Deutz in the lectionary reading we have for the feast of SS Peter and Paul. As a response to revelation, the Old Testament knew God as the living and holy one; It experienced the transcendence of God, the concrete meeting with the all-powerful God and Creator, before whom the creature is only dust.  Moreover the Jews had the revelation of their total dependence on God, as the chosen people, which brought with it a sense of sin and the need for conversion.  Transcendence of God, dependence of man: these are  the sources of humility in the Bible.  It is striking  that those of the OT  described as the most humble  are those who approached God most nearly: Moses (Num 12:3): Elijah (I Kings 19:4).  And it is Moses and Elijah who surround Jesus at the Transfiguration  before he takes up the way of the Cross, the way of humiliation.  “God is glorified  by the humble” (Sirach, ch. 3)  God is glorified by those who make nothing of themselves, for God makes nothing of himself, since He is simply who He is the giver of good gifts.

This leads us to the most common definition of humility, that is an attitude of mind springing from the relationship between creature and Creator.  Because the relationship is one of dependence whereby the creature is seen to be the beneficiary of the divine goodness–“what is there that you have not received?”–so our life and our talents are not something originating but given; so we are all at the same  level of Importance  and value In the eyes of God.  The realization of this truth  gives, or should give , stability, a sense of proportion, a refusal to make ourselves  the centre of the universe, the capacity to see things, including ourselves, in the light of eternity; the surrender of self-created security, a radical submissiveness to God, expecting everything from him.  Our actions must conform to this truth–by not demanding that circumstances change to fit ourselves, by not labouring to control events, and by seeing ourselves as the servant of others like Our Lord.

Humility then is  no grovelling self-pity or sullen  admission of nothingness, but the ecstatic joy of knowing  that I am not God, not self-determining, and that this truth frees  me to be myself and frees others to be themselves and God to be Himself.  True humility does not mean undervaluing yourself; it means valuing yourself, God, and others.  It signals a certain openness to life; it is the capacity to be open to something greater than oneself.  False humility is the pretence that one is small; true humility is the consciousness of standing In the presence of greatness-which is why it is the virtue of the saints who feel vividly the nearness of God.