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
On Sunday, as soon as Lauds are ended, both the incoming and the outgoing servers for the week shall cast themselves on their knees before all and ask their prayers. He who is ending his week shall say this verse: “Benedíctus es, Dómine Deus, qui adiuvísti me et consolátus es me.” (Blessed are you, O God, who have helped me and comforted me” (Dan. 3:52; Ps 86:17). After this has been thrice repeated, let him receive the blessing. He who is entering on his office shall then follow and say: “Deus, in adiutórium meum inténde; Dómine ad adiuvándum me festína.”(“O God, come to my assistance O God, make haste to help me” (Ps 70:2) This also is to be repeated thrice by all; and having received the blessing, let him enter on his office.
The blessing of the weekly servers in the midst of the Community is a custom which we still observe today. The essential mark of fraternal love, according to St John, is that it loves “not in word and speech but in deed” (1 Jn 3:18). It will dedicate itself to humble and fervent service, following the example of our Lord who washed the feet of his disciples and instructed us to do the same, i.e. love and serve in lowly ways. Not only must we translate our ideals into action, but we must also see our actions in the light of our ideals. We serve for the sake of love of God and of neighbour. The kitchen and refectory service provides a chance for the strong to help the weak so that both may serve. Our Lord has given us the Community as an expression of his own love for us; and the Community enables us to accept his love and respond to it. If we do not serve one another, we are just a group of individuals living alone together.
CHAPTER 35: OF THOSE WHO SERVE BY WEEK IN THE KITCHEN Nov 12
All the brethren, except those who are hindered by sickness or by some occupation of great moment, shall serve each other by turns, so that no one be excused from duty in the kitchen, for thereby a very great reward is obtained and love increased. Helpers, however, are to be given to the weaker brethren, that they may perform this duty without being overburdened; thus let all have helpers according as the number of the community or the situation of the place may require. If the community is large, let the cellarer be excused from the service in the kitchen; likewise any others, as we have said, who are engaged in matters of greater utility. But let the rest serve one another in turn with all charity.
Let him who is retiring from this week’s service on Saturday set everything in cleanly order. He is to wash the towels with which the brethren wipe their hands and feet; and both he who is finishing his service and he who is entering on it are to wash the feet of all. The utensils connected with his office he is to deliver up clean and in good condition to the cellarer, who in turn shall then consign them to him who is entering on his office, that he may know what he gives out and what he receives back.
An hour before the meal these weekly servers shall receive, over and above the appointed allowance, a portion of wine and bread, so that they may serve their brethren at mealtime without murmuring or excessive fatigue. On solemn feast days, however, they are to keep the fast until after Mass.
Service is the key word in all these chapters which began with that on the bursar in chapter 31. It recalls the definition of the monastery as a school of the Lord’s service (see commentary for May 8th). When St Benedict defines the monastery as a school of the Lord’s service, he is thinking of the liturgy, the work of God, but he also means the all-round service of God. The word service and related words appear throughout the Rule. Now it is possible to take this phrase as meaning both a school which is directed towards the Lord and as the school which the Lord himself has and into which we are gathered. It is similar to the phrase opus Dei, the work of God: the liturgy is the work of God, work for God, work that God does in us. This phrase describes both what God does in us and what we do for God. So here, the school is not only a school of service towards the Lord but also a school in which we learn the service of the Lord towards us. The monastery is a school where we learn that service which the Lord has done for us: we are given the space and time to serve one another. As he washed the feet of his disciples we are given the space and time, the freedom to wash one another’s feet, to minister to sick brethren, to minister at table to one another, to lay down our lives for one another. That is the service which the Lord has performed for us. We are invited to this school that we might learn to serve one another. The monastery is a special group, a schola, under the direction of the one who is Magister, teacher, he who in the first place serves us and gives us an example which we hope to learn.
CHAPTER 34: WHETHER ALL SHOULD RECEIVE IN EQUAL MEASURE WHAT IS NEEDFUL Nov 11
As it is written, “Distribution was made to each one according as he had need”(Acts 4:35). By this we do not mean that there should be respect of persons (which God forbid); however, let consideration be had of infirmities. Accordingly, when one requires less, let him give thanks to God and be not distressed; when, however, one requires more, let him be humbled at his infirmity, and not grow arrogant because of the charity shown him. Thus all members shall be in peace. Above all things let not the evil of murmuring be manifest for any cause whatsoever, by any word or sign at all. If anyone is found guilty in this, let him be subjected to more severe discipline.
St Benedict recognizes that distribution made according to the degree of necessity of each may well result in murmuring, grumbling which is opposed to joy and peace of the Community. He has no less a horror of murmuring than he does of private ownership itself. He mentions it 12 times in his Rule. The Biblical root of murmuring is to be found in Exodus when Israel complained bitterly against the Lord and Moses for leading them into the desert. Their sin was to forget the blessing of liberation from Egypt. Likewise the monk who murmurs and complains has usually lost sight of the blessing of his vocation. Another Biblical root is in the Gospels when the Pharisees murmur against Jesus (Lk 15:2) for reaching out to sinners. The strong monk, who needs less and who envies the compassion shown to the weak, manifests a similar attitude. They do not recognize the grace God has lavished upon them.