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
Let the junior brethren reverence their seniors, and the seniors love their juniors.
In calling each other by name, let no one address another by his simple name alone; but let the seniors call the juniors Brothers, and the juniors call their seniors Fathers, by which is understood paternal reverence. But let the Abbot, since he is looked upon as representing Christ, be called Lord and Abbot; not that he has taken it to himself, but for the honour and love of Christ. He himself is so to consider it, and so to act as to be worthy of such a dignity.
Wherever the brethren meet one another, let the junior ask a blessing from the senior. When the senior passes by, let the junior rise and give him place to be seated; nor let the junior presume to sit down unless the senior bid him do so, fulfilling thereby what is written: “With honour anticipating one another.” (Rom 12:10)
Let young children and boys take their rank in the oratory and at table under discipline. Outside, also, or wherever they may be, let them be under close watch and discipline until they come to the age of understanding.
As we saw in the last series of commentaries, for St Benedict the principle of unity which transcends age, education, or previous social status is courtesy and respect. The word “honour” (or as this translation has it “reverence”) is mentioned 4 times here, 10 times in all throughout the Rule. We find it in the chapters on the liturgy where it is a question of rising and bowing in honour of the Blessed Trinity; we are to honour guests and the Abbot, and the sick are to be served out of honour for God. Honour goes both to God and to men, and to men out of honour for God. Note too in that text from Romans cited here, we are to anticipate one another with honour, get in first (praevenire in the Latin). There’s an “out-do-one –another” quality about honour. It is not about waiting to see if the other person is showing proper respect, but about honour being shown to the other in advance. St Thomas in his commentary on this verse of Romans says: “No one can truly love someone he despises.” That’s why St Benedict wants honour: if you do not have honour and respect, you won’t have love. In a Christian perspective honour is a response to a person’s humanity as such, created in the image of God, called to communion with God. The catechism of the Catholic Church calls our neighbour “another self”. Honour and respect refer not so much to fear and awe, but the ability to “see” a person as he is, to be aware of his unique individuality, to see him or her as God sees them. The Russian word for hate is “not to see”.
CHAPTER 63: OF THE ORDER OF THE COMMUNITY August 18,
Let the brethren keep their rank in the monastery according as the time of their conversion and the merit of their lives determine, or as the Abbot shall appoint. And let not the Abbot disturb the flock committed to him, nor let him by the use of arbitrary power dispose anything unjustly; but let him ever bear in mind that he will have to give an account to God of all his judgments and of all his deeds. Therefore, according to the rank which he shall have determined, or which the brethren themselves hold, let them approach to the kiss of peace, to the Communion, intone the psalms, and stand in choir. And in all places whatsoever let not age determine the rank nor have any bearing on it; for Samuel and Daniel even when children judged the elders. Excepting, therefore, those whom, as we have said, the Abbot has promoted for higher motives, or degraded for definite reasons, let all hold rank according to the time of their entrance; so that, for example, he who enters the monastery at the second hour may know that he is junior to him who came at the first hour, whatever be his age or dignity. Children, however, are to be kept under discipline in all matters and by all the brethren.
Life in Christ animates the entire Rule, even in the smallest details. Here all is in reference to the time one gave oneself fully to Christ. The monks are to honour not only the elderly but also all those who have come into the monastic life before them, whatever their age or worldly position. All the seniors are to be called reverend father, not just those who have reached a venerable age. And all those who have already embarked on the monastic life must recognize newcomers as their “brothers.” The younger brothers ask the seniors for a blessing, even if the one bestowing a blessing is in fact younger. Again, all is in reference to the time one gave oneself fully to Christ. The monk owes reverence and honour to all those who have lived the monastic life longer, even if it be but one hour. It is the life in and with Christ that matters, just as the abbot is called abbot because of Christ. St Benedict tomorrow will offer concrete practices to express awe and respect among the members of the community, in many different kinds of circumstances, and in none of these does he make it depend on feelings. We love and honour one another not because of blood ties or affinity of temperament, but because the love of Christ enables us to do so. For love of Christ every senior is to show love to every junior regardless of personal attraction or feeling, and every junior is to reverence their senior. The end of the monk’s life is for all his actions-exterior and interior-to be governed by the love of Christ.
CHAPTER 62: OF THE PRIESTS OF THE MONASTERY August 17,
If an abbot desires to have a priest or a deacon ordained for his community, let him choose from among his monks one who is worthy to perform the priestly office.
Let him who is ordained beware of arrogance and pride, and presume to do nothing that is not commanded him by his Abbot, knowing that he is now all the more subject to the regular discipline. Let him not by occasion of his priesthood forget the obedience and discipline of the Rule, but let him progress ever more and more in the Lord.
Let him always keep the place due to him according to his entrance into the monastery except during the exercise of his priestly functions, or unless the election of the community and the will of the Abbot should decide to promote him out of consideration for the merit of his life. Nevertheless, he should know that he is to obey the commands given him by the deans and the Prior; should he presume to act otherwise, let him be treated not as a priest but as a rebel. And if, after being frequently admonished, he does not correct himself, let even the bishop be brought in as a witness. If after his faults have been repeatedly made known to him, he still does not amend, let him be cast forth from the monastery; but this shall be done only after his obstinacy has become such that he will not submit to or obey the Rule.
“Every baptised Christian,” writes Abbess Cécile Bruyère, “is priest and king in the secret temple of his own soul.” The visible Church and its liturgy are designed to waken us to the liturgy of heaven. But it ought also to make us aware of the liturgy of the heart, in which the Christian becomes the temple and his heart, the altar of a spiritual and interior sacrifice and liturgy. The God toward whom our desire tends is already within our heart. In prayer we enter into contact with the depths of our soul which is already God’s dwelling place as St Paul teaches us: Christ lives in me (Gal 2:20) Our body is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1Cor 6:19) The Spirit of God prays within us (8:26). St Peter too speaks of “offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5).
The fathers often speak of an interior liturgy of the heart. The heart is an inner house, a sanctuary, the temple of God in us, so that God is at home there. In the heart a complete liturgy is celebrated, although an invisible and wholly interior one, with a spiritual priesthood and an unbloody sacrifice. A hymn of St Ephrem gives us a good example of this interior liturgy of the praying Christian: “They are ordained priest for their own sake, the sacrifice they offer is their ascesis, fasting is their sacrifice, praying their night vigil, penitence and faith their sanctuary. Their mediations are their burnt offerings, self-control is their peace offering. Their chastity is their temple veil, their humility a sweet smelling incense. Their pure heart is the high priest….Unceasingly their lips offer up his sacrifice. The depth of their heart is the holy of Holies where is set up the altar of atonement.”
From this it follows that the whole Christian life and the struggle it implies are imbued with a deep priestly significance. “If I renounce everything I possess, if I carry the cross and follow Christ, I have offered a holocaust on the altar of God. Or if I burn up my body in the fire of charity… I have offered a holocaust on the altar of God. … if I mortify my body and abstain from concupiscence, if the world is crucified unto me and me unto the world, then I have offered a sacrifice on the altar of God, and I am become a priest of my own sacrifice” (Origen). The basis of this is the grace of our Baptism.