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
CHAPTER 58: OF THE MANNER OF RECEIVING BRETHREN April 11,
He who is newly come to enter religion is not to be easily admitted, but, as the Apostle says: “Test the spirits to see whether they are of God.” If, therefore, he that comes persevere in knocking at the gate and is seen to endure patiently for four or five days the affronts and the difficulties made as to his entrance, and to persist in his petition, let him be allowed to enter and let him stay in the guest house for a few days. Afterwards, let him be placed in the novitiate, where he is to meditate, take his meals, and sleep. Let a senior be assigned to him who is skilled in gaining souls, who shall watch over his conduct most minutely and consider carefully whether he truly seeks God, and is zealous for the work of God, for obedience, and for the things that humble him. Let him be told all the difficulties and trials whereby one goes to God.
If he promises perseverance in his stability, after the lapse of two months let this entire Rule be read to him and let the following words be addressed to him: “Behold the law under which you desire to fight; if you can keep it, you may enter; if you cannot, you may freely depart.” If he still perseveres, let him be taken back to the novitiate where, with all patience, he is again to be tried. And after the lapse of six months, let the Rule be read to him again, that he may understand into what he is entering. Should he still stand firm, let this same Rule be read to him again four months later. If then, having deliberated with himself, he promises to observe all things that are commanded him, let him then be received into the community; but let him know that from thence forward, being bound by the law of the Rule, he may not leave the monastery, nor shake off from his neck the yoke of the Rule which after such prolonged deliberation he was free either to refuse or to accept.
“If he promises perseverance in his stability”. The novice is to be told of the difficulties of the way that leads to God and asked if he will stand firm (stare) in that way. Even before he makes a vow of stability, the novice is asked three times after each reading of the Rule is he promises to stand fast, persevere in his purpose. This is not yet the solemn and definitive purpose, but a real anticipation of profession when he will promise stability. This paragraph is full of the language of stability–”if he still abide”. These successive decisions to hold fast, to still abide prefigure and prepare for the great and final engagement of holding fast throughout one’s whole life.
Stability finds its source in the Biblical concept of steadfastness. One of the revelation to the Hebrews had been the faithfulness of God. God is utterly reliable; he keeps his side of the covenant. The Lord is my rock and my fortress, David says in the psalms. And it is ultimately on this that our stability depends. Stability is our echo, as it were, of God’s unconditional stability, his own commitment to his people, that quality of God we’ve seen in the OT. Indeed the more we root ourselves in God’s stability, the more he imparts to us over the years something of his own quality of stability, steady, firm, unshakeable.
This faithfulness is mirrored in the human response of Christ to the Father: He is the Amen, the Yes by which God ratifies all his promises; he is the one who abides in the Father and always does what pleases him. We share in his utter faithfulness by our stability when in union with Christ we find the strength to say Yes again and again to God. Although the vows represent man’s offering to God, what he offers has first been created in him by God. So stability of heart is first God’s gift to us, and a monk vows it, he does so in response to God’s abiding faithfulness.
CHAPTER 57: OF THE CRAFTSMEN OF THE MONASTERY April 10,
Should there be craftsmen in the monastery, let them exercise their crafts with all humility and reverence, if the Abbot so commands. But if one of them grows proud because of the knowledge of his craft, in that he seem to confer some benefit on the monastery, let such a one be taken away from this craft and not practice it again, unless perchance, after he has humbled himself, the Abbot may bid him resume it.
If any of the work of those craftsmen is to be sold, let those through whose hands the business is to be transacted see to it that they presume not to mingle into it any dishonesty. Let them be mindful of Ananias and Saphira, lest perchance they, and all who deal dishonestly with the goods of the monastery, should suffer in their souls the death which these incurred in the body. In setting the price of these things, let not the sin of avarice enter in; but let the goods always be sold somewhat cheaper than is done by men of the world, that in all things God may be glorified.
That in all things God may be glorified. Benedictine life is a doxology. St Benedict wants the monk to seek the glory of God in all things, even the most material. If the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the monastery is directed and the source from which the energy of the community flows, it cannot be otherwise. The diversity of our monastic work draws its simplicity and unity from the monastic work par excellence, the glorification of the Father, with the Son in the Holy Spirit. Structured by the liturgy, the monastic life is wholly doxological. Everything in our life contributed to the identification of the monk with Christ, the celebrant of the glory of God. All is charged with God’s glory. As service, witness and celebration of the glory of God, Benedictine life is essentially doxological. Nothing is outside the pale of God’s glory, for even the tools of the monastery and its whole property are to be regarded as the sacred vessels of the altar (cf chapter 34).
CHAPTER 56: OF THE ABBOT’S TABLE April 9,
Let the table of the Abbot be always with the guests and strangers. But whenever the guests are few in number, it shall be in his power to invite any of the brethren he may wish. Let him take care, however, that one or two of the seniors be left with the brethren for the sake of discipline.
Already in chapter 53, St Benedict had instructed the abbot to break the lesser fast days when eating with guests. As we know from early monastic tradition, hospitality was considered one of their main duties, and the early monks always broke their daily fast for they saw Christ in the guest, the bridegroom in whose presence one does not fast. Legislating for coenobites, St Benedict knows that not everyone can respond to guests individually as the hermits did, so he ensures that not only the guest master but also the abbot be a model of that gift of self to the stranger and guest, as the chief agent of hospitality. The guest received by the abbot and the guest master is received by all the community.