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 49: OF THE OBSERVANCE OF LENT July 31,
Although the life of a monk ought at all times have the aspect of Lenten observance, yet, since few have strength enough for this, we exhort all during these days of Lent to lead lives of the greatest purity, and to atone during this holy season for all the negligences of other times. This we shall do in a worthy manner if we refrain ourselves from all sin and give ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart, and to abstinence. Therefore during these days let us add something to our ordinary measure of service, such as private prayers or abstinence from food and drink, so that each one may offer up to God in the joy of the Holy Spirit something over and above the measure appointed to him: that is, let him deny his body in food, in drink, in sleep, in superfluous talking, in mirth, and long for the holy feast of Easter with the joy of spiritual desire.
Let each one, however, make known to his Abbot what he offers up, and let it be done with the assistance of his prayers and with his permission; because that which is done without the permission of the spiritual father will be imputed to presumption and vainglory, and will merit no reward. All things, therefore, are to be done with the permission of the Abbot.
There are few words so unpopular today as asceticism or mortification. Yet to eliminate these words from Christian vocabulary one would have to rewrite the whole of the Gospel and St Paul. Christian life is a rebirth to new life in Christ and the adaptation of our life to God’s life–and this is impossible without practice and effort. It is our way of keeping faith with the great transformation wrought by Christ, in such a way that we transform ourselves, with the help of grace, and our relationship with material things. Asceticism is derived from the word for training and practice. Certain customs and ways of acting are needed is it is to grow and intensify. “In the same way that the earth cannot bear fruit without seed and water, so it is impossible for man to bear fruit without the labour of asceticism” (Abba Isaii).
The goal – however it is identified in our sources, “good zeal,” or “purity of heart” – is simply the Christian goal of love. The classic ascetical practices common to all monastic life are obedience, celibacy, vigils, fasting, prayer, communal life, work, discipline in bearing, eating, sleeping. Each of these engages the body in a type of behaviour which is never that to which we are naturally drawn. We need to learn “unnatural” capacities in order to participate fully in the life of God. The aim is not to reduce us (although it may look like that at first sight) but to promote another part of us, a better part which cannot be brought to light except by renunciation. For example, interior and exterior silence favour recollection; fasting causes a hunger for spiritual things and fosters freedom from material things, confronts this tendency to grab and snatch at those things, to turn them into sources of our satisfaction; celibacy makes us free for the Lord Jesus in love, “to wait upon the Lord without distraction” as St Paul puts it. Poverty strips the monk of material supports and makes him dependent on God. Obedience is an acceptance of the Gospel invitation to deny oneself and put oneself at the service of others.
On Sunday they are to devote themselves to reading, with the exception of those who are assigned to various duties. But if there is one who is so negligent and slothful as to be unwilling or unable to meditate or read, let some work be given him to do, so that he may not be idle. As for those brethren who are sickly or weak, let such a work or craft be assigned them that they may be neither idle nor oppressed by the burden of their labour, so as to quit the monastery. The Abbot will take their weakness into consideration.
St Benedict wants Sunday, the Sabbath, to be more given to sacred reading than on other days. We approach our reading wanting to know what we can do with it, the ancients were more interested in what it could do with them. They had a keen sense of the dynamism, the active power of words, and they believed that reading the Bible was itself transforming. Waiting upon the word of God, listening, surrendering to it, enables us to “conceive” the Word in our heart, to have Christ formed in us, to shape our wills and our actions according to the mind of Christ. The word of God, conceived in the heart of the reader matures to the fullness of Christ, teaching us what it means to love, to hope, to be poor in spirit, to suffer, to be saved; giving us a consciousness of the immersion of our personal lives in the mystery of God’s activity as revealed in sacred history. The contemplation of Scriptures is seeing God saving His people in times past and saving His people now. Lectio is part of our discovery, of ourselves and of our inheritance, of our salvation history; it is, as St Gregory the Great puts it, “a mirror in which we obtain self-knowledge”.
From the 14th of September till the beginning of Lent they are to devote themselves to reading till the end of the second hour. At the second hour let Terce be said, after which they should all labour until None at the work appointed them. At the first signal for the hour of None let all cease from their work so as to be ready as soon as the second signal is given. After the meal let them apply themselves to their reading or to the psalms.
During Lent, from the morning till the end of the third hour, let them devote themselves to reading; then until the end of the tenth hour let them labour at what is appointed them. During these days of Lent each one is to receive a book from the library, which books are to be read through in order. These books are to be given out at the beginning of Lent. Moreover, let one or two seniors be appointed to go around the monastery during the hours when the brethren are engaged in reading, to see that no brother be found who is slothful or who is giving himself to idleness or gossip instead of applying himself to his reading, so that he is not only doing harm to himself but is also a source of distraction to others. If such a one is found (which God forbid), let him be corrected a first and a second time; if he does not amend, let him be subjected to regular punishment in such a way that the rest may be filled with fear. Moreover, no brother is to associate with another at inappropriate hours.
Benedictine spirituality insists on balance. Immediately after St Benedict talks about the human need to work, to fill our lives with something useful and creative, he talks about lectio divina, holy reading and study. There is a tough side to this exercise: for one thing, the Bible can be difficult. The most eloquent advocates of this practice of lectio almost all confess that they initially experienced great difficulty with the Bible because of its style and content which they considered harsh and barbaric. Listen to St Augustine:
“When I first read the Scriptures, they seemed to me unworthy to be compared with the majesty, of Cicero. My conceit was repelled by, their simplicity, and I had not the mind to penetrate into their depths. They were indeed of a nature to grow in Your little ones. But I could not bear to be a little one. I was only swollen with pride and to myself I seemed a very big man” (Confessions III, 5).
St Nilus compared Scriptures to the unattractive, muddy waters of the Jordan, to which Elijah sent Naaman the Syrian leper to wash! But after persevering all agree with Cassian: “As our mind is renewed by this reading so the face of Scriptures also begins to be renewed”.
Lectio is also a persevering, attentive, long-term activity where one doesn’t flit from flower to flower, but sticks to the book that has been undertaken, reading it in its entirety, as St Benedict prescribed for the Lenten reading of his monks. It requires discipline, a certain resoluteness if it is to lead to real conversion of heart. St Benedict, one feels, must have recognised this when he made this kind of reading part of the monk’s Lenten regime! A proliferation of books, the habit of rapid reading, skimming, idle curiosity can all be obstacles to the slow, prayerful approach, the consciousness of God’s presence, the frequent interruptions for raising the heart to Him, all those things that go to make up lectio divina. Outwardly it is we who seem to be progressing towards God, seeking God, but in why it is God who is approaching us, meeting us, in the text: “Anyone who loves me will keep my word [that is, conserve it, ponder it, persevere in it, be true to it, engage it] and My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him” (John 14:23). Not only does the Bible reveal God to us, it also prepares us to receive Him.