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
But this very obedience will then only be acceptable to God and pleasing to men if what is commanded be done without hesitancy, tardiness, lukewarmness, murmuring, or a manifestation of unwillingness; because the obedience which is given to superiors is given to God; for He Himself has said: “He who hears you hears Me.” And this obedience ought to be given by the disciple with a ready will, because “God loves a cheerful giver.” For if the disciple obeys with ill will, and murmur not only with his lips but also in his heart, even though he fulfil the command, nevertheless he will not be acceptable to God, who regards the heart of the murmurer; for such a deed he receives no reward; nay, he rather incurs the punishment of murmurers, unless he amends, and makes satisfaction.
St Benedict is concerned with the interior qualities of obedience. Obedience should be given “with a ready will”, with a good heart, as another translations puts it. A mere external performance is not enough. The will itself, the heart, which only God can see should be handed over with joy, for God loves a cheerful giver. If this fundamental good will is lacking, the material performance of the act remains without recompense. Grumbling or murmuring implies a lack of generosity, good will in obedience. Thus obedience becomes an expression of our “Yes” to God, of that ongoing gift of self that wants and chooses only what God wants and chooses. . In a homily given on 11 April, Pope Francis said, “I obey, I do not follow my own will, how am I free? It seems like a contradiction. It is not a contradiction. In fact, the word “’obey’ comes from Latin; it means to listen, to hear others. Obeying God is listening to God, having an open heart to follow the path that God points out to us. Obedience to God is listening to God and it sets us free”.
CHAPTER 5: OF OBEDIENCE Jan 22,
The first degree of humility is obedience without delay. This obedience is characteristic of those who prefer nothing to Christ; who, on account of the holy service to which they have obliged themselves, or on account of the fear of hell, or for the glory of eternal life, as soon as anything has been commanded by their superior, as though it were commanded by God Himself, cannot suffer a moment’s delay in fulfilling this command. It is of these that the Lord said: “At the hearing of the ear they have obeyed Me.” And again to teachers He says: “He that hears you hears Me.” Therefore, such as these, immediately putting aside their private occupation and forsaking their own will, with their hands quickly disengaged and leaving unfinished what they were about, with the instant step of obedience, fulfil by their deeds the word of him who commands; and so, as it were at the same instant, the command of the master and its perfect fulfilment by the disciple are, in the swiftness of the fear of God, speedily carried out together by those upon whom presses the desire of attaining eternal life. These, therefore, seize upon that narrow way of which the Lord says: “Narrow is the way that leads to life”; inasmuch as they, not living according to their own will, neither obeying their own desires and pleasures, but walking according to the judgment and command of another, live in community and desire to have an Abbot over them. Such as these, without doubt, fulfil that saying of the Lord: I came “not to do My own will, but the will of Him Who sent Me.”
In the Christian spiritual tradition, obedience is a basic virtue: obedience to the Lord, to the Gospel, to the Church (Matthew 18:17), to the leaders of the Church (Hebrews 13:7), to one’s parents and elders, to “every ordinance of man” (I Peter 2:13, Romans 13:1), “to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 6:21) There is no spiritual life without obedience, no real freedom or liberation; it is the means of attaining “the glorious liberty of the children of God.” (Romans 8:21) Our obedience to God’s commandments is the exclusive sign of our love for Him and His Son. He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him (John 14:21-24)
The word obedire comes from ob-audire, to listen, to listen carefully to pay attention: “My people would not listen to me, Israel would not obey me” (Ps 80). The religion of the Bible is essentially a religion of the word that must be heard and responded to, a religion of obedience to the revelation of God in the law and the prophets from law and the prophets to St Paul’s obedience of faith. The beginning of true obedience to hearken to another and respond. It is a state of openness, a willingness to listen combined with the recognition that this responsiveness may involve changing one’s life in accordance with what one hears.
Obedience is the thread which runs through the whole life of Our Lord: from the incarnation in Mary to his death for us on the Cross, the Son obeys the Father. “My food is to do the will of the Father” (Jn 4:34); “I always do what pleases Him.” In consequence he shows himself freely obedient to all that incarnates this will: Jewish law, his parents, authority. As St Benedict recognizes, Jesus obeyed God in all that He did. But Christ is not only the model of our obedience; he is the Lord whom one obeys. “He who hears you hears me (Lk 10:16). To obey like Christ; to obey Christ – these are the two poles of obedience.
There is no diminishment in obedience to God, nothing shameful or demeaning. On the contrary, to do the will of God is glory and life. It is the highest dignity of man, his greatest joy and delight. (Cf. Psalm 118 (119)) It is the way of perfection for all, even for the man Jesus Himself. The obedience of Christ is the exact antithesis of the disobedience of Adam. Christ’s work of salvation is a work of obedience to God. Through it the disobedience of humanity is redeemed and those who believe in Christ are made capable of returning to the Father. For St Paul obedience is the key for the work of Jesus (Rom 5:5), the meaning for his life and death. In the prologue to his Rule, he speaks of obedience as the way by which we return to God. For St Benedict as for St Paul the whole drama of the history of salvation comes down to the question of obedience to God.
- To love chastity.
- To hate no man.
- To have no jealousy or envy.
- Not to love strife.
- To fly from vainglory.
- To reverence one’s seniors.
- To love one’s juniors.
- To pray for one’s enemies in the love of Christ.
- To make peace with those with whom one is at variance before the setting of the sun.
- And never to despair of God’s mercy.
Behold, these are the instruments of the spiritual art, which, if they be constantly employed by day and by night, and delivered up on the day of judgment, will gain for us from the Lord that reward which He Himself has promised: “Eye has not see, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man, what things God has prepared for those who love Him.” And the workshop in which we are to labour diligently at all these things is the enclosure of the monastery and stability in the community.
“Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man, what things God has prepared for those who love Him.” St Benedict often puts heaven before the eyes of his monks and nuns. It is through the memory of heaven that present trials and labours are tolerated, hope is kindled, courage affirmed, and a sense of perspective is given to one’s thinking. St Benedict wants us to be mindful of what God has in store for us; he wants us to reach out, and in the words of St Bernard, “to touch the gate of heaven with the hand of holy desire” (On the Song of Songs 49.3). It is important to see heaven as the logical consequence of God’s love for man and to accept his promise of good things with simplicity and delight. It is an affirmation and description of future benefits which God has in store for those who lived their love for Him. Monastic tradition takes texts about heaven at their face value, simply and gratefully accepting that all would be well, and in this faith monks persevered in their struggles and difficulties. In his General Audience of April 3rd, Pope Francis said, “In looking to our heavenly home, we will also have a new light and strength in our commitment and in our daily efforts. It is a precious service that we give to our world, which is often no longer able to lift its gaze upwards, it no longer seems able to lift its gaze towards God.”