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 33: WHETHER MONKS SHOULD HAVE ANYTHING OF THEIR OWN July 11,
Above all, let this vice be rooted out of the monastery: namely, that one presume to give or to receive anything without leave of the Abbot, or to keep anything as his own, absolutely anything at all: either a book or a writing tablet or a pen or anything whatsoever; since they are to have not even their bodies or their wills in their own keeping.
They may however, expect to receive from the father of the monastery all that is necessary; but they may not keep what the Abbot has not given or permitted. Let all things be common to all, as it is written, and let no one call anything his own or claim it as such (Acts 4:32). Should, however, anyone be found addicted to this most wicked vice, let him be twice admonished; if he does not amend, let him be subjected to punishment.
In his life of St Benedict, St Gregory the great says that St Benedict “left all his possessions with the desire of pleasing God alone”. In the Rule, St Benedict directs that the disciples should have no other goal then seeking God. They are to give away all they possess. To assure his lifelong conversion to God, the monk must protect himself from all personal attachment. After his profession, he is unable to possess anything as his own; he receives what he needs from the Abbot and shares everything with the community. Although moderation is characteristic of the Rule, St Benedict is vigorous and uncompromising with regard to the renunciation of all possessions, as we see here. The monastery may possess goods, but the Abbot is counselled not to be over-solicitous for material possessions. The produce of the monastery is to be sold a little cheaper than it is sold by people in the world, that God may be glorified in all things. Finally St Benedict was conscious of the community’s responsibility to share its goods with the poor, the sick and the stranger.
What emerges from all this is St Benedict’s concern not the monastery be as poor as possible, but rather that it be as full as possible of peace, fraternal communion and the spirit of Christian sacrifice. What matters for St Benedict is: (1) a spiritual dependence upon Christ as represented by the Abbot; (2) a sense of responsibility for material goods; and (3) the sharing of all things after the example of the primitive apostolic community described in the Acts of the Apostles. There, the sharing of goods signified the unity of hearts. This original state of affairs lives again in monasteries. In the history of monasticism poverty is above all a religious virtue which allows us to adhere to God. Monastic poverty is designed above all to teach us how to draw near to God and others through a detachment from things of this world.
CHAPTER 32: OF THE TOOLS AND PROPERTY OF THE MONASTERY July 10,
Let the Abbot appoint brethren on whose manner of life and character he can rely to have charge of the tools, the clothing, and other property of the monastery; and let him, as he shall think fit, consign to their charge the various things that are to be kept and collected again after their use. Of these things let the Abbot keep a list, that, as the brethren succeed each other to different employments, he may know what he gives out and what he receives back. If anyone treats the property of the monastery in a slovenly or negligent manner, let him be corrected; if he does not amend, let him be subjected to the discipline of the rule.
St Benedict’s spirituality is as much about good order and care as it is about the spiritual dimension of life: Benedictine spirituality sees the care of material things and the integration of prayer and work, body and soul as essential parts of the journey to God. Love and respect for the nature of things, humble material realities, is part of his sacramental view of reality. An American Benedictine put it this way: “A Benedictine soul is a soul that takes care of things, that polishes wood and scrapes away rust and keeps a room clean and never puts feet on the furniture and mulches the garden and leaves trees standing and treats all the vessels and goods of the monastery as though they were the consecrated vessels of the altar (ch 31). Benedictine cares for the earth and all things well. The Benedictine heart practised ecology before it was a word.” For St Benedict, our vocation turns everything we use towards God, and from this principle everything receives a special dignity and splendour, and can put us into contact with their Creator.
Above all things let him have humility; and if he have not wherewith to satisfy the demands of a brother, let him give at least a kind answer, for it is written: “A good word is above the best gift”(Sirach 18:17). He himself should keep under his care all that the Abbot shall have entrusted to him, and should not presume to meddle with what is forbidden him. Let him distribute to the brethren their appointed allowance of food without arrogance or delay, that they may not be scandalized, mindful of what the Word of God says he deserves who “shall scandalize one of these little ones” (Mt 18:6).
If the community is large, let assistants be given him, by whose aid he may with a peaceful mind discharge the office committed to him. At their proper times, let those things be given that need to be given, and those things asked for that are required, that no one may be troubled or grieved in the house of God.
St Benedict asks the bursar to give his service without pride or delay. We should not keep people waiting to satisfy our own sense of importance or argue about their requests or count every penny we give. We can give freedom and joy and “a good word” with every gift we make. In a religious community, because we have nothing of our own, we are truly Christ’s “little ones.” We are thrown very much on each other; we are dependent on one another’s good will. None of us can provide for our own sustenance. From all this arises the vital role of charity in our daily life. We are to facilitate peace in the Community. Every day, each member of the Community and those with particular responsibilities must give proof of this, that we are really one heart and one soul, always giving “the good word,” so that no one is sad in the House of God.