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 7: OF HUMILITY Sept 25
The Sacred Scripture cries out to us, brethren, saying, “Everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.” In saying this it teaches us that all exaltation is of the nature of pride, which vice the Prophet shows that he took care to avoid, saying: “Lord, my heart is not proud, nor are my eyes haughty, nor have I walked in great matters, nor in wonderful things above me.” And why? “For if I were not humbly minded, but had exalted my soul, as a child that is weaned from its mother, so would my soul likewise be rewarded.”
‘He who humbles himself will be exalted’: humility raises up man to God and to eternal life. This passage appears three times in the Gospel. It is the attitude of a leader who should look upon himself as a servant (Mt 23:12). It is the attitude of prayer where it is right to recognise oneself as a sinner and needy before God, in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican (Lk 18:14). We do not pray from a standpoint of strength but of weakness. Whatever form our prayer takes, liturgical or private, it is to be first and foremost an act of surrender. The more we efface ourselves before God, the more we cast everything upon him, including our boredom and distraction, the more authentic our prayer will be. Finally, in Lk 14:11 it is a matter of taking the last place. The humble man won’t place himself in the most prestigious place, where he can be seen, held in respect, valued highly. Neither will he calculatingly invite those who will invite him back. The humble man simply does not assess himself, because he has no interest in the rank he occupies among men. He doesn’t ask himself whether he is worthy or unworthy to be there, he simply takes pleasure in the good things all round him.
But the Gospel text assumes its full force when we, with St Paul, recognise in it the expression of the mystery of Christ himself. Jesus has not only proclaimed it, he has lived it. He humbled himself, which is why God exalted him – a formula which embraces the whole paschal mystery. The collect of Monday in the 5th week of Paschaltide expresses this: he raised the fallen world by his humility. God’s almightiness “blazes forth in the powerlessness of the incarnate and crucified Son,” notes Von Balthasar. The greatest work of almighty God is his humble assumption of our weakness in the womb of the Virgin and his death in the humble weakness of the cross. The dynamic of salvation is a mystery of descent. The Son of God descends into the Virgin’s womb; in his passion he descends into death and Sheol.
The Shepherd of all flew down,
in search of Adam, the sheep
that had strayed: Blessed
is his descent. Like a seed of wheat he fell again into Sheol
to spring up as whole sheaf,
as the new Bread. Blessed is
his offering. (St Ephrem)
The Fathers see the whole economy of salvation as a coming down for us men and for our salvation, he came down from heaven. Forty days after his resurrection he ascends in the fullness of his humanity to the Father, but he does so as the One who first descended, to assume our humanity in the Virgin’s womb.
CHAPTER 6: OF SILENCE Sept 24
Let us act in conformity with that saying of the Prophet: “I said I will guard my ways lest I sin with my tongue; I have put a bridle on my mouth; I was dumb and was humbled and kept silence from good things.” Here the prophet shows that if we ought at times for the sake of silence to refrain even from good words, much more ought we to abstain from evil words on account of the punishment due to sin. Therefore, on account of the importance of silence, let permission to speak be rarely given even to the perfect disciples, even though their words be good and holy and conducive to edification, because it is written: “In the multitude of words there shall not want sin.” And elsewhere: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” For to speak and to teach are the province of the master; whereas that of the disciple is to be silent and to listen. Therefore, if anything is to be asked of the superior, let it be done with all humility and subjection of reverence, lest one seem to speak more than is expedient. Buffoonery, however, or idle words or such as move to laughter we utterly condemn in every place, and forbid the disciple to open his mouth to any such discourse.
Our modern mentality tends to see life as based on talk and noise, to the extent that these are almost ends in themselves. Silence from this point of view is something meaningless and frustrating. The monk sees it the other way round. The monk’s life is basically a silent life which at times flowers into speech. Words are used sparingly and only when really needed: to praise God, to instruct and chant, to communicate. Silence can be frightening to the insecure until they sense the presence of God at the heart of silence. Pascal in the 17th C could say that most of the world’s ills spring from an inability to sit quietly in solitude. Silence and solitude force us to face ourselves and our inner core. To be sure there are varieties of silence. Not all silences are gifts. There is the silence of suppressed speech; the silence that freezes out our neighbour. But there is also the silence whereby we make a gift of space, space for each other’s thoughts, and not least for the dwelling on the thought of God. St John Paul II has gone so far to say that “holiness is accepted and can be cultivated only in silence of adoration before the infinite transcendence of God”
Silence was not an end in itself. By outwardly guarding the gate of the mouth and guarding useless talk, the monk began to achieve that inner silence which enabled him to fix his mind, heart and soul on God. There can be no real relationship with God without silence. Silence prepares for that meeting and silence follows it. Silence is filled with the presence of the living God who speaks. Our silence opens us up to hear God’s word. It is a silence of presence, a silence for presence. As Mother Abbess put it in one of her conferences on silence, “when we are silent we acknowledge that what God will say to us is of the greatest importance . . . in listening we proclaim ourselves infinitely less than he.”
Opening ourselves to God in silence will render us more open to our brethren in word and deed. Our words and deeds will come out of a silence filled with God, or at least from a silence which is seeking to be so filled. One of the great mysteries of silence is its fruitfulness; our silence should educate us in responsibility for the words we use. We are responsible for saying words that build up community and nurture others. Speaking is a social act. Our words resound not only through the space outside us but in the hidden depths of the souls of others. The word is a bearer of consolation and comfort, but also of disunity and destruction.
‘One of the ways in which we make and remake community is through the words we speak to each other. As servants of the word of God, we should be aware of the power of our words, a power to heal or to hurt, to build or destroy. God spoke a word and the world came to be, and now God speaks the Word that is his Son, and we are redeemed. Our words share in that power. There must be a deep reverence for language, sensitivity to the words we offer our brothers and sisters. With words we can offer resurrection or crucifixion, and the words that we speak are often remembered, kept in our brothers’ heart, to be reflected upon, returned to, for good or ill, for years’. (Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, “The Wellsprings of Hope.”)
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”.