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

 

April 19, 

Let the junior brethren reverence their seniors, and the seniors love their juniors.

In calling each other by name, let no one address another by his simple name alone; but let the seniors call the juniors Brothers, and the juniors call their seniors Fathers, by which is understood paternal reverence.  But let the Abbot, since he is looked upon as representing Christ, be called Lord and Abbot; not that he has taken it to himself, but for the honour and love of Christ.  He himself is so to consider it, and so to act as to be worthy of such a dignity.

Wherever the brethren meet one another, let the junior ask a blessing from the senior. When the senior passes by, let the junior rise and give him place to be seated; nor let the junior presume to sit down unless the senior bid him do so, fulfilling thereby what is written: “With honour anticipating one another.”

Let young children and boys take their rank in the oratory and at table under discipline.  Outside, also, or wherever they may be, let them be under close watch and discipline until they come to the age of understanding.

 

What does St Benedict mean by senior?  As we have seen, not the eldest.  We can get an idea from other chapters in the Rule.  It means having experience, wisdom, stable and solid virtue.  As is said of deans, it means to be of good repute and holy life (ch 21), capable of giving good advice is asked (ch 46 and tools of good works); They oversee good order in dormitory, refectory, and during lectio.  For St Benedict seniors are of great importance in community life and its goal: holiness.   In short being a senior is much more than a social rank.  To be a senior, no matter what one’s age, means to precede others by one’s virtue, especially humility, compassion, uprightness, wisdom.  That is why St Benedict insists on teaching us not to see in physical age a right in conferring seniority over others.  Those who pretend to deserve their brethren’s consideration by reason of their years of profession or priesthood are far from the spirit of the Rule, as are those who make much of honorary titles.  Only obedience, humility, charity and good works count.

 

CHAPTER 63: OF THE ORDER OF THE COMMUNITY April 18, 

Let the brethren keep their rank in the monastery according as the time of their conversion and the merit of their lives determine, or as the Abbot shall appoint.  And let not the Abbot disturb the flock committed to him, nor let him by the use of arbitrary power dispose anything unjustly; but let him ever bear in mind that he will have to give an account to God of all his judgments and of all his deeds.  Therefore, according to the rank which he shall have determined, or which the brethren themselves hold, let them approach to the kiss of peace, to the Communion, intone the psalms, and stand in choir.  And in all places whatsoever let not age determine the rank nor have any bearing on it; for Samuel and Daniel even when children judged the elders.  Excepting, therefore, those whom, as we have said, the Abbot has promoted for higher motives, or degraded for definite reasons, let all hold rank according to the time of their entrance; so that, for example, he who enters the monastery at the second hour may know that he is junior to him who came at the first hour, whatever be his age or dignity.  Children, however, are to be kept under discipline in all matters and by all the brethren.

 

Order in St Benedict’s community is determined not by age or social background or education but according to time of entry, merit of life or the abbot’s choice.  The first of these has the greatest weight for St Benedict: a person’s entrance into the monastery, the moment when they publicly began their total seeking of God.   In the Rule each of us is junior to someone or other, and senior to certain other sisters.  We are therefore senior and junior at the same time. For St Benedict order in the community is not simply a social organism necessary for maintaining peace and tranquillity, but above an arrangement for aiding and even inspiring virtue.  Rank in community is a constant call to the experience of charity, patience, humility, courtesy and respect.

 

CHAPTER 62: OF THE PRIESTS OF THE MONASTERY April 17, 

If an abbot desires to have a priest or a deacon ordained for his community, let him choose from among his monks one who is worthy to perform the priestly office.

Let him who is ordained beware of arrogance and pride, and presume to do nothing that is not commanded him by his Abbot, knowing that he is now all the more subject to the regular discipline.  Let him not by occasion of his priesthood forget the obedience and discipline of the Rule, but let him progress ever more and more in the Lord.

Let him always keep the place due to him according to his entrance into the monastery except during the exercise of his priestly functions, or unless the election of the community and the will of the Abbot should decide to promote him out of consideration for the merit of his life.  Nevertheless, he should know that he is to obey the commands given him by the deans and the Prior; should he presume to act otherwise, let him be treated not as a priest but as a rebel.  And if, after being frequently admonished, he does not correct himself, let even the bishop be brought in as a witness.  If after his faults have been repeatedly made known to him, he still does not amend, let him be cast forth from the monastery; but this shall be done only after his obstinacy has become such that he will not submit to or obey the Rule.

 

The monastic world is in the largest sense a sacramental world, the world in which the priest should feel at home.  Every element in the monk’s life is a sign of God’s presence.  The Rule portrays a life which is shaped by priestly purposes, attitudes and gestures.  For example, St Benedict sets out to foster in his monks an attitude towards daily life-people, work, time, material things-which is that of the priest: all these things are matter that has to be consecrated and offered to the Father in a spirit of thanksgiving and repentance.  According to Hebrews 3:1ff, 14 and 1 Corinthians 4:2 the chief quality of a priest is faithfulness; it is through perseverance and patience that the monk shares in the passion of Christ.  The monk’s sacrifice is united with that of Christ’s, and that union is especially expressed at profession as we have seen, when his whole life is offered on the altar along with the Eucharist.