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 22: HOW THE MONKS ARE TO SLEEP Feb 27,
Let each one sleep in a separate bed, receiving bedding suitable to the monastic manner of life as the Abbot shall appoint. If possible, let all sleep in one place; but if the number does not permit this, let them sleep in tens or twenties with the seniors who have charge of them. A lamp shall burn constantly in the cell until morning. Let them sleep clothed and girded with cinctures or cords; but let them not have knives at their sides while they sleep, lest perhaps they wound themselves in their sleep. Being thus always ready, the monks shall rise without delay when the signal is given, and vie with one another in hastening to the Work of God, yet with all gravity and modesty. The junior brethren are not to have their beds near each other, but are to be intermingled with the seniors. And when the brethren rise for the Work of God, let them gently encourage one another because of the excuses of those who are given to sleep.
Monks sleep in a state of availability, watchfulness, ready to answer the signal for the Divine Office and take up the service of divine praise. As we have seen the details in this chapter recall the parables of Christ’s return. It is also reminiscent of Romans 13:12-13 which used to be read at Lauds every day: The night is far spent, the day is near, cast off deeds of darkness, put on the armour of light. Monks strive to be children of light, children of the day. Their night watches, their early rising, point to their desire to have no part in works of darkness and to take up weapons of light, prepare for holy actions during the day. This is reflected too in their going to bed early; this signifies a denial of evil and vain things. Rising early then expresses the desire for Christ, the desire to purify oneself. On this point, as on so many others, monastic observance expresses in a visible concrete way the inspiration of the New Testament. By anticipating the hours of going to sleep and of rising, the monk’s behaviour looks toward the end of time, to Christ’s return, to His Day which will never end and which will shatter the night of this world.
CHAPTER 21: OF THE DEANS OF THE MONASTERY Feb 26,
If the community is rather large, let there be chosen from it brethren of good repute and holy life to be appointed deans. Let these exercise authority over their charges in all things according to the commandments of God and the orders of their Abbot. Let such men be chosen as deans to whom the Abbot may safely entrust a share of his burdens. And let them not be chosen according to rank, but according to the merit of their lives and their learning and wisdom.
If any one of these, having become proud, is found worthy of blame, and, after being thrice corrected, refuses to amend, let him be deposed and another put in his place who is worthy. The same we require to be observed in reference to the Prior.
This chapter opens the more practical section of running the monastery, the practical aspects of communal living, how the monks are to eat and sleep, etc. These details on daily life, although not always followed literally today, reveal much about St Benedict’s thought and are not to be dismissed as somehow inferior to the more spiritual section of the rule. Humility, silence, patience, prayer are the hidden animating principles which give life to daily observance, the practicalities of day-to-day living. The spiritual teaching of the Rule is meant to become incarnate in everyday life. The spiritual teaching is there to illuminate our practice: good theory means good practice and vice-versa. St Benedict is concerned that all the elements of communal, down to the smallest details, reflect and embody the principles and priorities of monastic life.
So what of this chapter? The word dean translates the word decanus or heads of ten. The term is at once biblical and military. The Roman army was organized into ten men groups. Moses appointed persons to help him lead the people during the journey through the desert and divided the people into groups (Ex 18, 21; Deut 1:13-15). The Church used to invoke this model at the ordination of deacons by the bishop. St Benedict seems to be saying that the monastic community is analogous to the people of God in both the Old and New Testaments. The Abbot is like a new Moses, appointed to bring his brethren out of slavery of Egypt into the Promised Land. And the qualities listed here, which we will see another time, are reminiscent of the appointment of the first seven deacons in Acts. The abbot with his collaborators recalls the apostles and their collaborators in the early Church. The monastery is a little Church, and the perspectives that animate it are Biblical and ecclesial…
CHAPTER 20: OF REVERENCE IN PRAYER Feb 25,
If, when we wish to bring anything to the notice of men in high station, we do not presume to do so except with humility and reverence, how much more ought we with all humility and purity of devotion to offer our supplication to the Lord God of all things? And let us remember that we shall be heard not because of much speaking, but for our purity of heart and tears of compunction.
Therefore prayer ought to be short and pure, unless perchance it be prolonged by the inspiration of Divine Grace. In community, however, let prayer always be short, and at the signal given by the superior let all rise together.
For St Benedict intimate prayer follows naturally upon the celebration for the work of God. Personal prayer for the Benedictine is closely linked to the Office, whether in order to prepare for it or to prolong it. Dom Delatte called the liturgy “organized contemplation”; it is the Church’s contemplation, the song of Spouse to her Bridegroom as she gazes on him. The Work of God teaches us to tend towards contemplation, to cultivate interior recollection, and to practice loving attention to God. And participation in the office is one of the best preparations for union with God by contemplation. “For the contemplative,” wrote Dom Guéranger, “liturgical prayer is sometimes the source, sometimes the result of the Lord’s visits.” One of the signs that an office has been well-celebrated is that it gives rise to the desire to pray, to savour the sweetness of what has taken place, to rest without words in the presence of the living God.
We find this close relationship between the office and contemplation in the life and work of St Gertrude. Dom Guéranger brings out this unity in his introduction to his edition of the Exercises: “This holy daughter of the cloister drank in light and life day by day from the sources of all true contemplation, from the very fountain of living waters which gushes forth from the psalms and the inspired words of the Divine Office. Her every sentence shows how exclusively her soul was nourished with this heavenly food. She so lived in the liturgy that we continually find in her revelations that the Saviour discloses to her the mysteries of heaven, and the Mother of God and the saints hold converse with her on some antiphon, or response or introit, which the Saint is singing with delight, and of which she is striving to feel all the force and sweetness.” He also notes the breadth and liberty in this ancient method of prayer founded on the Rule and monastic tradition.