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
Those who are sent on a journey are to receive underclothing from the wardrobe, and on their return are to give it back washed. Moreover, their cowls and tunics must be somewhat better than those which they usually wear; these they are to receive when setting out on their journey, and give back when they return.
For their bedding let a mattress, a blanket, a coverlet, and a pillow suffice. These beds must be frequently inspected by the Abbot, because of private property which may be found therein. If anyone is discovered to have what he has not received from the Abbot, let him be most severely punished. And in order that this vice of private ownership may be completely rooted out let all things that are necessary be supplied by the Abbot: that is, cowl, tunic, stockings, shoes, girdle, knife, pen, needle, handkerchief, and tablets; so that all plea of necessity may be taken away. And let the Abbot always consider that passage in the Acts of the Apostles: “Distribution was made to each according as anyone had need.” Therefore let the Abbot take into account the infirmities of those who are in need, and not the ill will of the envious. Nevertheless, in all his decisions, let him think of the divine retribution.
St Benedict renews here the condemnation of private ownership and the norms for distribution according to need. But here St Benedict addresses the Abbot explicitly, insisting that the needs of the brethren are to be satisfied by him. The abbot functions as a mediator between the God who is Providence and His servants. The abbot provides for the upkeep of the brothers in the name of the Lord. On the other hand, St Benedict warns the brethren against discontent and jealousies which might arise over unequal distribution according to need (see Chapter 34). The abbot has to guard against strict uniformity as well as favouritism in such a way as to allow charity to reign.
CHAPTER 55: OF THE CLOTHING AND SHOES OF THE BRETHREN April 7,
Let clothing be given to the brethren according to the nature and climate of the place in which they live; for in cold regions more is required, in warm regions less. To determine this shall be in the hands of the Abbot.
We believe, however, that in temperate climates a cowl and a tunic should suffice for each monk; the cowl to be of heavy material in winter, but in summer something thin or worn; likewise a scapular for work, and shoes and stockings to cover the feet. Concerning the colour and quality of all these things, let not the monks complain, but let them be such as can be obtained in the region where they live or can be bought more cheaply. The Abbot, however is to be careful about their size, that these garments be not too short for those who wear them, but fit well.
When they receive new clothing, let them always give back the old at once, to be reserved in the wardrobe for the sake of the poor. For it is enough for a monk to have two tunics and two cowls, for the necessities of night wear as well as for washing them. Anything more than this is superfluous and must be forbidden. In the same way, let them return their stockings and whatever else is worn out, when they receive new ones.
From the very beginning of the monastic movement, monks adopted a characteristic and distinctive habit, signifying at once their break with the world and in a more positive sense their consecration to God, which among the cenobites (those who live in community) was inseparable from their incorporation into a fraternal community. The way the monk dresses signifies what he is . It could even be said that it partly constitutes his monastic being. Early 3rd century texts from the desert fathers show that receiving the habit is synonymous with becoming a monk: “Who clothed you in the habit? Who made you a monk?”(John the Cenobite, 1) When some two centuries later St. Benedict manifested his desire to please God alone, this desire is translated in the concrete by the desire to take the habit: “Benedict preferred the hardships of the world to its praises and to be wearied by labour for God rather than exalted by earthly favour. So he fled secretly from his nurse and retired to a deserted spot, by name Sublacus, which is about forty miles distant from Rome. As Benedict in his flight was making for this spot, he was discovered by a monk called Romanus, who asked him whither he was going. When Benedict told him the desire of his heart, Romanus both kept his secret and helped him, providing him with a monk’s habit. (St. Gregory the Great, life of St. Benedict, Dialogues, Book II) In asking for the monastic habit, the young Benedict expresses his desire to insert himself into a tradition of which the habit has for a long time been the public sign. At the same time, the habit manifests his irrevocable resolution to serve God. To take the habit is to make an open profession of monastic life, to engage oneself publicly before the eyes of all. St Benedict will return to the habit in chapter 58; received at the ceremony of profession, the habit marks the monk’s belonging as a new brother or sister to the House of God and to God himself.
CHAPTER 54: WHETHER A MONK IS TO RECEIVE LETTERS OR PRESENTS April 6,
On no account shall it be lawful for a monk either to give or to receive, without the permission of his Abbot, letters, presents, or any little gifts whatsoever, whether from his parents or anyone else, or from his brethren. And if anything is sent to him even by his parents, let him not presume to receive it unless it shall have first been shown to the Abbot. If the Abbot orders it to be received, it shall be in his power to command to whom it shall be given; and let not the brother to whom it has been sent be saddened, lest occasion be given to the devil. Should anyone, however, presume to act otherwise, let him be subjected to the regular punishment.
This chapter extends St Benedict’s teaching on possessions and poverty, and having all things in common. When a monk comes to depend on outside sources of comfort, this strikes at both these things. One can see the danger of fostering a group of independently wealthy whose parents or friends could provide for them beyond the means of the monastery. This strikes also against God, dependence on God, and the possession of God to which our religious poverty points, which is more liberating than anything we can hoard up for ourselves. The monk is to be so united to his brothers that whatever someone may send him belongs to all, thus reproducing the charity of the primitive Church (Acts 4:32)where all held all things in common and where the apostles, to whom the abbot has succeeded, distributes to each according to his need.