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 57: OF THE CRAFTSMEN OF THE MONASTERY Dec 10,
Should there be craftsmen in the monastery, let them exercise their crafts with all humility and reverence, if the Abbot so commands. But if one of them grows proud because of the knowledge of his craft, in that he seem to confer some benefit on the monastery, let such a one be taken away from this craft and not practice it again, unless perchance, after he has humbled himself, the Abbot may bid him resume it.
If any of the work of those craftsmen is to be sold, let those through whose hands the business is to be transacted see to it that they presume not to mingle into it any dishonesty. Let them be mindful of Ananias and Sapphira, lest perchance they, and all who deal dishonestly with the goods of the monastery, should suffer in their souls the death which these incurred in the body. In setting the price of these things, let not the sin of avarice enter in; but let the goods always be sold somewhat cheaper than is done by men of the world, that in all things God may be glorified.
St Benedict recognizes the value of gifts and talents within a community. The development of the spiritual life does not mean the suppression of gifts. The challenge is how to put those gifts at the service of holiness. St Benedict wants to ensure that gifts and skills do not get in the way of striving or sanctity. Obedience and humility come before all material profit: St Benedict would rather lose money than lose a soul. The integration of our gifts and the striving for sanctity is not just a question of a peaceful co-existence. It is rather to subordinate our gifts to a living faith so that our vision of things will not be simply in terms of one’s gift but in terms of Christ, God’s will and the Body of Christ- that in all things God may be glorified. The whole of a monk’s life reflects his choice of God, his desire for the Kingdom and his zeal to develop purity of heart.
CHAPTER 56: OF THE ABBOT’S TABLE Dec 9,
Let the table of the Abbot be always with the guests and strangers. But whenever the guests are few in number, it shall be in his power to invite any of the brethren he may wish. Let him take care, however, that one or two of the seniors be left with the brethren for the sake of discipline.
St Benedict places the abbot in the front rank of those who show hospitality for the honour and edification of the guests. He who represents Christ in the monastery shares a common table with those whom the monastery receives as Christ. He wanted the leader of the community to be a model of that gift of self to the stranger and guest.
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.