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
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 shows here that he is interested in a mere external performance, merely doing what we are asked. As Fr John Edwards, S.J. once noted, even a performing seal will do what it is told! One can do what one is told while seething with resentment and a sense of injustice. More than that is expected of followers of Christ. We must try to embrace the order with the will, try to love what has been commanded. If that is lagging behind, then try to embrace what is being asked with the understanding, trying to put God at the centre of things, to act out of love for God and our sisters. For the attitude being described here-with a good heart, without hesitation or delay-is the attitude of someone united to God. In its every phase, obedience is a gift to God, surrender, but it also becomes acceptance by God. Our obedience is modelled on the Yes of the Lord’s mother, as it was accepted by God. And in her Son’s yes we find a model even more deeply rooted in God.
CHAPTER 5: OF OBEDIENCE Jan 22,
The first degree of humility is obedience without delay. This obedience is characteristic of those who prefer nothing to Christ; who, on account of the holy service to which they have obliged themselves, or on account of the fear of hell, or for the glory of eternal life, as soon as anything has been commanded by their superior, as though it were commanded by God Himself, cannot suffer a moment’s delay in fulfilling this command. It is of these that the Lord said: “At the hearing of the ear they have obeyed Me.” And again to teachers He says: “He that hears you hears Me.” Therefore, such as these, immediately putting aside their private occupation and forsaking their own will, with their hands quickly disengaged and leaving unfinished what they were about, with the instant step of obedience, fulfil by their deeds the word of him who commands; and so, as it were at the same instant, the command of the master and its perfect fulfilment by the disciple are, in the swiftness of the fear of God, speedily carried out together by those upon whom presses the desire of attaining eternal life. These, therefore, seize upon that narrow way of which the Lord says: “Narrow is the way that leads to life”; inasmuch as they, not living according to their own will, neither obeying their own desires and pleasures, but walking according to the judgment and command of another, live in community and desire to have an Abbot over them. Such as these, without doubt, fulfil that saying of the Lord: I came “not to do My own will, but the will of Him Who sent Me.”
As though it were commanded by God Himself… Obedience involves certain theological and moral qualities–faith, hope, love, patience, humility, etc. Above all obedience implies faith. We are not asked to believe that all orders given are perfectly wise ones. We are asked to exercise our faith to believe what comes to us through obedience is what God wants of us here and now, what God wants for his purposes even if it seems difficult. “It is faith since we express our belief in the will of God who conceals himself in the person of our superior” (Dom Delatte). True obedience has this supernatural motive; it is founded on faith. And through this obedience in faith we are being guided into the service of our sisters in Christ. We are being guided to serve. Our obedience is not only the expression of faith in God, love for God; it is also the expression of love of the brethren. Obedience in faith is ordered also to the service of the brethren, to fraternal charity, to the service of the whole church.
The motive for obeying is not that we think the superior is a nice person and we don’t want to hurt his feelings; nor is it to ensure the smooth running of the community; nor is it because that under the circumstances, this is quite a sensible thing to do. The motive for our obedience is that the superior holds the place of Christ–we believe it, says St Benedict, and that when we obey him we are obeying God. Motivated by faith and love, there is nothing servile or fearful about our obedience.
By our obedience we show not only our faith but also our love, because obedience unites our will to God, to the Beloved which is the basis of love. The one who obeys shows himself to be in tune, in agreement with the will of God. He accepts the presence of God even before someone asks something of him. He is always habitually tending towards such obedience out of love. For a truly obedient monk, one just needs to provide occasions. Obedience in faith and love, then, shows that to give up one’s own will does not mean not to have a will, but to harness one’s will to one’s faith and one’s love. It doesn’t mean that it will be easy. It does mean that the more the monk is oriented to the divine presence, the divine reality of obedience, the less will the superior be a screen to the divine will.
- To love chastity.
- To hate no man.
- To have no jealousy or envy.
- Not to love strife.
- To fly from vainglory.
- To reverence one’s seniors.
- To love one’s juniors.
- To pray for one’s enemies in the love of Christ.
- To make peace with those with whom one is at variance before the setting of the sun.
- And never to despair of God’s mercy.
Behold, these are the instruments of the spiritual art, which, if they be constantly employed by day and by night, and delivered up on the day of judgment, will gain for us from the Lord that reward which He Himself has promised: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man, what things God has prepared for those who love Him.” And the workshop in which we are to labour diligently at all these things is the enclosure of the monastery and stability in the community.
Several of these tools given today concern peace and peace-making: Not to love strife. To pray for one’s enemies in the love of Christ. To make peace with those with whom one is at variance before the setting of the sun. Our aim should not be just to preserve a quiet life but to go out of our way to make peace. That is where the beatitude of the peacemakers lies. How do we make peace? As much by our suffering as by our activity. It is made by refusing to return hostility, by the gentle answer that turns away anger. It is made by being prepared to give up one’s rights, our pet scheme, and our opinion where nothing more is at stake than our own interests and where the common good, the peace of the community, is at stake on the other side. We are called to be signs of the Kingdom, especially in the pursuit of perfect charity. But before we can be a sign to all people of God we must first be a sign to one another. Insisting, contradicting, and digging in one’s heels-all that shows a lack of charity and humility, a deficiency in the art of listening. To listen to others requires humility and charity, for it is basic to listening that others may possibly have something to say from which I can profit. I have not cornered the market on ideas. The art of listening and peace-making is essential to the Christian and especially to the Benedictine, as our Rule begins with the word: Listen. St Benedict listened to God, to the Church, to his Community. He was a man of peace.