ENLARGING THE HEART

UPDATE:             1ST January 2015   We now begin a new series of commentaries on the Rule of our Holy Father Saint Benedict (Series 3). We hope this will continue to be a source of spiritual nourishment for you. 


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


Dec 12

Let him who is to be received make in the oratory, in the presence of all, a promise of stability, conversion of manners, and obedience, before God and His saints, so that, if he should ever act contrariwise, he may know that he is to be condemned by Him Whom he mocks.  Let him make a petition of this promise in the name of the Saints whose relics are there, and of the Abbot who is present.  This petition he is to write with his own hand; or, if he is illiterate, let him ask another to write it for him, but the novice himself shall at least put his mark to it; then, with his own hand, let him place it upon the altar.

When he shall have placed it there, let the novice himself immediately begin this verse: "Súscipe me, Dómine, secúndum elóquium tuum, et vivam, et non confúndas me ab exspectátione mea" (Receive me, O Lord, as you have promised and I shall live; do not disappoint me in my hope (Ps 118 [119]: 116). Which verse the entire community will thrice repeat after him, adding thereto the "Glória Patri."  The newly professed brother will then prostrate himself at the feet of all, that they may pray for him; and from that hour let him be counted as one of the community.

If he has any property, let him either first bestow it on the poor, or by a solemn deed of gift make it over to the monastery, keeping nothing at all for himself, as is becoming to one who must know that from that day forward he shall have not even the free use of his own body.  Then forthwith he shall, there in the oratory, be divested of his own garments with which he is clothed and be clad in those of the monastery.  Those garments of which he is divested shall be placed in the wardrobe, there to be kept, so that if, perchance, he should ever be persuaded by the devil to leave the monastery (which God forbid), he may be stripped of the monastic habit and cast forth. The petition, however, which the Abbot receives on the altar, shall not be given back to him, but shall be kept in the monastery.

 

Stability is the first vow promised by Benedictines. It is clear from the rule  that in St Benedict’s mind  stability clearly  means stability of place. The monk is a member of a particular  monastery and a particular community. Nor is this a matter of sharing the same address or having common ideas.  Profession implies  a monk being linked by an inner bond to his community until death. His own monastery is always the normal, natural, rightful place for a Benedictine to be in. 

The vow of stability  attaches the monk not so much to his monastery  as to his monastic family. The monks’ stability is made not so much in an earthly place as in a spiritual family. In the event that the community would be dispersed or exiled, the monk would be bound by his vow to rejoin  the other monks  wherever they might unite  to form a new settlement.  The real ground of stability then  is a belonging to the community.  Stability has the nuance of perseverance and fidelity not only to God, not only to the monastic ideal, but also to the people with whom the journey is made.

But at the same time, St Benedict is always concrete; the monastery itself  is a sacrament of the future  home to which  the whole monastic family is tending with all its efforts.  Love of the spiritual monastic community by no means excludes  love for one’s monastery and its surroundings.  “On the contrary one would not be a true monk of St Benedict,” writes Thomas Merton, “if he did not have  a deep affective attachment to the place singled out by Providence for his soul’s salvation.” St Stephen Harding was described as a lover of the place and of the brethren.  

The real secret of monastic stability then is the total acceptance of God’s plan by which the monk realizes himself to be inserted into the mystery of Christ through this particular family and no other.  This is not the same  as unrealistic idealization of it, or a sense of superiority with regard to other communities.  Stability implies  rather a total acceptance of it with all its shortcomings, an acceptance of an inheritance which has in large measure made the community what it is.  It is the definitive acceptance of this community in time and in eternity, with these particular sisters chosen for us by God; and the glad realization  of the fact that all those who are thus called  together will work out their salvation in common, will help one another  find God more easily, and indeed that we have been destined  from all eternity  to bring one another  closer to him.


CHAPTER 58:

Of the manner of receiving Brethren

Dec 11

He who is newly come to enter religion is not to be easily admitted, but, as the Apostle says: "Test the spirits to see whether they are of God."  If, therefore, he that comes persevere in knocking at the gate and is seen to endure patiently for four or five days the affronts and the difficulties made as to his entrance, and to persist in his petition, let him be allowed to enter and let him stay in the guest house for a few days.  Afterwards, let him be placed in the novitiate, where he is to meditate, take his meals, and sleep.  Let a senior be assigned to him who is skilled in gaining souls, who shall watch over his conduct most minutely and consider carefully whether he truly seeks God, and is zealous for the work of God, for obedience, and for the things that humble him.  Let him be told all the difficulties and trials whereby one goes to God.

If he promises perseverance in his stability, after the lapse of two months let this entire Rule be read to him and let the following words be addressed to him: "Behold the law under which you desire to fight; if you can keep it, you may enter; if you cannot, you may freely depart."  If he still perseveres, let him be taken back to the novitiate where, with all patience, he is again to be tried.  And after the lapse of six months, let the Rule be read to him again, that he may understand into what he is entering.  Should he still stand firm, let this same Rule be read to him again four months later.  If then, having deliberated with himself, he promises to observe all things that are commanded him, let him then be received into the community; but let him know that from thence forward, being bound by the law of the Rule, he may not leave the monastery, nor shake off from his neck the yoke of the Rule which after such prolonged deliberation he was free either to refuse or to accept.

"Behold the law under which you desire to fight."  Some might feel uncomfortable with the word law and the obligation it implies. But according to Scripture the law was not seen as something limiting; the law is a gift from God that helps us to relate to Him and to each other.  It teaches us how to live as His children.   Rule comes from the word regula in Latin.  It refers to a tool to keep something straight, a ruler with which one can draw straight lines.  The Rule, like the law, is an aid for walking straight, without detours, so that we can reach our Creator on a straight course, as chapter 73 puts it. The Rule is a signpost that indicates a direction, a railing that on difficult paths keeps us from falling over a precipice.   To be sure a person can make his own law, according to his desires, but as St Benedict says of the Sarabaites in chapter 2, this would be to become a slave, not a son, a slave to one’s own like and dislikes.  The law of the Gospel is freedom, says St Paul.  Ultimately the Rule is Christ Himself; He is the law we follow.  The highest law is Jesus Christ himself.  He is the way, the truth and the life, the word, the teaching, the command, the law of God. The Rule in showing us how to live points to Him.