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


May 27,

Wherefore, brethren, if we wish to gain the summit of humility and speedily to attain to that heavenly exaltation to which we can ascend only by the humility of this present life, we must, by actions which will constantly elevate us, erect that ladder which Jacob beheld in his dream and on which Angels appeared descending and ascending.  This descent and ascent we must understand without doubt as being nothing other than that we descend by exaltation and ascend by humility.  The ladder itself thus erected is our life in this world, which the Lord, having respect to our humility of heart, lifts up even to heaven.  The sides of this ladder we declare to be our body and soul, in which our divine vocation has placed divers rungs of humility and discipline which we must ascend.

When spiritual writers speak of growth in the life of grace, they naturally turn towards images of degrees, steps, mountains, ladders and summits.  Thus in the 6th century John Climacus (the Ladder) described the whole monastic life in terms of mounting a ladder of 33 rungs. These images are useful and have their appeal.  But St Benedict was also aware of the ambivalence of the image, its danger of making it all the fruit of human effort alone.  Such an understanding of perfection follows a path opposite that of the Gospel where Our Lord says, as we’ve seen, “anyone who raises himself up will be humbled, and anyone who humbles himself will be exalted.”  St Benedict is aware of the ambivalence when he insists that on his ladder, one climbs by going down, and that one goes down the moment one sets out to rise above it; that one must descend to rise and ascend by going down.  The top rung of the ladder is the height of humility, a descent towards one’s littleness and insignificance. Indeed at the top of the ladder we find the Publican. His humble and trusting acknowledgement becomes a prayer that fills the monk’s whole existence and also expresses itself in the monk’s external bearing and conduct.


CHAPTER 7:  Of humility

 May 26, 

The Sacred Scripture cries out to us, brethren, saying, "Everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled and he who humbles himself shall be exalted."  In saying this it teaches us that all exaltation is of the nature of pride, which vice the Prophet shows that he took care to avoid, saying: "Lord, my heart is not proud, nor are my eyes haughty, nor have I walked in great matters, nor in wonderful things above me."  And why?  "For if I were not humbly minded, but had exalted my soul, as a child that is weaned from its mother, so would my soul likewise be rewarded."

He who humbles himself will be exalted: humility raises up man to God and to eternal life.  This passage appears three times in the Gospel.  It is the attitude of a leader who should look upon himself as a servant (Mt 23:12).  It is the attitude of prayer where it is right to recognise oneself as a sinner and needy before God, in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican (Lk 18:14).  We do not pray from a standpoint of strength but of weakness.  Whatever form our prayer takes, liturgical or private, it is to be first and foremost an act of surrender.  The more we efface ourselves before God, the more we cast everything upon him, including our boredom and distraction, the more authentic our prayer will be.  Finally, in Lk 14:11 it is a matter of taking the last place.  The humble man won’t place himself in the most prestigious place, where he can be seen, held in respect, valued highly.  Neither will he calculatingly invite those who will invite him back.  The humble man simply does not assess himself, because he has no interest in the rank he occupies among men.  He doesn’t ask himself whether he is worthy or unworthy to be there, he simply takes pleasure in the good things all round him. 

     But the Gospel text assumes its full force when we, with St Paul, recognise in it the expression of the mystery of Christ himself.  Jesus has not only proclaimed it, he has lived it.  He humbled himself, which is why God exalted him – a formula which embraces the whole paschal mystery.  The collect of Monday in the 5th week of Paschaltide expresses this: he raised the fallen world by his humility.  God’s almightiness “blazes forth in the powerlessness of the incarnate and crucified Son,” notes Von Balthasar.[1]  The greatest work of almighty God is his humble assumption of our weakness in the womb of the Virgin and his death in the humble weakness of the cross.  The dynamic of salvation is a mystery of descent.  The Son of God descends into the Virgin’s womb; in his passion he descends into death and Sheol.

The Shepherd of all flew down,

in search of Adam, the sheep

that had strayed: Blessed is his descent. 

Like a seed of wheat he fell again into Sheol

to spring up as whole sheaf,

as the new Bread.  Blessed is

his offering.  (St Ephrem)

The Fathers see the whole economy of salvation as a coming down for us men and for our salvation, he came down from heaven.  Forty days after his resurrection he ascends in the fullness of his humanity to the Father, but he does so as the One who first descended, to assume our humanity in the Virgin’s womb.

[1] Mysterium paschale, 151; cf also St Gregory of Nyssa: All-powerful nature’s capacity to descend to the lowliness of the human condition is far greater proof of power than the miracles of an imposing and supernatural kind.  The humiliation of God shows the superabundance of his power which is not in any way hindered in the midst of these conditions contrary to his nature.  The grandeur is manifested in lowliness without being degraded by it” (Catechetical Oration 24).