THE HOLY RULE OF
OUR HOLY FATHER SAINT BENEDICT
1. Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from a father who loves you; welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice. Hearken, O my son, to the precepts of thy master, and incline the ear of thy heart; willingly receive and faithfully comply with the admonition of thy loving father,
We are to listen carefully. We must hearken. The origins of the word listen involve a movement of the heart to be attentive, to seek to understand, to pay close attention to what is being said. It goes beyond mere hearing; it is more than a physiological event. We are not speaking about just the transmutation of sound energy to biochemical energy. The word listen is derived from two Anglo-Saxon words.
One word is hlystan, /LYE is tan/ which means “hearing.”
The other is hlosnian, /LOWS nee an/ which means “to wait in suspense.”
Listening, then, is the combination of hearing
what the other person says and a suspenseful waiting,
an intense psychological involvement with the other. Robert Bolton (BNW, 176)
This first movement, this hearkening, this careful listening, is a matter of the heart. It is a spiritual event. Our ancestors viewed the ear as a funnel which collected words and channeled them to the inner garden of the heart where they, like seeds, would sink roots and bear fruit, a fruit that would last.
Our Holy Father summons us to not put our hands over our ears, listen carefully, hearken, we are commanded because the instructions you are about to hear are the Master’s instructions, the precepts of thy master. We must attend with the ear of the heart and incline graciously the ear of the heart. Such gracious inclination and careful attention is possible only by His Grace. It is already a gift from God, such graciousness of heart. Indeed, this Benedictine image of man as one who listens reaffirms the Christian Anthropology of contemporary theology. We are human because we are created to hear, to attend, listen to the Eternal Word. From another contemporary theological perspective we are attracted by Eternal Beauty, since we are made in the Image and Likeness of the Living God we seek the True, the Good and the Beautiful. The seeking is our deepest longing, our defining thirst, and our insatiable hunger. Indeed, as Saint Augustine taught us, we were made for God and until we find him, or more accurately he finds us—finds us inclined and hearkening—we are restless, empty, lost, lonely, wounded, hungry, thirsty, and mute, blind, lame, leprous, paralyzed, confused, abandoned—dead.
The Eternal Word breaks the silence to witness in our hearts the very heart of the Father, the very one who has loved us into life now beckons us into eternal life. He thirsts. He longs for us with Divine Desire. This Divine Thirst is nothing less than the Holy Spirit who as the living flame of love enflames us with out consuming us. Rather this Divine Fire burns away all dross, all that is our false self, so that we might be a true man, so that we might be as we were made an imago Dei, an image of God. The voice of our Holy Father distills all the voices we have ever heard summoning us to holiness. Here is the voice of our parents, teachers, pastors, friends, and spiritual directors. All through our lives we have been pursued and hounded by the call to holiness. Now, that summons is crisp and clear. Now, we cannot ignore this call. Now, we are at a moment of crisis. Either we hearken or we die. Either we listen carefully or we perish.
Now, finally and definitively we have been summoned by the voice of a loving father, an eternal and unconditionally loving father. We are loved, not for what we have accomplished, not because we are already strong and virtuous, but because He has chosen to speak to our hearts and to call us to life, abundant life. Like the disciples on the shore tending their nets, like the tax collector at his table, like Nathaniel under the tree, like all our monastic ancestors we are caught off guard by the gracious summons of a father who runs out to meet us to welcome us home when all we want to be is a hired hand and have food to eat and a safe place to stay. No, this is not enough. With what extravagance are we welcomed home. He gives us new clothes. He puts a ring on our finger. He kills the fatted calf and throws a party. Such overwhelming kindness silences our complaining. We have no breath for murmuring. We have a voice only to praise and thank The One who gives us breath and voice, the Loving Father who gives us His Breath, the Holy Spirit, and His Word, the Eternally Begotten Son—Jesus the Crucified and Risen Lord. ALLELUIA!
2. The labor of obedience will bring you back to him from whom you had drifted through the sloth of disobedience. that thou mayest return by the labor of obedience to Him from Whom thou hast departed by the sloth of disobedience.
Well what is it? What is disobedience? Is it drifting or is it departing? These two different translations are not contradictory. It’s not a matter of either/ or. Indeed, it’s a matter of both/ and. Disobedience is both a drifting and a departing. It is both an active process—departing, and it is a passive process—drifting. We can easily imagine deciding to resist the Lord’s Will expressed through the authority in our church. I don’t understand this dogma, or I disagree with this restriction. So, I’ll pick and choose what kind of Catholic I will be. Perhaps this time I’ll be a pro-choice Catholic. Perhaps next time I’ll be a pro-life Catholic. We can also easily imagine a drifting away from the Lord’s Will expressed through the authority of our spiritual director. I don’t understand his teaching, or I disagree with his direction. So, I’ll ignore what he teaches and continue to insist upon my opinion. Perhaps I’ll share my resistance or perhaps I’ll never bring up the issue again. Perhaps I’ll conveniently forget the discipline given to me. This kind of disobedience could also be called passive aggressive behavior. This is the slippery slope of drifting. It is even more dangerous than departing because it is often ignored and easily denied.
3. This message of mine is for you then, if you are ready to give up your own will, once and for all, and armed with the strong and noble weapons of obedience to do battle for the true King, Christ the Lord. To thee, therefore, my words are now addressed, whoever thou art, who, renouncing thy own will, takest up the most powerful and brilliant armor of obedience in order to fight for the Lord Christ, our true King.
What is readiness for monastic life? Our Holy Father teaches us that we are ready to begin a monastic life if we are ready to give up our own will, “once and for all.” Or if we are ready to renounce our own will as the other translation puts it. This teaching is an echo of the Gospel mandate to deny self, to hate the world, to hate our life in this world, to hate our mother and father. After all this, we are to take up the cross and follow the Master, serve the true King, Christ the Lord. The “once for all” part is the most disturbing aspect of the 1980 translation. The Lord Christ offered the perfect sacrifice, “once and for all,” this is language taken from the Letter to the Hebrews, but can we make this kind of decision, this kind of offering? Angelic beings have an eternal perspective from which to make such decisions. Human beings live in time and space. Our environment and our experiences have an impact on our freedom. Yet, within all our limitations, we must decide. Even though we are never completely free in this world, we are morally free. We do have adequate freedom to make a decision to follow the Lord Jesus. As Thomas Merton once said, “once a novice always a novice.” We begin each day. We renew our decision to follow the Lord Jesus through our monastic commitment. Each renewal enables us to take up the strong and noble weapons of obedience. Each daily renewal enables us to take up the powerful and brilliant armor of obedience. Such a daily effort of renewal is possible only by the grace of God. Indeed, each day we become more and more ready for our monastic life.
4. First of all, every time you begin a good work, you must pray to him most earnestly to bring it to perfection. First of all, when beginning any good work, beg of Him, with most earnest prayer to perfect it,
This consecration of every day experience is one of the ways we have in which to renew our monastic commitment. Our Holy Father teaches us to rely upon God alone. We cannot bear the Fruits of the Spirit if we have not fully received the Gifts of the Spirit. One of the gifts of the Spirit is piety. It is our piety that enables us to pray earnestly. Offering a most earnest prayer every time we begin a good work will keep us mindful of the Presence of God. It will also help us to keep the focus of our good works on His Glory. Everything we do will give glory to God. The more we live for his glory; the more we become divinized, sanctified, and holy. “Since Prol 5–45 stresses the need for strenuous human effort in the beginning of the spiritual quest, Benedict may want to preempt any criticism of Pelagianism by insisting on previous prayer for divine help. This is the impression given by the first translation, which highlights the preliminary necessity of prayer: “When you set out to do any good work.”
Kardong, Terrence G., Benedict’s Rule: A Commentary, (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press)1996.
As the saints teach us, “we become what we love.” If we love the LORD Our God with all our heart, mind and soul and our neighbor as ourselves, we become love. This is the only way that our monastic witness will begin to change the world from the inside out and forever.
5. In his goodness, he has already counted us as his sons, and therefore we should never grieve him by our evil actions. so that He Who has now deigned to number us among His children may not at any time be grieved by our evil deeds.
We do not act virtuously to prove ourselves to God. We do not do good so that God will notice us. We cannot make ourselves worthy of the love of God. The LORD Our God already counts us as his children; we are sons and daughters of Our Father in Heaven. This is the great peace of heart that pervades the life of someone who believes in the love that God has for us. This is the confidence that faith brings into human life. We believe the Gospel Truth that, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, not to condemn the world, but that through Him the world might be saved.” Such faith is supported and actualized by the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The gift of the Fear of The Lord is the Spirit’s way of bringing us into awe and wonder in the sight of God. We know, without a doubt, that the Father sees us constantly. “ Oh LORD, you search me and you know me. All my ways lie open to you. You know my resting and my rising. Before ever a word is on my tongue, you know it Oh LORD, through and through. Behind and before You besiege me. Your hand is ever upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful, too high for me to reach.” As we grow in the Fear of the Lord, we have no slavish fear of Someone Who threatens our very existence. Rather, we become more and more afraid of offending The One who first loved us, continues to love us unconditionally. Who cannot love us more and will not love us less, no matter what we do or don’t do. Indeed, we tremble with sheer delight, such holy fear, when we stand before severe mercy and unconditional love.
6. With his good gifts which are in us, we must obey him at all times that he may never become the angry father who disinherits his sons, nor the dread lord, enraged by our sins, who punishes us forever as worthless servants for refusing to follow him to glory. For we ought at all times so to serve Him by means of the gifts He has entrusted to us that He may neither, as an angry Father, at any time disinherit His children, nor as a dread Lord provoked by our evil deeds, deliver us as most wicked servants to everlasting punishment for refusing to follow Him to glory.
Indeed from Sacred Scripture, we know the righteous anger of the LORD Our God. After many generations of Canaanite Religion, the LORD God Almighty can no longer tolerate the offenses of those whom he has made in his Image and Likeness. The People of God conquered these nations, not because Israel was more loved by God, but because the abhorrent evil deeds—done in the name of god—had to come to an end. The Baals and the Asteroths demanded temple prostitution of both women and boys to draw from heaven the blessing of fruitful crops on earth. These same gods commanded the ritual sacrifice of children to appease their anger. Such sins enraged the LORD Our God, because we become what we worship. We become the blood thirsty and lusty idols we worship, and those closest to us become mere objects, possessions that we can use to sacrifice so that we find safety and salvation. To treat another human being as an object enrages the LORD, Our Just God.
Father Terrence Kardong, OSB looks closely at the original Latin and its translation with these comments:
“may never become the angry father”
“may never have to rage”
“non debet aliquando … contristari.”
RB 1980 takes unwarranted liberties with this verse, adding “in his goodness” to the verb “deigned,” and making “we” the subject of debet. Lentini translates contristari as “irritated,” which is one of the meanings of the word (Blaise, s.v.). This would make the verse virtually identical with the next one, which makes a sharp turn from the warmth of divine filiation to strict judgment. If that is the right interpretation, we should remember that this change is caused by human sin and no change in God (Holzherr, 39).
“angry father … fearsome lord”
“iratus pater … metuendus dominus.”
“The combination of these two figures invokes the image of the austere Roman paterfamilias. Disinheritance was the punishment of sons (v. 6); prison and flogging was for slaves (v. 7) (Lentini, 12).”
“nequissimos servos.” In Matthew 18:32 (Vulgate), the unforgiving, though forgiven, slave is called serve nequam.
Kardong, Terrence G., Benedict’s Rule: A Commentary, (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press) 1996.
Sin enrages the LORD; God is provoked by our evil deeds. However, we are never worthless servants. Our deeds may be worthless in His sight, but our dignity, our worthiness, is something only God can give. Indeed, we can refuse our own dignity and seek to destroy it through a lifetime of sin. Sin has the power to separate our false self from our true self. We have the power to deny our own dignity, and we will suffer the consequences of such behavior. However, The LORD knows our hearts and with tears of tender mercy the LORD sees our weakness and He knows of what we are made. The LORD knows that even after Baptism and Confirmation and Monastic Consecration we are attracted to and prone to act in sin, and in spite of this, the LORD acts to save us. Indeed we are wicked servants, but we are never worthless servants. We may feel the isolation that is caused by sin, indeed, we may even feel abandoned by the LORD. Yet, he sees and loves in us what he sees and loves in the Crucified. His glance of tender mercy purifies our hearts and makes us worthy to live and move and have our being in Christ, through the power of the Spirit and for the glory of the Father, now and always and ever and forever. ALLELUIA!