Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Holy Rule of St. Benedict: The Prologue

Prologue 1-13
Listen carefully, my son, to the master's instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is the advice from a father who loves you; welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice.
2 The labor of obedience will bring you back to him from whom you had drifted through the sloth of disobedience. 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.
4 First of all, every time you begin a good work, you must pray to him most earnestly to bring it to perfection. 5 In his goodness, he has already counted us as his sons, and therefore we should never grieve him by our evil actions.
6With 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, 7nor the dread lord, enraged by our sins, who punishes us forever as worthless servants for refusing to follow him to glory.
8Let us get up then, at long last, for the Scriptures rouse us when they say: It is high time for us to arise from sleep (Rom 13:11). 9Let us open our eyes to the light that comes from God, and our ears to the voice from heaven that every day calls out this charge: 10If you hear his voice today, do not harden your hearts (Ps 94[95]:8).
11And again: You that have ears to hear, listen to what the Spirit says to the churches (Rev 2:7). 12And what does he say? Come and listen to me, sons; I will teach you the fear of the Lord (Ps 33[34]:12).
13Run while you have the light of life, that the darkness of death may not overtake you (John 12:35).

The Rule is for us the guide of our life and our basic spirituality. We will hear it over and over and over in our monastic life. We hope that every time we hear it, we are able to accept it as our guide and our way of living.
To hear it once is never enough. To have studied it in the past is never enough. We must hear it and revere it. We must hear it and strive each time to put it into practice in our daily lives. It is not a Rule that we just study or just read.
It must become our life.We do not study the Rule of Saint Benedict as scholars study it. We need to know some of the scholarly details of the Rule insofar as they affect the basic spiritual teaching. Always more important than being a scholar of the Rule is being a person who lives the Rule in his or her life.
Scholars tell us that the Rule of the Master was written before the Rule of Saint Benedict and that Saint Benedict edited the Rule of the Master and added some material of his own.Saint Benedict took material from many other sources, as did the Rule of the Master, and formed that material into his own Rule.
Our formation in the Rule of Saint Benedict is always a formation in living. We must find the principles by which we choose to live.
In this small section of the Prologue of the Rule of Saint Benedict, we find two things that can be of highest importance to us. First, the very high place of obedience in this Rule and secondly, the importance of prayer. Are you ready to give up your own will?
That is the question of formation for each of us, including the superior. We give up our will when we acknowledge that there is a wisdom much greater than our knowledge.
As Benedictines, we must recognize that our Rule presupposes that we are willing to give up a great deal of personal freedom in order to grow in deep, inner spiritual freedom.
We continue in the Prologue of the Rule of Saint Benedict and hear this saint urging us to listen to the Scriptures. So often the Holy Scriptures tell us: Now is the time!
Don't wait for another time! It is so important to us that we recognize that in this moment, any decision we make has effects for the rest of our lives. So often we don't want to pay attention to that reality. We would like to think that I can do this one small thing and nobody will notice, nobody will make much out of it and in the end it won't affect me.

The truth is that our decision affect us for ever. We think that just one small decision won't be much. But how many times have we made "just one small decision" and thought that it would not affect us.
The accumulation of so many small decisions is like the ever dripping drop of water that slowly can destroy a rock entirely. Each decision of our lives has its effects and we need to stop today and to think about that reality.

That does not mean that we become obsesses with never making a mistake. Mistakes are different from freely chosen decisions. Most of us, as we grow older, know the difference between something that happens by accident, in an instant, and something that we have struggled with and finally decided.
We can begin by letting accidents happen—that then becomes a decision. It is important for us to know how we work at a moral level and how we make the decisions of our lives.

Saint Benedict is really telling us today: Make good decisions now! The more good decisions that you make, the deeper the habit of making good decisions will become within you. If we struggle now to make good decisions, then in the future, it will be easier to make other good decisions.
Why would we do this? Because we have recognized that the Lord is calling us and that we must respond to Him. Once we have that calling clearly in our heart and in our mind, making good decisions becomes easier and more a habit of our daily life.
So as we begin this New Year with the Holy Rule of Saint Benedict, let us resolve to make decisions that are truly a response to God's love, decisions that are not based simply on what we want, but on what we think that God wants of us. Let us strive to know the Lord and to do His will.
Prologue 14 - 20
14Seeking his workman in a multitude of people, the Lord calls out to him and lifts his voice again: 15Is there anyone here who yearns for life and desires to see good days? (Ps 33[34]:13) 16If you hear this and your answer is “I do,” God then directs these words to you: 17If you desire true and eternal life, keep your tongue free from vicious talk and your lips from all deceit; turn away from evil and do good; let peace be your quest and aim (Ps 33[34]:14–15).
18Once you have done this, my eyes will be upon you and my ears will listen for your prayers; and even before you ask me, I will say to you: Here I am (Isa 58:9). 19What, dear brothers, is more delightful than this voice of the Lord calling to us? 20See how the Lord in his love shows us the way of life.
Do you yearn for life? This is more than just wanting to live! This is wanting to have a strong life, a life that is full of meaning and full of purpose.
Today so many simply want a life that is comfortable—and generally all that leads to is laziness in life and always trying to find something more comfortable.

We cone to the monastery looking for God. Saint John Cassian tells us that many men come to the monastery looking for good and then get distracted because it is so difficult to remain in that searching for the Lord.
Then we monks get distracted by all the normal things of this world: comfort, ease, food, drink, thoughts, etc. Most of us experience something such as Cassian describes.

Today's short reading from the Prologue focuses really on the control of the tongue: learning to keep our thoughts and our words under control. We have thoughts that are not helpful to our monastic life or to seeking God.
Sometimes we let those thoughts turn into words, without any kind of limits on the words. That causes all kinds of harm and hurt and in the end makes our monastic life more difficult.

Probably only as we grow stronger in listening to the Lord do we come to a point where our angers do not break through at times and cause problems for us and for others.
Saint Benedict encourages us, in the words of the Psalm, to let peace be our quest and our aim. Stiving to live in inner peace seems to be a lifetime task.
The minute that we let up in this striving, the lack of peace seems to come back within us. If we practice God's peace every day, our lives truly begin to change. We must be totally committed to fighting against everything within us that would disrupt our peace.
We can never let outside events take our peace away, either. For each one of us, it is a challenge simply to live one whole day in complete peace. By this is not meant living somehow without challenges to inner peace, but knowing how to fight against those challenges so that they do not overcome us.

May our Lord Jesus help us in this New Year to live peace in our lives. May the Lord Jesus help us continue our seeking His presence every day of this year. May Jesus our Lord give us the courage to start over every day and every minute of the day so that our failures never stop us from looking for God.
Prologue 21 - 32
21Clothed then with faith and the performance of good works, let us set out on this way, with the Gospel for our guide, that we may deserve to see him who has called us to his kingdom (1 Thess 2:12).

22If we wish to dwell in the tent of this kingdom, we will never arrive unless we run there by doing good deeds. 23But let us ask the Lord with the Prophet: Who will dwell in your tent, Lord; who will find rest upon your holy mountain? (Ps 14[15]:1)
24After this question, brothers, let us listen well to what the Lord says in reply, for he shows us the way to his tent. 25One who walks without blemish, he says, and is just in all his dealings; 26who speaks the truth from his heart and has not practiced deceit with his tongue;27who has not wronged a fellowman in any way, nor listened to slanders against his neighbor (Ps 14[15]:2–3).
28He has foiled the evil one, the devil, at every turn, flinging both him and his promptings far from the sight of his heart. While these temptations were still young, he caught hold of them and dashed them against Christ (Ps 14[15]:4; 136[137]:9).
29These people fear the Lord, and do not become elated over their good deeds; they judge it is the Lord’s power, not their own, that brings about the good in them. 30They praise (Ps 14[15]:4) the Lord working in them, and say with the Prophet: Not to us, L
ord, not to us give the glory, but to your name alone (Ps 113[115:1]:9). 31In just this way Paul the Apostle refused to take credit for the power of his preaching. He declared: By God’s grace I am what I am (1 Cor 15:10).
32And again he said: He who boasts should make his boast in the Lord (2 Cor 10:17).

This section of the Prologue of the Rule of Saint Benedict is more difficult to comment on—not because there is a lack of matter, but because there are so many topics contained in this very short selection from the Prologue.

First, we must be clothed with faith and the performance of good works. That is asking a lot of us! We come to the monastery with faith and then discover how poor our faith really is. Almost all of us still have very little faith and find it difficult when our faith is put to the test.
From that faith can come good works. Sometimes we do good works just because we are in a monastery and it is sort of expected of us. Now we are invited to do good works even when it is most difficult to do them. Saint Benedict wants us to set out on the path of living the Gospel because that is the only way that we will ever be able to see the Lord who is calling us.
We want to live as the Lord has invited us to live. And what does it mean to live the Gospel? We must walk without blemish—and that is impossible—and be just in all of our dealing, speaking truth from our heart and not deceit. We must not wrong others nor listen to slanders against our neighbors.

Perhaps this time, as we read the Rule again, we could focus on not listening to slanders against our neighbor. Truly we must learn to speak only good of our brothers and of others. And we must have the courage to resist listening to others when they begin to speak against someone else. That is really difficult today.
Very few like to take a stand that may bring bad comments about them. So generally we put up with the bad behavior of our brothers. We must learn that if we really love our brothers, we must learn how to draw them to good behavior.
And we can only do that if we ourselves are striving to live in a good way. So let us continue with this Prologue and try to live by faith, trying to do good works, try to keep our own mouths from saying bad things about others and try to close our ears when others say bad things. May the Lord Jesus help us!
Prologue 33 - 38
33That is why the Lord says in the Gospel: Whoever hears these words of mine and does them is like a wise man who built his house upon rock; 34the floods came and the winds blew and beat against the house, but it did not fall: it was founded on rock (Matt 7:24–25).
35With this conclusion, the Lord waits for us daily to translate into action, as we should, his holy teachings. 36Therefore our life span has been lengthened by way of a truce, that we may amend our misdeeds, 37As the Apostle says: Do you not know that the patience of God is leading you to repent (Rom 2:4)?
38And indeed the Lord assures us in his love: I do not wish the death of the sinner, but that he turn back to me and live (Ezek 33:11).
We are almost at the end of the Prologue now Today we return to the theme at the beginning of the Prologue: Listen!

The "Listen" that we hear in the Rule calls us not just to hear something, to hear the advice of Saint Benedict, but to listen to that advice and put it into action in our lives. Saint Benedict says that God Himself waits for us to translate into action his holy teachings.
We should all be familiar by now with the quotation from the Prophet Ezekiel: " I do not wish the death of the sinner, but that he turn back to me and live." We must have a deep inner confidence that God really calls us to live our lives strongly. God is not there beside us, hoping that we shall fail and just waiting to condemn us to eternal death!
No, God is there beside us just waiting to help us turn away from sin and to follow Him once again. No matter how many times we fall into sin, God's mercy and forgiveness are still present, inviting us to live, inviting us to live fully the divine life that is offered to us.

Another image that Saint Benedict uses is that of God being patient with us. God waits on us, inviting us to repent. God wants us to turn away from sin and to turn to Him.
May this day help us make choices that will draw us deeper into the divine life!
Prologue 39 - 44
39Brothers, now that we have asked the Lord who will dwell in his tent, we have heard the instruction for dwelling in it, but only if we fulfill the obligations of those who live there. 40We must, then, prepare our hearts and bodies for the battle of holy obedience to his instructions.
41What is not possible to us by nature, let us ask the Lord to supply by the help of his grace. 42If we wish to reach eternal life, even as we avoid the torments of hell, 43then—while there is still time, while we are in this body and have time to accomplish all these things by the light of life—44we must run and do now what will profit us forever.
My brothers, if we want to live monastic life, we have to use our energies to do that. So often today we prefer a life that is simply natural and which does not demand much of us.
Even in the monastery, we can begin to settle into the life and hope that nothing more will be asked of us. We can suffer from that deadly sin of sloth or laziness.
We come with the best of intentions, wanting to serve the Lord with all our being. We settle in and accept that we won't be perfect. Instead, then, of continuing the spiritual struggle, we simply accept ourselves as we are and stop there.

There is, of course, something very health psychologically about accepting ourselves as we are. On the other hand, once humans lose their ideals, life generally tends to stagnate. We can become simply comfortable old bachelors living together in the monastery like an apartment house.

Saint Benedict tells us that we must prepare our hearts and our bodies for the battle of holy obedience to his instructions. This is very clear: being a monk will be a difficult enterprise.
It is a battle every day to be faithful to the Lord. No matter how often we lose the battle, we must start again. So one description of a monk is simply a person who falls every day but who gets up and goes on.

Saint Benedict tells us that we must run now and do what will profit us forever. This sounds easy enough, but quite often, when we come to think of it, we would rather wait just a little longer to struggle with our own defects.

On the other hand, Saint Benedict does tells us that what is not possible by nature, we can ask the Lord to supply by the help of his grace. Those are wonderful and encouraging words for us. How often we seem at a dead end in our own personal lives and do not know what we can do. The answer is always there: pray and ask God for His help!

As we begin listening to the Holy Rule again, we can commit ourselves to praying and to asking God's help. No matter how poor we are as monks, we can ask the help of our Lord.
Surely He will not refuse to help us, even though it may be in ways that we might not prefer!
Let us thank the Lord for the gift of our monastic vocations and resolve to continue in the struggle once again today.
Prologue 45 - 50
45Therefore we intend to establish a school for the Lord’s service. 46In drawing up its regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome.
47The good of all concerned, however, may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and to safeguard love. 48Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset.
49But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.
50Never swerving from his instructions, then, but faithfully observing his teaching in the monastery until death, we shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his kingdom.
So we arrive at the end of the Prologue of the Rule of Benedict. Benedict has given us a rough description of the kind of life that he will now explain in more detail. He has given us some of the theological foundations for this kind of life.
We need to reflect again on how we have not been faithful to God, how we want to be faithful and how we can become faithful to the Lord who calls. The basic element is that we must want to turn our lives over entirely to the Lord, not just play at giving our lives to God.

In order to make this really radical and complete commitment, Saint Benedict now establishes a school for the Lord's service. It is not a school such as we would find in the secular world, rather it is a school that will be in session 24 hours a day!
Saint Benedict wants this school to be a school of love, learning how to love the Lord and one another. He wants it clearly not to be overly strict and yet recognizes that it must have some strictness about it.
That strictness if for two purposes: to help us struggle against our faults—and we need a lot of time to do that!—and to make sure that the structures that support true Christian love are respected so that this honest Christian love itself can be at the basis of our lives.

Saint Benedict recognizes that this kind of life is going to be difficult and that some people will want to run away because the life is difficult, so he pleads with them—and with us—not to run away. If we stay the course, we begin to find a completely different inner experience.
But we must go through all the difficulties to come to that place within us where we begin to recognize that God is working within us and that the difficulties that we have encountered really have brought us to a deeper experience of God—even to this inexpressible delight of love.

Finally we recognize that it is through this patient share in the sufferings of Christ that we also come to share in Christ's kingdom.

The lesson for today, at the end of this Prologue, is very clear: stay with the struggle, stay with the suffering, stay with Christ Himself—and eventually we shall come to a deep and wonderful experience of God's love within us and the life that we live in the monastery.
This happens, of course, only if we are living by faith and not by the normal human decisions and judgments that we make.
May the Lord give us courage to persevere!

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