LISTEN, MY SON, TO THE TEACHINGS OF YOUR MASTER, AND TURN TO THEM WITH THE EAR OF YOUR HEART. WILLINGLY ACCEPT THE ADVICE OF A DEVOTED FATHER AND PUT IT INTO ACTION. (Rule of St. Benedcit:The Prologue)  These are the opening words of the Rule for Monasteries written by St. Benedict around the year 530 A.D. They have been taken to heart by monks uninterruptedly ever since then. By the time he wrote this text the abbot of Monte Casino had a good deal of experience as teacher. He realized that the opening words of a work have a privileged function of setting a tone, influencing the attitude that the reader assumes as he takes up the writing and suggesting the matter that is to follow. 

In this case, the words Benedict has chosen evoke reminiscences of the wisdom teachings of the Old Testament. The tone and vocabulary of this passage echo certain texts from the Book of Proverbs where we read: “Listen, my sons, to a father’s instruction; pay attention, and learn what clear perception is.” (4:1) And again: “ Listen, my son, take my words to heart, and the years of your life shall be multiplied.”(4:10) In this way Benedict suggests that his purpose is to impart that wisdom which enhances life. For we read in this same chapter of Proverbs: “keep my principles and you shall live… embrace her, and she will be your pride.” (4:4, 8) 

The first word of the Rule is particularly evocative of one of the most fundamental of all the Hebrew texts. “Listen, O Israel, the Lord your God is One. You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart...” This passage has features prominently in the prayer of the Synagogue where it is recited twice a day. Our Lord himself was familiar with it and refers to it, giving it a central role in his own teaching. Significantly, the man who enters upon the monastic way is told first of all to LISTEN.  

The novice is to attend carefully to the words of an experienced and concerned teacher, a master of the spiritual art. As he proceeds further in this advice, Benedict makes it clear that he considers himself to be a mediator of wisdom rather than an originator of a new doctrine. In fact, these opening lines of his Rule do not originate with him. They largely transcribe an earlier work by an author who makes us of a Latin translation of St. Basil. When he used this work Benedict would have read approvingly the further statements that “The words come from me, but they are created by a divine source. I transmit to you not a new teaching, but what I myself learned from the fathers.” (cited in. T. Kardong, “Benedict’s Rule”, 6)  

Once we advert to this citation from a disciple of St. Basil as the opening of the Rule, we are not surprised to discover that in the last chapter our author recommends his monks to study Our Holy Father Basil in order to deepen his grasp of monastic life. While Benedict’s monastic spirituality became the dominant form assumed by Western monastic life, yet it is firmly rooted in the earlier tradition of the Eastern Church. It is Catholic in every sense of that word, and should so be lived and assimilated as to form men who are open to all that is good and wholesome in the various monastic traditions of the Greek as well as the Latin Church. 

To listen attentively then is the first duty of the novice, and indeed of the monk throughout his life. As Benedict states in this opening sentence, the novice is to open the “ears of the heart”. This listening is to be engaged in with the desire to be fashioned by it, and to conform one’s behavior to its demands. This listening, as experience shows, admits of many degrees of receptivity. What a man hears depends not only on his desire to follow the directives of the teacher and to grasp the ideas and values he imparts. The whole of a person’s character and culture is called into play as he listens to another.  

One may understand all the words used by a teacher or read in a book or heard in a conversation, and get very little of the meaning intended by the author. This is not a rare occurrence, in fact, as I have had occasion to observe, both in myself and in others. Intelligence is but one element involved in understanding. Deeply rooted attitudes, prejudices, repressed areas of the emotional life, strong feeling, vested interest, lack of imagination and any number of other factors enter into the process of listening. Already in the prophetic literature we encounter awareness that listening does not always lead to understanding due to such influences. To Isaiah the Lord said:  

Go, and say to this people, ‘Hear and hear again, but do not understand; see and see again, but do not perceive. Make the heart of this people gross, its ears dull; shut its eyes so that it will not see with its eyes, hear with its ears, understand with its heart, and be converted and live.‘(Is. 6:9, 10).   

Hearing the truth or seeing it in writing is not sufficient even though one knows all the words; it must be welcomed and received with some measure of the same spirit in which it was expressed or it will not be properly understood.  Even when it is understood, it happens regularly that the communication is only partial. This is especially the case when there is a discrepancy between the author’s spiritual or cultural attainments and that of the listener. When a master speaks to a novice, even though there is an open, trusting relationship, the significance of the teaching is grasped only to a limited extent. All of the suffering, perseverance, insights and love involved in arriving at an advanced degree of humility or charity by a monk with decades of monastic living out of which he speaks,  cannot be conveyed to an untried, inexperienced novice with words. St. Basil had noted that words are but a poor instrument to express the more intimate human contact with the divine. 

One must listen as he can and appropriate what he grasps, taking it to himself as best he might and live from it. Much of what you will listen to in the novitiate will have more meaning than you can grasp, but if you strive to live it as you understand it and take it to yourself from within, your understanding will be enlarged. You will find that you begin to have a feeling for matters that earlier were mere ideas, thoughts. Gradually you will discover that this is a law of the human spirit in our present condition. We must act from imperfect knowledge if we would grow. If we require too much clarity, seek such security as to avoid all risk, we shall find that life passes us by. In order to follow the Spirit we must accept a measure of vulnerability and be prepared to learn through suffering.

Our Lord was the first to set this example for his followers. Only then will you be able to continue on the return journey to the Father by moving forward into the hidden recesses of the heart guided by the light of the Spirit.  

In this same Prologue Benedict, presents the monastic life as a return journey along which progress is made by obedience. That entails a continuous movement ahead to our goal. We must not stop on the way, content with such stages as we have already managed to complete. This forward movement entails more than listening and understanding, however. We must carry into act the dictates of the Lord’s teaching as revealed to us through listening to his voice in Scripture, in the Rule and in the advice, orders and teaching of our Superiors. Benedict states this explicitly. " Having finished his discourse, the Lord waits for us to respond by action every day to his holy warnings.” Note that our every day acts are our way of answering to what we hear the Lord telling us.  

One of the chief purposes of monastic asceticism of solitude and since is to train us to become sensitive to the ordinary events and things of life. Such sensitivity is not easily come by to the men of our time. We live in a society that has made diversion a prominent industry. Stimulation of the senses through the media in ever increasing use of technology is a feature of modernity that is no longer confined to public places as it was largely in earlier times but has invaded the homes. Not only in the city but increasingly in the countryside and formerly solitary places is the media available.  

Obviously, such technological communication offers many benefits to its users. But it also has its dangers and one is alienation from nature. In particular from a man’s own nature, his true self. Only the true self can enter the kingdom of God. Nothing false has access to the Father’s house. The way to the self that is created in the image of God, then, as Jesus tells us, is narrow and rough. The door that opens to the secret places of the heart where the true self abides is hidden to the eyes and ears of the flesh; one must train the senses of the spirit to discover it.  Distracted and superficially stimulated, modern man must make special efforts to overcome the restlessness and boredom that ensue in the absence of easy stimulation and satisfactions of the senses. This is the role of monastic asceticism and discipline. By judicious practice of silence, fasting, renunciation of TV and movies, we learn to get past the surface of life and begin to develop a sensitivity for more interior perception and beauty.  

This is the kind of action that St. Benedict has in mind when he tells the novice that "Having finished his discourse, the Lord waits for us to respond by action every day to his holy warnings.” The Lord does not wait passively, to be sure, but assists us in our efforts by his Spirit.  In addition to actively striving to cultivate the virtues in daily life, then, we must dedicate our self to prayer. And early in the Prologue we are told: “First, when you set out to do some good work, beg him with most insistent prayer to bring it to completion.” These are the two feet, as it were, with which we are to make our return journey to the Father’s house: prayer and active practice of virtue.  

In the Benedictine tradition there arose a motto that is a very brief summary of the way traced out by the Rule: Ora et labora (Pray and work). The prayer is more than the office and prayers of petition; it includes the highest contemplative union with the Father in Christ. Likewise the work referred to is more than manual labor; it is also the work of the heart which is the chief and characteristic work of the monk. This is by far the most demanding of labors and it will not be completed with the novitiate. It is a lifelong undertaking that all of us together are to engage in, day by day, ducente Evangelio ( under the guidance of the Gospel), as Benedict puts it memorably. 

When we follow this program faithfully and persevere in the school of the Lord’s service that is the monastery, we may have confidence that God’s mercy will not be lacking to us at the end of our journey. With this hope for you and for all this community we make our own the prayer with which St. Paul closed his first Epistle to the Thessalonians. “May the God of peace make you perfect and holy; and may you all be kept safe and blameless, spirit, soul and body, for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. God has called you and he will not fail you (5:23).”

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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