Tag Archives: Benedictine Spirituality

Benedictine Spirituality III: The Ear of Your Heart

Last week Dom Boniface’s Part I in Benedictine Spirituality I: Silence and then Part II of the Benedictine Spirituality II: The Master’s Instructions. Here is Part III: The Ear of the Heart.

I also highly recommend not only to the Oblates but also those who follow Communion and Liberation to attend all the essays as there are points of convergence in our work in the School of Community.

The Ear of the Heart – “attend to them with the ear of your heart”

Saint Benedict teaches the monk in the first verse that there is a deeper way of listening. We take in reality through our five external senses (sight, hearing, etc.) but we also learn to detect something deeper. Reality is not merely a scientfic fact. All of reality conveys meaning as well. When we look at a car we do not normally see a metal object made of thousands of parts. Rather we see transportation that moves us from point A to point B. When we look at a subway car or a subway line, it appears to us as a portal that picks us up at one place and drops us at another. When we see physical objects, their meaning presents themselves to us first. This is so strong, in fact, that we simply do not see things that are not meaningful to us. When we are driving on the highway, we block out most of the things around us and focus on a few things in front of us. When we are walking through city streets we simply never notice things that do not affect us or have any impact on our purpose. The direction of our intention (the focus of our inner eye or the attention of our inner ear) determines what we perceive. This is why it is so important to focus our attention appropriately, and Saint Benedict instructs us to focus the attention of the ear of heart on the Master’s instructions.

God speaks through everything. The Word is constantly expressing Itself through creation and through history. The Word can be heard in human events and through human voices. Every event carries a deeper meaning if we can tune our ears to hear it.

A Benedictine motto was developed in the 18th century to summarize the Benedictine life: ora et labora (pray and work). By focusing on prayer first, but then by balancing prayer and work, the monk learns to listen to God even during his work. Saint Benedict noted that the monk is to “regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar and nothing is to be neglected” (RB 31:10-11). This shows the potential that Saint Benedict sees for finding God in work. Work can be carried out with attention and reverence. The monk can listen to God with the ears of the heart as he carries out simple, mundane tasks or as he takes on complex challenges. Throughout history, monks have carried out simple tasks such as cleaning and cooking and copying books, more complex tasks like gardening and farming, and creative work like art and music. In those activities, monks have been innovators. The first geneticist was a monk. Monks developed technologies to assist in their work. The noteworthy thing, however, is that in the midst of all of it, Benedictines have tried to listen to God with the ear of the heart.

The ear of the heart could be described as a contemplative sensitivity. In the Catechism, contemplation, or “inner prayer” is defined as a prayer that can take place at all times and persists in the heart: “One cannot always meditate, but one can always enter into inner prayer, independently of the conditions of health, work, or emotional state. The heart is the place of this quest and encounter, in poverty and in faith” (CCC 2710). “Contemplative prayer is hearing the Word of God” (CCC 2716) by which we “enter into the presence of him who awaits us” (CCC 2711). St. Thomas Aquinas described contemplative prayer as a loving awareness of God’s presence. These descriptions all point to a knowledge that is not rational, but intuitive. We describe it as “heart-knowledge” or a hearing with the ear of the heart.

Saint Benedict encourages his monks to remain in this kind of contemplative prayer by always being attentive with the ear of the heart. Even while the mind is dedicated to a particular task, the heart can continue listening and thus remain connected to the Word of God. Just as we can be aware of the presence of a beloved friend in the room with us even while we are intensely focused on a particular activity, so also the monk seeks to be aware of the presence of God while he carries out his daily work. Saint Benedict instructs the monk always to remember that he is beneath the loving gaze of God (RB 7:13-14). He also calls the monk to continually pray in the heart, especially seeking mercy in his sinfulness (RB 7:65). To keep this contemplative prayer alive, only short acts of recollection are needed. This is why Saint Benedict tells the monk his prayer need not be prolonged, but rather “short and pure” (RB 20:4). A little burst of attention, a short prayer such as “My Jesus, my mercy” or “Jesus, I trust in you” can be enough to keep the flame of loving attention alive in the heart. The Catechism reaffirms that “Contemplative prayer is silence, the ‘symbol of the world to come’ or ‘silent love.’ Words in this kind of prayer are not speeches; they are like kindling that feeds the fire of love” (CCC 2717). Saint Benedict directs his monks to spend many hours every day praying with Scripture and the monk can carry a few words from that time of prayer to use as “kindling” to keep the flame of contemplation alive in the heart.

We have seen now that Benedictine spirituality can be summarized in the first verse of the Rule of Saint Benedict: “Listen, my son, to the Master’s instructions and attend to them with the ear of your heart.” By including more silence in our lives and opening our hearts in humble obedience, we can learn to listen better. Likewise, by prioritizing our prayer and the time we spend in the place of prayer, we can learn to listen to God who is the Master and then also learn to hear Him throughout the events of the day. Lastly, by learning to be attentive with the ear of the heart, we can carry out our daily duty with unceasing, contemplative prayer. Such prayerful work lies at the heart of Benedictine spirituality.

Benedictine Spirituality II: The Master’s Instructions

The other day Part I in Benedictine Spirituality –Silence– given by Dom Boniface Hicks, monk of St Vincent’s Archabbey. Now in Part II of the Benedictine Spirituality, Dom Boniface explores The Master’s Instructions and our developing the sensitivity to the divine Presence. Where is your heart? Who is your God? How docile are you to the Lord’s promptings?

Those who follow Communion and Liberation and who live as Oblates will want to attend to this essay as there are points of convergence.

The Divine Presence – “The Master’s instructions”

Saint Benedict exhorts the monk to listen to the “Master’s” instructions. Who is the Master? On the one hand the Master is God. On the other hand, it refers to those who hold divine authority, such as the Abbot, but also to other authorities like parents, government leaders, teachers, elders, etc. In other words, God certainly instructs us directly, but He also instructs us through other people. This principle is repeated several times in the Rule of Benedict and it is an extremely important one for our Christian lives. Blessed Columba Marmion, OSB noted that the central theme of the whole Rule of Benedict is expressed in this idea found in Saint Benedict’s exhortation: “We believe the divine presence is everywhere…but beyond the least doubt we should believe this to be especially true when we celebrate the divine office” (RB 19:1-2).

The beginning of our awareness of God generally happens in a religious experience. Our communal celebrations, including the Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours and the other Sacraments, are important points of contact with God. It is critical that they be celebrated in a reverent and devoted manner. When these great times of prayer are beautiful and prayerful, they can be a cause for conversion. They should be bright with music, but balanced with times of silent reflection. They must be led confidently, reverently and prayerfully. These are the expectation of Saint Benedict when he reminds us that “beyond the least doubt we should believe” the divine presence is to be found in the divine office (RB 19:2). We must conduct ourselves in communal prayer and in the Church as we would conduct ourselves in the presence of a mighty ruler: “Whenever we want to ask some favor of a powerful man, we do it humbly and respectfully, for fear of presumption” (RB 20:1). Rather than carrying on raucous conversations or irreverent worldly activities in Church we must always act in a manner that reminds ourselves and also shows others that the One True God is present there in His Flesh reserved in the Tabernacle.

Saint Benedict expects us to develop a sensitivity to the divine presence by celebrating the liturgy well and taking the words of God on our lips seven times a day. “Let us stand to sing the psalms in such a way that our minds are in harmony with our voices (mens concordet voci)” (RB 19:7). Normally we first form words in our minds and then we speak them out with our voices. When we pray the psalms, however, the words are given to us to speak, but then they begin to form our minds. In this way, we allow the Word to form our way of thinking, which in turn can form our way of acting. After repeating the words of the psalms, the liturgical prayers and the readings from Mass, our hearts become more and more sensitive to the divine presence. We start to see his fingerprints and footprints all around us. We see His presence in the lives of others—in the lives of other monks and in the lives of the guests who come to the monastery. We see His Presence in our work. We see His presence in the sick members of the community. We see His presence in the Abbot. We see His presence at our meals. By becoming sensitized to the Word of God and taking on the mind of Christ, we start to see the divine presence everywhere in our lives.

This brings us back to the question, “Who is the Master?” The Master is God and we must take time in liturgical prayer and in personal prayer in order to begin hearing God and to sensitize our hearts to His presence. As we do that, however, we also start to see Him in everything. The monk is the one who arranges His day around repeated acts of attention to the divine presence. He regularly interrupts every other activity because “nothing is to be preferred to the Work of God” (RB 43:3). With his visits to the oratory and his celebrations of the liturgy of the hours at the center of his day, the monk makes acts of recollection throughout the rest of his day to renew his awareness of the divine presence. In Saint Benedict’s time it was already encouraged by St. John Cassian to recite the verse of Psalm 70: “God, come to my assistance. Lord, make haste to help me.” Cassian identified that verse as a defense against every attack of the Enemy and as a simple way to return one’s attention to God throughout the day. In the subsequent centuries, the Jesus Prayer served a similar purpose, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” With these brief prayers, the monk can bring his awareness of the presence of God, which is especially strong in the places of prayer, out into the rest of his life. He can learn to hear the instructions of the Great Master through every other little “master”. Even in sinful men or atheists, the prayerful monk can learn to be aware of the Presence of God.

Part I

Benedictine Spirituality I: Listen

Father Boniface Hicks, OSB, a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. He is trained in computer science and in spirituality. Currently, Father Boniface is part of the formation team training men for the Catholic priesthood at his abbey’s seminary and the work of spiritual direction. Since I am interested in Benedictine Spirituality periodically you will see essays on this subject here on Communio. As a side note, those of us who follow Communion and Liberation ought to recognize a connection with what is said here and with what Father Julián Carrón has been teaching in months. That is, the importance of listening, centering on Jesus Christ as a Lord and Savior, and that silence is crucial method. How we respond to the Lord’s invitation to be in friendship with him requires us to be in relation to Him and listen to His promptings through prayer, fasting, alms-giving, sacred scripture, the worthy reception of the sacraments and knowing the faith.

What is said of monks is also true for the Oblates. Attend!

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“Listen my son to the Master’s instructions and attend to them with the ear of your heart” (Prologue 1). These are the first words Saint Benedict speaks to his monks through his Rule of life. The Rule of Benedict (RB) establishes three important spiritual attitudes already in the first verse. The first instruction is that Saint Benedict requires the monk to listen, which requires the monk to cultivate silence, humility and obedience. The second is that God, the Master, speaks to us—both directly and through those in whom He has invested authority, and even more broadly through the circumstances of reality itself. The third is that there is a kind of listening that one can only do and must do with the ears of the heart.  In this post, we will reflect on the first part and take up the next two parts in the following posts.

Listening – “Listen, my son”

Listening is the foundational attitude of the monk and to do it well it requires silence, obedience, and humility. This explains the three chapters of the Rule on these principal monastic attributes—chapter 5 on obedience, chapter 6 on silence and chapter 7 on humility. All are necessary for listening: only the humble man listens, while the proud man believes he already knows everything; listening requires exterior silence to hear with the ears in one’s head and interior silence to hear with the ears of the heart, and obedience treats listening as a path of potential action, not merely a matter of taking in idle words.

Humility is a key theme throughout the Rule of Saint Benedict. The longest chapter in the rule (chapter 7) is devoted to the virtue of humility. Humility is expressed in the beginning of the rule as the call to listen. A person only listens when he believes he has something to learn. Otherwise, he will talk excessively, thinking everyone else has something to learn from him. That is why Saint Benedict warns the talkative man: “in a flood of words, you will not avoid sinning” (RB 7:57 quoting Proverbs 10:19). He also notes that when we think we know everything and never cease talking, we end up going in circles, never making progress: “A talkative man goes about aimlessly on the earth” (RB 7:58 quoting psalm 140:12). Those scriptures are quoted in the ninth step of humility which requires “that a monk controls his tongue and remains silent” (RB 7:56).

The silence of Christian monasticism is not merely an asceticism of self-control or emptying our desires, but rather a posture of listening to a God who speaks. We do not silence ourselves for the sake of being silent, but rather for the sake of hearing more clearly. Our silence is not a matter of isolating ourselves, but rather of opening ourselves. It is relational. Silence is the necessary pre-condition for hearing God and encountering Him in prayer and in life. Too often we make the mistake of getting lost in the world and never slowing down enough or silencing ourselves enough to meet God, to hear Him, and simply to be with Him. God has revealed Himself as the divine Word who has spoken from all eternity and continues to speak to us in a personal relationship. When we slow down, humble ourselves in prayer and open our hearts, we can hear His voice. That has a way of humbling us even more, reducing our inflated egos to nothing. We find ourselves saying like Saint Paul, “Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil 3:8).

Furthermore, Saint Benedict understands listening as leading to action. He is not content with ideas that never turn into action nor with knowledge that never becomes love. “’Knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up” (1Cor 8:1). “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). It is through obedience that knowledge becomes love and that the Word becomes flesh. That is why Jesus is the ultimate example of obedience. In Him, the Father’s will was made tangible and visible at every moment of His life (cf. 1 Jn 1:1-4). “Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, ’Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me’” (Heb 10:5). The Word was made flesh so that the Father’s will could be visible in a human body. Furthermore, the ultimate sacrifice is made through that same human body. There is no love without sacrifice and Christ revealed the ultimate love by offering the ultimate sacrifice. He laid down His life for us, allowing His crucified Body to proclaim, through suffering, all of the Father’s love for us. When Jesus listened to the Father, He opened His life to the greatest potential. This potential became a reality as His Body participated in and revealed the fullness of divine love. This is true obedience and Saint Paul glorifies it by singing: “Christ…became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8).

We can now apply to ourselves Saint Benedict’s teaching on listening through silence, obedience, and humility. We must create places of silence and we must intentionally include in our lives extended periods of silence for prayer. In the rule, Saint Benedict prescribes 4-6 hours of silence for monks to spend each day in personal prayer. This sets a high standard that few can follow given the demands of daily life, but at least an hour of daily silent prayer is necessary for real spiritual growth.

Beyond our dedicated times of silent prayer, it also helps to create spaces of communal silence. Benedictine monasteries have done this since the 6th century, making a place not only for the personal sanctification of the monks but also for other members of the faithful to enter into. Saint Benedict had extensive regulations in the Rule to provide for guests, noting that “monasteries are never without them” (RB 53:16). The service of hospitality is a key feature of Benedictine spirituality. When Benedictine monasteries consist of monks that are prayerful and cultivate silence, these monasteries can become a spiritual oasis for the faithful. That depends on the personal decision of the monks, however. We must all choose how we will respond to the call of the Christian faith. When we respond with humble silence and holy love, our hearts are set aflame and we can warm the hearts of others. When we allow the noise of the world to come in and to corrupt our souls and make us busybodies, our hearts grow cold and so do those who would seek the warmth of Christ in us.

This post originally appeared on fatherboniface.org

About the author

Paul A. Zalonski is from New Haven, CT, follows the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, and is an Oblate of Saint Benedict, works as a monastery farmer and a keeper of honey bees. Contact Paul at paulzalonski[at]yahoo.com.
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