Beginning Afresh

Fra+Angelico+Annunciation

Benedictines Always Beginning Again
We began today, once again, the reading of the Holy Rule from the beginning. In Benedictine life, we are always beginning again. This is, I think, one of the characteristic graces of Benedictine life: a supernatural optimism, born of confidence in the all–sufficient grace of Jesus Christ. He speaks to each one, saying, “My grace is sufficient for thee; for power is made perfect in infirmity” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Hearing this word of Christ and taking it to heart, one will always have the grace to begin afresh. For one who relies on Christ, there is an inexhaustible spring of hope. It is this that allows one to begin again, and again, and again.

Hearken, O my son, to the precepts of thy Master, and incline the ear of thine heart; willingly receive and faithfully fulfil the admonition of thy loving Father, that thou mayest return by the labour of obedience to Him from Whom thou hadst departed through the sloth of disobedience. To thee, therefore, my words are now addressed, whoever thou art that, renouncing thine own will, dost take up the strong and bright weapons of obedience, in order to fight for the Lord Christ, our true king. In the first place, whatever good work thou beginnest to do, beg of Him with most earnest prayer to perfect; that He Who hath now vouchsafed to count us in the number of His children may not at any time be grieved by our evil deeds. For we must always so serve Him with the good things He hath given us, that not only may He never, as an angry father, disinherit his children, but may never, as a dreadful Lord, incensed by our sins, deliver us to everlasting punishment, as most wicked servants who would not follow Him to glory. (Prologue of the Holy Rule)

The Loveliest Month of the Year
I have always felt it entirely suitable that we should begin a new reading of the Holy Rule at the very beginning of the month of May, “the loveliest month of the year”. Francis Duggan describes May in Ireland:

The countryside has never looked so green
And spring has reached her prime in the northern hemisphere
And the wild birds sing from dawn till dark of day
In May the loveliest month of all the year.

Our Lady in the Rule of Saint Benedict
One cannot listen to the reading of the Prologue of the Holy Rule on this second day of May, without relating it to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Some would argue that, because the Blessed Virgin Mary is nowhere mentioned in the Rule of Saint Benedict, one should not read her into it. I, on the other hand, would argue that Our Lady has left the fragrance that is unmistakably hers on every page of the Holy Rule, from the first to the last. What Gerard Manley Hopkins writes in his poem, The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe, is perfectly applicable to the Rule of Saint Benedict. Monks are meant to share Mary’s life as life does air.

I say that we are wound
With mercy round and round
As if with air: the same
Is Mary, more by name.
She, wild web, wondrous robe,
Mantles the guilty globe,
Since God has let dispense
Her prayers his providence:
Nay, more than almoner,
The sweet alms’ self is her
And men are meant to share
Her life as life does air.

The Prologue of the Holy Rule begins on a distinctively Marian note: “Hearken, O my son, to the precepts of thy Master, and incline the ear of thine heart”. Behind Saint Benedict’s text, the liturgical ear hears that verse of Psalm 44 that the Church delights in applying to Our Lady:

Hearken, O daughter, and see, and incline thy ear: and forget thy people and thy father’ s house. And the king shall greatly desire thy beauty. (Psalm 44:11–12)

Fra_Angelico_-_Annunciation_(Cell_3)_-_WGA00538The Soul of the Prologue
The best commentary in the world on the beginning of the Prologue of the Holy Rule was written not by a Benedictine, but by a Dominican, a Friar Preacher. One, who would grasp from the heart what Saint Benedict is saying, need only tarry before Blessed Angelico’s depictions of the Annunciation. (I think that a pilgrimage to San Marco in Florence is a most desirable part of the complete Benedictine’s education.) There one will find the soul of the Prologue of the Holy Rule.

The Archangel Gabriel bears the Word from on high. The very Word of whom Saint Thomas sings in his hymn for Lauds of the Office of Corpus Domini.

The Heavenly Word proceeding forth,
yet not leaving the Father’s side,
went forth upon His work on earth
and reached at length life’s eventide.

Maria, Regula Monachorum
The Word arrives in silence. “For while all things were in quiet silence, and the night was in the midst of her course, Thy almighty word leapt down from heaven from thy royal throne” (Wisdom 18:14–15). Look at the Archangel; his whole being expresses silence before the mystery of the Word he has been charged to announce. And here, in this painting, Our Lady is, in her whole person, the icon of the monk such as Saint Benedict would have him be: Maria, regula monachorum. Our Lady is inclining the ear of her heart; she is leaning forward so as to receive the Word. In one hand, the Virgin holds the book of the Sacred Scriptures, marking with her thumb the place where Isaias prophecies: “Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel” (Isaias 7:14). She passes from the word to the Word. In this moment, Mary consents to forsake all things for the sake of the Word, and in this moment, God “greatly desires her beauty” (Psalm 44:12).

The rest of the Holy Rule develops out of this kernel. All 73 chapters are mysteriously contained in the first verse of the Prologue. For one with eyes to see, and with ears to hear, the Rule of Saint Benedict fulfils the yearning of the Bridegroom in the Song of Songs: “Shew me thy face, let thy voice sound in my ears: for thy voice is sweet, and thy face comely” (Canticle 2:14). Maria, regula monachorum; Mary is the pattern of monks.

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