What Are the Instruments of Good Works (IV:III)

20 Jan. 21 May. 20 Sept.
44. To fear the Day of Judgment.
45. To be in dread of hell.
46. To desire with a special longing everlasting life.
47. To keep death daily before one’s eyes.
48. To keep guard at all times over the actions of one’s life.
49. To know for certain that God sees one everywhere.
50. To dash down on the (Rock) Christ one’s evil thoughts, the instant that they come into the heart.
51. And to lay them open to one’s spiritual father.
52. To keep one’s mouth from evil and wicked words.
53. Not to love much speaking.
54. Not to speak vain words or such as move to laughter.
55. Not to love much or excessive laughter.
56. To listen willingly to holy reading.
57. To apply oneself frequently to prayer.
58. Daily to confess one’s past sins with tears and sighs to God, and to amend them for the time to come.
59. Not to fulfil the desires of the flesh: to hate one’s own will.
60. To obey in all things the commands of the Abbot, even though he himself (which God forbid) should act otherwise: being mindful of that precept of the Lord: “What they say, do ye; but what they do, do ye not.”
61. Not to wish to be called holy before one is so: but first to be holy, that one may be truly so called.

So often as we come to Chapter IV in our reading of the Holy Rule, it strikes me that every one of the instruments of good works merits a special commentary. Perhaps one day I shall have time to write something along these lines. In waiting, however, I am obliged to choose from among the array of instruments, or tools, that Saint Benedict sets before us. Today, the 56th and 57th instruments hold my attention: (56) To listen willingly to holy reading; and (57) To apply oneself frequently to prayer. These two instruments go together; they are, in fact, two moments of a single operation: Lectiones sanctas libenter audire; Orationi frequenter incumbere.

Saint Benedict’s monks did not, ordinarily, have the privilege of having, each one, a book to himself, except during Lent, which season is marked by the distribution of books as set forth in Chapter XLIX:

And in these days of Lent let each one receive a book from the library, and read it all through in order. These books are to be given out at the beginning of Lent. Above all, let one or two seniors be appointed to go round the Monastery, at the hours when the brethren are engaged in reading, and see that there be no slothful brother giving himself to idleness or to foolish talk, and not applying himself to his reading, so that he is thus not only useless to himself, but a distraction to others.

As a rule, Saint Benedict’s monks listened to holy reading. Saint Benedict would have his monks listen to holy reading libenter, that is willingly, gladly, eagerly. Public reading was considered a special skill and an art. It was the practice to have certain monks, chosen for the task by reason of their agreeable voice and gift of elocution, to read while all listened attentively, and in a perfect silence. Saint Benedict makes a point of saying that, “the brethren are not to read or sing according to their order, but such only as may edify the hearers” (Chapter XXXVIII). In this matter, as in all things, Saint Benedict recognises a diversity of gifts within the monastic family. Fratres autem non per ordinem legant aut cantent, sed qui aedificant audientes. There are in every monastery the legentes (readers), the cantantes (chanters), and the audientes (listeners).

Now there are diversities of graces, but the same Spirit; And there are diversities of ministries, but the same Lord; And there are diversities of operations, but the same God, who worketh all in all. And the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man unto profit. (1 Corinthians 12:4–7)

The monk who reads for his brethren enlightens them and builds them up. The monk who chants for his brethren gladdens their hearts and confers beauty on the divine service. The monk who listens for his brethren becomes a storehouse of wisdom, a receptacle of the Word, a living memory. Cassian says:

Sometimes a verse of any one of the Psalms gives us an occasion of ardent prayer while we are singing. Sometimes the harmonious modulation of a brother’s voice stirs up the minds of dullards to intense supplication. We know also that the enunciation and the reverence of the chanter adds greatly to the fervour of those who stand by. (Conference IX, Ch. 26)

It us a pity that today, and this more and more, reading has become a private activity rather than a corporate one. Each man tends to read for himself. Apart from the proliferation of printed books, there is the laptop computer, the notepad, the Kindle, and the Smartphone. All of these electronic devices represent a real danger of self–isolation and, in the end, of dehumanisation. The abbot must be extremely vigilant lest a worldly technological individualism supplant the ancient traditions of corporate reading and listening.  It is necessary that we, in the monastery, keep alive the tradition not only of individual reading from books, but also of corporate listening while one reads for all. We do this, first of all in the Divine Office, then in Chapter, in the refectory, and in the reading prescribed for the end of the day, just before Compline.

Therefore, on all days, whether of fasting or otherwise, let them sit down all together as soon as they have risen from supper (if it be not a fast-day) and let one of them read the Conferences [of Cassian], or the lives of the Fathers, or some thing else which may edify the hearers. Not, however, Heptateuch, nor the Books of Kings for it will not profit those of weak understanding to hear those parts of Scripture at that hour *: they may, however, be read at other times. If it be a fast-day, then a short time after Vespers let them assemble for the reading of the Conferences, as we have said; four or five pages being read, or as much as time alloweth, so that during the reading all may gather together, even those who may have been occupied in some work enjoined them. (Chapter XLII)

This being said, there is also a place, and a very large place in Benedictine life, for solitary reading. Already Saint Benedict recognised this, because he says in Chapter XLVIII, “And when they rise from table, after the sixth hour, let them rest on their beds in perfect silence; or if any one perchance desire to read, let him do so in such a way as not to disturb any one else”. Our Statutes address this kind of reading:

The monks will not begin reading or studying without first kneeling to invoke the Holy Ghost and the Blessed Virgin Mary. If the text to be read is Sacred Scripture, they will kiss the page and remain kneeling until they have read the first few verses of the text. (Statutes, 120a)

If prayer is, as Cassian tells us, a fire in the heart, reading provides fuel for the blaze. The monk who stops reading will soon stop praying, and the monk who stops praying will soon give up reading or, as the case may be, even listening attentively to reading.

Saint Benedict would have his monks “fall frequently to prayer”. Orationi frequenter incumbere. This is but the application of what Our Lord says in the Gospel: “And he told them a parable, shewing them that they ought to pray continually, and never be discouraged.” (Luke 18:1); and of what the Apostle teaches: “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Over time, a monk begins not only to “fall frequently to prayer”; he begins to pray always, with every breath that he draws and with every heartbeat. This is the way of life to which we aspire: perpetual adoration. The monk who prays always, will live at every moment in the presence of God; and the monk who lives at every moment in the presence of God, will adore always, for a man cannot be aware of the presence of God without adoring Him.

This was the experience of Jacob. After having fallen asleep, Jacob dreamed, and he saw the Lord leaning upon a ladder in heaven. The Lord said to Jacob: “I will be thy keeper whithersoever thou goest, and will bring thee back into this land: neither will I leave thee, till I shall have accomplished all that I have said.” At this point, having heard the voice of the Lord (as we do in reading), Jacob woke up:

And when Jacob awaked out of sleep, he said: Indeed the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not. And trembling he said: How terrible is this place! this is no other but the house of God, and the gate of heaven. (Genesis 28:16–17)
After this experience, Jacob began, I think, to live always in the presence of God and, living always in the presence of God, he could not but adore God at every moment. This is the monastic journey: a waking to the presence of God, more often than not through reading, and the beginning, here below, in frequent prayer, of the perpetual adoration that is the life of the blessed in heaven.