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Let us then at length arise, since the Scripture stirreth us up, saying: It is time now for us to rise from sleep.” And our eyes being open to the deifying light, let us hear with wondering ears what the Divine Voice admonisheth us, daily crying out: “To-day if ye shall hear His voice, harden not your hearts.” And again, “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the Churches.” And what saith He? “Come, my children, hearken to Me, I will teach you the fear of the Lord. Run while ye have the light of life, lest the darkness of death seize hold of you.”
Saint Benedict presents the conversion to monastic life as a kind of spiritual resurrection. The voice of a night watchman — it is the voice of the Apostle in the Epistle to the Romans — strikes the ears of the man who has allowed the world and its fleeting comforts to lull him into a kind of sleep.
Already it is high time for us to awake out of our sleep; our salvation is closer to us now than when we first learned to believe. The night is far on its course; day draws near. Let us abandon the ways of darkness, and put on the armour of light. Let us pass our time honourably, as by the light of day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in lust and wantonness, not in quarrels and rivalries. Rather, arm yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ; spend no more thought on nature and nature’s appetites. (Romans 13: 11–14)
Saint Benedict’s summons to spiritual resurrection resonates with the daily repetition of Psalm 3 at the beginning of Matins:
But thou, O Lord, art my protector, my glory, and the lifter up of my head. I have cried to the Lord with my voice: and he hath heard me from his holy hill. I have slept and have taken my rest: and I have risen up, because the Lord hath protected me. I will not fear thousands of the people surrounding me: arise, O Lord; save me, O my God. (Psalm 3:4–7)
Saint Benedict speaks of “our eyes being open to the deifying light”. What is this deifying light if not the light of which the Apostle speaks?
God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God, in the face of Christ Jesus. (2 Corinthians 4:6)
Just as Christ woke in the instant of His resurrection to behold the glory of the Father shining over the sepulchre, so too does the monk wake, in the grace of a spiritual resurrection, to behold the glory of God that radiates from the face of Christ. Every monastic conversion (or turning to the monastic way of life) is a response to the experience of being illumined by the light that shines from the face of Christ, even if this experience, being one of faith, is obscure. The Apostle describes it:
At present, we are looking at a confused reflection in a mirror; then, we shall see face to face; now, I have only glimpses of knowledge; then, I shall recognize God as he has recognized me.(1 Corinthians 13:12)
Saint Benedict evokes the Invitatory Psalm of Matins. “To day if you shall hear his voice, harden not your hearts” (Psalm 94:8). Not only does the man newly come to be a monk wake to the light that shines from the face of Christ; he wakes also to the sound of His voice. Thus both seeing and hearing stir a man from sleep and summon him to rise to greet the day. God refuses neither the light of His face nor the sound of His voice to one who seeks Him. The experience may be obscure but it is nonetheless real. Even the smallest stirring on our part causes God to give a corresponding grace. In this way, one’s monastic journey is a progress in grace, marked by little steps forward, not unlike the conversion of Blessed John Henry Newman:
Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home —
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene, — one step enough for me.
In quoting Psalm 33:12, Saint Benedict repeats his invitation to hearken, and so returns to the first word of the Prologue, Obsculta: “Come, children, hearken to me: I will teach you the fear of the Lord”. The monk is a man who never stops listening: this is the whole reason for the silence that he chooses. The ear of his heart is open at every moment and in all circumstances to receive the Word of God and to obey it. The time of this life is, nonetheless, measured and limited.
What is our span of days? Seventy years it lasts, eighty years, if lusty folk we be; for the more part, toil and frustration; years that vanish in a moment, and we are gone. (Psalm 89:10)
Obedience to the word of God brooks no delay. Saint Athanasius recounts in his Life of Saint Antony that no sooner had the father of monks hear the Gospel sung in church than he sprang into action, eager to put into action the invitation of Our Lord. In Chapter V, Saint Benedict will tell us that “the first degree of humility is obedience without delay”. The man setting out on a long journey avails himself of the hours of daylight lest the darkness overtake him and he lose his way. Thus does Saint Benedict conclude this passage with the words of Our Lord in the Fourth Gospel:
Walk whilst you have the light, that the darkness overtake you not. And he that walketh in darkness, knoweth not whither be goeth. (John 12:35)