O Lord, Thou shalt open my lip (XXXVIII)

CHAPTER XXXVIII. Of the Weekly Reader
17 Mar. 17 July. 16 Nov.

Reading must not be wanting while the brethren eat at table; nor let any one who may chance to have taken up the book presume to read, but let him who is to read throughout the week begin upon the Sunday. After Mass and Communion, let him ask all to pray for him, that God may keep from him the spirit of pride. And let this verse be said thrice in the Oratory, he himself beginning it: “O Lord, Thou shalt open my lips, and my mouth shall declare Thy praise.” And so, having received the blessing, let him enter on his reading. The greatest silence must be kept at table, so that no whispering may be heard there, nor any voice except that of him who readeth. And whatever is necessary for food or drink let the brethren so minister to each other, that no one need ask for anything: but should anything be wanted, let it be asked for by a sign rather than by the voice. And let no one presume to put any questions there, either about the reading or about anything else, lest it should give occasion for talking: unless perchance the Superior should wish to say a few words for the edification of the brethren. Let the brother who is reader for the week take a little bread and wine before he begin to read, on account of the Holy Communion, and lest it be hard for him to fast so long. Afterwards let him take his meal with the weekly cooks and other servers. The brethren are not to read or sing according to their order, but such only as may edify the hearers.

Having treated of the sick, the elderly, and the children of the monastery, Saint Benedict returns today to the subject of Chapter XXXV, that is, the common table. The word of Our Lord that underlies Chapter XXXVIII is this: “Man liveth not by bread alone, but by every word of God (Luke 4:4). Monsignor Knox renders it this way: “Man cannot live by bread only; there is life for him in all the words that come from God.” The office of reader, like that of the servers at table, is a sacred function, analogous to the service of the choir and of the altar.

In Saint Benedict’s day public reading required no little skill. The manuscripts lacked punctuation and divisions into paragraphs. Words were abbreviated and often run together. The reader might easily be tempted to think of himself as somehow set above everyone else by reason of his ability to render a text intelligible. Saint Benedict’s chief concern is that the reader be kept from the spirit of pride. What threatens the reader is a kind of intellectual pride. He may begin to think, “I know more and I know better than anyone else how to deliver a text. I alone grasp the meaning of the words that lie in the book open before me. All the others look up to me and depend on me to read for them. Where would they be without me? These rustics are fortunate to have the likes of me among them to raise the intellectual level of the monastery.”

We know how insidious thoughts of pride can be. Saint Gregory relates the episode of the proud young monk called upon to serve his abbot, Saint Benedict, at table, not by reading to him, but by holding a candle for him:

Upon a time, whiles the venerable Father was at supper, one of his monks, who was the son of a great man, held the candle: and as he was standing there, and the other at his meat, he began to entertain a proud cogitation in his mind, and to speak thus within himself: ” Who is he, that I thus wait upon at supper, and hold him the candle? and who am I, that I should do him any such service?” Upon which thought straightaway the holy man turned himself, and with severe reprehension spake thus unto him: “Sign your heart, brother, for what is it that you say? Sign your heart”: and forthwith he called another of the monks, and bade him take the candle out of his hands, and commanded him to give over his waiting, and to repose himself: who being demanded of the monks, what it was that he thought, told them, how inwardly he swelled with pride, and what he spake against the man of God, secretly in his own heart. Then they all saw very well that nothing could be hidden from venerable Benedict, seeing the very sound of men’s inward thoughts came unto his ears. (Saint Gregory, 2nd Book of the Dialogues, Chapter 20)

Saint Benedict, like Our Lord who often read the thoughts of the Scribes and Pharisees, hears the thoughts of the proud young monk as if they were being spoken aloud. Saint Benedict instructs the young monk to exorcise his prideful thoughts by tracing the sign of the Cross over his heart. Thoughts of pride, like all the other evil thoughts that assail a monk, must be dashed down on the Rock who is Christ the instant that they come into the heart.

The Collect by which the reader is blessed on Sunday after Sext expresses well the sentiments that ought to animate him and the graces he needs to carry out his service. The reader needs, first of all, to be delivered from being puffed up and full of himself; he needs also to be delivered from the ignorance that plagues all of Adam’s sons.

Take away from this thy servant, we beseech Thee, O Lord, the spirit of self–exaltation and of ignorance: that filled with the spirit of humility and of knowledge, he may lay hold of the meaning of the sacred reading [that he is about to undertake].

As for the community, they are to keep a reverential silence and listen to the reading with attention, neither interrupting the reading nor asking questions about it. The abbot may, however, offer a word of clarification or comment briefly on what is being read. With his characteristic solicitude, Saint Benedict says that the reader is to take a bit of refreshment lest, while carrying out his service, he become weary and faint. Saint Benedict ends by pointing out that not all are equipped to read or sing. This sort of service should be assigned only to those brethren who are capable of carrying it out in an edifying manner.

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