With eyes open to the deifying light (Prologue 2)

PROLOGUE OF OUR MOST HOLY FATHER SAINT BENEDICT TO HIS RULE
2 Jan. 3 May. 2 Sept.

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.”

Our Father Saint Benedict speaks to us today of rising from sleep, and of being stirred by the words of the Apostle:”It is time now for us to rise from sleep” (Romans 13:11). We are familiar with the passage that Saint Benedict quotes; it is the very passage that worked in Saint Augustine to bring about the grace of his conversion:

It is now the hour for us to rise from sleep. For now our salvation is nearer than when we believed. The night is passed, and the day is at hand. Let us, therefore cast off the works of darkness, and put on the armour of light. Let us walk honestly, as in the day: not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities, not in contention and envy: But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh in its concupiscences. (Romans 13:11–14)

How is it, you may ask, that a single sentence from Sacred Scripture can bring about a spiritual awakening and the conversion of a man’s whole way of life? Unlike a merely human word that expresses a notion, a desire, or a thought, the Word of God does what it signifies.

The word of God is living and effectual, and more piercing than any two edged sword; and reaching unto the division of the soul and the spirit, of the joints also and the marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)

Did not the Angel say to the Blessed Virgin Mary, “No word shall be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). And what did Our Lady respond to the Angel? “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38). And again, what did the shepherds of Bethlehem say to one another after the announcement made to them by the Angels? “Let us go over to Bethlehem, and let us see this word that is come to pass, which the Lord hath shewed to us” (Luke 2:15). And finally, there is the prayer of the Centurion, repeated every day before Holy Communion: “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldst enter under my roof: but only say the word, and my servant shall be healed” (Matthew 8:8).

When a man receives the word of God with expectant faith, trusting God to do in him what the word signifies, the sick are made whole, the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, and new life is restored to the dead. It is no wonder then that the conversion of Saint Augustine was worked by the word of God.

Imitating Saint Antony of Egypt, whose life he had read, Saint Augustine took up the book and read the passage on which his eyes first fell. Saint Augustine uses an evocative sequence of verbs to describe what happened in that moment: Arripui, aperui et legi in silentio capitulum, quo primum coniecti sunt oculi mei. “I laid hold, I opened, and I read in silence that chapter on which my eyes first fell.” So memorable is this page from The Confessions, that it merits being read again and again:

I was saying these things and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when, lo, I heard the voice as of a boy or girl, I know not which, coming from a neighbouring house, chanting, and oft repeating, Take up and read; take up and read. Immediately my countenance was changed, and I began most earnestly to consider whether it was usual for children in any kind of game to sing such words; nor could I remember ever to have heard the like. So, restraining the torrent of my tears, I rose up, interpreting it no other way than as a command to me from Heaven to open the book, and to read the first chapter I should light upon. For I had heard of Antony, that, accidentally coming in while the gospel was being read, he received the admonition as if what was read were addressed to him, Go and sell that you have, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me. Matthew 19:2l And by such oracle was he immediately converted unto You. So quickly I returned to the place where Alypius was sitting; for there had I put down the volume of the apostles, when I rose thence. I grasped, opened, and in silence read that paragraph on which my eyes first fell —Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof. No further would I read, nor did I need; for instantly, as the sentence ended — by a light, as it were, of security infused into my heart — all the gloom of doubt vanished away. (The Confessions, Book VIII, Chapter 12)

Saint Benedict speaks first of “our eyes being open to the deifying light” and, only then, of our hearing “with wondering ears” what the Divine Voice has to say. It is almost as if our Father Saint Benedict is saying that the man who has closed eyes will also have blocked ears. The lumen deificum is the light of faith. It is the light of which Saint Peter speaks when he says:

But you are a chosen generation, a kingly priesthood, a holy nation, a purchased people: that you may declare his virtues, who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:9)

Just as the natural light of the sun gives sight to the man who opens his eyes, so does the the lumen deificum that shines from the Face of Christ give sight to the man who opens his heart to grace.

For 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)

Saint Benedict would have his monk live with open eyes and open ears, with his spiritual receptors in ready for every divine utterance. It would seem that, even after receiving his sight from Jesus, the man born blind was disoriented until Jesus found him and revealed to him the light of His Face.

Jesus heard that they had cast him out: and when he had found him, he said to him: Dost thou believe in the Son of God? He answered, and said: Who is he, Lord, that I may believe in him? And Jesus said to him: Thou hast both seen him; and it is he that talketh with thee. And he said: I believe, Lord. And falling down, he adored him. (John 9:25–38)

At the beginning of the monastic journey, it may happen that one’s sight is clouded and one’s hearing still partially blocked. This may be the result of self-sufficiency. Young men may be excessively reliant on the perceptions of their intelligence or may be in the grip of intellectual curiosity. Some young men are enamoured of the theory of monastic life; they try too hard to be monks in the heads before submitting to the humble work by which one becomes a monk in one’s heart. For this there is but one remedy: humility and time.

After a few years or even after a few decades in the cloister, a brother may lose the clarity of vision and ability to listen to God that he enjoyed at the beginning of his conversion. This may be linked to that classic malady of monks: acedia: a mixture of weariness, jadedness, and indifference to the things of God. One of the signs of creeping acedia is routine. When a monk begins to function on “automatic pilot” he is in danger of going through the motions of the monastic observances with his eyes closed to the light and his ears closed to the still, small voice of God. For acedia too, there is but one remedy: a humility that expresses itself in patient waiting upon God and the ceaseless prayer of the heart: the prayer of Bartimaeus, “Jesus son of David, have mercy on me” (Mark 10:47), or that of the publican in the temple, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13).

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