Retreat 2017: Fr Gabriel Everitt
'Prayer in the
Rule of St Benedict'
Talk 3: Let them learn some of the Psalter (see ch 8)
People who take up the Rule of St Benedict, being told that it is a great classic of western civilisation and spirituality, are sometimes rather disappointed. I think myself that this is an understandable reaction for at least two reasons, firstly because much of it is very deliberately a down to earth and practical rule book, which does not look as though it is going to set the modern human spirit on fire with divine love as it desires to be. And secondly because it does not seem to teach a way of prayer, which will take the practitioner soaring to the mystic heights and to union with God.
There is evidence to suggest that St Benedict himself made thought through and deliberate decisions that his Rule should not be a spiritual classic of these types. It seems, moreover, that we should take St Benedict at his word, when he writes in chapter 73, his final chapter, that he has compiled it as a ‘little rule for beginners’ and that ‘for anyone hastening on to the perfection of monastic life, there are the teachings of the holy Fathers’. He refers to Scripture, explicitly to St Basil the Great and implicitly to John Cassian. It looks therefore as though St Benedict is saying that his Rule gets you started but for exalted and traditional ways of prayer, that will take you to the heights, look elsewhere, and especially to the Institutes and Conferences of Cassian.
However – and maybe you were sensing that a ‘but’ was coming. History is a great school of irony. And oftentimes one sees that things turn out differently from the way they are intended: this is caught in the proverb that ‘Man proposes but God disposes’ and also that very big historical developments can take place apparently unintentionally.
In fact I think there is a way of prayer in the Rule of St Benedict, but that rather than being written into the Rule as a deliberate and self-conscious ‘way of prayer’, rather it grows out of the Rule, as practice and repeated action shape behaviour. As many of you will realise I am talking about ‘lectio divina’, about which there are a good number of contemporary books in the spirituality sections of libraries and bookshops. I am not setting about adding to their number in this short talk, but I want to trace the way I think it grows out of the Rule and what thereby we can learn about its nature.
St Benedict has some big spiritual chapters in the early part of the Rule, on the Tools for Good Works, on Obedience, on Silence and especially on Humility. But then from chapters 8 to 20 there are a series of very practical regulations for the prayer life of his monastery, culminating as I have noted in an earlier talk, in chapters on the way of reciting the psalms and on reverence in prayer. In chapter 8, the very first chapter of this liturgical code, St Benedict talks about the night office and I have referred to this previously too, in referring to the night stairs, which became worn over the centuries, as monks descended from the dormitory to Church shortly after midnight for the vigil prayer of the night office. This night office lasted probably between one and two hours. The next office of prayer would be Lauds, which St Benedict was very insistent should take place as dawn was breaking. So between Vigils and Lauds there was a gap and in the winter months this could be quite a long gap. What were the monks to do in this time? In chapter 8 St Benedict says this ‘In the time remaining after Vigils, those who need to learn some of the psalter or readings should study them’.
There you have it. Monks should learn psalms and readings, passages from Scripture and the Fathers of the Church. There you have something very practical, which may sound rather boring, a schoolroom task. It may not seem in the least bit inspiring. I do not think or suggest for a moment that St Benedict invented this approach to the Scripture, nor that he was necessarily the first to begin to reap its fruits. But its presence at this point in his Rule, which then by providence we may say became the established Rule which guided the lives and practice of thousands of monks and nuns for centuries to come, became a fruitful practice.
Just as I have conjured up the image of the night stairs, by which monks descended to the Church to pray, a symbol of the repetition of liturgical prayer, so now I am conjuring up an image of generations of monks in the cloisters, in the nooks and the crannies of their monasteries and choirs, alone or maybe in groups (since copies of the Scriptures may have been hard to come by) muttering over the words of the psalms and the readings, as often enough quite painfully and slowly, they committed them to memory. The slowness and the repetition of the work, its necessary patience, is its point. It was not in itself an arcane or complicated process. It was just learning by heart.
For them, as for example for the Desert Fathers before them, the practice had an effect, almost certainly not self-conscious or deliberate. It was at a deeper level than the conscious. Reading became meditation (in the sense of murmuring, repeating, learning, chewing over) became prayer became contemplation: these are the traditional stages of lectio divina: lectio, meditatio, oratio, contemplatio. It was perhaps a bit too simple and apparently undramatic for later ages, who sought to make it more deliberate and conscious and to systematise it more, but the practice had an effect, which was to shape a culture.
There is a remarkable book about this effect, which not unlike the Rule does not necessarily look on the surface very promising or appetizing, by a 20th century Benedictine monk, Jean Leclercq called The Love of Learning and the Desire for God. It is a classic now. Leclercq writes of this: ‘The foundation of monastic life is in lectio and meditatio, in reading out loud and learning by heart. For the ancients to meditate is to read a text and to learn it by heart in the fullest sense of this expression, that is, with one’s whole being, with the body, since the mouth pronounced it, with the memory which fixes it, with the intelligence which understands its meaning, and with the will which desires to put it into practice.’ So Leclercq and then a second quite long quotation, also from him: ‘Monastic reading is a murmur and a rumination. Memorization means that meditation often takes very digressive paths, which introduces whole new themes in a way most confusing to logical order. This exuberant approach often takes medieval sermons (those of Augustine, also those of Bernard on the Song of Songs for example) in very varied directions and winding paths. Words take essentially biblical meanings: a good example is ‘fear of God’: in OT, NT, patristics, St Benedict and monastic writers it is not fright or terror; it is rather reverence or respect and in fact closer to love. Memorisation meant that many of the monks became a sort of living concordance.’
Leclercq traces the influence of this practice, this muttering in the monastic cloisters, on many of the key writers of the Middle Ages, up to the 12th century. My third and final quotation from him concerns the influence of the practice on one of the earliest and most important, Pope St Gregory the Great in the late 6th century: ‘[Gregory] has an immense influence on the contemplative theology of the Benedictine centuries and beyond; his writings while extensively unsystematic, have an experiential base, an understanding of human weakness and sin producing an immense and ardent longing for God. For Gregory God uses compunction in its two aspects, sorrow for sin attacking our pride and desire for God, to draw us to himself. An inner song, a slight murmur, a silent word – Gregory loves this poetic vocabulary, this paradoxical language, so suitable for expressing the realities of the mystical life.’
Now you may think that I am trying to express things rather grandly; to use the sort of rhetoric, albeit good and thought provoking passages, which I began by noting that St Benedict turned away from. You may also think I am speaking about something which is experienced only by a very few chosen people, specialists and professionals. If you think this you are misunderstanding me. Let me recall the origin of the practice: it is Everymonk in the cloister, Everyman, every person pouring over pondering the passages of the Gospels and of the Bible. I do not of course mean to suggest that we try to learn the Bible by heart. In Benedict’s day and for centuries afterwards they had to have very powerful memories. For us, however, it is different; we have easy access to Bibles and to printed word, and made easier in our generation by electronic means. But the ‘trick’ of the practice, if the phrase be allowed, is in slowing down. To read the passage slowly and repeatedly, to ponder over it. The experience can then me that one can read a passage, say of the Gospels three times or five times or ten days and, almost miraculously, it can still be yielding hidden depths and new thoughts relevant to one’s own life and particular situation and needs. Importantly it is not just a preparation for prayer, it is already prayer itself.
It is a great providence that we have been given a worked example of this practice in the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). Two disciples after the crucifixion are walking away from Jerusalem, very disconsolate. The risen Jesus comes and starts walking with them, but mysteriously their eyes are kept from recognising him. Often in our prayer Jesus will be an unfelt and unsensed presence. We will not immediately recognise him. They tell him their woes. He is quite rough with them (lectio can have a puncturing effect on us) ‘You foolish men .. so slow to believe’ (verse 25). Then – this is a key point – we are told that Jesus ‘starting with Moses and going through all the prophets .. explained to them the passages throughout the Scriptures which were about himself’. Remember the monks of old became ‘living concordances’, that is they could cross reference key words from their memories. We can ‘scrutinise’ in our lectio divina, alone or as on the Emmaus walk in a group, using our modern Bibles with the accompanying notes to deepen our understanding and to follow God’s Word through the paths it is taking us. Then there is a punchline. Afterwards, after they have recognised Jesus in the breaking of the bread and he has vanished from the sight, they remember their lectio and they say ‘Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road and explained the scriptures to us?’ (verse 32) Jesus may be a presence unseen, unfelt, but we may find still that our hearts have ‘burned within us’.
So to recap. I am suggesting that the patient, hardworking, even rather boring work of lectio, which grows out of a very practical passage about the timetable in the Rule and which he envisaged as being undertaken by all the monks in his monastery – that is pretty ordinary Christians in St Benedict’s terms, has a slow effect over time of activating a deep hearing of the Word of God. This will be notwithstanding that we will likely experience along the way the distraction, dryness and discouragement I mentioned in the first talk. This too will require a determination to persevere.
To use another image, in lectio divina we allow ourselves to be shaped by the Word of God and that Word knocks chunks out of us by its slow but inexorable process. It hollows out spaces, which in his due time God will fill. There is a story of Abba Poemen in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers that he said: ‘The nature of water is soft, that of stone is hard; but if a bottle is hung above the stone, allowing the water to fall drip by drip, it wears away the stone. So it is with the Word of God; it is soft and our heart is hard, but the [one] who hears the Word of God often, opens his heart to the fear of God.’ Remember as mentioned above regarding Gregory the Great, the fear of God is his love. Bishop (previously Abbot) Hugh Gilbert in a most fascinating and thought provoking reflection on the Rule of St Benedict entitled The Tale of Quiquis writes this: ‘In all the great stories of prayer from the Desert Fathers and others after we meet people who have become prayer. And when we turn to our old, sick monks, who sometimes no longer seem to pray at all, we perhaps see what these rather ‘glorious’ passages really mean, in the humility of the flesh and the poverty of the spirit. The old, more than any other, are in that privileged place between the cloud of forgetting and the cloud of unknowing. They are simply waiting. They are simply an emptiness waiting to be filled, a ‘lowly body’ waiting to be ‘changed’ (Philippians 3:21).’ I think this is a very powerful statement not so much about the beginning as about the consummation of the spiritual life as we live it here on earth. We become an emptiness waiting to be filled.
‘Waiting’ is indeed the Holy Saturday word, which has echoed through the liturgy of today. Bishop Hugh’s reference to the old and sick makes one think of the nursing homes of our day, of those suffering from dementia, apparently in a waiting room, sitting in great emptiness. Hard though it may be to see and feel, God seems to mean something by this, for us (it may be relatives and friends) and for them (and indeed one day it may be for us).
We need perseverance, patience in the emptiness of Holy Saturday, and maybe not to expect too much, certainly not to expect too much of ourselves. We bring our emptiness, not our fullness; the fullness is of God. Smaragdus was a monk in the era of Charlemagne, and the author of perhaps the first commentary on the Rule of St Benedict. His name perhaps make him sound like a villain in a Tolkein novel, but do not be put off. In a series of meditations entitled The Crown of Monks he talks of the slowness of monks, following a thought of St Gregory the Great: ‘Sometimes monks do not arrive at contemplating what they desire, so that their slowness meantime may serve to expand their capacity for what they desire … it is nursed in the bosom of their slowness only in order to grow’. Then later: ‘If you wish to set out for a distant region, you will not be able to run the whole journey in the space of one hour; but step by step and day by day you complete each stage, and after much time and labour you will reach the homeland you desire’. You will reach it. Remember monks here does not mean ‘special people’ it means ‘ordinary Christians’. You will reach it – but step by step, day by day.