One of the documents of western Christian history that has had a significant role is the early medieval monastic Rule from St. Benedict. This Rule was written in the early third of the 6th century. It was the cornerstone of the most important and populous monastic group, the Benedictine monks. This monastic group has endured more than sixteen centuries! One can still find and visit Benedictine monasteries across this country and abroad.
But Benedict’s Rule never had the narrow role of guiding the life of a group of monks. The Rule played a larger role in the life of the Church and, in some ways, the life of various universities through the ages. The Benedictines always have played a central educational role. Hence countless students---religious and non-religious alike---have been exposed to the spirit of Benedict’s Rule. Indeed much of the Rule is a simple guide for Christian or, perhaps even, spiritual living.
Of course, the Rule presupposed there is a God. The Rule assumes God has a particular will or desire for each of us and that we can know the will of God. The Rule expects that we would want to obey the will of God, if we knew what that will is. And because Benedict wrote the Rule to govern the life of a community of men and/or women, Benedict assumed that God had a will and desire for the whole community, too. That does not seem much different than God having a desire for a particular congregation or other spiritual community.
I continue to be amazed at the relevance, the simplicity, and the moderation of this relatively short document. The language is simple and direct. You do not have to have a Ph.D. to understand it and know how to apply it to your life. In many ways I get a sense of “you can do this” when you read it. Of course, it needs to be said, Benedict was writing it for a particular kind of audience. His audience was a group of believers; they were ready to hear what he had to say.
An example of the Rule comes with the very first sentence of the document. Benedict says, “Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart.” I always have to smile when I read these opening words. They offer good advice even for today: Listen! We live in a world full of words. Words babble to us from countless media sources. Indeed, we are purveyors of words. We use words so loosely, the words sometimes cease to have any meaning.
Benedict wants to direct his readers to a particular source of some words. He tells the reader to listen to the mater’s instructions. I am confidant Benedict is not telling the reader to listen to Jesus, although that is not a bad idea. Instead Benedict is telling the reader to listen to his leader’s instructions---advice, if you will. At an early point, the leader would be known as an abbot. But the master can be anyone who has matured, acquired wisdom and can guide spiritual rookies.
Then comes my favorite aspect of this first sentence. Benedict uses an interesting metaphor. He tells us to attend to the master’s instruction by listening “with the ear of your heart.” That phrase---the ear of your heart---resonates deeply with me. Of course, it is metaphor. My heart does not literally have an ear! But Benedict knows what he wants from this metaphor.
The “heart” is a core spiritual idea meaning the person himself or herself. My “heart” is the real me---the deep, original self. We get close to its meaning when we use the phrase, “heart and soul.” And Benedict knew that God has created each of us for special graces and roles in life. We need to be instructed to know and, then, to do what is set out for us to do. We really need to listen. This is so counter-cultural. Our culture assumes we all want to talk, to share, to compare. Benedict says to listen.
The two ears hooked on to our head tend to feed our heads and, often, our egos. That is why the heart needs its own “ear.” All of our hearts have an ear to hear spiritually. Benedict wants us to find and to use that ear of our heart. Let me identify two or three ways to find and to use that heart’s ear.
A couple of the classic ways to find the ear is prayer and meditation. Done rightly, both of these take us out of the driver’s seat of life and put us in a place to listen. Don’t talk; listen. Listen carefully! We don’t need commentary; listening leads to obedience. So spend a little time in prayer or some meditation. Another form of listening is spiritual friendship. Connect and spend some time with another person who has some experience and wisdom. Be open and listen.
I have found and continue to find Benedict’s Rule to be life giving. Often I do not have to read any further than the first sentence. I need to be reminded to spend some time listening with the ear of my heart. It is simple, but unless I do it, I am like a spiritually deaf man!