Thus grace and divine love intervene as we advance in the monastic life, and lessen the initial impression of severity. The observance still remains objectively what it is, but the heart within is changed. In other words, Benedict relativized the concept of ‘narrow way’, drawing attention to the subjectivity of the man who follows it. The opposition between the ‘narrow way’ and the ‘sweet yoke’ is not suppressed for all that, but this way of interiorizing the problem makes it lose its sharpness. ‘Narrowness’ and ‘breadth’, difficulty and ease are measured less by the objective tenor of the ascesis imposed than by the inmost dispositions of the ascetic. These latter improve with time and by virtue of the ascesis itself, until one experiences something more than the ‘easiness’ and the ‘lightness’ announced by Jesus, namely a ‘sweetness’ that cannot be expressed because it proceeds from ‘love’.

Adalbert de Vogüé. The Rule of Saint Benedict. A Doctrinal and Spiritual Commentary. Kalamazoo, Michigan; Cistercian Publications, 1983. 32.

Having considered the background that the Rule of the Master provides to our understanding of Saint Benedict, and especially his understanding of the monastery as “school of the Lord’s service” Father de Vogüé now turns to Saint Benedict himself. He points out that the Master’s understanding of a school, both in the sense of learning and in the sense of service and suffering, are present in the Rule of Saint Benedict, and especially in his understanding of obedience. However, he also introduces a new note.

But it is especially in his final addition that he seems to have been preoccupied with this painful aspect of the ‘school of the Lord’s service’. He was invited to it by the Master’s austere conclusion: ‘to persevere until death … to share in the passion of Christ by patience’. This perspective of endless suffering here below visibly disturbed Benedict. By his addition he introduced into it a series of comforting touches, the chief of which is the promise of the expansion of the heart through love, and a sweet running in the way of God’s commandments once the initial tightness of the narrow way has been passed. The monk’s earthly life therefore is not a continual agony. Before the heavenly kingdom, it knows a certain happiness which Benedict even qualifies as ‘ineffable’.

Optimism, care to encourage the weak, interest in spiritual progress here below, an augustinian sense of the role of love in this progress, – many aspects deserve being picked out of this remarkable passage. But especially should be measure its impact on the notion of ‘the school of the Lord’s service’. Indeed, the only purpose of these lines is to brighten the sombre atmosphere in which the Master wrapped his scola. (30)

By declaring his intention to establish nothing harsh or burdensome, Saint Benedict alludes to the Gospel logion of Matthew 11:28-30 which the Master had used in his parable of the spring, but gives it a different interpretation by identifying heaviness not with sin but rather with the weight of observances. However, this does not mean that the Rule should not be demanding and so he introduces the image of the narrow way (Mt 7). Father de Vogüé suggests that Saint Benedict is playing with images here and that his purpose is to show that the way of salvation is only narrow at the beginning and becomes lighter as the heart enlarges and love takes over. Thus Benedict shifts the focus from the difficulty of the way to the transformation of the one who follows it.

This whole note therefore is an amendment to the sombre project of the scola laid down by the Master. The ‘Lord’s service’ will not be uniformly hard and painful. It will include restrictions, to be sure, but love will transform them into sweetness. And Christ does not reserve consolations for us only in his kingdom; even now he is for us both a lovable master and a companion in suffering.  (33)

Advertisements