Tuesday, February 16, 2010
Obsculta, o filii, praecepta magistri, et inclina aurem cordis tuis et admonitionem pii patris libenter excipe et efficaciter comple; ut ad eum per obedientiae laborem redeas, a quo per inobedientiae desidiam recesseras. (Listen, my son, to the precepts of the Master, and incline the ear of your heart, and willingly receive and faithfully fulfill the admonition of your loving father; that you may return by the labor of obedience to him from whom, through laziness and disobedience, you had departed.)-Prologue to the Rule of St. Benedict
"Listen!" This is the first word of the Rule, the word St. Benedict uses to awaken the heart from spiritual lethargy. He appeals, not to our physical ears, but to the aurem cordis truis, to the ears of our heart, for it is there that the truths of God are communicated directly to the soul. Benedict quotes liberally from the opening of the book of Proverbs, as the king enjoins his son to listen to the precepts of his loving father, as he presents him with two paths, the one that leads to wisdom and life, and the other to folly and death. It is also reminiscent of St. Basil's Admonition to a Spiritual Son, bringing to his audience both the lessons of Scripture and the teachings of the monastic fathers. (Fr. Adalbert de Vogue, Reading St. Benedict, p. 23) In this, the spiritual relationship that exists between abbot and community is established, and the call to obedience as the path to God illuminates the need to the novice's first duty: to listen with the ears of his heart.
The call to listen with the ears of the heart is a call to do more than just hear words, but to bring those words down to the heart. This is the real meaning of reciting something "by heart": going beyond mere memorizing of words to a meditation of their meaning, and thereby hearing God's message to the human heart. It is a process where the words we hear become a part of us, as food becomes part of the body as it is consumed through the digestive track.
St. Benedict, following the Rule of the Master, links this listening with the ears of the heart to the "labor of obedience". What is the relationship between hearing with the ears of the heart and the call to obedience? Fr. Adalhbert de Vogue offers a clue: "Like Basil and the inspired scribes of the Book of Proverbs, Benedict experiences himself as a 'father' as well as a 'master' (magister). He shares these two qualities with God, who speaks though him. At the end of the passage we will meet God the 'father' and 'Lord' (dominus) once more, but kindness will have given way to wrath. Entrance into monastic life thus stands between a loving call and a fearsome judgment." (de Vogue, p. 23) It is in that nexus between love and fear that Benedict will have his novices stand as he enjoins them to "listen." Listening comes from an attitude of love, as we relate to God as Father, and also from a place of fear, as we relate to God as the righteous judge. Listening to the voice of God, then, comes from this crucible of love and fear. The fear, of course, is not a fear rooted in despair, but a fear that, according to Proverbs, is the beginning of wisdom. St. Maximus the Confessor demonstrates the close connection between these two seemingly opposite attitudes by using ladder imagery: "If you have faith in the Lord you will fear punishment, and this fear will lead you to control the passions. Once you control the passions you will accept affliction patiently, and through such acceptance you will acquire hope in God. Hope in God separates the intellect from every worldly attachment, and when the intellect is detached in this way it will acquire love for God." (St. Maximus the Confessor, "Four-Hundred Texts on Love", Philokalia, p. 53) In the same way, fear of God causes us to listen for fear of punishment, which leads to self-control, ultimately leading us to hope in God, and then love of God. We listen to God as we not only fear him, but also love him.
It is this crucible between fear and love that St. Benedict wants to situate the novice, for it is there that the heart becomes refined in listening to his spiritual father, as he relates the life-giving words the the Heavenly Father. Obedience comes as a result of listening, and listening comes from a heart that is refined by the fear and love of God. Listening is the first command, the first rule; all that follows in St. Benedict's rule is predicated on this one word: Obsculta!