January 1, May 2, September 1
Listen carefully, my children, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from a father who loves you; welcome it and faithfully put it into practice. The labor of obedience will bring you back to him from whom you had drifted through the sloth of disobedience.
This message of mine is for you, then, if you are ready to give up your own will, once and for all, and armed with the strong and noble weapons of obedience to battle for the true King, Christ the Lord.
First of all, every time you begin a good work, you must pray to him most earnestly to bring it to perfection. In his goodness he has already counted us as his sons [and daughters], and therefore we should never grieve him by our evil actions.
With his good gifts which are in us, we must obey him at all times that he may never become the angry father who disinherits his [children], nor the dread lord, enraged by our sins, who punishes us forever as worthless servants for refusing to follow him to glory.
What does it mean to attend with the ear of the heart, or to take something to heart? In Christian spirituality the heart is not so much the centre of emotions as that mysterious place where who we truly are is at one with a God of wisdom, of compassion, of love. So learning to listen ‘with the heart’, learning to live life with people and circumstance ‘in the heart’, is learning to be ourselves and to see life as God sees it. With attention in this way in the heart our actions can be an expression of who we are and who God is.
It is part of the human condition, however, that we are, to some extent, divorced from our heart. We grow into adulthood becoming tone deaf to the ways of love. Thus, the path to human wholeness could be called a path back to the heart, back to the core of who we are. It is a path that asks for the integration, the harmonising, of awareness with the heart. The Rule of Benedict is a guide in how to develop and maintain a community of people on this path to human wholeness. It brings together people who seek God and seek themselves.
The labor of obedience is simply to practice, with others in the living of each day a growing attentiveness to the heart while, at the same time, abandoning egocentricity. This is what the rule is about, and this is what makes the rule such a challenge. In a supportive environment it asks us to take and re-take perhaps the greatest human existential risk: put aside your own survival and live a life that focuses on others. As we do this, we experience who we truly are and grow in the life of God.
The rule is about practice. It asks us to not confuse or replace practice with understanding. Understanding comes with practice. We must risk practice. In time, as the fruits of practice are experienced and seen, we come to welcome the rule’s wise guidance. In the everyday, in the ordinary activities of life we grow in doing things with heart. We grow in the experience of recognising love’s everyday movement in us. We then sense this movement wanting to express itself in our action for love’s sake. ‘Welcome it [this movement] and faithfully put it into practice.’ It is with grace that we do this. As we inch further into other-centred living, the Holy Spirit inches with us, transforming us on the way.
Christ consciousness is like a beacon shining a light for us from within our own heart guiding attention home to God. The struggle consists, for the Christian, in practicing attention on that light from moment to moment, day to day. Any practice of attention that has us learning to attend to this light of Christ in our hearts is a practice of obedience. Meditation is one such practice, central for the meditator because it focuses our attention on the contemplative roots of human action. In time, and with a consistent meditation practice, more and more of what we do we do with heart, that is, as ourselves with Divine Love now.
The battle is with egocentricity. It is a battle that we cannot win if we struggle with it directly. The answer is to practice acts of love where the attention is off the ego, off a focus on our individualised needs first. So we attend: to making that cup of tea for someone; to what our work colleague is really saying; to mowing the lawn; to that feeling as it rises, without analysing; to that leaf as it falls in the sun; to the mantra; to whatever needs to be done. The rule is the communal practice of attending to each action, person, and thing in each moment so that we might grow in love. True love can only be known in the present moment as we forget ourselves. It is up to each generation to see the rule’s spirit in the rule’s guidance.
Focused in the present moment first, with what we are doing done as who we are, we discover what it means to be beloved daughters and sons of Divine Love. We are love born of Love. Doing ‘God’s will’ means loving in the moment as ourselves for love’s sake. God’s will is love in action.
It is a great challenge for us to grow in the living of life in this way. We may be images of God (love born of Love) however we lose touch with this. We forget our essential goodness. Habits of mind and deeply held attitudes run counter to our deepest selves. Separated in mind from who we are life can become more an individual journey of subsistence. The rule says life is better than this. It affirms to us today that community resonates with who we are more deeply than individualism ever could.
The struggle between egocentricity and true love is also a struggle with God image. Attention caught in egoism can present us with the god who disinherits, enraged and punishing. The rule here asks, ‘who is your God becoming?’ In a community committed in practice to seeking God we encounter the truth of God and are changed by it.
But you must do what the Word tells you and not just listen to it and deceive yourselves. Anyone who listens to the Word and takes no action is like someone who looks at his own features in a mirror and, once he has taken note of himself, goes off and immediately forgets what he was like. But anyone who takes a look at the perfect law of freedom and keeps to it – not listening and forgetting, but putting it into practice – is blessed in every undertaking. (James 1:22-25, RNJB)