Chapter Talk – Synodality in the Rule of Benedict – 8-21-2022
How does an ancient Rule, specifically the Rule of St. Benedict, offer a perspective and ways forward in implementing ‘synodality’ for the present and future renewal of monastic life and of the Church? This is the subject of a short essay by the Abbot Primate of the Benedictine Congregation, Gregory Polan, in the American Benedictine Review (March, 2022,73:1, p.1-9). Abbot Gregory focuses on chapter 3 of the Rule, ‘Calling the Brethren to Counsel’. He notes that there are other references to synodality in the Rule, however, for his short essay he focuses only on chapter 3. I like to reflect on two other areas where a ‘synodal’ reality exists in the Rule of Benedict, and there are more references than what I will speak about this morning.
Right from the first page of the Rule, the Prologue begins with one word, ‘listen’…and then ‘listen with the ear of the heart’. The synodal tone is set right from the beginning of the Rule. And what is important is how listening is defined: we listen not just with the mind, but deeper, with the ‘ear’ of the heart. So, the heart has an ‘ear’. In fact, it (the heart) may absorb reality much quicker than the mind…absorbs, indeed, but then needs to process. I think we can say the whole prologue of the Rule is under this backdrop of ‘listening’…and it is a deeper listening…a listening always to the promptings of the Spirit….promptings which often contrast or oppose our initial reactions. Sr. Aquinata Bockmann writes: “The word ‘listen’ characterizes the spirituality of the entire Rule…Benedict…wants to lead his monastics to…an integral attitude of listening, be it to God and the divine Word, be it to persons and the situation of the times, be it to the written word or the spoken word, even to the unarticulated, not yet formulated word” (Perspectives on the Rule of St. Benedict, p.16). To listen includes bending or inclining the ear of the heart. Why is the metaphor of ‘inclining the ear’ so important to listening? Bockmann writes, “Many might open their physical ears and hear sounds, but if they don’t bend their hearts, they will never experience truth” (p.17). Bending or inclining the ear to listen interiorly means we have let go of our views and opinions, or at least hold them lightly. It means we really want to hear a deeper truth, a truth that will expand our hearts and minds. Bending in humility to listen, to open ourselves to God’s life-giving word, to God’s ways and thinking.
In chapter 7 of the Rule on Humility, steps 9 and 11 speak of silence and speaking. The ninth step of humility is ‘restraint from speech’ for as the psalm says the ‘talkative person is without direction on earth’. The eleventh step is calling the monastic to speak gently, not loud and with few words for ‘a wise person is known by the fewness of her words’. Silence and the word: they belong together. Juxtapose these two different ways of listening: first, when our spoken words are rooted in silence or silence surrounds and informs our words. And second, when our words are impulsive, quick, coming from a non-reflective space, reactionary, emotionally charged. We can’t wait and must speak! More and more we need to grow into this deeper listening where the first move is NOT to speak but to listen. This is not easy because often the thoughts that emerge within us carry emotional content that we have not sorted through, and they push us to speak.
“The voice of God is…the voice of silence” writes Max Picard (The World of Silence, p.230). If this is true, if we accept this as a spiritual truth, then even more important is silence and with silence our listening ear. Picard continues: “Speech and silence belong together….Speech must remain in relationship with the silence from which it raised itself up” (p.21). Dear sisters, whoever even thinks about this? And should not we monastics whose main ministry is prayer, should we not be striving to keep silence and speech together in our lived lives? I am not talking about being perfect. But we can begin with small steps. Even, if only once during the day, we descend to that silent space before speaking, we will experience the grace of being led by the silent voice of God. This contemplative practice, of stepping back into silence before speaking, builds a firmer foundation, where we are receiving the Spirit’s healing breath of life and wisdom.
Silence is so important to language for it helps us to refrain from words that tear apart and do not build up one another and community life. Max Picard writes: “Silence provides a natural source of re-creation for language, a source of refreshment and purification from the wickedness to which language has given rise” (p.23). Picard’s insights are prophetic. What if we all would bring more awareness to our words? And then taking the inner movement to step back into the silence, where the silence will transform, will birth forth words that will be words of life, of hope, of healing, of reconciliation, of loving support to one another. For this is the transforming power of silence, the Divine silence, silence, which is the home of God’s word and life.
I hope that my talk this morning has opened a little further a vision of how this ancient 6th century Rule is prophetic with its emphasis on ‘listening’ and how our words need to be connected to the ground of silence where the ‘still small voice’ of the Spirit is speaking. Only through this synodal process of listening together can we open a future, a way of renewal, a way forward, where the Divine presence is incarnated visibly and tangibly in community life, in our relations with one another.
Sr. Kathy DeVico, Abbess