From Benedict’s Way
Listen carefully, my children, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. (RB Prologue: 1)
The Rule of Saint Benedict opens with the word… listen. Properly understood, this is the key to this whole spiritual teaching. A monk should be above all a listener. So indeed should every Christian. The whole spiritual life of the Christian is a process of listening to God, “inclining the ear of the heart,” as the Rule says. This image of the inward ear, the ear of the heart, shows us that our listening is not merely an intellectual or rational activity; it is intuitive, springing form the very core of our being; where we are most open to God, most receptive to the word he speaks. We have to be very quiet and still within ourselves, very alert and attentive, if that word is to resonate properly in our innermost depths. (Cyprian Smith)
Listen is the first word of the Rule. It is the core of Benedict’s Rule and what you might call its last word as well. The listening Saint Benedict refers to has little to do with being able to physically hear, or not hear. It is a matter of attending to the lessons of life, the lessons that come our way from the “masters” – those who have gone before us – the older, the wiser, the enduring.
When Benedict refers to a master, he means someone who has endured in the faith and therefore is able to lead by example, not simply by word. We might call such a person an example or teacher.
But Benedict is no literalist, and to approach the text in that way misses the spirit of Benedict himself. Benedict tells us to listen to life with our hearts open. A master for us might be a person. It could be a book. Scripture. Liturgy. Eucharist. Maybe a song, a movie, or lunch with a friend. It’s everyday stuff and everyday people.
I arrived for Mass at St. Benedict Monastery early one weekday morning. Mass was scheduled half an hour earlier than usual because some of the monks were taking a truckload of junk to the dump and wanted to be there when it opened. The monastery was several months into a building project, which had left the interior gutted like war ruins.
In the corridor outside the chapel, I ran into the oldest of the monks, Brother Benedict, who is eighty-five. His voice sounds like gravel and velvet mixing. Being hugged by Brother Ben is like being caught in a vise. His kisses are sandpapery, his demeanor somewhat gruff.
The corridor is where we often talk going to and leaving Mass. We don’t talk much; Brother Ben puts his hand on my shoulder, and we smile at one another. Every now and then, he will cross the chapel to where I am. On those occasions, he takes my hand, looks into my face, and asks if I am OK. It is a common enough gesture. Lots of people ask the question. But it’s different with Brother Ben. He means it. He is a monk of few works, yet his faithfulness to the monastic vows for his long lifetime speaks volumes. This is someone whose life I want to hear.
Our friendship has been shaped by the culminated hours we have sat together in the chapel across from one another in silence, just the two of us. Our being together before God has forged a remarkable bond.
During the eucharistic liturgy when we all say, “Grant us peace,” Brother Ben is about one pace behind the rest of us. Because he’s mostly deaf, I don’t know if he hears that his ancient, soulful voice echoes us like the prophet’s voice clear and true. We finish saying, “Grant us peace,” and then Brother Ben rumbles, “Grant us peace.”
It is the prayer of a man who has lived long enough to know that peace is not the rule of our world, and so he pleads for it, day after day, on behalf of all of us. His endurance, stability, strength, and sheer joy are all lessons for me. Important ones. In his praying he is also a master. I don’t just hear his prayer; I feel his prayer for peace. When my life gets crazy, I remember his prayer and breathe a bit easier, no matter how far I am from the chapel and Brother Ben.
Despite his hearing deficit, he communicates with ease, when he wants to. The advantage of his disability is that no one who doesn’t want to talk to him ever bothers, and only those who genuinely care make the effort. Brother Ben’s talking is never more than a sentence or two rattled or roared at you with one of his all-knowing smiles and a twinkle in those ancient eyes. In like kindness, replies are best kept to short sentences spoken in the loudest voice you can politely use in a monastery.
In the shadows of predawn we met in the corridor. He smiled, crushed me in arms made hard from a lifetime of cattle tending, and said, “Mass is early today.” I nodded, then asked loudly, “How are you?” (He had been down with a cold.)
He lifted his arms, making a great circle with them and drawing my attention to the ruins around him. His hands were raised palms up, in a kind of desperate petition. He rasped a distinctly old, Italian, male grunt of resignation. He wasn’t happy with the changes happening in his home. That’s how he was.
I understood. “It must be difficult to have your home torn up this way,” I replied.
He nodded. He shrugged. Then Brother Ben took hold of my arm and said, “Let’s go to Mass.”
His prayer-saturated life has shaped him into someone who cannot be shaken by gutted shelters and falling ceilings. He was telling me something important. No matter what kind of ruins you stand in, keep moving, keep doing what you must do, keep showing up every day. Haul yourself before God no matter what.
Brother Ben is a master. This crusty old monk who lives among his brothers is an icon through which I see Saint Benedict and Benedictine spirituality more clearly. He is kind and tough; he is practical and prayerful; he is hospitable, loving, and affirming while holding tight to the monastic virtue of solitude.
Masters are usually unsettling to hear. It takes a singular attention from us. Hearing with the ear of the heart is what Benedict wants us to learn. But it doesn’t come easily. We’ll have to hold in faith to a conviction that human beings really do have an inner ear. It will take us a lifetime to get good at hearing. We have to keep at it. If we do, masters will teach us to listen with our hearts.
Think about a time when you listened to a situation, a person, or a reading, and something seemed to speak through it. How did you recognize the voice? Did you trust your inward ear?
In what situations do you now hear God speaking? What hinders you from listening? In what situations would you like to hear God speak? Have you been listening, expecting to hear God?
Try to keep your inward ear attuned to the rustling of God today, in the people you meet, in your experiences, in what you read, see, hear, touch.
Holy God, I believe there are masters of vision, masters of peace, masters of wisdom and joy and love for me to hear. But my inward ear has been dulled by all the nonsense it hears and the cacophony of my world. I don’t know where or how to start, but teach me to listen and help me believe I can actually hear you.