Wednesday, January 29, 2014

CHAPTER 26: Those Who Associate with the Excommunicated

If any monk presumes to associate with an excommunicated brother in any way, or to speak with him, or to send him a note of some sort without the command of the abbot, let him incur the same penalty of excommunication.
Dante takes the road OUT of Hell...
      They say the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.  If you ask me, I think it’s more likely to be paved with bad intentions, but the fact remains that people sometimes do very bad things for the very best reasons.
      When I was working on the Beach Patrol, I was told a story about a boy who slipped off the 53rd Street Pier and drowned.  Instead of signaling the lifeguard (who was no more than twenty yards away), his father jumped in after him, and pulled him to shore by the hair. As it turned out, the child had broken his neck in the fall.  He might well have survived, but his spinal cord was severed when his father tugged on his hair.
      And a classic example of what theologians call “a misdirected good.”
      Even compassion can do harm when you show it in the wrong way.  And the only guarantee against making that kind of mistake is the virtue of obedience.  Granted, there are times when we are called upon to resist authority.  But most of the time, we have to trust that these authorities—secular authorities like our teachers and parents, government authorities like police and firefighters, or religious authorities like bishops and abbots—know what they’re doing and know more than we do.†  I realize that’s hard to hear, but Saint Paul himself says, “Let every person be subordinate to higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God.  Therefore, whoever resists authority opposes what God has appointed, and those who oppose it will bring judgment upon themselves…Therefore, it is necessary to be subject not only because of the wrath but also because of conscience.” (Romans 3:1-2, 5)
      In the situation described above, the offending monk certainly thinks he is doing the right thing by consoling the excommunicated.  But he doesn’t have the whole picture, does he?  Only the abbot knows for certain why he was excommunicated, what he’s suffering from, and what damage has already been done.  Encouragement may be the last thing he needs.  Saint John Cassian warns that a monk who associates with the excommunicated, “only encourages more arrogance and stubbornness in the offender.  By giving him a consolation that is only hurtful, he makes his heart still harder…” (Institutes, Chapter 16).  In other words, you don’t help a sick person when you encourage his sickness.

      So in a situation like this, the best way to help is to pray.  In fact, come to think of it, prayer is always the best way to help anyone.

† I find it baffling how people (well, Americans, mostly) are so quick to accept the advice of an authority when it comes to medicine, law, dentistry…even plumbing and auto-mechanics, but consider themselves experts suddenly when it comes to religion.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

CHAPTER 25: More Serious Faults

Let the brother who is found guilty of a more serious fault be excluded from both the table and the chapel. Let none of the brethren associate with him in any way. Let him be alone at the work given him, persevering in penitential sorrow, mindful of the terrible sentence of the Apostle who says, that "such a man is delivered over for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord" (1 Cor 5:5).  Let him take his meals alone in such quantity and at such a time as the abbot thinks proper; and let him not be blessed by anyone passing by.  Even the food he eats should not be blessed.

    “Let him be alone.”  I can’t imagine a more frightening proposal.  Yet Saint Benedict deems it necessary.
    In the case of the errant monk, he has, in effect, already begun to isolate himself by his actions.  The point of formal excommunication is to help him see where his actions will lead him.  The monk may still consider himself part of the community, but by his disobedience, he has stepped outside the community to do his own thing.  If the abbot doesn’t catch this soon enough, the poor brother will wake up one morning to discover that he couldn’t return even if he wanted to. The cloister wall now separates him from his own brothers.  At that point, only a miracle will save him.

    This tragic scenario plays out in monasteries all over the world.  But you can see it happening in other communities as well—within families, between spouses, among circles of friends.  Every act of disobedience is a little excommunication that we impose upon ourselves—one step further from the circle of friendship.  One small lie becomes two small lies, then a larger deception…a minor infidelity of this or that kind…soon the relationship begins to degrade into formalities and avoidance.  Resentments fester and spread.  The fight goes public and people begin to take sides.  At last, the only realistic solution is permanent separation.  Then when it’s all over, we wonder in our loneliness how it ever came to this.
    There was a particularly interesting case back in the 1960s of a Jesuit priest, Father Leonard Feeney, who taught that there was no salvation outside of the Church.  This is, in fact, Catholic doctrine—extra Ecclesiam nulla salus (Cyprian, On the Unity of the Church 6).  In fact, the Catechism itself says: “all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body" (CCC 846).   But notice that it only stipulates how salvation is possible.  It doesn’t make any claims about non-believers.  Father Feeney, however, insisted on broadening this doctrine to mean that pretty much anyone who wasn’t actually registered with a parish was going to Hell.  That included unbaptized babies, righteous non-Christians—even people who had never heard of the Church.  When he wouldn’t back down, poor Feeney was excommunicated, and so by his own teaching, he was bound for Hell.  Talk about a no-win situation! 

     Truly, we wind up in a very awkward position if, like Father Feeney, we start making particular judgments about exactly who is and who isn’t saved.  It’s not our job to send them to heaven (“My grandma is an angel now”); but neither is it our job to send them to Hell (“There’s a special place in Hell for that guy”).  God alone judges the hearts of men.  As Christians, we are forbidden to judge our brother, but we must, for love of him, and for the sake of the larger community, make judgments about his actions.  We get ourselves in trouble when we get those two confused.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

CHAPTER 24: The Different Kinds of Excommunication

     The extent of an excommunication should be determined by the seriousness of the offense as well as the judgment of the abbot. For smaller offences, let the rebellious monk be forbidden from eating at the common table.  Moreover, he should not have a leadership role in community prayers, nor should he be allowed to do the readings at any of the liturgies; and he should eat by himself after everyone else has finished.  This he should do until he has made satisfaction and obtained the pardon of the abbot.

      Here’s a joke: A guy with a wooden eye goes to a disco and sees a beautiful woman standing at the bar.  She happens to have a peg leg.  He walks up and asks her to dance.  She says, “Oh, would I!”  He says, “I didn’t want to dance with you anyway, peg-leg!”
     There’s a moral to this joke: Anger has it’s uses, but before you act on your anger, make sure you understand why other people act the way they do.  More importantly still, be sure that you understand why you react the way you do.  Saint Benedict clearly believes that fairness and proportion are intrinsic to the good order of a community.  But I would add that they are also intrinsic to the good order of an individual.  When we’re angry or depressed, we need to be able to take a step back and ask ourselves whether our mood actually matches the world we live in.
     To put it in more psychological terms, we need to verify that the response matches the stimulus.  If someone cuts you off on the highway and you’re bent out of shape the rest of the day; if your brother uses your lacrosse stick, and you can’t stop thinking how rude that is; if a friend doesn’t invite you to a party, and you spend the rest of the weekend wondering what’s wrong…don’t just explain it away with, “He’s a jerk.”  You won’t learn anything from that.  Instead, try to sort through why your reaction is so extreme.
      Our friend with the wooden eye clearly has some deep insecurities, but everyone has their pet peeves and things that “set them off.”  When you figure out why these things bother you, then you will be able to set about restoring peace and balance to your life.  Here again I recommend finding a spiritual director.  He (or she) can act as a sort of referee between you and your moods and help you to figure out why you feel the way you do—and how to deal with it.
      Like the rebellious monk of Chapter 24, you may need to be by yourself for a while.  Maybe you need to make up in some practical way for the damage you’ve done.  Whichever the case, remember that the goal is to restore harmony.  An excessive penance, even if you give it to yourself—especially if you give it to yourself—will just throw the balance off in a different direction.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

CHAPTER 23: Excommunication

If a brother behaves in a way that is stubborn, disobedient, proud, grumbling, or opposed to anything in the Holy Rule and disrespects his superiors, let him be admonished once and again in secret, according to the command of our Lord. If his behavior does not improve, he should be rebuked in public before everyone. But if he does not reform even then, and he understands the punishment, let him be excommunicated.

Wherever there’s a rule, you’ll find a guy who wants to break it, even in a monastery.  For people like this, there have to be consequences.  Otherwise, the order of the community falls apart.  Worse still, the monk himself may lose his vocation.  Saint Benedict’s first response is to reason with him, but if that doesn’t work, the monk needs to see in some practical way that his disobedience is affecting the whole community.  As a last resort, the abbot may decide that it is better for the community—indeed, better for the monk himself—if he spend some time alone.
By modern standards, this sounds severe,[1] but considering that the Rule was composed at a time when you could lose a hand for stealing, and homelessness was rewarded with a brand on the forehead, the penalty of excommunication is surprisingly moderate.  Notice too that Benedict doesn’t excommunicate someone for a mistake, or even for misbehavior.  Thoughtlessness, impulsivity, ignorance…these aren’t what he’s afraid of.  The abbot should only exercise this authority when the offense is deliberate and rebellious.
Today we often misunderstand excommunication.  We tend to think of it in secular terms the way we might think of a prison sentence or a fine.  We wonder, for example, why the Church didn’t excommunicate more Nazis during the Second World War.  But excommunication is something a superior only does when he still believes he can bring the disobedient Christian back into the fold. It’s not really a punishment, therefore, it’s a wake-up call—and a chance to atone for the harm that one has done.
           Have you ever got the impression that someone was mad at you, but you had no idea what you did to cause it?  You end up walking around all day trying to guess what you did wrong.  Worse yet, have you been in a situation where you angered someone, but didn’t find out they were upset until days later?  These situations are doubly frustrating because there’s no way to set them right.  Saint Benedict has no interest in holding a secret grudge.  When someone does something wrong, you tell him straight away.  You tell him twice in private, then you tell him publicly.  It’s a blunt system, but simple, and, ultimately, charitable.  It’s better to be openly angry than politely resentful.

[1] Though, as Philip Jenkins points out in The New Anti-Catholicism, most organizations—and certainly all businesses—enforce some kind of behavioral standards on their members (p. 116).