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.
      Tragic.
      Avoidable.
      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.

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† 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.