Thursday, February 20, 2014

CHAPTER 29: Whether Monks Who Leave the Monastery Should Be Taken Back Again

     If a brother leaves the monastery or is expelled, but then wants to come back, he should first promise full amendment of the fault for which he left; and so let him be received in the lowest rank, that by this means his humility may be tested.  If he should leave again, let him be received even a third time, knowing that after this he is gone for good.

      We must never stop praying for the return of our lost brothers and sisters.  But consider this as well:  there’s more than one way to leave a community.  Perhaps you and I haven’t ‘run away’ in the conventional sense, but aren’t there times when we abandon our friends in other ways?  We say something mean behind their backs, we sell out our convictions to popularity or power, we look in other places for the consolations we should be finding at home…
      And then there are also those private betrayals that we hide in our hearts—the secret glances, the whispered curses, the silent yearning for something (or someone) other than what we have.  Frankly, it’s hard to go a day without falling into one of those betrayals.  In the monastery, we call it “looking over the wall”—that temptation to be constantly imagining something better at the expense of your current happiness.
      During my novitiate (which now seems impossibly long ago) I made up my mind to leave the monastery and become a movie star (or a graduate student or a journalist or a novelist—I wasn’t sure which).  It sounds ridiculous now, but at the time, I had a friend there and even a job lined up.  In my heart I must have sensed that it was a dumb idea, because I resolved to seek the advice of the oldest monk in the abbey.  I found him reading the Bible in his cell.
      When I told him my plan, he nodded and smiled and asked, “Are you leaving today?”
      “Well, not today,” I answered.
      “Probably not.”

       “In that case, my advice is that you try to be the very best monk you can be—just for today and tomorrow.”
      I didn’t quite catch his point.  If I was leaving the monastery, why bother with the effort of being a good monk?
      He opened his bible to the Gospel of John, and he read me the story of how Jesus cured the blind man.  If you remember, he was born blind, and he was also kind of a smart aleck.  In fact, most scholars agree that he was probably a teenager.  At any rate, after he’d been cured, the Pharisees put him through the ringer: “What did Jesus do to you? How did he open your eyes?  Don’t you know that this man is a sinner?  How can a sinful man do such things?” And so on and so forth.  The ex-blind man didn’t really give them an answer.  He just kept saying, “All I know is that I was born blind.  Now I can see.”
      Later, after the Pharisees had kicked him out, he ran into Jesus and asked him, “So…who is this ‘Son of Man’?” and Jesus said, “You’re looking at Him.”
With that, the man born blind “fell down and worshipped him” (John 9:38).
     So here’s the deal: the man born blind didn’t have a lot of faith, but he had one great virtue: he was a realist—he stuck to the facts.  At any point along the way, he could have lapsed into cynicism, skepticism, rationalization, evasion, prevarication, theologizing, philosophizing…none of which are particularly bad in themselves, but all of which fall short when you’re face-to-face with the Truth.
     Still…again and again, we create fantasies and excuses in our heads, we grow dissatisfied with the gifts we’ve been given, we grumble, and we resent the people we live with; then we abandon the Truth to chase after vain fantasies.
      And then what?  How many times will we be allowed to return?  Seven?  Seventy times seven?  Saint Benedict says that for the sake of the community, the lost monk should be welcomed back only three times; but we know that God is even more generous than that.
God will never stop welcoming us back. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

CHAPTER 28: The Stubbornly Disobedient

If a brother has often been corrected and has even been excommunicated for a fault and still does not amend, let a more severe correction be used, namely, corporal punishment.  But if even then he does not reform, or, puffed up with pride, should even dare to defend his actions, then let the abbot apply the most powerful remedy of all: his own prayer and that of the brethren.  Then the Lord who is all-powerful may work a miraculous cure in that brother.  But if he is not healed even in this way, the abbot should dismiss him from the community; for the Apostle says: "Put away the evil one from among you" (1 Cor 5:13); and again: "If the faithless one should depart, let him depart" (1 Cor 7:15).  Otherwise one diseased sheep may infect the whole flock.

     I have a priest friend (whom I won’t name here) who was in a department store parking lot when this big fellow in a tank top walked over and started pushing him around.  My friend was wearing a Roman collar, and I guess this other guy didn’t like priests.  Well, my friend had been a mixed martial arts competitor before he entered the seminary.  So after taking a couple of shoves, he just knocked the guy’s legs out from under him and dumped him on his back.  Then he held him down with his foot until the security guards showed up.  The story circulated pretty quickly, and when I next saw him, I asked him whether he thought perhaps he should have ‘turned the other cheek.’  “I did!” he said.  “But I’ve only got two cheeks.  Besides, with some guys you just need to speak their language.”
     I think Saint Benedict would have agreed.  For those monks who wouldn’t understand stern words or excommunication, the Rule recommends corporal punishment. Times have changed, though, and I don’t know of any monastery in the world where that still happens, but I can see the sense in it.  You have to make judgments when you come face-to-face with sin, and knowing how to react is key.  Do you ignore it?  Do you point it out?  Are you in a position to stop it?  In some cases, you are likely to do more harm by confronting the sinner than you would by just leaving him alone.  Still, some sins must be challenged.
      To be sure, there’s a serious issue of pride at play when you start judging your friends by whether or not they are “sinners.”  But on the other hand, you also have to be careful that you don’t use “Jesus ate with sinners” as a pretext for partying with the wrong crowd.  After all, Jesus did tell those same sinners, “Go and sin no more.” (John 8:11) So there comes a point when you have to cut bait.  The trick is to know when that point has arrived.  You and I probably won’t have many opportunities to excommunicate anyone; and even if we did, I can hardly imagine a situation where that would be a good idea.  Instead, we may need to excommunicate ourselves.  This, however, is a last resort.  Every possible means should exhausted before we give up on someone.  And even then, we must never stop praying for them.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

CHAPTER 27: How the Abbot Should Care for the Excommunicated

     The abbot should be tremendously careful and concerned for the excommunicated brother, for "the healthy do not need a physician, but only those that are sick" (Mt 9:12). Therefore, like a wise doctor, he should use every opportunity to comfort this brother—in particular, by sending wise elderly monks to console him and encourage him to make amends.  They should do their best to lift his spirits "lest he be swallowed up with too much sorrow" (2 Cor 2:7), and everyone in the community should pray for him.
    Moreover, the abbot should always keep in mind that he is first and foremost a doctor of sick souls, not a dictator over strong ones.  Let him follow the loving example of the Good Shepherd, who, leaving the ninety-nine sheep on the mountains, went to seek the one that had gone astray.

      If the previous passages on excommunication sounded a little strict to you, then this chapter will come as a surprise.  Saint Benedict here sounds remarkably modern in treating disobedience as a sort of illness—an infection of the soul, rather than a flaw in character; and while he does allow for corporal punishment (he was, after all a man of his age as much as he was ahead of it), he prefers a more therapeutic approach, isolating the infection so that it doesn’t spread to the rest of the community, but tending carefully to the one who is ill.
      To be sure, the abbot’s first responsibility is to the community at large, but look how Saint Benedict guards against self-righteousness.  When it comes right down to it, we’re all sick and we all need healing, so Benedict isn’t just concerned for the wavering brother—he identifies with him.  He knows how easy it is to despair when you’re all by yourself, so he makes sure that there is someone nearby to look in on him—not one of his buddies, who might actually make the situation worse by encouraging him, but a senpectus (an ‘old-heart’) who will listen patiently, give wise counsel, comfort him, and drive away the demon of despair.

    To be sure, there will always be difficult people in your life, but when you find that you have reached the absolute limit of your patience, try Saint Benedict’s approach to excommunication:
* First, try not to speak while you’re still angry.  If you need a time-out, take it.  You may not be able to excommunicate the other guy, but you can always excommunicate yourself.
* Secondly, if you must avoid someone, at least be sure that you continue to pray for them.
* Thirdly, seek the advice of an old person.  Age doesn’t guarantee wisdom, but the two often come together.
* Then, last of all, keep on the watch for an opportunity to serve your enemy.  When the moment is right, do something nice for him.  Remember, no one is beyond redemption.