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.