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.
“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.