When a monk has done something seriously wrong and is excommunicated from prayers or meals, let him lie face down in silence in front of everyone while the Work of God is celebrated in the church. And he should not stop doing this until the abbot says so. Then he should cast himself at the abbot's feet, and at the feet of all, so that they may pray for him. When the time is right, let him be received back into choir; but he should not lead any of the prayers in the church, until the abbot again gives him permission. Then, at all the prayers, when the Work of God is ended, let him cast himself on the ground in the place where he stands; and thus let him make satisfaction, until at last the abbot tells him to stop.
Here is another chapter that may strike the modern ear as rather harsh. But you have to consider it in context. First of all, remember that monks take holiness really, really seriously. If a monk acts in a way that keeps him or others from being holy, he undermines the entire purpose of the monastery. Secondly, when you compare the Rule of Saint Benedict to other medieval laws, it is surprisingly gentle. Lastly, you have to examine the conditions under which any monk may be excommunicated. Benedict only uses this penalty as a last resort when all other methods have failed, and only in response to the sort of stubborn insubordination that is a violation of the monk’s vows—and a sign that he is in serious spiritual danger.
The repeated act of lying face down on the ground in front of his brothers brings home in a vivid and physical way the seriousness of his sin. It also demonstrates his willingness to change. But most importantly, it builds virtue. The quickest path to humility is humiliation. And humility should be the monk’s special area of expertise. Remember also that every Benedictine agrees during his novitiate not merely to cultivate humility, but to be “eager for humiliations.”
But let’s say the monk doesn’t really want to throw himself on the floor. He wants to be sorry, and he wants to be humble (and chaste and patient and loving)…but he’s not. Aristotle said that the way to become virtuous was to start doing virtuous acts; then to keep repeating those acts until the virtue developed out of them (The Nichomachean Ethics). So, for example, if you want to be an athlete, first you need to start exercising, if you want to be brave, first you need to face your fear, and if you want to be humble, first you have to perform humble acts.
Let me give you a less theoretical example:
I remember asking my father once when I was very young whether it was really necessary to love my little sister (even loving my enemy seemed more reasonable at the time). My father, of course, insisted that it was. And I recall explaining to him at length that this would be very difficult—even impossible—given the current circumstances, and that perhaps we should consider giving her up for adoption. My father said to me, “Jason, you may find this hard to believe, but some day you will discover that you do love your sister. And when that day comes, you will actually want to be nice to her. In the meantime, however…fake it.
At the time, this sounded like cold advice, but if we are to put into action what Christ demands of us in the gospels—if we really are to love our neighbor as we love our own selves—then there will be times when we don’t feel very inclined to patience or charity or humility. Because let’s face it, some people are difficult to love. In fact, even God can seem distant at times. But if you think about it, those times when we must force ourselves to “fake” this love for our neighbor are often the most sincere instances of love, because those are the times when we can give love without any hope of a reply. And if Saint Benedict and Aristotle are right, then the astonishing result of all this ‘fake virtue’ is that real virtue begins to grow out of it.
So until we arrive at that point where charity and humility and patience come naturally, it’s probably best just to fake it. And so long as we don’t grumble, we can wait in confidence for the virtue itself to grow.