Wednesday, March 25, 2015

CHAPTER 67: Monks on a Journey

     If a monk is sent on a journey, he should ask the community and abbot to pray for him. And after the last prayer at the Work of God, the community should make a special prayer for the absent brethren. On the day that the monk returns from his journey, let him lie flat on the floor of the chapel during all the prayers, and ask everyone to pray for him on account of his failings, for fear that the sight of evil or the sound of shallow talk should have surprised him on the way. And no one should presume to talk about what he has seen or heard outside of the monastery because it is most hurtful. But if anyone should presume to do so, let him undergo the penalty of the Rule.  Likewise, anyone who leaves the monastery without the abbot’s permission should be punished.

The final six chapters appear to be tacked on at the end of the Rule as an afterthought.  By and large, they cover particular extraordinary situations that might arise in a community.  Did Saint Benedict add these chapters one-by-one as he confronted each new challenge?  If so, his first concern was for monks who needed to travel.

In the old days, there was a special prayer that the community would say for a monk when he returned from a trip: “Almighty and eternal God, have mercy on this servant; and if the sight or hearing or any idle word has taken him by surprise on the way, may it be completely forgiven.”  Benedict isn’t worried about what the monk does while he is away so much as what that monk might bring back with him when he returns.  There’s a whole lot of good in the world, but there’s a whole lot of nasty stuff too, and the nasty stuff just seems to get more press.[1]  I’ll bet you’ve heard of Dante’s Inferno, right?  It’s a story about Hell.  But did you know he also wrote a book called Purgatorio and another called Paradiso?  They’re actually much better books than The Inferno, but no one ever reads them because, frankly, sin is more interesting—or so it seems.

Before I became a priest, I imagined that hearing confessions would be fun.  I guess I thought that it would be entertaining to hear peoples’ deepest, darkest secrets—find out about all the stuff that’s going on behind the scenes that no one ever hears about.  I wasn’t much beyond my second or third confession, though, when I realized that confessions are boring.  Really, really boring.  Even the most “interesting” sins are tedious when you look at them through the lens of repentance because, as Saint Augustine loved to point out, sin is just a vacuum.  It’s a hole in something beautiful, or, in the words of Thomas Aquinas, a ‘misdirected good.’  Sin is only interesting so long as you focus on the pleasure it gives you, and it only gives you pleasure so long as you romanticize it.

a traveling monk
Benedict is afraid that the traveling monk might do something stupid while he’s away—then brag about it when he gets back.  And this fear is as much for the traveler as for his audience.  Jesus had great patience for sinners; His harshest words were for those who caused scandal: “It would be better for that man if a millstone were tied around his neck and he were tossed into the sea…” (Luke 17:2).

Nonetheless, when Monday morning rolls around, the halls are full of scandal—much of it made up out of thin air, no doubt:

 “I was soooo drunk Saturday night…”

“You-know-who was out of control…”

“You wouldn’t believe what so-and-so did…

 “You’ve got to swear not to tell anyone this, but…”

When you hear phrases like these, run for the door.  Your soul is in danger. 

The psalmist sings: “Why do you boast of your wickedness, you champion of evil?” (52:1)  It’s bad enough to act like a fool, but you elevate foolishness to a whole new level when you brag about it to your friends.  So it’s not enough just to watch what you do on the weekends.  You need to watch what you say about it on Monday morning too.

[1] Not long ago, I complained to one of the old monks about the news.  “It’s always murders and earthquakes and wars and scandals.  How come they can’t tell us about the good things that are going on in the world?”
“Because the World is full of good things,” he answered.  “When good things become newsworthy, that’s when we need to start worrying.”

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

CHAPTER 66: The Gatekeeper

     Let a wise old monk be stationed at the door of the monastery—one who knows how to be courteous, and whose advanced age keeps him from wandering around.  He should have a room near the door so that visitors will always find someone there. As soon as he hears a knock at the door, or a poor person asking for help, the gatekeeper should answer, "Thanks be to God," or ask a blessing; and with the meekness of the fear of God let him reply with a quick, fervent, and charitable answer.  If the old monk needs hand, let him have a younger brother to help him.
    This is one of the most pleasant chapters in the rule.  One can’t help smiling at Benedict’s portrait of the gatekeeper—too old to wander about, but kind and solicitous to all who knock.  It is especially refreshing after the relentless skepticism of the previous chapter, and makes for a rather nice contrast.  Who knows what jobs this old guy had when he was younger?  It doesn’t matter to him.  His job now is to welcome strangers, and his attitude toward them should be an example to any Christian who knocks at the door.  The gatekeeper doesn’t resent having his prayers interrupted.  Instead, he thanks God for the opportunity to receive a blessing.  His response is fervent and charitable.
    Many scholars believe that this was originally the last chapter of the Rule.  (Otherwise, why tack on the bit about re-reading it to the community?)  If it is, then perhaps Benedict meant for the gatekeeper to be a sort of model for how to grow old.  Of course, right now, old age may seem a long way off, but if you’re lucky, you will in fact get old some day.  You’ll go bald and get wrinkly and have a sore back and ride around on one of those little scooters with a bell on the handle bars to warn people you’re coming.
    That’s right.  That’ll be you.  So you might as well get used to the idea.
    The kicker is that although old people may not look like much, they are the most important, most powerful folks in the Church.  Because they suffer so much, their prayers are uniquely bound up with Christ’s suffering, and that makes them intercessors and co-redeemers with Christ.  Remember that Saint Paul said we “make up in our sufferings what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ” (1 Col 24).
The question for now is what sort of old person you will be when that day comes—when your body begins to break down and your mind starts to slip.  Will you be “envious” and “puffed-up” like Benedict’s prior, or “meek” and “charitable” like Benedict’s gatekeeper?  You need to start practicing from now.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

CHAPTER 65: The Prior of the Monastery

     Sometimes serious scandals arise in monasteries because of the Prior; since there are some who, puffed up with the wicked spirit of pride and imagining that they are second abbots, set up a dictatorial rule, foster scandals, and excite quarrels in the community. For the preservation of peace and charity, therefore, it is best that the governance of the monastery should depend on the will of the abbot. If, however, the place requires it and the abbot thinks that it is a good idea, he should appoint a Prior. But let this Prior only do what his abbot tells him; for the higher he is placed above others, the more careful he should be to obey the precepts of the Rule.
     On the other hand, if the Prior is found to be disorderly or blinded by vainglory, or disregards the Holy Rule, let him be reprimanded as many as four times.  If he does not change his behavior, let him be removed from his office, and another who is worthy be appointed in his place. But if even afterward he is not quiet and submissive in the brotherhood, let him also be expelled from the monastery. Even so, the abbot should remember that he must give an account to God for all his judgments, lest perhaps envy or jealousy should trouble his conscience.

    Every monastery I’ve ever visited had a prior, and every prior I’ve met seemed to be a pretty nice guy; but Saint Benedict must have had a different experience.  Second to the opening chapter on “The Different Kinds of Monks” this is the harshest.  “Wicked,” “puffed-up,” and “prideful” are all squeezed into the very first sentence.  So what happened?  Did Benedict have a bad experience with his second-in-command?  Was there some envy, some jealousy between them?  We’ll never know.  But what comes through loud and clear in this chapter is Saint Benedict’s persistent fear that, by having two leaders, his community will be split into factions.
    As it turns out, this is a pretty legitimate concern, even from a secular perspective.  There’s a monk in my monastery who is an economist.  He explained the whole dilemma this way: if you want to build a company, you have to start with a vision.  This requires a person who can articulate that vision in terms of more immediate objectives.  But that one person can’t make every single decision, so he has to find middle-management types to do this on his behalf.  Problems arise when the middle-management people have their own objectives—objectives that conflict with one another or are different from those of their boss.  This problem is called “a misalignment of incentives.”  You never want to create an organizational structure where employee’s incentives are set at odds with one another because then they start to undermine each another’s work, make each other look bad, or worst of all, profit at the expense of the business itself.  For example, Sam wants a promotion, but he is competing with Arnold for the position; so he waits around after work and erases Arnold’s hard drive.  As a result, Sam gets the promotion, but the business just lost a thousand clients, and with them a million dollars in profit.
    So how does this apply to a monastic community?  Well, a spiritual community cultivates holiness the way a business community cultivates wealth, so you can’t have the Prior leading the community in one direction while the abbot is leading in another.  What you lose then isn’t profit but peace.  And in its place you get grumbling, back-stabbing, and scandal.  The abbot, therefore, must choose a Prior who is especially dutiful, reverent and obedient—not qualities that are easy to find in a leader.  Nonetheless, “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” said Jesus.
    So whatever team you’re on—your soccer team, your youth group, your class, your school, your family, your church—you have to keep on the lookout for these “misaligned incentives” and talk them through when you find them—all the while bearing in mind that the ultimate incentive is to know, love, and serve God.  And if talking them through doesn’t work, there is Benedict’s own advice at the end of this chapter: be quiet and be submissive.  I know that doesn’t sound very exciting, but sometimes, the incentive is more important than you are.  Wall street may run on greed, but the Church runs on love.