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.”

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