Tuesday, April 28, 2015

CHAPTER 71: Mutual Obedience

The brethren must be obedient not only to the abbot, but also to one another, knowing that this path of obedience is how they will reach God. Therefore, unless the abbot says otherwise, the younger brethren should obey their elders with all charity and zeal.  And if a brother is scolded in any way by the abbot or by any of his Superiors for even a slight reason—or if he notices that one of his elders is even slightly put off, let him without delay cast himself down on the ground at his feet until the whole situation is quieted by a blessing.

    Monks aren’t just obedient to their abbot, they are obedient to one another as well—and in particular to their elders.  This of course goes way beyond doing what they’re told.  A real Christian community needs all of its members to look out for one another, so the moment a monk senses that he has done the opposite—inspired some anger or anxiety in his brother—he stops what he’s doing and fixes it.
    Here again, Saint Benedict demands instant and unhesitating action.  The monk, as you will recall, makes humility his special virtue, so there is no room for excuses or finger-pointing. He doesn’t stop to ask himself if he’s really in the wrong.  The moment he perceives that his actions have caused a problem, he throws himself on the floor and begs a blessing.  Notice that, technically speaking, he isn’t asking for forgiveness.  At least not at first.  It may be that he wasn’t at fault in the first place, so instead of asking forgiveness, he asks for a blessing, which is actually far more.  Notice too that he gets down on the floor to do it.  The physical part is essential because it’s so easy to do.  He doesn’t have to put on a sad face or try to look like he means it.  By making himself physically smaller than his brother, he restores some of the dignity he took away when he provoked him.  And he can do all this while he is still hopping mad.
    Again, he doesn’t wait to figure out whether he feels sorry.  He doesn’t wait to decide whether he was really at fault.  He just does what the Rule tells him to do.  This may sound insincere, but think about it: if people only apologized on those occasions when they knew they were wrong, apologies would be very rare indeed.  Because who ever gets in an argument knowing that they are mistaken?
Every morning before we begin the office of Lauds, the monks sing this psalm:

Have mercy on me, God in your kindness;
In your compassion, blot out my offense.
For I acknowledge my guilt

and my sin is always before me.

I have done such evil in your sight.
                --Psalm 50

    So when it comes time for the apology itself, the formula is quite clear:  “I have done evil.”  In an age when we delight in celebrity scandals, when every apology is prefaced by a disclaimer and followed by an excuse, when shock radio and reality television have elevated sleaze to an art form...it’s astonishing to hear anyone admit frankly that he has done wrong.  These days, you’d expect the psalmist to say something more along the lines of,  “I apologize to anyone who may have been offended by any misinterpretation of what I might have done…when I was provoked.”  But that isn’t the Benedictine way.  “I have done evil in your sight” says the monk, “and you are just in your judgment.”
    Never water down an apology with an excuse.  If you’ve done wrong, own up to it.  Throw yourself on the floor and beg for a blessing.  Then let the whole thing go.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

CHAPTER 70: Presuming to Strike a Brother

     We decree that no one be permitted to excommunicate or to strike any one of his brethren, unless the abbot has given him the authority. But if anyone should break this rule, let him be publicly reprimanded, that the others may learn from his mistake.  
      Let all, however, exercise diligent and watchful care over the discipline of children until they reach the age of fifteen.  Of course, even that should be done with discretion. And if anyone should presume to discipline those of more advanced years without the command of the abbot, or loses his temper when he punishes the children, let him be subject to the discipline of the Rule, because it is written: "If you do not want it to be done to you, do not do it to someone else." (Tb 4:16)[1]. 

      You don’t have to hang out with people who annoy you, but when you consistently refuse to speak or eat with someone, isn’t that a form of excommunication?  When you make a point of avoiding them, when you sneer at their jokes and roll your eyes as they turn away, aren’t these just subtle ways of punishing them?  Chapters 69 and 70 are two sides of the same coin.  It doesn’t matter whether you are defending or attacking someone in the community; either way, you are judging them.  And Saint Benedict knows that behavior of this sort can take any number of different forms—from outright beatings to silent contempt.  In many respects, the silent attacks can be the worst.  Personally, I’d rather get jumped in the hallway than realize after several weeks that someone has been talking behind my back.
     Still, Benedict doesn’t completely disapprove of corporal punishment, and in this respect, he can start to sound kind of medieval.  But you have to take his comments in context.  In his day, folks used to beat kids all the time.  In fact, everyone used to beat everyone—and a thousand years later, they were still doing it. Stephen Greenblatt, in his biography of William Shakespeare, pointed out that in the 1500s, “parents frequently whipped children, teachers whipped students, masters whipped servants, beadles whipped whores, sheriffs whipped vagrants and beggars…” (Will in the World, p. 178).  Up until the 19th century it was legal to beat your wife with a stick, provided it was no wider than your thumb.[2] 
     My point is that in the old days, everyone believed in corporal punishment, and not just for kids either, so we can’t really hold it against Saint Benedict that he accepted it as the norm.  In fact, we can admire his restraint.  His aim here is to prevent his monks from acting out of anger, and anyone who does so receives a public reprimand.  What are we to learn from this?  That judging and condemning are practices best left to God.

[1] This is the third time Saint Benedict quotes this exact passage from the Book of Tobit!  What’s up with that?
[2] A series of lawsuits, most notably North Carolina v. Oliver (in 1874) put an end to this so-called “rule of thumb.”

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

CHAPTER 69: Presuming to Defend a Brother

No monk should ever defend another in the monastery.  Nor should he take sides in an argument.  Such conduct should never occur in the monastery under any circumstances because it causes very grave scandal. If anyone should violate this rule, let him be severely punished.

Wow.  Severely punished.  And just for defending a fellow monk.  There’s got to be more here than meets the eye.
And of course, there is.
Saint Benedict is talking about cliques and the grumbling that inevitably accompanies them.  When you take a side in an argument (not a discussion, mind you, but an actual confrontation) you take a personal disagreement and make it into a public one.  Something that might well have been settled quietly must now be publicly and officially resolved.  This is especially inappropriate for a monk because, you remember, even when he is given an impossible task, he shouldn’t defend himself; so on what grounds could he possibly dare to defend someone else?
 But taking sides in a fight is always dangerous—and not just because you might end up with a black market nose-job.  Morally speaking, it’s also dangerous. How, for example, do you decide which brothers are worth defending?  Just the ones you agree with?  The ones you’re related to?  The ones you like the most?  And are you sure you know all the details?  You see where this is going: once you start taking sides, there’s no good reason to stop.
But what makes this behavior even more deplorable is that you are, on a personal level, playing God.  Jesus said, “Do not judge, or you will be judged” (Matt 7:1).  By this, of course, he did not mean that we should just accept everyone’s behavior as-is.  We are called to make judgments about particular acts.  We are permitted—in fact, we are obliged—to analyze certain moral acts and determine whether they conform to Christian moral standards. We can say, “…this or that act is sinful…” even “..this or that person committed a sinful act.”  What we are forbidden to say is, “This is a bad person” or “This person is going to Hell.”  The distinction is subtle, but necessary.  We judge acts, not people.[1]
Here’s the catch, though: you don’t judge people when they’re in the wrong, but you don’t judge them when they’re in the right either.  In the old days, everyone seemed pretty confident their neighbors were going to Hell.  These days, everyone seems pretty confident they’re going to Heaven.  Either way, it’s not our call.  That’s why we pray for the dead and not to them. 

[1] Parents, religious superiors, and judges are sometimes called upon to judge people, but they do so with fear and trembling, knowing that they will be held accountable by God Himself.

Monday, April 13, 2015

CHAPTER 68: If a Brother is Given an Impossible Command

If a brother is given a difficult or impossible command, let him nevertheless receive the order with all meekness and obedience. If, however, he sees that the burden of the command is entirely beyond his strength, let him quietly (and at the appropriate time) submit the reasons for his inability to his Superior—without pride, protest, or dissent. If, however, after hearing the brother’s explanation, the Superior still insists on his command, the monk should trust that his superior knows what is best for him and obey out of love, relying on God’s help.

     Note that the default attitude for a monk is unhesitating obedience—even when he is told to do something impossible, he must obey.  This is a particularly hard concept for the modern mind to grasp.  It smacks of “radicalism” and “blind faith.”  We start thinking of cult leaders and Nazis and we begin to ask ourselves questions like: “If the pope said black was white, would I believe it?  What if my bishop told me to kill someone?  What if the Church taught something that I didn’t agree with?”  But here we must make a crucial distinction between unhesitating obedience and unquestioning obedience. 
      Benedict expects his monks to do what they’re told, but he expects them to question their superior.  So it must be with anyone who is put in authority over us, whether that’s a parent, a bishop, a teacher or a pope.  We are expected to question and analyze…even to challenge them when we think they’re wrong.  But defiance and rebellion are out of the question, and skepticism shouldn’t be the norm.  It may help to think of the Church as an army.  You want a soldier to challenge his superior if he is given a truly immoral or impossible command.  It may even be his moral duty to disobey if that command is truly heinous—like executing civilians or torturing prisoners.  However, you can’t have the troops questioning every order.  In fact, you may legitimately expect a soldier to obey an order even when he disagrees with it.  When the captain shouts “Charge!” he can’t then sit down with every grunt and explain his rationale.
     So for the Catholic, at any rate, it all boils down to this: you have to decide ahead of time whether you trust Her.  If you think she’s right about, say, transubstantiation and the Trinity, then, unless there is a deep violation of your conscience, you’ve got to trust Her on the other stuff too.  What’s more, it may be the case that this is not so much a violation of your conscience as a case of having two consciences—one that says, “I’m a Catholic” and one that says, “I think such-and-such.”  Distinguishing between these two consciences can be a grueling exercise, but my senior Theology students came up with a way to make that process easier.  Consider the following:
     No matter how much time you spend thinking about it, the sum total of your wisdom will not add up to more than the sum total of the Church’s wisdom.  You aren’t holier than Mother Theresa.  You aren’t smarter than Thomas Aquinas.  You aren’t wiser than Saint Francis.  And you aren’t older than the Church.  But now you say that you are right, and the entire Catholic Church—all its saints, theologians, and bishops are wrong?  Sure, a particular cleric or parent may be in error, but the whole Church?  If it’s a matter of doctrine, the odds are not in your favor.
     Here again, Saint Benedict is talking about humility.  Are you willing to admit that you are not the ultimate authority?