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.