Fraternal Correction and Forgiveness

‘Fraternal correction’ is very popular in some corners of the blogosphere, as it is in life. ‘Speaking the truth in love’ is a key text, with the emphasis on truth often seeming to obscure the love. For Benedictines, fraternal correction is not an abstraction but a lived reality. It is also, or should be, extremely rare because St Benedict understood how much we all enjoy putting others right and hedged the power to correct round with some important restrictions and qualifications. In essence, only the abbot or those authorized by him should correct. It is assumed that the abbot and spiritual elders will have discernment and act only for the good of the other (whether an individual or the community as a whole). Any abuse of this authority will meet with severe punishment in this life and the next.

Although Benedict was clear-eyed about the need for correction, he was much more interested in encouraging his monks to grow in virtue. His comments on the Lord’s Prayer repay careful thought. He directs that the prayer should be said at the conclusion of every Office ‘because of the thorns of contention that are wont to arise’ in community and reminds the brethren of ‘the covenant they make in those words’. Now what is it that we find in the Lord’s Prayer? Every sentence is about God’s action and holiness save one, where we pledge ourselves to the work of forgiveness: ‘as we forgive those who sin against us.’ Interesting, isn’t it, that the most important Christian prayer, the pattern of all prayer, lays upon us this one duty, forgiveness — not correction?

So, are we just to ‘forgive and forget’ and not bother with correction at all? By no means. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting; it means transforming a source of injury into something life-giving. The body of the Risen Christ still shows the marks of his Passion, but they are no longer death-dealing wounds but a source of life and healing. That is something we all can and must emulate ourselves. Similarly, correction is still necessary: the truth must be upheld, anything contrary to the gospel must be challenged. The question here is: am I the right person to do the correcting? Do I have enough knowledge, is my judgement sure enough, do I have enough love? This last often gets forgotten. In the desire to ensure that truth is served, we sometimes overlook the importance of love. It isn’t easy to correct in the way we should, which is why Benedict links correction with authority. Those with responsibility for others are, or should be, more mindful of the consequences of what they say and do. As Horace once said, ‘A word once let out of the cage cannot be whistled back again.’ If we are to speak the truth in love we must also take care to speak only such words as build up; and the words which really build up are those of forgiveness and love.

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4 thoughts on “Fraternal Correction and Forgiveness”

  1. Is forgiveness really about not forgetting? I’m struggling with this at the moment, because the human mind is such that it is made to forget (or at least lessen) things over time. I can’t imagine that God would mentally catalogue all our transgressions to mention them again after we have known the transformative power of forgiveness. The Jewish philosopher Fackenheim asked the same thing: does God forget? There are of course those rather comical moments when Moses has to remind God of either the Israelites sinfulness or of their goodness, but I think there is an important philosophical and theological point being made through it.
    I feel that I haven’t been able to fully form my views properly on this subject (hence the struggle!), but I wondering now if forgiveness is even possible without forgetting.

  2. Thank you, Andrew. I certainly think we should forget where we buried the hatchet! Flippancy aside, you ask an important question. I don’t think the act of remembering implies lack of forgiveness but rather the reverse. If we DON’T remember, are we actually forgiving (which implies an act of will) or simply substituting forgetfulness (which has nothing willed about it)? For me, the precious wounds of Christ are a great help in understanding what you rightly call ‘the transformative power of forgiveness’. In the material, objective sense, nothing is changed; but the significance is utterly transformed.

    Again, I don’t think forgiveness for us human beings is necessarily a once-for-all business. We have to go on choosing forgiveness, sometimes over and over again for the same injury. It is a struggle between good and evil. That doesn’t mean we remind the person who has wronged us of the wrong they have committed. That is to make a false peace, seeking opportunities to pick over the quarrel again. No, we choose to forgive by the grace God has given us.

    When we speak of God’s forgiveness, I think we fall back on nescience. We know the reality of God’s forgiveness; we see it in the death of Christ on the Cross; but the inner dynamic is necessarily hidden from us. I don’t see God as a grudge-bearer. In fact, it is precisely because God knows all about me yet still manages to love me that I know I am forgiven. In the relation between him and me the act of forgiving has passed into the state of forgiveness. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have to ask him again and again for pardon or seek to amend my life but the New Covenant established in Christ’s blood has radically transformed the situation in which I live.

  3. Andrew, like you I struggle with this. My breakthrough was to view ‘Forgive and Forget’ as one of the most misleading of our phrases. To realise that forgetting is involuntary i.e. it just happens (increasingly often in my case) and forgiving is voluntary was crucial. We have to choose to forgive. To make this choice is a duty if we are trying to live a gospel life. Digitalnun’s response, noting forgiveness as an ongoing practice has furthered my understanding. From my experience, and believe me I am not an easy forgiver of others or of self, the beauty of forgiving is that the incidents, the hurts become forgotten. They drop away, and at the best of times a lesson is learned that strengthens future action. I no theologian but I name that as Grace.

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