Today we re-read chapter 68 of the Rule of St Benedict, If a Brother be Commanded to Do the Impossible. It is, needless to say, one of my favourite chapters. I like its realism. We are all faced with doing the impossible from time to time. Our natural response is to protest, often loudly, or to run away (there are many ways of doing so, some especially clever at hiding the fact that we are escaping the difficulty). Benedict, alas, will have none of it.

First of all, he demands that we accept whatever order is given us ‘with perfect gentleness and obedience.’ It is not enough merely to obey, we must be gentle. Have you ever stopped to consider what that means? No grumbles, no grudging or ungracious words, no shrugging of the shoulders or body language at odds with what we profess to be doing; no door-slamming or other provocative actions which might lead to someone muttering, ‘I’d rather not ask’. It is easy to make clear that we are reluctant to do something, but that isn’t the Benedictine way. Benedict doesn’t expect us to be stupid, however. If we see that the ‘weight of the burden altogether exceeds our strength’ β€” a statement that calls for reflection and some nice judgement on our part β€” then we must ‘patiently explain to our superior, at an appropriate moment, why we are unequal to it.’ So, yet again, we must mind our manners and present our superior with a properly thought-through explanation of our own inadequacy for the task, and at a suitable time. We don’t just rush in whenever suits us and babble out our objections. We are required to consider the other person, not our own feelings about the matter. Trying to see things from another’s point of view demands effort and sometimes sacrifice, and Benedict both expects that and encourages us to use all our natural giftedness to do so.

Finally, of course, we come to the crunch. If the superior holds fast to his decision, we must ‘realize that this is best for us, and, trusting in God’s help, out of love obey.’ In that short sentence we have a whole theology of monastic obedience. Our obedience to God is mediated through obedience to imperfect human beings, the superior being for Benedictines the most obvious. We trust that this is for our good; we trust that God will help us; and we obey out of love because we desire to unite our obedience with that of Christ himself. Love of God can never be an abstraction; it must always be incarnated, and it is, again and again, through that surrender of self we make in obedience.

In truth, RB 68 is too great a treasure to be kept for monks and nuns alone. You can hear it being read, as in community, over at our main website in the sidebar here.


9 thoughts on “Impossibilities”

  1. I really don’t “get” this. A superior orders, a nun says “Yes”. Then realises she cannot do the thing and goes and politely says so. I understand from your penultimate paragraph that she still might have to do it if the superior insists, yet if she cannot, then the task, whatever it was, will not get done even though she has, in obedience, said yes.

  2. Jenny, it would probably take a lifetime to explain how this works in community. It presupposes so many things which, clearly, do not apply to you. However, I hope you may have found something useful in what the text says about ways of approaching these kinds of situations.

  3. God sometimes asks us all to do things which we think we can’t do. We need to discern whether it is really beynd us or if there is some other reason why we feel resistant.

  4. Often when I read your blog posts on the Rule I am struck by how relevent it is to a corporate working life as well.

    I guess one point is that if you never try to do what seems impossible, you do not grow your capabilities. You will learn even from an unsuccessful attempt, and personal growth can be as important as the actual outcome. In trying, you can draw on the support of your colleagues or community, who can help the impossible seem merely challenging.

  5. I wonder about the place of our “own feelings about the matter.” Does accepting an order with “gentleness and perfect obedience” require more than resisting grumbling and a shoulder shrug? Perfect obedience suggests to me an inner (emotional) acceptance also. Is that the eventual goal?

    Often we don’t feel equal to a task and fear failure. I suppose carrying those feelings in a gentle way as we accept what God places before us is only human, and is perhaps more pleasing to him as a result. Obeying with feelings of resistance, in all gentleness. Discerning what God is asking of us is also a difficulty…

  6. Thank you for sharing your insights. I ought to have mentioned that one should also read RB 5 on Obedience and, indeed, the whole Rule, to appreciate Benedict’s teaching on the subject. You will notice that the question Margaret poses about inner attitudes is dealt with more fully in RB 5.

    I have often used RB as a ‘management guide’ on days of recollection run for executives and the like. A well-run, well-motivated corporation must draw on many of the ‘management skills’ an abbot is called upon to exercise β€” and if you think that has no place in Christian thinking, remember that St Paul included administration among the charisms of the Holy Spirit bestowed on the Christian community.

  7. One of my favourite readings, too. It is useful in so many situations, professional, as well as monastic. It is quite a philosophy to live by: overwhelming tasks will arise, do your best to minimise the threat and if that is impossible, go to the task with courage and faith and do your best.

  8. And sometimes the rewards are surprising. I was asked to teach maths in a grammar school many years ago. My jaw dropped because I considered myself enumerate. Nevertheless, I did as I was asked after querying whether my headmistress understood what she was doing. I discovered that not only was I not enumerate but that I actually liked maths and I went on to study it more. Astonishing for someone who once declared that hell would be a maths lesson with no bell bringing it to an end.

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