The Sleepy are Apt to Make Excuses

St Benedict ends today’s section of the Rule by urging the monks to encourage one another when they get up for the Work of God, ‘for the sleepy are apt to make excuses’. (RB 22.8). It is one of those tender touches, full of warmth and humanity, that make the Rule so attractive. Of course, anyone who has actually got up in the middle of the night to sing Vigils, day in, day out, and been faced with the long, cold trek into choir, where X is singing flat and Y flapping around like a wet hen because, yet again, he hasn’t prepared, may take a slightly more jaundiced view. Let us leave the monastic curmudgeons to their mutterings and reflect on the words themselves: ‘the sleepy are apt to make excuses’.

Do we sleep-walk through life, going through the same routines but never thinking very deeply about anything and avoiding, if we can, any engagement beyond the superficial, or do we cultivate a kind of moral sleepiness, deliberately keeping ourselves distant from everyone and everything, so that if we are taxed with bad behaviour or challenged about our attitudes, we can take refuge in excuses and evasion? It isn’t very brave, but as a survival technique it has something to commend it. If it always someone else’s fault, we can reassure ourselves that ‘our withers are unwrung’. If we don’t have to face up to the consequences of our actions, we can go on defending them. The trouble with that kind of approach is that one day we’ll wake up and find that because we’ve never been able to say sorry, we’ve never been able to accept forgiveness, either.

If I may be allowed a very large generalisation, I’d say that men are marginally more likely than women to have difficulty admitting they are wrong. It sounds like conceding defeat, weakness even. They prefer to go on the attack or continue to justify their actions when it might be more gracious just to smile and say ‘sorry’. Women, by contrast, sometimes say ‘sorry’ very quickly, but don’t be fooled into thinking it is necessarily meant as an apology or recognition of wrongdoing. Far from it! It can sometimes be a way of drawing fire, of avoiding responsibility. (Here let me just add that, if one is British, one is culturally predisposed to apologize to all and sundry, even the furniture, but I hope we can take a more international view of the situation for the sake of my argument.) Whether male or female, we are all familiar with the techniques of avoidance and evasion, both active and passive, but I don’t suppose any of us is very pleased to have them pointed out to us, not in ourselves at any rate. We prefer to keep our eyes closed, dozing our way through things.

Unfortunately, we can’t doze for ever, not in this life. The time will come when we must rouse ourselves and stop making excuses. Why is that important? I’ve already given one reason, the importance of both giving and accepting forgiveness, but I think there’s a second. When we are asleep, even half-asleep, we are less than fully alive. We’re slightly ‘out’ of things. Making excuses for ourselves, whether of the aggressive or defensive kind, is also a way of being ‘out’ of things, but that isn’t how we are meant to spend our lives. We aren’t meant to be moral cowards. We have been given the enormous gift of free will, and we are meant to use it. We have been given grace, signed and sealed with the Holy Spirit at our baptism. Is there anything we cannot face, even those shortcomings that wound our pride and undermine our sense of self? Of course not! And Lent is a very good time for facing up to some of them.

Today’s gospel, Matthew 5. 20–26, contains a very sober warning that we can’t drift through a life of virtue. Little things matter. We have to act, and act decisively. If there is someone we need to be reconciled with, it’s no good waiting for him/her to come to us. We must go out to them. That takes courage, because it means risking rebuff. But wouldn’t it be better to be thought a fool rather than actually be one, to be fully awake and alive rather than slumbering and semi-comatose? Today, I shall try to take my own advice because I believe it to be what the gospel asks of us. What about you?

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8 thoughts on “The Sleepy are Apt to Make Excuses”

  1. Thanks for the warning. I’ve now given myself a shake to make sure that I’m fully alive. But an aching tooth is telling me that I am 🙁

    This reminds me of a conversation a few nights ago, where we discussed how we tend to go into worship with a mind focused on life and pay scant regard to the words of the liturgy or psalms or hymns we sing. We are so familiar with them, that for many, the repetition over years of use have embedded them and we recite almost by rote. But, how much are we actually absorbing the full meaning of the prayers we use or the music that we sing to. Do they resonate, echo in us, move us to deeper reverence?

    As in the half-asleep novice or even professed religious, we the laity can be, even if devout, lured into the mode of automon, rather than a worshiping person, fully alive in the prayer and liturgy, not sharing the opportunity for worship. Ignoring the sacred and divine in favour or more worldly dreams or busy lives.

    Most of us in the discussion hastened to reassure ourselves that we weren’t guilty of this, but we also knew that the facts are different. I know that while I go into prayer or worship, I’m also a weak and prone to failure, so that there have been times when my attention has wandered, where I’ve seized on some distraction to shift my attention from the purpose of worship, to that which is more immediate and holds an interest not worthy of what I should be doing.

    Half asleep or half awake, not sure which, but this post prompts me to be more attentive to the word and presence of God than to my own human frailty.

    Thanks be to God for insight on a cold and frosty Friday Morning 🙂

  2. So well said! I enjoy following you and Brother Duncan PBGV on Twitter. Your blog reminded me of this: I used to be one of the enclosed Dominican nuns at Carisbrooke on the Isle of Wight, now long closed. Often in the midnight office one of the older sisters who looked after the hens used to bring ones that were sick in under her cappa, and they joined in with the singing! Of course she was not supposed to do this, and of course nobody ever said a word to Mother Winifred about it. That is perhaps another message about monastic life to remember where kindness needs to temper judgement. It’s what we hope the Lord will do with all of us, I’m sure. Praying for you especially during the chemo!

    • Thank you. I think there is a humanity about most communities that outsiders only rarely glimpse, but it’s lovely when we do. Perhaps, long ago, when my parents lived on the Isle of Wight and I used occasionally to visit Carisbrooke, I heard your voice — but never, I must admit, did I go to the Midnight Office.

  3. The attention you have given to the Rule of St. Benedict, Sister, and reflection you made upon it today as it supports the Gospel reading was very helpful in the edification of my soul.
    There are times when my thinking has been negative and my actions have followed accordingly. I admit that have often become preoccupied with thoughts of existential angst wherein the temptation is to listen to the lie that incites terror, “You are going to die. Where is your God?” My faith is challenged. The words of temptation can come in many forms of unhealthy thinking. I acknowledge that it is human to be aware and sobered by the idea of one’s eventual physical demise. But in the sobering one must choose life. This Lent I am miraculously raised from the thoughts of death and in like I am set free to truly live. Yes, I am vulnerable! Where is my God? Living eternal within my being; indwelling is the Holy Spirit in me and in those who have chosen to believe and welcome He who has promised to be with us until the end, never to abandon us! I choose to believe, and as it has been said anonymously, “Put legs on your faith and make it walk!” It is in obedience to the command of our blessed Lord, to believe and to take up our metaphoric mats and walk in faith in Him for the completion of a life well lived in service. This is for today, the focus on the Rule, and on the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ that fills my heart with stability of truth by which all my other vows — holy chastity, obedience, simplicity, and ongoing conversion of life — may be fulfilled.
    Thank you for your reflection, Sister Catherine, and for the opportunity to share just a bit of how the Holy Spirit has touched me today as my heart and mind was opened by His work in you. I am very grateful for your humble and most sublime service to the good of my soul.
    De’ana Maria, OSBCn

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