The Impossible

Those who are not Benedictines often smile when they come across today’s chapter of the Rule, with its arresting title, If a Brother be Commanded to Do Impossible Things (RB 68), or some variant thereof. Those of us under the yoke of the Rule tend to smile with rather more gritty determination than amusement because in many ways this little chapter means there is no escape from anything, ever. Confronted with the impossible, when we have done all that the Rule says, when we have politely and at an approriate moment explained to our superior why we cannot do it, we must ‘obey out of love, trusting in God’s help’ — ex caritate confidens de adiutorio Dei obediat (RB 68.5).

In the past I have tended to write about this chapter in terms of practical obedience, such as suddenly being required to cook for 60 people or asked to sing a difficult piece of chant with only the haziest notion of how it should be phrased, but it goes deeper than that. There are so many things that we find difficult, even impossible. Perhaps the most difficult of all is to forgive a wrong done to ourselves, or, even harder, to accept that we have done wrong to another. I’m sure we can all look back on episodes in our lives that make us ashamed, can still find pockets of unforgiveness that bind ourselves as well as others. It isn’t easy to forgive, especially as we tend to assume that it is something we do, with once-for-all-finality, whereas in reality we have to allow God to forgive in and through us, and it is a process often-repeated rather than a single act.

We can look at the world around us and see much that is in need of healing, but may I suggest that today we start a little nearer home, with ourselves? To forgive is not to be weak; it is to be strong, but with a strength that comes from God. It is to do the impossible.

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16 thoughts on “The Impossible”

  1. Your wisdom is forever fresh, deeply appreciated and helpful. I have been struggling for years in a painful and difficult situation. Your perspectives always help! I am translating each day commentaries on the Rule from French to English: Dom Guillaume Jedrzejczak’s Sur un chemin de liberté. I also find much wisdom and help here.

  2. There is a difference between being asked and ordered to do something which on the face of it looks to be or, once started, ends up being impossible for the performer. In my working life, I was often instructed to do difficult and sometimes eventually impossible tasks. If one can embark upon such a task with equanimity, good grace and best endeavours, one has tried and may even be partially or wholly successful.
    The difficulty for the performer is if they are punished for failing to complete the task. Punishment can take different forms, many of which are highly abusive. It is in this context that forgiveness becomes difficult particularly for the person being punished.
    But our dear Lord Jesus undertook the ultimately impossible task. He died for all our sakes and as the ultimate example by His Father of His love for humanity.

    • In a monastic context, which is the setting for RB 68, the distinction between being asked and being ordered to do something is often very fine indeed. However, when applying the thought of St Benedict to forgiveness, I don’t think we can skate round the answer the Lord gave St Peter, ‘You must forgive not seven times but seventy-seven times!’. The question of success/punishment doesn’t really arise, does it, since it must be the work of grace accepted and acted upon?

      • Dear Sister Catherine, it is rarely that I disagree with your advice. I was not saying that forgiveness should not happen. I was saying that for a person being abused/punished for failing to complete an impossible task forgiveness was often very difficult. I do not live the monastic life so cannot be aware of the nuances of life for those who do and have difficulty with impossible tasks. Is failure punished in the monastery? Too often it is in ordinary life and the punishment is often physical as well as mental. God never intended for His people to suffer for failing. Perhaps l am being naive.
        I wish you relief from your illness and treatment. God bless and care for you. Peace and love be with you xx.

        • ?? I think I should have quoted the whole of chapter 68 as we are working on different lines here. There is no question of abuse/punishment. Your original comment made me think that you were questioning the concept of forgiveness (which is what I was applying the text of the Rule to) and which, as Christians, I think we are obliged to (no matter how imperfectly we fulfil the obligation). The forgiveness I was writing about is the ‘impossibility’ itself, not the product of failure to complete a task. I’m sorry I wasn’t clear!

          • I crave your indulgence dear Sister Catherine. I have re-read your pieces several times and realise that l am deficient of comprehension. Forgive (no pun intended in this instance) me for questioning your sound reasoning. God bless and care for you. Peace and love be with you xx

  3. Thank you for this teaching, Dame Catherine. I am struggling with issues of justice vs. forgiveness right now. Some “superiors” have created a hostile work environment for me and for others (this, at a highly respected University), and I believe I am in a position (senior tenured professor) to help effect positive change. Yet, I need prayer and encouragement to act with grace and forgiveness as I seek out ways of justice (not vengence). Thank you for quoting our Lord’s words to Peter on this point. It doesn’t have to be justice pitted against forgiveness, does it?

    • Oh dear, that is such a difficult situation to be in! Be assured of our prayers. Yes, you are right, justice isn’t pitted against forgiveness. In an important sense, justice is ‘right order’ — and we know forgiveness brings about right order, but it has to be worked at, it can’t just be magicked up by our thinking about it or vaguely wanting it. May God guide you.

  4. I love the simplicity and yet the depth of what you write. Easy to scroll by when there is no catchy picture to catch one’s eye but always worth the pause. Thanks.

  5. Deep, thoughtful and wise writing, as ever! To be asked (or expected) to bear with the unbearable is always such a difficult task and can bring a bitterness that makes forgiveness very hard to come by…but we must find it in order to be whole. Thank you for very meaningful words, both for me and my church community. x

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