One Equal Love

No one likes a favourite, although most of us enjoy being someone’s favourite. The paradox is easily explained, at least in a family/community context. Our innate sense of justice is outraged when we see someone being treated better than we are for reasons that are not entirely obvious to us. What does my younger sister have that I lack that she should be so favoured? And so on and so forth. On the other hand, there is a certain secret pleasure to be derived from knowing oneself the beloved eldest son, for whom nothing is too good or too much trouble. Sometimes religious superiors do have favourites, more’s the pity, but not if they have read St Benedict on the subject. In the portion of the Rule we read today, chapter 2 verses 16 to 22, which you can listen to here, the abbot is given some very precise instructions about avoiding favouritism.

What is interesting is not so much the fact that Benedict endorses St Paul’s view that we are a new creation in Christ without any of the old distinctions applying as that he qualifies it. One equal love to be shown, one equal discipline to be imposed, yes, but. Someone found better in good works and obedience, in bonis actibus aut obedientia, does have a greater claim on the abbot’s love; the freeborn is not to be preferred to the slave unless there is some other reasonable ground for it, nisi alia rationabilis causa exsistat. The principle is clear: we are all one in Christ and serve alike under the banner of the same Lord, but the abbot must look at everything as God looks — and that’s where the nuances come in.

In God’s sight, says Benedict, we are distinguished for our good works and humility (RB 2. 22). I have heard some argue that that makes us at least semi-pelagians, but I don’t think it’s quite true. What I believe Benedict is trying to do is to encourage the abbot to take seriously his obligation to lead the community to grow in holiness — and that means both giving up his own personal preferences and studying the needs and talents of his monks. He is there to serve so he must make use of all his gifts, his powers of observation, his understanding of human nature, his judgement, to bring about the best result he can.

It is a difficult path to tread but familiar to many a parent or teacher. How to obtain the best from someone doesn’t necessarily mean equal shares of everything. In the Rule, for example, Benedict is very sensitive to the fact that some need more material goods, others fewer. What matters is to keep the end in view and to prevent any inequality in distribution acquiring a significance it does not have. Love is not measured out in pounds and pence or chocolate treats or what you will. Love hangs naked on the tree and makes us all sons in the Son. One equal love indeed.

Audio version

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10 thoughts on “One Equal Love”

  1. I think we all know when we are being favoured. To me this always comes with strings attached. Sure to be favoured will maybe make our life easy in some way at that moment, But in the long term I find it limits any personal grow for the individual. As a mother I’m often tore to when it is right to give money / support to my children or leave it to them and god to provide. I know that personally, I enjoy being left alone to achieve for good or bad the way I choose to express my idea of what I call is my gods calling. Yes, my 4 sisters over the years have not approved sometimes in the way I have conducted this. But it’s nice to come home to a leader or teacher that teachers or leads without favoured attendees?! Blessings Ruth

  2. Dear Sister Catherine

    It does seem that the Abbot is servant of all; in a way, a role that one has to endure by the grace of God?

    I wish you well.

    • I’ve obviously not written as clearly as I thought I had. Did Jesus treat the Beloved Disciple with special favour that was unjustifiable, ie.show favouritism? Did he find the B.D. better in good works and humility, to use Benedict’s words, ie worthy of being singled out in God’s sight? The point I would make in relation to the Beloved Disciple is that we frame the narrative in our own terms, which may not be correct. So, are we talking about having a favourite, being a favourite or showing favouritism? The abbot is not to show favouritism, but Benedict gives reasons for special, ie favourable if you like, treatment.

  3. Thank you Sister. As always your wise words are an inspiration. My children often accuse me of favouritism. My answer, rightly or wrongly, is each according to their need. But my main point is to say what an effect your words – “Love hangs naked on a tree” – has had on me. I watched an interview with a young Roman Catholic priest recently who said, “It was not the nails that kept Jesus on the cross – as God He could easily have ordered them out. It was love”. Like yours, powerful words.

    • Yes, it’s an old, old thought, that it was love that kept Christ on the cross, but we need to hear it anew again and again. Of course your children accuse you of favouyritism! That’s natural among siblings and shows how much they value your love.

  4. I once again say thank you, and affirm how much I was enlivened by your writing, and continual prayer on our behalf . Pax et Bonum.

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