Compassion not Condemnation

No one who reads today’s section of the Rule of St Benedict, chapter 27 On the Abbot’s Special Care for the Excommunicated, can feel easy about condemning others. Again and again, Benedict advocates patience, reaffirmation of love and support for the wobbly one, and is reminded of the example he himself must follow, that of the Good Shepherd who carried the straying sheep back to the flock on his own sacred shoulders (RB 27. 9, a telling addition to the gospel narrative). The emphasis is not on what the excommunicate must do in order to be reintegrated into community but what the abbot and community must do.

How often do we demand that another person change, show repentance or remorse, conform to our standards of acceptable behaviour and become what we require them to be? It is an arrogance that goes beyond the individual. We have seen something of the same in the run-up to COP26. Most people in the U.K. agree that caring for the environment and being good stewards of natural resources are important, but the methods adopted by Insulate Britain, for example, to force attention on their case have had a mixed reception. There has been a clashing of rights which reflects a clash of interests. At COP26 itself, the division in interest between rich and poor nations has been stark at times. Those of us living a comfortable life in the West don’t really know what it is like to live with sea levels just two metres below our country’s land mass and, as one delegate put it, no hill to run to if they rise.

Only a very wise person, or a very foolish one, would claim to know how to solve the challenge of climate change, but we must do the best we can. When dealing with those who are unconvinced, or whose self-interest is apparently opposed to our own, we need all the qualities an abbot must show when confronted with disruptive behaviour in an individual: patience, support, readiness to act. Above all, we need to show compassion rather than condemnation, a willingness to listen and, where we can, compromise.

Over to you, but, please, no angry rants. They won’t be published.


8 thoughts on “Compassion not Condemnation”

  1. One thing that always strikes me about the Rule is that, having been elected as head of the community, the Abbot has to organise, motivate and care for a group of probably very disparate individuals and weld them into an effective unit. He could not ignore any lapses that might, if not checked, bring the community to disorder and at worst, total collapse.
    The issue with the current conference seems to me to be that no-one is actually “in charge” so all decisions must be by consensus. Which will be difficult because those involved have to consider their own political position at home, and, indeed, whether they have the power to enforce the changes that they know will need to be made to rescue the world from disaster.
    At least the Abbot knew that he had the last word, as laid down in the Rule, on momentous decisions.
    Please delete this if my comments are out of order or seen as disrespectful.

    • You make a very good point, though I’m not sure a religious superior’s power is anywhere near as absolute as you might think! He or she must work to achieve a common mind, consensus, agreement, or so I read the Rule. Failure to do so exposes any community to weakness. I think that’s obvious at COP26 too. Mia Mottley, the Barbados PM, has spoken eloquently and with good sense but can she give (be allowed to give?) the moral leadership the meeting needs?

  2. Thank you
    A timely reminder to check our attitudes .
    So easy to condemn , so easy to let anger override what Jesus calls us to do
    Love one another as I have loved you .
    Much prayer is needed for those whose behaviour challenges us and much prayer is needed for a real hard honest look at our own lack of patience , compassion and understanding. A daily examen is helpful in allowing His light to shine in all our dark places



  3. Oh, I see this self-interested opinionated clash in my community and I keep worrying about the un-self focused, future of community and I want to persuade the selfish to understand the common good is real goodness.

  4. No angry rant here but just an (almost) overwhelming sadness – as usual I am at a loss… how do we go about this? eat less meat? yes but… the vegans whom I know (and respect for their beliefs) exist on imported soya and other products and may possibly be jeopardising their health by “missing” certain trace elements and other essential nutrients; and our younger son is a livestock-farmer in the Lake District – would I want to deprive him, his wife and children of their livelihood? No, of course not… albeit one of the “new style” of young farmers, deeply committed to the wilder culture of regenerative farming and pasture-fed only movement, the benefits his livestock bring to the fells and pastures are as yet untold. However, forgive me for I am straying from your very well-made point: compassion not condemnation, that works both ways of course.

  5. I do believe that those attending COP26 meet with the best of intentions but they are all constrained by politics, economics and dare I suggest, a simplistic and short term view of the science surrounding climate change. As with most issues, it is extremely complex and there are opposing views.

    But, we as individuals can have a huge impact on the world’s resources by setting an example and as consumers we have considerable power. I’m not suggesting action such as that conducted by Insulate Britain. But we in the West could consume less, buy what we need rather than what we want. We could recycle, declutter and be far more discerning in our purchases.

    When my father in law died, we had the job of clearing his flat. Whilst much went to our local Hospice shop, more than two years later we still have items to dispose of!

    Live simply is a slogan that’s been thrown about, could we, could I do it better? I know I could, I know I should so how can I expect politicians to do so when I’m reluctant to do so myself!

  6. I’ve been pondering in this as I’ve been walking the GS to school and Ann Hesketh’s comment too. Anyone in leadership must indeed aim for compassion and understanding of those who disagree or indeed subvert the purpose of the institution, and do their very best to achieve harmony and consensus. But – sometimes that’s just not achievable and in the interests of those for whom the institution exists, its necessary to act decisively and discipline or remove that person. Of course the workplace is very different from a monastery not least because we can’t assume the same set of shared values and beliefs. And, the leader is the one who carries the can if it all falls apart. (For the nation its an occasional chance to vote in an unfair system)
    As one who has been politically very engaged for what seems like forever, starting with marching with Mgr Bruce Kent to pulling down the fence at Greenham and then having to be ‘skilful’ in elected positions, it’s very hard to be completely straightforward in order to get things done. And, sadly, sometimes it’s the grand gesture, the breaking of laws and noisy challenge that is the only thing that speaks truth to power.
    So, we make the little ‘green’ gestures like avoiding red meat and eschewing plastic and not flying knowing that it will make not one jot of difference apart from making us feel better about ourselves. And in the meantime I applaud the brave ones who are out there risking arrest and abuse in order to draw attention to the plight of creation.

    Sorry for this jeremiad and hope I haven’t been ranting. Mea culpa if I have.

  7. Dear Sister, All we can do is pray, humbly, trustfully, and lift our eyes to Heaven …. in silence and in song. So thank you . Your Post has given us much to ponder on … and thanks also to St Benedict and all Benedictine’s.

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