None of us likes being lectured, although most of us seem to enjoy giving others the benefit of our advice. But let’s stop there a moment and reflect. That dreadful phrase of our childhood, ‘I’m telling you for your own good’ loses none of its effect as we grow older. It may not actually be couched in those words, but how often do we hear spouses setting each other right or people completely unknown to one another taking someone to task for some perceived shortcoming or making light of their expertise. It happens to women a lot. A rather good engineer of my acquaintance can be quite funny on the subject of people (especially men, I fear) assuming she knows nothing about engineering because she is a woman. I, too, have occasionally smiled deep into my wimple when someone has decided I can’t possibly know anything about a subject on which, strangely enough, I am moderately well-informed. It all makes for humility, we say, as we shrug off the annoyance and get on with life.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work like that. Some people will never let a matter drop until they feel they have ‘won’. Here at the monastery we try to cope with a constant stream of requests for prayer, distressed calls (especially recently, with the flooding in our area and some terrible events I’ve mentioned on Twitter, including the petrol-bombing of a young family’s home), the running of the monastery and its charity in all their complexity, and, of course, the awkward business of my having a stage 4 cancer which makes me less able to contribute to the community as much as I’d like. We make mistakes, which we acknowledge. We apologize, but still the lectures come. Can we turn this experience of being on the receiving end of criticism into something helpful for the times, alas all too frequent, when we want to give others the benefit of our advice?
St Benedict is very clear that authority over others is not be assumed by anyone in the monastery unless appointed by the abbot. That includes the power of correction, which is reserved to the superior and those with whom he shares his authority. He does, however, make an interesting exception of the visiting monk. The visiting monk is, by definition, not just an ordinary visitor, that is, someone whose ideas are possibly ill-informed, but someone who is familiar with monastic ideals and practice, and has some understanding of how a monastic community functions.
St Benedict says of the visiting monk that he should be carefully listened to, in case he makes any observations about the monastery which are for the community’s good (RB 61.4), but he must do so reasonably, humbly and charitably; and it is for the abbot to weigh his observations prudently. Do the criticisms we make of others ‘for their own good’ meet these criteria, or are they more of an attempt to justify our own position? Benedict is very keen on our doing things at an appropriate time. So, do we make our criticisms at an appropriate moment — or at a time that suits us, irrespective of what someone else may be going through? Finally, do we seek charity or are we trying to score points? Not only monastic superiors but every parent knows that not all complaints are justified, nor should all criticisms be considered valid. Some are over-stated; some, alas, are malicious or just plain silly.
There is a further point St Benedict does not make but which I think important. We need to know when to let matters drop. We may not quite need to echo Cromwell’s ‘I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken,’ but maybe thinking twice before we assume others need our advice would be a good idea. For those of what used to be called ‘a positive nature’ that may be the hardest lesson of all. It is one I struggle with myself. As Horace said, ‘A word once let out of the cage cannot be whistled back again’. We all remember when we have been deeply hurt by what has been said to us; we are less mindful of how our own words may have hurt someone else. That throws us back on St Benedict’s teaching on restraint in speech (cf RB 6), but that’s for another post.