Saying Sorry to the Community

Saying sorry isn’t something that comes easily to most of us. True, there is the automatic English response to bumping against another person, or even an object, and apologizing; and the equally automatic response to someone brushing against us and our apologizing to them. There is also the standard official apology, when someone is found out after perhaps half a lifetime of deceit and apologizes ‘for any offence I may have given’. The image of extracting teeth comes to mind. No, I mean the kind of apology which doesn’t try to excuse or apportion blame to others but simply and humbly acknowledges that wrong has been done and takes responsibility for it. Benedict knows that even in a monastery that can be difficult. One might say that in a monastery it can be especially difficult because there we are, living in community, with companions we would never have chosen for ourselves, with different backgrounds and ways of behaving, and inevitably someone or other going through a period of profound testing we know little or nothing about.

Benedict was realistic about the difficulties of communal living. In RB 44, which we read today, he deals with a fairly extreme situation: someone who has committed a serious fault and thereby put himself outside the community (the meaning of excommunication in this context) and his reintegration into the community. Clearly, the chapter does not apply to the lay situation in any literal sense, but it is worth thinking about how we welcome back into society people who have offended against it. Benedict is not concerned with punishment but with putting right something that has gone wrong. Isn’t that what our apology is meant to do, but so often fails to achieve?

Lent is a time when we tend to think about how we have fallen short of everything we ought or seek to be. It is a time for making amends, both to God and other people. Saying sorry isn’t easy, but sometimes it can set us free as well as the one we have offended, for there is nothing more constricting than the burden of unforgiveness — on both sides. Is there someone you need to say sorry to today?

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Cold Shoulders and Exclusion Zones

All this week we are reading what is known as “the penal code” in the Rule of St Benedict. We began on Monday with a consideration of excommunication for faults, moved on to consider what the measure of excommunication should be and are today contemplating how more serious faults should be dealt with; tomorrow we’ll be looking at those who communicate with the excommunicated without permission, on Friday we’ll be considering the role of the abbot in caring for the excommunicated and on Saturday and Sunday we’ll consider two special cases, that of monks who leave the monastery and the correction of children and adolescents within the cloister (now of purely historic interest). It is a quite extended treatment of a problem that every society faces: how to deal with those who don’t keep the rules.

We all know how effective excommunication is. To be excluded from the group, given the cold shoulder, sent to Coventry, whatever you like to call it, is very painful. We are social beings and rely on interaction with others to remain human. That is why Benedict introduces into the monastery a nuanced scheme of degrees of exclusion related to the seriousness of the offence committed. The really important chapter is RB 27 which details the special care the abbot must have for the excommunicated. I think this underlines the difference between excommunication proceeding from indignation “you don’t conform to our expectations” to excommunication proceeding from concern “you matter too much for us to let you go on hurting yourself”. It is tricky, however, and a powerful reminder that anyone responsible for maintaining discipline, whether in the monastery or the workplace, needs many of the qualities Benedict looks for in an abbot: wisdom, compassion, humility and a genuine desire for the good of others. Get it wrong and you will have inflicted a dreadful injury; get it right and you will have helped your brother (or sister).

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