Impossibilities

Today we re-read chapter 68 of the Rule of St Benedict, If a Brother be Commanded to Do the Impossible. It is, needless to say, one of my favourite chapters. I like its realism. We are all faced with doing the impossible from time to time. Our natural response is to protest, often loudly, or to run away (there are many ways of doing so, some especially clever at hiding the fact that we are escaping the difficulty). Benedict, alas, will have none of it.

First of all, he demands that we accept whatever order is given us ‘with perfect gentleness and obedience.’ It is not enough merely to obey, we must be gentle. Have you ever stopped to consider what that means? No grumbles, no grudging or ungracious words, no shrugging of the shoulders or body language at odds with what we profess to be doing; no door-slamming or other provocative actions which might lead to someone muttering, ‘I’d rather not ask’. It is easy to make clear that we are reluctant to do something, but that isn’t the Benedictine way. Benedict doesn’t expect us to be stupid, however. If we see that the ‘weight of the burden altogether exceeds our strength’ — a statement that calls for reflection and some nice judgement on our part — then we must ‘patiently explain to our superior, at an appropriate moment, why we are unequal to it.’ So, yet again, we must mind our manners and present our superior with a properly thought-through explanation of our own inadequacy for the task, and at a suitable time. We don’t just rush in whenever suits us and babble out our objections. We are required to consider the other person, not our own feelings about the matter. Trying to see things from another’s point of view demands effort and sometimes sacrifice, and Benedict both expects that and encourages us to use all our natural giftedness to do so.

Finally, of course, we come to the crunch. If the superior holds fast to his decision, we must ‘realize that this is best for us, and, trusting in God’s help, out of love obey.’ In that short sentence we have a whole theology of monastic obedience. Our obedience to God is mediated through obedience to imperfect human beings, the superior being for Benedictines the most obvious. We trust that this is for our good; we trust that God will help us; and we obey out of love because we desire to unite our obedience with that of Christ himself. Love of God can never be an abstraction; it must always be incarnated, and it is, again and again, through that surrender of self we make in obedience.

In truth, RB 68 is too great a treasure to be kept for monks and nuns alone. You can hear it being read, as in community, over at our main website in the sidebar here.

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