Putting Things Right

Those of you who read the Rule of St Benedict each day, or listen to the recordings on our main website, have probably been struck by the fact that the current chapters have a lot to say about faults — offences against silence or monastic discipline generally. In each case, Benedict specifies a form of making satisfaction — what a child might call ‘putting things right’. That is an important concept to get hold of. To put things right, we must first admit they have gone wrong; and how difficult most of us find that! Proud people don’t make mistakes; they have oversights, are forced into difficult positions, make excuses for themselves and will only apologize for any offence they MAY have given. Benedict will have none of that. The so-called penal code in RB is not about apportioning blame or punishing faults as such. Rather, it is a way of bringing us to humility, to the truth about ourselves and others, reintegrating us into a community from which we have exiled ourselves by our own behaviour. As such, it is much more searching than may at first appear.

Take today’s brief chapter about making mistakes in the oratory, RB 45. When we trip over a word or sing a wrong note, we kneel briefly on the floor. It alerts everyone; and if the false note or word has led everyone astray, it often helps to get us all back on track. Such a little thing, you might think; we all make mistakes, why bother about it? The point is that in our communal worship of God carelessness has no place. To sing the Divine Office hour by hour, day by day, requires concentration. It would be easy to become sloppy now and again, but to allow such sloppiness would be not merely a personal but also a communal failure.

Sometimes we don’t see that personal wrongdoing has a communal dimension. We argue that no one else is affected by what we do. But rather like the false note in choir, even our most hidden faults, such as nursing a grudge or jealous thoughts, weaken the strength of the community as a whole by injecting it with a kind of moral poison. The only antidote is humility and that truthfulness I mentioned above. I think the Lord was on to something when he urged us to turn and become like little children. Putting things right may be more difficult for us as adults. We have to ‘unlearn’ so many defensive strategies; but ultimately, isn’t it worth it?

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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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