The Covenant of Forgiveness

Once upon a time, and still now in some communities for aught I know, chapters 8 to 19 of the Rule of St Benedict, the so-called Liturgical Code, dealing with the structure of the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours), the distribution of psalmody and so on, are omitted from public reading. The reason usually given is that the said communities have adopted a different form of the Divine Office, so there is no point in reading what St Benedict had to say about it. For those of us who do persevere with reading those neglected chapters, there is a very striking and important passage in today’s section, RB 13. 12–14.

Benedict remarks that the Offices of Lauds and Vespers should never end without the superior’s finally reciting the Lord’s Prayer. No surprise there, you might think. What Christian service does not include the Lord’s Prayer as a matter of course? But note the following.

First, it falls to the superior as promoter of peace and unity within the community, to say or sing the prayer aloud, not the community as a whole, though we are all expected to join in at the end with ‘deliver us from evil’, even at the lesser Offices where the bulk of the prayer is said silently. (RB 13.12). Second, the reason given for the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer is ‘the removal of those thorns of scandal or mutual offence’ that are apt to occur in community (RB 13. 12). How true that is! Finally, we come to the stinger: we are reminded that we make a covenant of forgiveness by saying the Lord’s Prayer (RB 13. 13). A covenant is a solemn, unbreakable agreement. We ask forgiveness as we ourselves forgive, so any tendency to reserve just a teeny weeny bit of unforgiveness, to put the other on probation as it were or harbour a little resentment or grudge, rebounds on our own head.

During this time of COVID-19 pandemic many people have taken to singing ‘Happy birthday’ twice over as they wash their hands. Personally, I have used the Lord’s Prayer. It takes the same amount of time, and the fact that it accompanies the washing of hands has acted as a reminder both of the Lord’s forgiveness and our need to forgive and accept the forgiveness of others. It doesn’t make it any easier, but constant dripping may wear away the heart of stone — even one’s own.

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