Cherry-Picking the Rule of St Benedict

We are currently working our way through part of what is known as the Penal Code in the Rule of St Benedict — chapters 23 to 30, which deal with faults committed by the brethren and the way in which they are to be corrected. These are not the only places where Benedict considers faults, but they form a solid block of teaching that many who express enthusiasm for the Rule tend to ignore. It is true that some of the corrective measures Benedict advocates, such as corporal punishment, are culturally no longer acceptable, but I think the deliberate ignoring of much of what Benedict has to say about the correction of faults goes deeper than that. 

There is a reluctance, first of all, to admit that we are not perfect or that there are limits to our freedom. Why should we need correction? How have our actions harmed anyone else? But there is also a tendency we all share to cherry-pick the Rule. We like the nice, ‘spiritual’ bits about loving Christ and practising good zeal. If we are young, we especially like Benedict telling the abbot to consult younger members of the community because they often have an openness to the Spirit their elders lack; and if we are old, we are particularly fond of passages where Benedict insists on respect being shown to the elderly and sympathetic consideration given to their lack of strength. If we don’t actually live in a monastery, the scope is even wider. We can leave out everything we consider harsh or burdensome and end up simply acting a part, the script of which we have written for ourselves.

Today’s chapter of the Rule (26), about associating with the excommunicated, comes as a douche of cold water on all that. In a few short sentences Benedict does away with any presumption of our knowing better. He trusts the abbot to be fair in his judgement of a situation and to be fair in his imposition of punishment or correction. It is not for us to undermine that by wanting to be ‘more compassionate’ (sic) and taking it upon ourselves to associate with the excommunicated if we have not been given permission. We have a duty to speak up if we think something is wrong, but we must do so at the right time, in the right way, and be prepared to take the consequences. In short, we are expected to behave as adults in the monastery, to accept discipline, and to co-operate with others in our common purpose of seeking God. That is easy to recognize when we are engaged in overtly ‘holy’ actions such as singing the praises of God in choir or serving one another in the refectory or infirmary, not so easy when it comes to the regulation of our everyday behaviour and lapses in conduct to which we are all prone.

I may be wrong, but I suspect this readiness to trust, to co-operate, and to accept limitations on our freedom to act may be applicable outside the cloister, too.

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