It can be comforting to realise one shares this affliction with almost everyone else on the planet. Being always right is such a burden. It leaves little room for manoeuvre or re-negotiation. One is right, and that is that. If others are too blind or stupid to acknowledge the fact, tant pis. There is, of course, just one small problem, which St Benedict skirts round in today’s chapter of the Rule, RB 44 How the Excommunicated Are to Make Satisfaction: we fail to see that we might possibly be wrong and so persist in our own stubbornness. The pub argument, the family squabble, the ‘heated’ monastic chapter, they all tend to have this in common: we continue to urge our view of things long after a wiser person would have decided enough was enough and the time had come to quieten down a little. Many an argument is lost because it is taken too far or degenerates into name-calling and insults. We need to remember that peace and unity do not just happen. They have to be worked for, and sometimes fought for; and I’d say the best tool or weapon we can use is restraint, especially self-restraint.
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?