Making Mistakes and Public Satisfaction

Chapter 45 of the Rule of St Benedict which we read today, On Those Who Make Mistakes in the Oratory, is one of those little chapters of the Rule the non-monastic reader is likely to skip. What does it really matter if we stumble over a word in our recitation of the Divine Office or mangle a psalm-tone? Fluffing a word or two is hardly a sin, and although singing slightly flat or slightly sharp may vex our neighbour (who would probably say there is no such thing as ‘slightly flat’ or ‘slightly sharp’), it surely doesn’t merit performing a ritual of satisfaction, does it? Benedict clearly thought otherwise; so perhaps we should, too.

The careful performance of our public prayer is a sign of the reverence we have for God and for the oratory itself (cf RB 20 and RB 52). When we take the psalms or other scriptures on our lips, we are giving voice to the Word of God. To do so carelessly would obviously be wrong; but we can forget that our reverence should extend to the community in which we proclaim God’s word. Benedict must have had a sensitive ear because one of the qualities he demands of those who sing or read is that they should edify their hearers (cf RB 38.12). There is no concept of ‘Buggins’ turn’, no nonsense about all having an equal right to read or intone.

Put simply, Benedict sees the Divine Office as something that should engage our full attention, both before, during and after its celebration. It is to be performed, a word that means fulfilled through doing rather than implying anything theatrical. If we make a mistake, we are to acknowledge the fact openly. To an outsider, the ritual gestures of making satisfaction in choir may seem odd, but they have a double effect. The one who has blundered is able to apologize silently; and those who may have been thrown off-key or winced at our lack of preparation are, in theory at least, mollified. More importantly, they reaffirm our shared belief in the seriousness of what we are doing and the presence of God in our midst as we pray. They may even prompt us to think about our conduct in other areas of life, where an honest admission of failure and an apology may be called for; and that is something for all of us to consider, monastic or not.

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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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