Young and Old | Love and Respect

I’m sure I’m not alone in having noticed that RB 63 on Community Order, which we finish re-reading today, is interpreted differently according to one’s age group. If one is young and fervent but possibly a little insecure, one will home in on all the points at which Benedict directs the elders of the monastery to show love and kindness to the young. If one is old and fervent but possibly a little insecure, one will home in on all the points at which Benedict directs the young of the community to show respect and kindness to the old. The truth is, as Benedict’s constant reference to Romans 12.10 indicates, love and respect go hand in hand. The danger is that we may forget the mutuality at the heart of community life and sheer weight of numbers may distort how we relate to one another.

That would be a purely monastic concern were it not that in the West we face a major shift in demographics. The old will soon outnumber the young. How we cope with that will reflect what we are as individuals as well as what we are as a society. Government policy will always be affected by what is perceived to be popular with voters. At the moment, elder abuse is a hot topic, and we are rightly shamed by revelations about the ‘care’ meted out in some institutions. But more and more legislation is rarely the answer to anything. Perhaps we should ask questions a little nearer home. How do we see the old/young/people different from ourselves? If we want a society that is truly respectful and caring, there is only one place to start: with ourselves and our own attitudes.

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Of Love and Reverence

I love chapter 63 of the Rule of St Benedict, On Community Order, which we begin re-reading today. Everything it says about the mutually-respectful relations which should exist between older and younger community members, the little courtesies of the cloister it spells out in such affectionate detail, the carefully-nuanced explanation it gives of the abbot’s role, all breathe an atmosphere of beauty and calm I find immensely attractive. The only trouble is, I don’t think I have ever experienced such a community, or not for very long. That is the problem with all ideals. Most of the time they are something we aim at rather than achieve.

Having said that, I wonder whether sometimes we ignore what is right under our noses because we are too perfectionist. The lengths to which Benedict goes to ensure monks or nuns should live at peace with one another, no matter what their differences of age or background, and the expectations he has of abbot and community are something I have known at first-hand without perhaps sufficiently understanding that ‘good enough’ is truly good enough. The fact that none of it has ever been quite perfect is perhaps the best guarantee that it has been real. Only cults, or groups which have much of the cult about them, manage to present a flawless picture. It is how we cope with imperfection — disagreements in community, unintentional slights or louche behaviour  — that shows how genuinely loving and united we are.

Benedict provides us with a few guidelines and ways of ritualising some potentially tricky situations, but that is all. For the rest, he reminds us of Romans 12.10 and leaves us to make the best we can of it. During Lent I heard a phrase which has stuck in my mind. Benedict himself was too dignified a man to use the language of the soundbite, but this one is worth treasuring for what it says about community relations:

Remember that the toes you tread on today are the feet you will be called on to wash tomorrow.

I think that applies outside monasteries, too, don’t you?

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