Anchored in Reality: RB 68

One aspect of the Rule of St Benedict I have come to appreciate more and more is the way in which it anchors us in reality. One might think that a community sharing a common purpose, living under a Rule exhorting everyone to show consideration towards others and expressly enjoining moderation in the commands given by those in authority, would have no problems with impossible demands, except, perhaps, from those who are sick (cf RB 36.4). Then we read RB 68, which is about how to respond if asked to do the impossible, and realise that Benedict is well aware that theory and practice don’t always meet. In an age when it has become fashionable to protest, loudly and vigorously, about anything with which we disagree or regard as unfair, his approach to finding a solution to disputes, as distinct from merely making a noise about things, can be helpful.

First, he says the impossible command must be accepted with perfect gentleness and obedience, not easy when we see its impossibility (RB 68.1). So, no immediate escalation of difficulty by making a song and dance about it. We must allow time for the demand to be reflected upon and, if necessary, investigated. Only if absolutely clear about the inability to comply can we raise an objection, and even then, we can’t just blurt out the objection, we are to choose an appropriate moment to explain everything calmly and politely to our superior/the person making the demand (RB 68.3). There’s some good understanding of human nature in that. We talk about ‘going off the deep end’, forcing someone to listen to us because we are het up about something and don’t care what effect we have on others. So often anger is like waves crashing around, upsetting everything in sight, not just the individual who is lashing out. As far as Benedict is concerned, any form of argumentativeness is ruled out (not argument, please note, but argumentativeness), and if the superior/person making the demand declines to accept the validity of the objection, tough. We must obey, ‘and, trusting in God’s help, out of love obey.’ (RB 68.5)

Now, of course, not all commands can, or necessarily should, be obeyed or complied with. The fact that we are asked or even commanded to do something does not free us from our moral obligations, nor are we meant to put our brains to sleep. What I think Benedict is aiming at in this short chapter is a wisdom that goes beyond that of this present age. He wants the community to be at peace, and that inevitably means being realistic about conflicts. Ultimately, he can appeal to love and grace. In a secular situation we cannot make the same appeal, but I think we can allow the dynamic of love and grace to work within us. That is why I call this chapter an anchor for the storms of life. It goes beyond the material. We can apply it to the emotional shipwrecks we sometimes find ourselves in, to lack of forgiveness and the perpetuation of old feuds. It makes us confront reality, not run away from it. Something, I suggest, we all need to do, not just Benedictines.

RB 68
You can listen to the Rule of St Benedict chapter 68 being read aloud here:


The Impossible

Those who are not Benedictines often smile when they come across today’s chapter of the Rule, with its arresting title, If a Brother be Commanded to Do Impossible Things (RB 68), or some variant thereof. Those of us under the yoke of the Rule tend to smile with rather more gritty determination than amusement because in many ways this little chapter means there is no escape from anything, ever. Confronted with the impossible, when we have done all that the Rule says, when we have politely and at an approriate moment explained to our superior why we cannot do it, we must ‘obey out of love, trusting in God’s help’ — ex caritate confidens de adiutorio Dei obediat (RB 68.5).

In the past I have tended to write about this chapter in terms of practical obedience, such as suddenly being required to cook for 60 people or asked to sing a difficult piece of chant with only the haziest notion of how it should be phrased, but it goes deeper than that. There are so many things that we find difficult, even impossible. Perhaps the most difficult of all is to forgive a wrong done to ourselves, or, even harder, to accept that we have done wrong to another. I’m sure we can all look back on episodes in our lives that make us ashamed, can still find pockets of unforgiveness that bind ourselves as well as others. It isn’t easy to forgive, especially as we tend to assume that it is something we do, with once-for-all-finality, whereas in reality we have to allow God to forgive in and through us, and it is a process often-repeated rather than a single act.

We can look at the world around us and see much that is in need of healing, but may I suggest that today we start a little nearer home, with ourselves? To forgive is not to be weak; it is to be strong, but with a strength that comes from God. It is to do the impossible.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail


Today we re-read chapter 68 of the Rule of St Benedict, If a Brother be Commanded to Do the Impossible. It is, needless to say, one of my favourite chapters. I like its realism. We are all faced with doing the impossible from time to time. Our natural response is to protest, often loudly, or to run away (there are many ways of doing so, some especially clever at hiding the fact that we are escaping the difficulty). Benedict, alas, will have none of it.

First of all, he demands that we accept whatever order is given us ‘with perfect gentleness and obedience.’ It is not enough merely to obey, we must be gentle. Have you ever stopped to consider what that means? No grumbles, no grudging or ungracious words, no shrugging of the shoulders or body language at odds with what we profess to be doing; no door-slamming or other provocative actions which might lead to someone muttering, ‘I’d rather not ask’. It is easy to make clear that we are reluctant to do something, but that isn’t the Benedictine way. Benedict doesn’t expect us to be stupid, however. If we see that the ‘weight of the burden altogether exceeds our strength’ — a statement that calls for reflection and some nice judgement on our part — then we must ‘patiently explain to our superior, at an appropriate moment, why we are unequal to it.’ So, yet again, we must mind our manners and present our superior with a properly thought-through explanation of our own inadequacy for the task, and at a suitable time. We don’t just rush in whenever suits us and babble out our objections. We are required to consider the other person, not our own feelings about the matter. Trying to see things from another’s point of view demands effort and sometimes sacrifice, and Benedict both expects that and encourages us to use all our natural giftedness to do so.

Finally, of course, we come to the crunch. If the superior holds fast to his decision, we must ‘realize that this is best for us, and, trusting in God’s help, out of love obey.’ In that short sentence we have a whole theology of monastic obedience. Our obedience to God is mediated through obedience to imperfect human beings, the superior being for Benedictines the most obvious. We trust that this is for our good; we trust that God will help us; and we obey out of love because we desire to unite our obedience with that of Christ himself. Love of God can never be an abstraction; it must always be incarnated, and it is, again and again, through that surrender of self we make in obedience.

In truth, RB 68 is too great a treasure to be kept for monks and nuns alone. You can hear it being read, as in community, over at our main website in the sidebar here.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Doing the Impossible

Doing the impossible comes naturally to Benedictines: we have a whole chapter of the Rule devoted to it, RB 68. Anyone able to fulfil its requirements is undoubtedly guilty of heroic virtue. First, the impossible command must be accepted with perfect gentleness and obedience, not easy when one sees its impossibility (RB 68.1). Only if absolutely clear about the inability to comply can one raise an objection, and even then, one can’t just blurt out the objection, one has to choose an appropriate moment to explain everything calmly and politely to one’s superior (RB 68.3). Any form of argumentativeness is ruled out, and if the superior declines to accept the validity of the objection, tough. We must obey, ‘and, trusting in God’s help, out of love obey.’ (RB 68.5)

I think this short chapter of the Rule which we read today gives the lie to those who think that there is anything ‘moderate’ about RB. We are asked to transcend our normal way of acting, to strive for an obedience which truly reflects the obedience of Christ. Heroic virtue, as I indicated, is never popular. It can be uncomfortable to others, challenging their attitudes and expectations, but note the characteristic note of  humility and love with which Benedict concludes his chapter. That is the key to understanding what it is all about: allowing Christ to act in and through us.

Doing the impossible is not an ascetic feat, an attempt to be superhuman, it is rather an acknowledgement that God can do so much more than we could ever think or dream, and au fond, all that we do is done in love or it is worthless. I think I’d like to be guilty of that, wouldn’t you?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail