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