Those who have been reading the Rule of St Benedict over the past few days will have been struck by the uncompromising nature of the penal code it contains. Where is the gentle and ever-forgiving St Benedict of contemporary myth? There is, indeed, a genuine concern for the wayward and difficult, but instead of a wishy-washy indifference, we find a nicely-graded system of corrective punishments. Depending on our temperament, we tend to emphasize either the concern St Benedict expresses or the correction he advises, rarely both. All that that proves is that we are less subtle in our thinking and probably less burdened with a sense of repsonsibility for others than he.
Today’s chapter, RB 28, shows St Benedict dealing with the seriously recalcitrant. Reproof and being banished from choir and refectory have obviously achieved nothing. Encouragement and exhortation have proved fruitless. Corporal punishment (still allowed in the sixth century) has been similarly unavailing. Even the prayer of the abbot and community has not brought about the desired change. There is nothing left for the abbot to do but to expel the miscreant from the community ‘lest one diseased sheep infect the whole flock’. (RB 28.7)
That can be quite difficult for people today to accept. Shouldn’t the Church, in this case represented by the ecclesiola, the little church of the monastic community, be endlessly tolerant, inclusive and forgiving? Yes and no. It is important to note the half-sentence of scripture that Benedict quotes, from I Corinthians 7.15, ‘if the unbeliever departs’. St Paul is referring to the non-Christian spouse in a marriage, but Benedict applies the term to the ‘unbelieving’ community member. There has been a break-down of faith and trust in community. The individual no longer believes. He has decided that he will not conform to the common rule of the monastery and, instead of asking to be released, has chosen to defy the abbot and community while still enjoying the benefits of membership. In such circumstances, and only after trying hard to effect a change, Benedict advises the abbot to expel the errant brother from the community. It is painful; it is hard; but it is necessary for the good of the community as a whole.
I think there is something here we can all usefully reflect on. It has become quite difficult to assert that certain ways of thinking or acting are unacceptable, that they weaken the community, whether that community be the Church, society in general or the nation as a whole. We all agree (I hope) that racism and anti-semitism are wrong, but we can be caught out thinking or doing things that are equally unacceptable although we may not have considered them in that light. We can be patronising or even hostile towards the elderly, those we think of as socially or intellectually inferior/superior, people whose attitudes or points of view jar with us. At the same time, we can be lukewarm in our defence of values we hold to be essential. I, as a Catholic, am very conscious of my failure, at times, to uphold as vigorously as I ought the teaching of the Church concerning the sanctity of life. It is not that I don’t believe, it is that I am lazy or unwilling to experience the opprobrium and hostility that inevitably follow whenever I say anything on the matter. I substitute what’s best for me for what is right, for what membership of the Church demands.
Perhaps we could all spend a few moments today thinking about what membership of the community (Church, state, family, whatever) entails, and whether our own conduct might justify expulsion from it. Not, please note, whether any other person ought to be expelled, but ourselves.