St Benedict ends today’s section of the Rule by urging the monks to encourage one another when they get up for the Work of God, ‘for the sleepy are apt to make excuses’. (RB 22.8). It is one of those tender touches, full of warmth and humanity, that make the Rule so attractive. Of course, anyone who has actually got up in the middle of the night to sing Vigils, day in, day out, and been faced with the long, cold trek into choir, where X is singing flat and Y flapping around like a wet hen because, yet again, he hasn’t prepared, may take a slightly more jaundiced view. Let us leave the monastic curmudgeons to their mutterings and reflect on the words themselves: ‘the sleepy are apt to make excuses’.
Do we sleep-walk through life, going through the same routines but never thinking very deeply about anything and avoiding, if we can, any engagement beyond the superficial, or do we cultivate a kind of moral sleepiness, deliberately keeping ourselves distant from everyone and everything, so that if we are taxed with bad behaviour or challenged about our attitudes, we can take refuge in excuses and evasion? It isn’t very brave, but as a survival technique it has something to commend it. If it always someone else’s fault, we can reassure ourselves that ‘our withers are unwrung’. If we don’t have to face up to the consequences of our actions, we can go on defending them. The trouble with that kind of approach is that one day we’ll wake up and find that because we’ve never been able to say sorry, we’ve never been able to accept forgiveness, either.
If I may be allowed a very large generalisation, I’d say that men are marginally more likely than women to have difficulty admitting they are wrong. It sounds like conceding defeat, weakness even. They prefer to go on the attack or continue to justify their actions when it might be more gracious just to smile and say ‘sorry’. Women, by contrast, sometimes say ‘sorry’ very quickly, but don’t be fooled into thinking it is necessarily meant as an apology or recognition of wrongdoing. Far from it! It can sometimes be a way of drawing fire, of avoiding responsibility. (Here let me just add that, if one is British, one is culturally predisposed to apologize to all and sundry, even the furniture, but I hope we can take a more international view of the situation for the sake of my argument.) Whether male or female, we are all familiar with the techniques of avoidance and evasion, both active and passive, but I don’t suppose any of us is very pleased to have them pointed out to us, not in ourselves at any rate. We prefer to keep our eyes closed, dozing our way through things.
Unfortunately, we can’t doze for ever, not in this life. The time will come when we must rouse ourselves and stop making excuses. Why is that important? I’ve already given one reason, the importance of both giving and accepting forgiveness, but I think there’s a second. When we are asleep, even half-asleep, we are less than fully alive. We’re slightly ‘out’ of things. Making excuses for ourselves, whether of the aggressive or defensive kind, is also a way of being ‘out’ of things, but that isn’t how we are meant to spend our lives. We aren’t meant to be moral cowards. We have been given the enormous gift of free will, and we are meant to use it. We have been given grace, signed and sealed with the Holy Spirit at our baptism. Is there anything we cannot face, even those shortcomings that wound our pride and undermine our sense of self? Of course not! And Lent is a very good time for facing up to some of them.
Today’s gospel, Matthew 5. 20–26, contains a very sober warning that we can’t drift through a life of virtue. Little things matter. We have to act, and act decisively. If there is someone we need to be reconciled with, it’s no good waiting for him/her to come to us. We must go out to them. That takes courage, because it means risking rebuff. But wouldn’t it be better to be thought a fool rather than actually be one, to be fully awake and alive rather than slumbering and semi-comatose? Today, I shall try to take my own advice because I believe it to be what the gospel asks of us. What about you?