Chapter Thirty One

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The qualities required by the cellarer

‘The Cellarer of the monastery should be chosen from among the community. To qualify for this choice a candidate should be wise and mature in behaviour, sober and not an excessive eater, not proud nor apt to give offence nor inclined to cause trouble, not unpunctual, nor wasteful but living in fear of God and ready to show the community all the love a father or mother would show to their family. The cellarer will be responsible for the care of all the monastery’s goods but must do nothing without the authority of the superior, being content to look after what is committed to the cellarer’s care without causing annoyance to the community. ‘

We come now to one of the longest chapters in the Rule and unsurprisingly it is about the very practical details surrounding food and possessions, both of which take on a very different meaning in monastic community as they otherwise would in the ‘real world’ (it is perhaps fitting that this is being written in March 2020 when we are on lockdown because of a global pandemic and our food and possessions suddenly mean something very different). As this chapter is unpacked I shall do so in sections for ease of access.

This first paragraph begins, as it should, with the character of the candidate for this position. Interestingly the phrase that jumps out is ‘mature in behaviour’ – not mature in years. So this is not a role that is automatically given to someone purely because of longevity or, indeed, the number of years they may be in their monastic vow. This takes into consideration the very real nature of the community and allows a better distribution of gifts – this is the mark of true leadership – that someone should be put into the position that allows them to flourish.

However, Benedict does stipulate that it must be someone from among the community. That this is included suggests that some jobs in the monastic complex may well have been undertaken by people who are not members, perhaps regular guests or local workers or people that have a specialised skill. This role, however, is deemed significant in many ways and therefore has to be a member of the community. Because they are responsible for the distribution of food and such it is vital that they have intimate knowledge of the needs of the community. They must also be sober and not be an excessive eater – the reason for this is two fold – firstly they will spend much of their time in the stores and cellars with the food and drink supplies. It brings unnecessary temptation to one who is more likely to overindulge – not through malicious intent, just through proximity. Also, if someone drinks or eats more than others, they are likely to judge distribution of food in a more generous way – therefore supplies may not be eked out as far in years where crops fail or harvests are meagre.

They must be like Joseph in Egypt. Prudent with the supplies and storing and preserving them in the years of plenty for the years of less. The monastic community needs to be as self sufficient as possible to limit the need to enter back into the world and thus be distracted from the true purpose of their life, the work of God, in the chapel.

The character of the Cellarer is important because of the way in which they can affect the whole community very easily – if they are hot tempered and decide in an act of anger to lock the doors – nobody eats. If they are malicious and seek revenge, other members of the community unduly suffer in the flesh. It is also important that they don’t make unilateral decisions alone – their role is important – vital even – but they do not have authority in the same way the superior does. Once again, like Joseph in Egypt, he was granted power and authority but still subject to the Pharaoh.

‘If one of the community comes with a reasonable request, the cellarer should, in refusing what is asked, be careful not to give the impression of personal rejection and so hurt the petitioner’s feelings. Such a refusal of an ill-judged request should be measured and given due deference towards the person involved. As an incentive to personal spiritual progress the cellarer might remember St Paul’s saying that those who give good service to others earn a good reputation. The cellarer should show special concern and practical care for the sick and the young, for guests and for the poor,and never forget the account to be rendered for all these responsibilities on the day of judgement.’

Because of the practical nature of the position of the Cellarer, they will have the greatest amount of contact, on a day to day basis, with members of the community and therefore will develop a particular understanding of their temperaments and needs. Those who are working in the kitchen, the field, the garden, the orchard, etc. will all have dealings with the Cellarer often in the cause of their own duties and responsibilities.

However, not every member of the community will and sometimes requests that are made may come through  naivety or lack of judgement. The response to them should be kind, but firm, as the Cellarer must abide by the prudence that they have been chosen for, the needs of the community at large, and also the orders of the superior. Sometimes the very nature of saying no to someone can cause offence and so Benedict reminds the Cellarer to ensure that no personal offence is meant or taken, even when things will be hectic for the Cellarer, such as at harvest time.

The most telling part of the chapter about the role of the Cellarer is the one that sums up much of the framework for the Benedictine tradition. That they Cellarer should give special care to those that are sick or young – in the community – as these are the ones that for one reason or another may need more food. The young for their growth and development without which they will not progress in their duties or spiritual development. The sick because they need to recover and their body will be weaker from fighting off whatever it is that ails them. Then attention is turned to the guests, who, as we saw in an earlier chapter, should be treated as hugely important and therefore generosity should be shown, and also to the poor – for they are given priority often in the scripture.

In order to assert the importance of this Benedict once again invokes scripture in the words of Saint Paul, reminding the Cellarer that this is a sacred duty to which they will have to render account at the day of judgement. This is a permissive use of scripture that can overrule other orders or thoughts from the self about what is or isn’t appropriate.

‘All the utensils of the monastery and in fact everything that belongs to the monastery should be cared for as though they were sacred vessels of the altar. There must be no negligence on the part of the cellarer nor any tendency to avarice nor to prodigality nor extravagance with the goods of the monastery. The administration should be carried out in all respects with moderation in accordance with the instruction of the abbot or abbess.’

The sparse personal possessions in the life of the monk or nun are supposed to build a lack of attachment to earthly things in order to focus on the spiritual work of the soul. So those items that are the possession of the monastery should be treated with respect. Replacing things because they have gone missing or carelessly broken is not a prudent use of resources. One of the reasons for our rampant materialism is because of the availability of stuff, we can have whatever we want, pretty much whenever we want it. We accumulate items for status or disordered desire. Treating the tools and utensils of the monastery as though they are sacred vessels of the altar has a multi beneficial approach – firstly it means they will be respected and cared for so resources and time won’t be wasted in replacing or repairing them unnecessarily, secondly, it shows that we should be thankful for the items that we do have and this breeds a more healthy connection to our material items, thirdly, it shows the importance that Benedict places on manual work – that it is of equal value to the work at the altar or in the oratory. Work is prayer and prayer is work and therefore the aids to both activities must be respected.

Again the work ethic of the Cellarer is brought to attention. No laziness, no excessive spending, is the order of the day. This helps to ensure smooth running of the manual labour of the monastic complex and the forming of good spiritual habits when it comes to connection to material property.

‘Among the most important qualities the cellarer needs to cultivate is humility and the ability to give a pleasant answer even when a request must be refused. Remember how scripture says that a kindly word is of greater value than a gift, however precious. Although the cellarer’s responsibility embraces all that is delegate by the superior there must be no attempt to include what the superior has forbidden. The community should receive their allotted food without any self important fuss or delay on the part of the cellarer which might provoke them to resentment. The cellarer should remember what is deserved, according to the Lord’s saying, by those who provoke to sin one of his little ones.’

That Benedict extends this chapter to include a second reminder of the importance of kindness shows how central the cellarer is to the life, and therefore stability, of the community. People have very different relationships with food and when we are deprived of it, especially when we are already hungry or tired can have great ramifications on our behaviour. We don’t always act like ourselves when we are overly hungry and our behaviour can impact those around us, that is only amplified in the confines of a monastic cloister.

The Cellarer must also ensure that by their behaviour they are not placing themselves in opposition to the superior – which would be easy to do because of the very practical nature of their work. They must remember that they are not building up a personal kingdom but acting as the steward of all that has been placed in their care, failure to do so may cause others in the order to stray from the path of virtue, and harsh judgement awaits those that cause others to sin by their own poor example.

‘If the community is large, the cellarer must receive assistance of helpers whose support will make the burden of this office tolerable. There will, of course, be appropriate times for the cellarer to hand out what is needed and for requests for goods or services to be made, these times should be observed by all so that failure to respect them may not cause any disturbance or unhappiness in the house of God.’

Benedict ends as is characteristic – practically. To have the role of the Cellarer grow exponentially when the community grows in number, without support, would be nonsensical and would lead to a failure on the part of even the most diligent of Cellarers, and so others can be co-opted in to assist. This is also good for succession planning, working out and testing out who may be suitable for the role in the future.

Finally the time in which the Cellarer can be approached for requests is restricted. Because of the practical nature of their role in the community there may well be needs that occur at strange times – if there was open access to the Cellarer then they would never get the chance to focus on their own spiritual needs – it would also mean that people in the community were focusing on the practical elements at times that may not be appropriate – such as in the oratory if they happen to be seated close to the Cellarer. It also is a way to level everyone in the community again – even the Abbot or Abbess cannot approach out of the set times. No preferential treatment is given, which means that when refusals have to be made it is always less personal, no one is shown favouritism which again helps with harmony and balance in the community.

 

 

Chapter Thirty

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The Correction of young children 

‘There is a proper way of dealing with every age and every degree of understanding, and we should find the right way of dealing with the young. Thus children and adolescents or others who are unable to appreciate the seriousness of excommunication need some other mode of correction when they go astray. If they are guilty of bad behaviour, then they should be subjected to severe fasting or sharp strokes of the rod to bring them a better disposition.’

We have finally reached the last chapter of the Rule on crime and punishment and how people are to be corrected – and this chapter focuses on children, or adolescents or, in some translations of the Rule, young men. The first thing to note is why would there be children in the monastery anyway. It is a place for celibate men and not a gathering of families in some sort of commune. Partly this is about context and the view of childhood – when Benedict was writing childhood had different parameters. There would have been, potentially, very young novices in the monastery. Eleven or Twelve wouldn’t have been uncommon, especially as monastic life provided stability and education which was sometimes out of the reach of most common folk of the time.

Still, regardless of wether this rule concerns those we would think on in modern eyes as children or the most likely youngsters who are, because of their social status and place in history considered young men, we have a rather uncomfortable directive that if they be found to be wayward  – rather than being excommunicated – they should be placed on a severe fast or face corporal punishment.

Once we have got into our minds the contextual narrative, again, for the use of corporal punishment we can dig down into what this chapter is trying to tell us.

Benedict has once again displayed a remarkably forward thinking when it comes to understanding the needs of individuals within the community and how best to help them learn, centuries before the sociological studies about learning style and the scientific evidence on brain maturation and development. He has shrewdly observed that the young men in his care (as they were then) did not have the mental maturity to take seriously the work of repentance that was supposed to be done by excommunication. For them, being separated from the oratory and eating alone would not have caused the same inner reflection as it would in someone more mature and able to comprehend the severity of the situation.

In youth the body is changing, growing and developing – the amount of fuel required for such means the amount of food that a young person can eat without it seeming to have the slightest effect on their physical fat means that a deprivation of food is going to be more keenly felt than any internal psychological angst. As they are deprived of food in a strict fast the gnawing pains in the stomach will cause a gnawing in the conscience and draw their mind to the reason why they are being treated so.

Can you remember the first time your father ever shouted at you, really shouted and lost his temper? It was no doubt because you were doing something that was completely irresponsible and dangerous that would cause you harm. Playing with the fire, being near the heated oven, running into the road without looking. Something that had the potential to be fatal. The shout, the loss of temper, the rage from the one you love and know to be your protector is shocking – precisely because it is out of character. It causes you to freeze so the danger is averted.

Such is the same with the fast or the corporal punishment in this situation. If you know and trust the superior to be a man or woman of compassion, love and care for those in their charge, even in the passions of youth when they order you to go hungry or to be struck it will shock the system – and force the question ‘Why am I being treated like this?’ ‘Why has this loving individual changed?’ and begins the process of inner reparation.

They have changed outwardly because inwardly they remain the same – committed to you in love for the sanctification of your soul and the protection of your eternity.

Chapter Twenty Nine

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The readmission of any who leave the monastery.

‘Anyone who is guilty of serious wrong by the personal decision to leave the monastery but then asks to be received back again must first of all promise full reparation for leaving the monastery. That will be enough for restoration into the community, but it must be in the lowest place as a test of humility. If the same monk or nun departs again, they may be received back until the third time, but after that all must understand that any question of return to the community is to be refused. ‘

 

In contrast to the previous chapter of the Rule we are now, once again, face to face with an understanding and compassionate Benedict. He understood that the monastic life was hard, not just because of the Rule that he wrote and implemented but because in the monastic life the ground is prepared for the serious work of the sanctification of the soul. This is a painful process that requires much purging of character. The comfortable life of the soul prior to the cloister must be stripped away to allow the character of Christ to form. It is like the gardener cutting back the branches in winter to allow energy to be diverted into new growth come Spring, and therefore, one of the reactions to such hard pruning is to flee – to flee from coming face to face with our inner darkness, from coming into close contact with the Holiness of God.

Benedict understood this and therefore shows remarkable compassion for those that leave, of their own free will, and then – when they have had time to weight up the situation and may find themselves adrift – return home to the monastery. And note that there is no punishment for this act. The one that returns and asks for mercy by admitting their faults, like the prodigal son, is welcomed into the community again.

However, Benedict does understand the importance of consistency and routine in the monastery and that every arrival and departure changes the make up of the order. Someone arriving may bring valued new skills and abilities, and someone leaving may take something that the community has relied up. Every entrance and exit requires those that remain to adapt their life and their routine, even a small amount, to accommodate the new person or new gap. And so there is a limit on this coming and going, only three times can a person choose to leave and return, leave and return. After this Benedict calls time on that monastic vocation – as they clearly have not understood the basic premise that the community is everything – you are not just serving God in the work of sanctification for your own benefit, you are part of a communal effort, a powerhouse of prayer that offers the Divine Offices for the church and the world beyond the walls.

Also, to show the severity of a departure – whilst the return is freely given as long as repentance is forthcoming – the monk or nun cannot return to their previous monastic rank. They must show that they accept the seriousness of their departure by accepting with humility the lowest rank in the monastery – not a punishment – as even the lowest of ranks participate fully in the life of the monastic complex but an acknowledgment in their part at changing the life of the place for the duration of their absence.

What Benedict is doing in this act of mercy is judging the heart, looking at the desire of the one who offers him or herself to the monastic vocation. He knows that it will be a hard path and so those who stumble, fall and make mistakes – even the grave mistake of leaving (which is really not considered acceptable after vows have been made) are offered the chance, if their desire is to religious life, to try again.

Forgiveness is offered quickly to any individual – and only withdrawn when their actions become selfish and affect the community in a seriously detrimental way.

Chapter Twenty Eight

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The treatment of those who relapse

If there should be any who have been frequently reproved for some fault and have not reformed even after excommunication, there is a sharper correction to be applied; that is to subject such a one to the punishment of the rod. But if even this does not bring reform and if – may God forbid it – the guilty one is puffed up with pride to the point of wanting to defend wrongful actions, then the superior must follow the practice of an experienced doctor. After applying dressings and the ointment of exhortation and the medicine of divine scripture and preceding to the extreme resource of cauterisation by excommunication and strokes of the rod, and if even then the superior sees that no such efforts are of any avail, yet another remedy must be brought to bear which is still more powerful, namely the person prayer of the superior and of all the community that the Lord who can do all things, may Himself bring healing to the delinquent. If even such a prayer does not bring healing, the superior must turn to the knife of amputation, following the guidance of St Paul, who told the Corinthians to banish the evil rom their midst, and again to said: if the unfaithful one wishes to go, let him go, lest one diseased sheep corrupt the whole flock.

 

In our current age this is a very hard chapter of the Rule to read. The idea of corporal punishment being acceptable has all but left society and when cases of it appear in the news it is always deeply shocking. So it is important to remember that Benedict lived and wrote for a very particular time in the history of the world and whilst there is huge wisdom to be found in the Rule, not every aspect of it is going to translate wholesale into the patterns of modern life, and whilst we would do well to remember and recapture some of it for our daily living, there will be aspects of it, such as this, that should remain confined to the past.

What is interesting about the use of Corporal Punishment is that it is the last resort, which does say something about the attitude of Benedict both to punishment but also of the severity of fault – it is to be used only for a persistent offender who makes no progress toward change and continually defends his actions, seeing no fault in them. One such as this is tearing at the very fabric of the monastic community. They are refusing to submit to the Rule, the community, the superior and even to God Himself.  The last resort of Corporal Punishment is somewhat different to the other institutions of the time that also employed it as a corrective behaviour – be that the military or educational institutes – for whom it was normal first step punishment.

As distasteful as we no doubt find the idea of monks (or indeed anyone) being whipped or caned (the rod) it does demonstrate how seriously Benedict takes the balance of a community and the authority of the superior.

What is more intriguing about this chapter is that even if the excommunication from table, leading psalms, from the oratory and finally corporal punishment fail to correct the behaviour then the superior is to order a community wide prayer for the delinquent monk. Benedict doesn’t give any particular steer on what this will look like, and it is left to the superior who knows their own community well to decide, but it could be something such as a period of intense fasting or continual work in the oratory for and on behalf of the one that is failing to reform. The Rule is written for the good of the community and therefore the community have a responsibility to uphold the Rule and to take part in drawing someone back into the fold when they have gone astray. This helps to shoulder the burden of compassion placed upon the Abbot or Abbess – the body works together as one.

The body is the image that Benedict is most keen to emphasise. He has already referred to the superior as being like a doctor when dealing with a wayward monastic, and here that same image is used and extended. Prayer and Scripture become ointment, balms, and bandages designed to deal with the infection – the wound in the community – in the body. This is serious work of spiritual healing, as a parish priest has cure of souls (along with his bishop) in the parish, so the abbot or abbess has cure of souls for those in their direct care in the cloister. When reading this chapter I have the image of the superior in scrubs asking for instruments and medicines from others and applying them to the wounded.

Sometimes, as we all know, infection cannot be prevented from spreading in the body by the usual techniques and medical intervention and the last resort cure has to be implemented – amputation. Sometimes a leg or an arm has to be removed as the only way to prevent the infection from damaging the body and ending life, so it is within the monastic community. After all has been attempted, after God Himself has been invoked to intervene, if the wayward delinquent does not repent and makes not effort to amend their life then they must be removed from the body of the community – and excommunicated fully from the monastery. This is always the final action and is for the preservation of the wider community. That one soul may be lost but not through want of trying on the part of the superior and, indeed, the whole community gathered in prayer. It is always a difficult action to take – but as Christ said, it is better to enter paradise lame than to be whole and burn in the fires of hell.

 

Chapter Twenty Seven

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The Superior’s care for the excommunicated. 

Every possible care and concern should be shown for those who have been excommunicated by the abbot or abbess, who are themselves to remember that it is not the healthy who need a physician but the sick. Therefore the superior should use every curative skill as a wise doctor does, for instance by sending in senpectae, that is, mature and wise senior members of the community who may discreetly bring counsel to the one who is in a state of uncertainty and confusion; their task will be to show the sinner the way to humble reconciliation and also to bring consolation, as S. Paul also urges, to the one in danger of being overwhelmed by excessive sorry and in need of the reaffirmation of love which everyone in the community must achieve through their prayer. 

As for the abbot or abbess, they must show the greatest possible concern with great wisdom and perseverance to avoid losing any one of the sheep committed to their care. They should be well aware that they have undertaken an office which is more like the care of the sick than the exercise of power over the healthy. They should be anxious to avoid the Lord’s rebuke to the shepherds through the prophet Ezekiel: You made your own those you saw to be fat and healthy and cast out those who were weak. They should follow the loving example of the Good Shepherd who left ninety-nine of his flock on the mountains and went off to look for the one sheep who had strayed. So great was his compassion for the weakness of that one erring sheep that he actually lifted it onto his sacred shoulders and so carried it back to the rest of the flock. 

If reading the pervious few chapters of the Rule that address discipline has left you with a nasty taste in your mouth and a somewhat diminished view of the character of Benedict, perhaps seeing him as someone who is more interested in the preservation of his order than the souls of those who become wayward, hopefully chapter twenty seven offers a rather different vision.

Here Benedict addresses the role of the superior in the community when it comes to reconciling the one who is excommunicate – be that from the common table and leading psalms, or from being in the oratory for communal prayer completely. It is clear from his understanding that this is not simply a matter of authoritative administration, that a punishment or penance can be given and the individual does the heavy lifting work within their own character and soul that they can be reconciled. The role of the superior is one of a highly pastoral nature.

Benedict invokes two very poignant images form the gospel, firstly that of the physician attending to the sick – his rebuttal to the Pharisees when they criticised his association with people they judged to be sinful, and secondly the powerful image of Jesus Christ Himself as the Good Shepherd, risking everything to seek the one who is lost. As has been mentioned previously, if the superior is to be obeyed like Christ in the monastery that means they must act as Christ in the monastery, that their own conduct must be above reproach and their compassion turned toward all who are in need.

This is a heavy burden. It is one that many Christians feel as we attempt to live up to the vows that have been made at Baptism or Confirmation, either by us or on our behalf, it is  amplified when a position of leadership or authority is placed upon you. The superior must remember, first and foremost, that the first shall be last and the last shall be first and ensure that they fulfil their role with humble devotion to God.

The way in which Benedict phrases this chapter of the Rule suggests that when someone is excommunicate the superior, be it the Abbot or the Abbess or someone appointed by them to act on their behalf, should be spending more time with them to bring them back to the fold than they are spending on the rest of the community. In one way this shows another way in which sin manifests – taking the attention of the superior from the daily life of the monastery. I think we can all agree, obviously, that it would be much more ideal if there was no-one excommunicate and thus the attention of the superior could be more evenly distributed.

But what it shows most clearly is how the care for the excommunicated must continue. Excommunication is to be seen as a process to draw someone back to the community, not a way to shun or exclude them out of spite or anger. Personal attention from the superior shows that this is the case, they don’t cease to be important because they are excluded. Similarly if a pupil was disruptive in class they may well be asked to leave in order to not affect the learning of others negatively but they are not left to their own devices, they are sent to see the head teacher or someone else in authority. This is a school for the Lord’s service.

This period of repentance is designed to make the individual do some hard soul searching, literally. But one of the side effects of such an intense, pressurised penance, especially whilst isolated from the wider community and regular activity is that is can cause the penitent to reflect so fully upon their sins and spiral into a pit of depression related to their unworthiness. This would be nothing short of a psychological torture and not the intended outcome. So the superior may elect various wise members of the community, who have a good manner and cheerful spirit to visit the penitent and help them toward reconciliation. The work must still be undertaken by the penitent and the wise monk or nun cannot do it for them, but can offer consolation and remind them that although they are, for a season, removed from the community – they are still bound to them in perfect love.

Throughout the Rule the role of the Superior come under scrutiny and there is always a reminder of their place – that it is not one based on their own power but by the approval of the community and under the sight of God. Invoking the words of the Prophet is a powerful message – the Prophets in scripture were called often to send the gravest of warnings to those that were headed in the wrong direction. It would be easy for the abbot or abbess to ignore the excommunicate, putting into practice the old adage of ‘out of sight, out of mind and focus only on those that are useful, harmonious and less bothersome, but the words of Ezekiel should ring in their ear and remind them to spend time with the weak, to lift them up, to guide them and build them in the spiritual life, that they may truly, and rightly, be called Father.

Above all else the office of the Abbot or Abbess is to be compassionate. They may mean offering discipline as a loving parent does to aid the development of a child, but it must be done with understanding, balance and appropriate severity out of concern for their very soul.

Chapter Twenty Six

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Unlawful association with the excommunicated.

‘If any member of the community presumes without permission of the abbott or abbess to associate in any way with or speak to or give instructions to one who has been excommunicated then that person should receive the same punishment of excommunication.’

One of the shortest and most punchy of all the chapters of the Rule. It leaves nothing ambiguous, there is no room for negotiation and no way in which it cannot be shown to be clear as to what is meant. Very little needs to be said about it as it is self explanatory but it is worth dwelling on the reasons behind such a stark warning.

Benedict, in terms of sociology, was clearly ahead of his time. He observed masterfully the patterns of social grouping and what happens when people are drawn together in such close proximity, such as a monastery, and therefore he understood well what behaviours could be bought out in people – both the best and the worst – and what would work for the good of the community and what would cause a destabilising of it.

Early in the Rule the Abbott or Abbess is said to be considered as ‘Christ in the monastery’ and that the monastic must do as they are commanded as is Christ Himself were asking it. Obviously this puts much pressure on the person in that high office, and in the worst cases can lead to abuse of power, but it is in place in order to ensure that there is a stable hierarchy – too many strong wills all competing for what they believe to be correct will only cause anarchy. It is also about humility – to submit to the will of another, who you trust and who has been appointed over you, is an act that will humble the soul and reduce the ego, this is part of the natural process of monastic life.

As I briefly touched on in the previous chapter, when coming into contact with someone who is undergoing punishment or a particular work of penance there is a high possibility that the monk will be moved with compassion, as Jesus was often, for the plight of another and wish to help in some way. We may be inclined to intervene in that penance of another, offering our own advice – this may muddy the waters and be less than helpful. Or we may look upon what has been given to them to undertake and feel that the punishment is too hard – thus we undermine the authority of the abbot or abbess and cause a lack of stability.

If the person in high office does not have the trust of the community, both in matters relating to the whole gathering and to each individual then there will be disfunction within the body, factions begin to form, murmuring increases and attention is shifted away from God.

The primary way in which the enemy works in our lives is through pride. It is what convinces us to be selfish, that our needs are above those of others. It is what causes us to speak more than to listen, that our ideas and points of view carry more weight than another. It is what leads to behaviours of materialism and greed, because I must have all these things for myself. The most dangerous form of pride is the pride that can seep into our piety and our prayer. It is why we are so often disappointed that God has not answered our prayers in the way we think that He should have. Piety is important, but when we become prideful of our practices it builds within us the sin of being sanctimonious and looking down on what we perceive as the failings of others. This rule guards against that. It forces those that may be more naturally inclined to disagree with the decision of the abbot or abbess out if their own sense of superior understanding of the situation to remember their part within the community.

Chapter Twenty Five

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Punishment for more serious faults

‘Anyone with the infection of a really serious offence is to be excluded not only from the common table but from common prayer in the oratory as well. None of the community should associate with or talk to the guilty person, who is to persevere alone in sorrow and penance on whatever work has been allotted, remembering St Paul’s fearful judgement when he wrote to the Corinthians that: such a one should be handed over for the destruction of the flesh so that the spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord. As for meals, they are to be provided in solitude and the abbot or abbess must decide the amounts and the times that are appropriate. No-one should offer a blessing in passing the guilty person nor should the food provided be blessed.’

Save from being removed from the cloister, having the habit taken away and being turned loose from the monastery this chapter offers the greatest insight into the harshest punishment available to the one at fault. Such is their crime against God, themselves and their brothers in Christ that they are now no longer even allowed to join their brothers in the oratory to participate in the communal life of prayer, no blessing or greeting is to be given them as they go about their work and even their food is to remain unblessed.

Bearing in mind that not every monk was a priest this was a very harsh punishment. A priest may call down a blessing upon their own foot and may say mass where they are in order to participate the Great Prayer and receive in the Divine Sacraments of the Church, but here, the guilty, especially if they are not a priest themselves, is made to go without. It is an escalation of the tactic we encountered in the previous chapter – it is to take away all that is good, the blessings of God and the greetings of the brethren. This is social isolation within the monastery, as though the offence to God and the community has made the individual invisible in the eyes of everyone else, that it may magnify the gaze of God upon their soul and drive them to repentance.

It is most notable that Benedict refers to serious offence as an infection and the advice he  gives in terms of punishment is essentially like that of quarantine. Of course, in the terms of physical health, an infection does damage to the person with it, however, it also poses a risk to others and sometimes, because of age or underlying medical conditions, the infection passed on by one to another may be even more dangerous. Such is sin in the community. Whether or not it has an obvious, outward effect on the guilty person the repercussions can be far greater. The example set to the young novice, seeking their way, or to the new convert looking for an example, can have their vocation or call shattered by the behaviour of another, it can go even further than that an be a matter of the salvation of their own soul.

Just as Jesus warns those who put anything in the way of the innocent coming to Him will face even greater judgment – those who cause the stumbling of others will be judged harshly.

Benedict is building people of fierce compassion, who pray for the world and serve it with their unceasing intercession, and so it is natural that they will take pity on the guilty party, especially if the work of penance is long. However, just as someone may be isolated for infection to protect them and others, Benedict warns them not to interact. This is for their own protection. Unlike medical infections which some people can be immune to or protected against with powerful medicine, there is no vaccination for sin and each of us, the deepest desires of our ego, will find any way to justify the behaviour that it really wants to undertake and latch onto it. One of the most prominent ways that sin can take hold is when we see others doing it and can therefore justify our own participation.

This monastic isolation is the chemical hazmat suit of the spiritual world, to keep out the infection of sin as best we can. It also allows healing without adding other complications into the mix. The sinner has enough to deal with in fighting off their own infectious sin without having also to cope with whatever small foibles or other sins we may introduce to them in their already weakened spiritual state. Once they have been freed from their infection they can be truly embraced again in the fraternal love of Christ.

Lastly, this isolation from the guilty individual should breed within the community a greater love. Although they may still be reeling from the disruption his sin has caused, they should begin to miss his presence and be drawn to consider and contemplate all the good he brings and the strength of his vocation in undertaking this penance in isolation. It helps the community learn to love, or to re-love the wayward brother so that reconciliation may be easier at the end of the isolation. Imagine of the penitent finished their hard work in solitude and returned to a community that was still bristling, that still ignored him and excluded him, this time not for his own good but for malice. He would rightly question why his repentance was necessary in the face of such obvious lack of charity. Isolation provides mutual benefit in the healing of the sick and the protection of the healthy, it also increases the desire to embrace the other in a familial way upon their return and rejoice at their newfound health.

Chapter Twenty Four

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Different degrees of severity in punishment.

‘The severity of excommunication or any other punishment should correspond to the gravity of the fault committed, and it is for the superior to decide about the seriousness of faults. Anyone found guilty of faults which are not too serious should be excluded from taking part in community meals at the common table This exclusion from the common table also means that in the oratory the guilty person will not be allowed to lead a psalm or antiphon nor to recite a reading until satisfaction has been made. Meals should be provided for such a one to take alone after the community meal at, for instance, the ninth hour, if the community eats at the sixth or after Vespers, if the community eats at the ninth hour. That regime should continue until fitting satisfaction has been made and pardon granted.’

Here that word crops up again – excommunication – but if we were still in any doubt about the permanency of such punishment this chapter of the Rule categorically shows that it can come to an end and is desirous that it should. Excommunication, in this chapter, is used as a general exclusion from the common table.

Monastic life has long periods of solitary time – from the final office of the day, through the Greater Silence of the night and into the morning, so periods together with others are to be treasured – although meal times would often be silent there is something comforting about the close proximity of your monastic family – something I have experienced myself when visiting the abbey of which I am an oblate, nothing makes me feel quite so at home as sitting silently at meal times with the brothers. That Benedict withdraws this privilege when someone is in error is another way to show that the sin of one stretches out its tendrils into the wider community that it may cause greater damage. Isolating the one who has acted such, removing them from the common table, forcing them to eat alone, strips them of the comforts of camaraderie and draws attention to the reason – the sin – of which they must repent.

We are driven by our desire to be included – we make choices and act in particular ways, not always the best ways, to win the acceptance and approval of whatever group it is we wish to be involved in. This removal from the group heightens our fear of missing out. It is in these meal times that the community bond over the breaking of bread together, eating as Jesus did with his closest disciples, the pain of being parted should be enough to shock the system into repentance and avoiding reason to be isolated again. Leaving man alone with his own thoughts can cure many ills.

What is most interesting from this chapter is that the exclusion does not extend to the work of God in the oratory. Benedict recognises that prayer and the worship of almighty God is a medicine to heal the soul – as you are drawn into the ancient prayers and praises of God you are put directly in His sight and bathed with His light – this cannot but highlight the darkness within each of us, and the hope is that we respond, but making ourselves better able to bare that intense holiness. The presence of the guilty in the prayers of the monastic community is also important for those who may have been wronged by the sinner, or are at least feeling the effects. Resentment can grow quite quickly but it is harder to allow hatred to breed if you are constantly praying with and for that individual.

However, in the act of prayer there are some restrictions. The guilty cannot lead the psalms or antiphons or read divine scripture for the rest of the community. They can participate, of course, but they cannot lead others. This says much about Benedictine attitudes toward the purpose of prayer – as we saw in a previous chapter haste should be made to get to the oratory first, there should be a desire to be there and participating in the work of God, therefore to be asked to lead others in that is an immense privilege and one that cannot be granted to one that is in error. If eating together is important, leading others in prayer is even more so.

It also speaks of the need to ensure that ones own house is in order before guiding others in the sanctification of their own souls. There would be a huge hypocrisy if the one in open error were the one leading others in psalms and antiphons – they must live their lives as an example and lead others from that place of strength. Of course, that is not to say that only the sinless can lead worship – if that was the case our churches and monasteries would be utterly silent, but we should all be striving for holiness and sanctity, doing our very best to achieve it, if we are in open sin and rebellion and no penance has been completed and reparations are left unmade, it would be the wrong example if that person were looked to as the spiritual guide.

Finally the chapter finishes with the characteristic fairness of Benedict. Continue in this excommunication until satisfaction has been made and forgiveness granted, and then it is done. He does not need to elaborate further. Full stop, line drawn, the community moves on and the prodigal son has returned.

Chapter Twenty Three

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Faults which deserve excommunication

‘If an individual in the community is defiant, disobedient, proud or given to murmuring or in any other way set in opposition to the holy Rule and contemptuous of traditions of the seniors, then we should follow the precept of Our Lord. Such a one should be warned once and then twice in private by seniors. If there is no improvement, the warning should be followed by a severe public rebuke before the whole community. If even this does not bring reform then excommunication should be the next penalty, provided that the meaning of such punishment is really understood. In a case of real defiance, corporal punishment may be the only cure.’

Here we have the Holy Father at perhaps his most severe, and yet, even with in the serious tone of the chapter there is a measured and gracious response to those who stand in opposition to the Rule. The Monastic community can be a very fragile thing, bound together by the shared practices and routines, it does not take much for this to be throw off balance by the actions of another. Every person that enters a community, even as a guest, changes it – for the better or for the worse – depending on their character and actions. The monastery, as Benedict envisioned, is a school in the service of the Lord and therefore there is going to be an element of learning the way in which the daily life occurs and settling into your place within it. This is not always going to be an easy path. At the height of the development of Benedict’s monastic communities the people entering would have been very varied. Old and young, rich and poor, from different places, different social status, different backgrounds. All this was the potential to cause tension, as you lived in close proximity with people you otherwise would be separate from in the secular world.

No one enters the monastery as the perfect monk, just as no one becomes a perfect spouse just because they have made their vows on the wedding day, it requires work, practice, development – but the key word that Benedict uses here is proud – to become bound to another in marriage, in a religious community, in the priesthood – whatever it may be – requires a humbling of the self and a desire (and duty) to see the other and their needs.

To live under the Rule means a submission to it and to those that are given the authority to enforce it  – submission is, in our current age, seen as a dirty word, that it somehow diminishes our freedom, doesn’t make for our flourishing or that is stifles our individuality. The first act of submission is to understand that part of this is true – our individual identity save for the one modelled on Christ NEEDS to be suppressed. The individual identity that is our selfishness, our ego, our misplaced desires need to be subjected to the refinement of the Lord that we may recapture the image that we were made in – His – and better serve others in the proclamation of the gospel. We shall be known by our fruits – just as trees are pruned when they start to grow in strange and unhelpful directions so that the energy can be rerouted instead to the production of fruit, so must our souls be pruned by God through the work of the Church that we might also produce The Good Fruit of the Kingdom.

The Rule attempts to put into words the example of S. John the Baptist – ‘I must decrease, He must increase’.

The approach is interesting – two private warnings and attempts to gently amend the behaviour of the wayward, then a public rebuke before the whole community. That is interesting in an of itself, not just before the seniors, not just before those that hold high office, but before everyone, from the novice to the Abbott. This is because sin effects whole communities – sometimes it effects the community even more than the sinner (especially if they are unrepentant or have done some mental gymnastics to justify their behaviour and thus made it acceptable only on their own sight). This is not just an offence against God but against those you have committed to be alongside, those you eat with, sleep beside, work beside and pray beside. The actions of one can have an insidious effect upon the whole of the gathered community – especially behind the walls of a cloister where separation from the irritation is not always possible.

This is also why Benedict especially mentions murmuring – which I think is a particular trait of the worst parts of church life. Those who will not openly be in dissension but with, behind the scenes, quietly and subtly mutter about what has been decided or asked of them. It may seem harmless, it may be able to be cast aside for a while as their own temperament or character – but this muttering becomes a morale sapping cancer in a community. What begins as a drip, drip, drip of muttering becomes a trickle, then a stream of poison – as others join in or begin their own muttering against the initial instigator. It creates division, saps morale and discourages collegiality. I think, especially the English, have a proclivity to murmur rather than tackle issues that may comet the fore.

Finally Benedict speaks of the most severe punishment in the ecclesiastical community. Excommunication. This process has much folk lore and legend around it, it has been glamourised in film and literature as this dark ritual  – and yes it is severe – but, most importantly, it is not final. Excommunication is designed to be a last ditch attempt to make someone amend their ways – you are expelled only as long as you continue in the wrong path. For example, if someone is excommunicated for heresy, as long as they continue to believe and promote that heretical teaching, they will remain excommunicate. If they repent, rescind and amend they CAN be encouraged to return to the fold. There is no Saint without a past and no sinner without a future. Excommunication is the embodiment of the phrase  – ‘You don’t know what you have got until it is gone’ – to be removed from the ecclesial body and deprived the sacraments is supposed to shock the individual into realising how good things were within The Body of Christ and strive to find a way back there.

We are not beyond redemption and excommunication is not forever, but that often depends on us.

Chapter Twenty Two

 

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Sleeping Arrangements for the Community 

‘The members of the community should each have beds for themselves and they should all receive from the superior bedding which is suitable to monastic life. If possible they should all sleep in one room, but if the community is too large for that they should sleep in groups of ten or twenty with senior members among them to care for them. A lamp should be kept alight in the dormitories until the morning. 

They should sleep in their normal clothes wearing a belt or cord round their waists; but they should not keep knives in their belts for fear of cutting themselves accidentally while asleep. All should be prepared to rise immediately without any delay as soon as the signal get up is given; then they should hurry to see who can get first to the oratory doe the work of God, but of course they should due this with due dignity and restraint. The young should not have their beds next to each other but they should be placed among those of the seniors. In the morning, as they are getting up for the work of God, they should quietly give encouragement to those who are sleepy and given to making excuses for being late.’

On the face of it we have another very domestic rule, one that is explicitly about the practicalities of sleeping arrangements and, at first glance, something that to those of us who do not live in a shared community like a monastery could overlook and ignore for irrelevance. However, buried within the text of this rule are some utter gems in relation to wider community life and personal spiritual development.

There is something hugely important about the emphasis Benedict puts on the integration of ages. Far too often in our society, in our churches, the young an the old are separated. It is sad in society, it is tragic in the church. Different programmes and different modes of worship and engagement are laid on for each, and little thought is given to the cross-pollination that can happen when generations are brought together. The enthusiasm and youthful presence of the young is a huge encouragement to those that are older, to those that have dedicated their life in the service of something, seeing their replacements come up behind them – knowing the future of this church, this order, this specific monastery is in their hands. For the youth, their enthusiasm and zeal must be tempered with wisdom and learning, with the example of a life dedicated to Christ – to see their future modelled in the lives of their elders is vital.

Benedict clearly new there would be a temptation, as there always is, to bond with those who are like you in some way – one of the most obvious factors is age. We bond, more naturally, in groups of a similar age – even in the church when we are bound together by the blood and love of Christ. Putting the seniors and the juniors together in the same dormitory makes for a natural cohesion. You cannot ignore the person you sleep next to (all be it in separate beds) their habits and foibles, their patterns and behaviours, their comforting words and support, all weave themselves into a rich familial life – creating bond that is so true the monks may honestly, without pause, call one another brother. The presence of the elders among the young will also stop it from turning into a school dormitory with late night talking and hijinks that are often experienced amongst men, even adult men, when they are grouped together as such.

The second part of this rule that really spoke to me when I first read it, and reflected upon it heavily during my time in seminary, was the manner in which the monk was expected to rise. It is as though his whole sleep is about preparation. Having a lantern burning in the room until morning is not only practical (in that when they rise in the dark for the first monastic office in winter they can still see and avoid injury, as well as those that may need to rise in the night for calls of nature) in that is also does not allow a fully deep sleep, the eyes picking up on the light and firing off to the brain to keep things ticking over, a state of semi-awakedness to be alert, it is also symbolic – I imagined it hanging in the centre of that room as the lamp burns before the tabernacle in church, revealing the place of Christ, with them, amongst them, asleep in the boat. Secondly, they sleep in their habits so as soon as the call is made they can proceed to the oratory to begin the work of God. Simply calling it the work of God is powerful, we are not just praying, not just talking to our Divine Creator, as amazing as that is that we can! We are participating in the work of God, the work of Jesus, the work of the Spirit, the work of the saints that pray continually in the throne room – and you and I – unworthy as we are – are asked to undertake that work. Not a chore, not a duty, (though it may often feel it) but a sacred privilege.

What follows, that the brothers should almost compete to get to the oratory first, should go without saying. IF we can truly look upon our daily office as the work of God and the invitation to join it, we should be sprinting to get there, to throw ourselves into the vineyard and push on toward the Kingdom that He is building and we are supporting. Benedict, however, warns against exuberance – we are still, after all, approaching the almighty. If the Queen invites you to the palace you respond with all haste and turn up on time, but you don’t tear through the gates and full speed and meet her panting and breathless, more so then for God. We approach Him with the reverence He is due but with a exuberant willingness that has roused us from slumber and brought us to Him.

As we erect a school for the service of the Lord, as Benedict envisioned his monasteries to be, how do we develop the habit that we wear in order to hurry to the work of God? We may have many others draws on our time – our family, our dependants, our career. How do we balance that with our calling to, first and foremost, be a Christian – a follower of The Way?

This is another reason why this chapter reveals something of our life in Christ, even if it is far from the dormitory walls of the monastery. We need the Christian community beside us, we cannot hurry to the work of God alone, because there will be times when we sleep in late or make excuses for a tardy arrival – then we need to be gently shaken by those around us – sometimes the older, sometimes the younger – and encouraged along. And, importantly, sometimes we will be the ones doing that gentle shaking to rouse our brother from spiritual lethargy to hurry to the work of God. This is the work of a lifetime, not just ours, but a lifetime of a gathered community.