Chapter Seventy Three

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The Rule is only the beginning 

The purpose for which we have written this Rule is to make it clear that by observing it in our monasteries we can at least achieve the first steps in virtue and good monastic practice. Anyone, however, who wishes to press on towards the highest standards of monastic life may turn to the teachings of the holy Fathers, which can lead those who follow them to the very heights of perfection. Indeed, what page, what saying from the sacred scriptures of the Old and New Testaments is not given us by the authority of God as reliable guidance for our lives on earth? Then there are the Conferences and Institutes and the Lives of the Fathers and the rule of the holy father Basil. What else are these works but a means of true progress in virtue for those aiming at high standards of observance and obedience in monastic life? We, however, can only blush with shame when we reflect on the negligence and inadequacy of the monastic lives we lead. 

Whoever you may be, then, in your eagerness to reach your Father’s home in heaven, be faithful with Christ’s help to this small Rule which is only a beginning. Starting from there you may in the end aim at the greater heights of monastic teaching and virtue in the works which we have mentioned above and with God’s help you will then be able to reach those heights yourself. Amen. 

After so many words and so many chapters it feels very surreal to be writing what is the final reflection on The Rule of St Benedict, a project started many months ago, paused amidst parish work and finally taken up again in the midst of a global pandemic. The time lockdown and isolation has been pertinent to reflect upon the monastic life and all that it has to teach us as we adjust to a period of time, spanning longer than we imagine or know, where we must be working from home, be self-sufficient, pray in our ‘cell’ and learn to have even more tolerance with those we may abide with.

Benedict ends the Rule by stating that it is only the beginning, that his words in this text are the basics, and introduction to a different way a life, the first few tentative steps on the path to Glory. As you may expect from a man who has written about humility and the need to suppress the ego rid ourselves of pride he points away from himself, from his own great tome to the words of two other sources. Firstly, Benedict shows his great love and reverence of scripture in this chapter, pointing the reader to the words of the Old and New Testaments – that these, authorised by God, are perfect for the guidance of our lives on earth. He does not intend his words to detract from the Bible, and thus scriptural references both obvious and slightly more hidden are found on almost every page that he has written.

Just in case you thought that after taking the Scriptures as a primary source, that the Rule would be the best secondary source for guidance, Benedict has another recommendation. To turn to the Conferences and Institutes. Here the Holy Father is referring to the corpus of works by St John Cassian, (AD 306-435) – also known as John the Aesthetic, as the name suggests he was a monk, he is revered by both the churches of the East and the West and he is credited with bringing knowledge of the monastic life to the Western word. Benedict has become known as the ‘Father of Western Monasticism’ which would make John Cassian the Grandfather. These two great works, the Conferences of the Coenobites to give it its full title, collects the wisdom of some of the greatest early monks about the ordering of monastic life. This is coupled with the Institutes of the Desert Fathers, which is more concerned with inner development. Together they paint a picture of monastic life that Benedict attempted to capture and distil.

After Cassian, Benedict also mentions Basil the Great. St Basil wrote a very early monastic rule to help form the shambolic communities of the desert into something more ordered. It is a strict and very aesthetic set of instructions because the situation that Basil found was in disarray – there was very little prayer and even less to distinguish them as christian communities, more just a collection of people living together in the desert and doing their normal tasks. In comparison to the Rule of St Benedict it is short but less flexible, a reaction to the current scenario rather than a plan for the future, but it heavily influence Benedict as he dealt with the corruption he saw in his own age.

You may, as most do, think that if you follow the letter and spirit of the Rule of St Benedict you would be as close to sanctity as is possible this side of heaven, but Benedict points further, suggesting that those who are zealous to live in an even higher degree of monastic aestheticism must look toward the Desert Fathers, the original source, and drink from that fountain. Somewhat ironically, the work of the Rule is such that it is more than a life work, perhaps if we could live several times over it wouldn’t be enough to truly participate in this purgative process on the path to perfection. But the wisdom of Benedict, precisely because of that, has become timeless – he does not speak just to the age, or an age, but all ages – the wills and whims of man is such that these words, this advice to address our foibles, failures and falls will remain relevant – as long as there is breath in the lungs of humanity and evil in the heart of The Enemy.

Although Benedict does not consider his Rule to be apt for experts, only a guide for beginners, it is just as well that we, all of us, are but infants seeking to grow in wisdom, truth and understanding. By taking these words to heart and keeping Christ at the centre, we can develop a monastic mindset – focused solely on God – that spills out into or community. Be that cloister, convent, monastery or market place.

St Benedict, pray for us, we are really going to need it.

Chapter Seventy Two

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The good spirit which should inspire monastic life.

It is easy to recognise the bitter spirit of wickedness which creates a barrier to God’s grace and opens the way to the evil of Hell. But equally there is a good sprit which frees us from evil ways and brings us closer to God and eternal life. It is the latter spirit that all who follow the monastic way of life should strive to cultivate, spurred on by fervent love. By following this path they try to be the first to show respect for one another with the greatest patience in tolerating weaknesses of body and character. They should even be ready to outdo each other in mutual obedience so that no one in the monastery aims at personal advantage but is rather concerned for the good of others. Thus the pure love of one another as of one family should be their ideal. As for God they should have a profound and loving reverence for Him. They should love their abbot or abbess with sincere and unassuming affection. They should value nothing whatever above Christ Himself and may He bring us all together to eternal life. 

Upon reaching this part of the Rule it should be fairly evident as to what the purpose is that Benedict is attempting to guide people toward. Chapter seventy two is essentially a summary of the preceding seventy one chapters, reminding the monk or nun of their duty, to themselves and their spiritual growth, to their brothers and sisters in the community, also attempting to attain perfection, to their superior holding all things together for the common good and, most importantly, to God. The last point is especially pertinent. You could be the most disciplined monk or nun that has ever set foot inside the monastery but unless the eyes, heart and mind are raised to God then the works of the Rule are useless, it is a tool to produce the desired result of union with God, not a sacred text to be adored. The one who follows the letter but not the spirit is, like scripture says: ‘I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.’ (1 Corinthians 13:1b – The Authorised Version)

This chapter of the Rule serves to remind the monk or the nun to keep their motives pure. Whatever it was that drew them to the monastery, whether that was less than honest means or reasons, if one is prepared to submit to God even the crooked lines of our past can be written straight – but it requires an open heart, a desire, in the very least, to move toward that goal. The Rule will help and provide a backdrop for the work of the sanctification of the soul, working at the rough edges and training the mind to consider the other and God, but the monk or nun must be willing to receive the wisdom of the Holy Father and the working of the community order.

Benedict once again adds an almost competitive element to ‘outdo each other in mutual obedience’ – the principle introduced in the previous chapter (seventy one) – the same competitive spirit he introduced in getting to the oratory on time. Whilst competition is not really the aim, and there is no individual winner, if everyone were committed to mutual obedience as though it were a tournament with a prize then the winner is the entirety of the community. A willingness to do unto others is increased and each becomes more aware of the needs of others.

The beautiful prose that Benedict writes in this chapter provides a utopian glimpse of the Kingdom of God, and how we could realise that on earth, in our own communities – be that parish, family or work. To have a profound and loving reverence of God, to remind ourselves of that every day in the Work of God and allow the blessings of it to overflow into the wider world, in doing so we create an order based on Christ at the heart of creation, turning all attention away from the self-centred pride of our fallen human nature and upon the pattern of our perfection. When God is central everything else fits into place around it, the pieces of our lives in the tapestry of the divine are ably sewed together with our prayers and ordered desires, and we diminish the loose threats that can snag and unravel everything.

The simplicity of the life of the monk or nun is to allow one thing to occur, the last line of this chapter. ‘They should value nothing whatever above Christ Himself and may He bring us all together to eternal life” – When we are stripped of our attachment to worldly ‘things’, to the material objects that fuel our desire, from the ego and the inflated sense of self, then we can truly make space in our small, mortal hearts to truly love Christ and once He has entered in His Sacred Heart causes ours to expand, that we may take in humanity with compassion and love. The monastery is not an escape from the world, but the place where love is developed to contain the world.

The insights of the Rule of St Benedict, whilst expressing a particular way of life for those called to live in monastic life, provide for us, who live in the world a way to add balance and stability to our lives and grow in humility and love.

 

 

Chapter Seventy One

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Mutual obedience in the monastery.

Obedience is of such value that it should be shown not only to the superior but all members of the community should be obedient to each other in the sure knowledge that this way of obedience is the one that will take them straight to God. Of course any commands from the abbot or abbess or those they have delegated must take precedence and cannot be over-ridden by unofficial orders, but when that has been said, all juniors should obey their seniors showing them love and concern. Anyone objecting to this should be corrected.

Any monk or nun who is corrected for anything by abbot or abbess or one of the seniors and perceives that the senior is upset by feelings of anger, even though they may be well control, then that junior should at once prostrate on the ground in contrition and not move until the senior gives a blessing which will heal the upset. Anyone who disdains to do so should receive corporal punishment  or in a case of real rebellion be expelled from the monastery. 

As we move rapidly toward the end of the seventy three chapters of the Rule, Benedict begins to detail how the spirit of the Rule should impact the life of the community. For the Holy Father, it has never just been about setting a list of permitted actions and those that are not acceptable and expecting people to follow them blindly. He has shown throughout that the Rule is flexible, it is adaptable depending on the context of the community, their location and who is amongst their members. He has also shown how much emphasis is placed on the wise discernment of the superior and that all voices, no matter how young in age or orders, should have the opportunity to be heard. The Rule is a trellis upon which the spiritual growth can be anchored. The purpose of it is to seep into the mind and the heart and create fertile ground for the growth of holiness. In this chapter we see how some of that has an outworking.

Every monk and nun should be ready to jump in to assist their brother or sister with a task. The Rule, in its mutual obedience, should make the Religious consider each others needs more closely and to be ready to do as asked, even by someone in the community who does not hold high office or a specific position. There should be a mutually supportive environment, reasons don’t need to be given, someone doesn’t need to be told twice – the order, command or request comes and the individual should be immediately willing. Unless, of course, they are under instruction from the superior or delegated official which must always take precedence, and be accepted as a perfectly good reason by the other.

This is a principle that we can easily apply in our interactions with one another. Do we develop a willingness to serve? When we serve we are emulating Christ Himself who took off his tunic, wrapped a towel around His waist and washed the feet of the Apostles. In doing so He demonstrated perfect Christian love, taking the lowest place and undertaking a task that was beneath the dignity of His Divine Self. It is a blessing to be able to serve, like the old adage says ‘It is better to give than to receive’, even though society has trained us to do the opposite – to take what we can get and gladly receive the offerings of others, with minimal effort on our part in return. The Christian in their community who readily answers any request (providing it is lawful and not immoral or dangerous) with a hearty yes, demonstrates in practical ways the love of God. People don’t often remember what you tell them, and hammering people with doctrinal arguments may not lead the to Jesus, but they will remember what you did for them and how that made them feel. It opens up the door for a soft evangelism of relationship – but more importantly – it simply shows them love, and God is love.

The second part of this chapter is probably one of the most touching demonstrations of humble love that anyone is likely to see. When someone rebukes another, if the one being rebuked notices that there is upset caused due to anger (even if it is controlled) they are to lay prostrate on the floor. Laying in this position is a very powerful witness. Prostrate is used in the liturgy at very solemn moments – on Good Friday the priests and sacred ministers lay prostrate in the sanctuary, when ordination occurs the deacon lays prostrate upon the floor before being ordained to the sacred priesthood, when acts of reparation are made for the fault of the church this has been used as a demonstration of humility. Laying prostrate places you in the very lowest possible position, even more lowly that being on ones knees. It places the individual in the mud, on the dirt and casts the eyes downward. Imagine being angry with someone, expressing it and seeing them respond in this way. It would demonstrate how seriously they understand the offence caused. Rather than standing and arguing their case or defending their position or being indifferent or indigent – they see the hurt and drop to the ground.

Our actions and words have consequences and even if the person opposite us is so controlled within their own self that it is not immediately obvious in an explosion of anger, we need to be aware that what we have done has an effect on them. The Rule prompts an individual to be more aware of the needs of others – built up through the shared life, through the silent and coded communication, the fraternal vows and the consistency alongside one another in prayer – in our Christian lives in the world it should give us pause for thought about our words and actions, and the effect they have on the people around us. Do we live a double life? Presenting one face to our brothers and sisters at church and being a different beast altogether at home or at work. Do we excuse our behaviour at work because of the culture of the office or the people we are around? We should be swimming against the prevailing tide, showing a different way of living and one way in which that can be done in a very obvious way is by a willing acceptance of our wrongdoing and an accountability of our actions.

Be swift to serve and quick to apologise and the Holy Father’s Rule will be active within your life.

Chapter Seventy

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The offence of striking another

Every occasion for presumptuous behaviour in a monastery must be avoided, so we insist that no one in the community may excommunicate or strike another unless given the power to do so by the superior. Those guilty of such wrongdoing should be rebuked before everyone so that all others may fear. Everyone, however, should have some responsibility for the control and supervision of children up to the age of fifteen, but they must be moderate and sensible in the way they exercise it. Just as among the adults any who assume power over others must be punished so anyone who flare up immoderately against children must be subjected to the discipline of the Rule, for it is written in scripture; do not do to another what you would be unwilling to suffer yourself. 

This chapter is heavily influenced by the context of the culture of the time of writing, and will no doubt sit uneasily with our modern reading and the more liberal society in which we now exist, for better or for ill, and the idea that the abbot or abbess of the monastery would allow a physical strike to be made would be unheard of now. Could you imagine the same scenario happening in church, or in the workplace? But it seems that, on some occasions, when Benedict was writing that is exactly what occurred, no doubt as a rebuke for an offence. And it is also clear that when there were children in the monastery an element of corporal punishment was part of the daily proceedings, as it would have been normalised in society at that time – the monasteries of today don’t admit young children and corporal punishment of them, or adults, is not part of the discipline that is used.

It is rare that we can take something directly from the Rule and apply it to our own lives without much adaptation – but here is such an occasion. Benedict completely opposes physical violence (outside of the ordered corporal punishment, of which we are not debating) and those who allow their passions, their temper, to explode in such a way that physical violence is exercised, should be rebuked before the whole community. As we read in an earlier chapter, there are some faults that once confessed to the superior are never to see the light of day – violence is not one of them. The rebuke is public, before all the community, to discourage them from the same path and to highlight the shame of this particular sinful behaviour.

Violence is abhorrent. When we remember the Passion of Our Lord and the abject horror of the scourging and crucifixion, the marks of violence that still marked His risen body, we must recoil from it. When we read the stories of the countless martyrs of the church who could have violently defended themselves and remained physically alive through force, we dishonour their sacrifice when we take to physical action.

Violence is also supremely arrogant – to be possessed of the thought that we have any right whatsoever to put hands upon another person, to mark their skin, to blemish their body, to break their bones – it suggests an assumed power over another living being, a dismissal of the sovereignty of God through Whom and because of Whom they live and move and have their being.

Finally, it is an outburst of an inner failing. If we cannot bridle the passions, which in and of themselves are not bad, they will become disordered passions and they will destroy us – not just physically, not just mentally, but spiritually. Disordered passions board up the windows and doors of the soul and flood it with darkness, in which sin, like a mould spore, finds the perfect condition to growth, to thrive and to dominate. A physical outburst, be it in violence, lust, or whatever, shows that this process is already well underway, and it will be even harder to step back from the brink of the abyss. This is why Jesus Himself said;

21 Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment:

22 But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. (Matthew 5:21-22 The Authorised Version)

So we can see that even when the desire to insult comes to our mind, we have already committed murder, such was the hyperbolic warning of Christ, how much more, then, would the physical act of aggression be seen as damnation. It is clear that violence and adherence to the gospel is not possible.

Chapter Sixty Nine

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No one should act as an advocate for another.

Great care must be taken to avoid any tendency for one of the community to take the side of and try and protect another, even though they may be closely related through ties of blood. Such a thing must not happen in the monastery because it would provide a very serious occasion of scandal. Anyone who acts against this must be sharply deterred by punishment. 

Upon reading this chapter of the Rule, our first inclination might be that this is distinctly strange. Benedict has spent many chapters extolling the virtues of a close familial community, calling one another brother, sister, mother or father, making sure that the Religious know they are accountable to one another, serve one another and pray for one another, and yet now we are told, in chapter sixty nine, that no one should act as an advocate for another,try and protect them or side with them. A very natural instinct, borne of love and compassion, is seemingly being curbed here.

Benedict is establishing a stable community, and in the confines of the monastery everything is heightened. If you have ever lived communally with people other than your immediate family – be that in a house share, university accommodation, tied work accommodation or seminary, you will have some experience of how the environment can become highly pressurised – every little interaction, positive or negative, is enhanced.

Even though someone may wish to advocate for another, or defend them, for entirely noble reasons this has the potential to form factions within the community, different groups siding with others, or even worse, a faction set against the authority of the superior. It is not hard to imagine a scenario where the familial affection of one for another, in the face of the difficult task set by the abbot or abbess, may cause disobedience and convincing others to do the same. It is also important to remember that sometimes within these communities there would actually be siblings or cousins, those who are connected through blood, and yet each monk and nun must treat each member of the community with the same love, not have a preference even for members of their own worldly family.

Living in the monastery is a delicate balance between living alongside someone for many years, and keeping appropriate distance in affection and feelings. This is not easy to do, but it is important, especially as these close communities can often manufacture false feelings based on shared experience, which can be incredibly destructive to the community itself, to the individuals involved and the wider community of faith. Shared rooms, shared bathrooms, shared meals, can all lead to disordered affections bubbling to the surface. Therefore the motives for advocating for someone may not always be pure.

It is important to examine our motives when we step in to help someone too. Are we doing so for the right reasons? It is a gospel imperative to defend the outcast, the downtrodden, the ‘widow and the orphan’ as scripture puts it, namely those that are the most vulnerable – but are we doing so simply out of duty? This in an of itself is not a bad thing, duty and adherence to it often leads us when our emotions are weak or absent, and much good can be done out of duty, but if our offering is not soaked in compassion and prayer for our fellow man, it is dry. Or, is it more sinister than that? Is our charity done in such a way that we are seen to be doing it, massaging our ego or self-importance, receiving praise and adulation because of our good works? The scriptures have much to say about good works and that they should be done so that the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing.

What about our preferences? How do we navigate the difficult terrain of our feelings towards others, groups or individuals, and ensure that we are treating people equally. Does the drug addict in the shop door way evoke as much sympathy from us as the single mother living hand to mouth? We need to be careful not to rank our assistance in terms of anything other than the practical situations. This is not to say that we need to act exactly the same for each person and each scenario, there is a process of discernment, but we need to ensure that our compassion is not a judgement based on perceived value, rather than actual need.

This is possibly the hardest outworking of our Christian faith, to treat everyone equally with the love of Christ, regardless of what we may personally think or feel about them and their actions. The old and the young, whatever the race, whatever the gender, the criminal and the innocent, the born and the unborn. All are made in the image of God, however much that image may have been marred by the mire of the world.

Chapter Sixty Eight

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The response to orders that seem impossible.

If instructions are given to anyone in the community with seem too burdensome or even impossible then the right thing is to accept the order in a spirit of uncomplaining obedience. However, if the burden of this task appears to be completely beyond the strength of the monk or nun to whom it has been assigned, then there would be no question of a rebellious or proud rejection but it would be quite right to choose a good opportunity and point out gently to the superior the eases for thinking that the task is really impossible. If the superior after listening to this submission still insists on the original command, then the junior must accept that it is the right thing and with loving confidence in the help of God obey. 

In this chapter Benedict looks more closely at the way in which obedience functions within the day-to-day tasks of the community. The superior, elected by the monastic community for their wisdom and discernment must be so embedded within the community that they understand the monks and nuns and know them well enough so that when tasks are assigned they can be completed based on the relative strengths, both physically and in adherence to the way of life set out in the Rule. As we have already read, there are some tasks which are non-negotiable that everyone participates in, like kitchen duty and serving in the refectory, but others are more specific to particular skills. There would be no point, for example, making an illiterate monk the librarian. Sometimes it will be obvious what tasks suit particular individuals but sometimes it will not and there will be underlying reasons that may be unknown that prevent successful completion.

Should this occur the individual should not point blank refuse to undertake the task that is given, but should, accepting authority go and begin. If it becomes apparent they are unable, then they can make their case to the superior. There is a sense of fairness imbedded in the Rule, there is always the opportunity for redress and always the opportunity for every voice to be heard in all cases. As we have seen from the writing of the Holy Father himself, he is not authoritarian and allows flexibility, it follows therefore that the monastery should not be a dictatorship either. Whilst the abbot or abbess retains ultimate control, voices will be heard and opinions will be sought.

One of the common issues with modernity is the need for instant gratification – we live in the text, email generation, responses have to be quick and easy. This has filtered into our daily life and our motivation in tasks – rather than repair and reuse, everything is disposable. Take away delivery services boom and we are the kings of convenience. This filters into our work life too, if something is too hard we are prone to give up before we have even begun, writing it off as impossible. Benedict makes certain that this mentality is not to be apparent in the monastery. The monk or nun being given a task must accept it with humility. They have submitted to the order, to the Rule, to living under the instruction of the superior – and the burden they are asked to carry, though it may be heavy, is one they freely chose. The monk or nun does not take their habit off when things are hard and say that they are done for the day, work is over, they live under a system that governs every aspect of their lives.

When it does become too much or is, frankly, impossible the brother or sister must hope that their argument and the compassion of the superior are in their favour, and that the task will be taken from them. It is highly likely that the superior will agree – after all the labour that is done or not done effects the rest of the community – but it will have various factors that are considered. Has the individual been attentive to the Rule, or do they need to learn some hard lessons in tough love? Are they the sort that always complains, always mumbles, or is this out of character to their usual, amenable self? The superior will weigh carefully the situation and decide if there is a genuine need or not and make a choice. Whatever the superior decides must be accepted, even if that is for the task to remain with that particular person.

We can learn from the attitude that is inhabited by the monk in this scenario when it comes to the development of our spiritual life. As we progress on our pilgrimage through earth we will face many aspects of ourselves that need shaping. Sometimes this process is natural and we are like clay in the hands of a potter that, without much effort, can be moulded and something beautiful fashioned. There are also parts of ourselves that, through continued temptation and sin have become rough, jagged and hard. These need greater effort. The gentle potters hands must give way to the hammer and chisel of the sculptor as they are bashed and knocked off. The purgation of the soul is a painful process and one that requires our active participation, we may experience spiritual turmoil, we may wish to give up, to turn back and to hide from God, for fear of all that He is doing within us.

The task set before us is one of perfection – God wants us to recapture the image in which we were created, to be modelled on Christ, to be perfect, as we were at the dawn of creation. That is an impossible task for each of us – the burden of it crushing, even the idea so immensely incomprehensible it can be overwhelming – where do we even begin? If we do not have the humility that Benedict attempts to instil for physical labour, if we balk at the first sign of a hard task of the flesh – we will get nowhere with our spiritual labour, which can be more burdensome still.

The physical labour that the monk or nun undertakes, even when they do not wish to, is to built a residence within the body and translate that into the spirit. We too need to undertake our physical acts for the good of our soul – to make our confession, to kneel and pray, to participate in the life of the church, to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world, carry Him to the poor, proclaim Him in the markets. These are hard tasks and ones that we may shy away from, but it is what has been left to us. Like the obedient monk or nun to their superior, who is Christ in the monastery, we must be obedient to the call of God, who is Christ in our lives.

Chapter Sixty Seven

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Those who are sent on a journey.

Those who are sent on a journey should commend themselves to the prayers of all the community as well as of the superior and, at the last prayer of the work of God in the oratory, theres should always be a memento of all who may be absent. Any who come back from a journey should lie prostrate in the oratory at the end of each of the Hours to ask the prayer of the whole community in case that have chanced to suffer any harm from what they have seen or heard or from idle gossip on their journey. None of them should be foolish enough to give an account to anyone in the community of what they may have seen or heard while away from the monastery, because this can do much harm. If any dare to do so they must receive the punishment of the Rule. The same must apply to anyone who presumes to go outside of the enclosure of the monastery or to to anywhere or do anything however small, without the superior’s permission.

Benedict has already mentioned those monks and nuns that go on a journey before, in relation to how they are to continue in the Work of God, even when departed physically from their brothers and sisters. (Chapter Fifty), now he focuses a different aspect of the time away. For the Holy Father it is clear that life outside of the monastery for the monk or nun is a negative force – at the end of the chapter on the The Porter (Chapter Sixty Six) Benedict makes it clear that everything that a brother or sister should need should be found within the enclosure of the monastery, to prevent the need for them to go further afield.

The principle behind this is old, taken from the Desert Fathers and replicated by various monastic orders across the world and throughout time. The more time the monk or nun spends away from the cell, the cloister or the monastery in general the more likely they are to resent the perceived limitations inside the world. One of the greatest lies that the Devil tells those who are called to monastic life if that the surrender of liberty required to follow the Rule is too great. Most monastics you speak to will tell you it was only behind the monastery walls and under the Rule that they learnt what freedom was, the freedom in Christ, to fulfil the call upon their life to perfect themselves for the Kingdom of Heaven.

Those of us in the world are no more free than those behind the cloister walls. We all have demands made of us, for our time and resources, we may have an employer to whom we are directly accountable, we may have a family with needs that are to be fulfilled. Where is this freedom? Our days are ordered, just different, and in the service of faceless organisations, rather than the Divine Face. But it is clear that there are lures and attractions of the world that can beguile the monk, the nun, even the lay Christian, to be diverted from the path of righteousness.

Benedict is very clear, therefore, that whilst the brother or sister is absent they should be prayed for, every day, in the oratory – a reminder that they are not present and that they are in a dangerous place. When the individual returns from the world they are to prostrate themselves and humbly ask for the prayers of the community, to protect them from whatever may have crossed their path in the world – as it does not take very long to build up bad habits and bring them home to the community.

For us, there is an important point here. We are not strong enough to manage the Christian faith alone, we have always been created for life together (which is why Benedict says that only the very strongest of monks and nuns who have absorbed the stability of the Rule in the community may be allowed to be hermits) – we are made in the image of God, the God of Trinity, the God that is in and of relationship within Himself. We need the support of our brothers and sisters in the faith to uphold us, encourage us, chastise us and pick us up when we fall, to catch us when we slip -and they need the same from us.

There will always be times when we awake on a Sunday morning, peer out through the curtains and see on overcast, gloomy, cold February morning and ponder, with great temptation, rolling over and pulling the duvet up, hiding from the outside world and not going to Church. Even those who are called to serve in Church feel the same, I know of no priest who hasn’t had this though – but it is important to remember the words that are found in our liturgy – ‘it is a duty and a joy at all times and in all places’ – a duty and a joy, sometimes it will definitely feel like one more the the other, and when it is feeling like a duty that is when we most need to be with our bothers and sisters, because in our lower moments, when we are less drawn to God, less inspired by the Church, that is when we are most likely to be low hanging fruit for the enemy to pluck off.

And to pluck us off, it won’t be dramatic – it will start with bad habits. A little ill feeling here, a little anger there, a little lust sprinkled in, a gradual separation from God and a gradual drawing to the world. C.S.Lewis in his very witty book ‘The Screwtape Letters’ imagines a conversation between a junior and senior demon – and one of the pieces of advice the senior gives to his nephew, who is busy trying to tempt someone, is to separate them from other Christians.

When two or three are gathered in my name, I am there – Jesus says. We cannot be a Christian alone.

Chapter Sixty Six

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The porter of the monastery

At the entrance to the monastery there should be a wise senior who is too mature win stability to think of wandering about and who can deal with enquiries and give whatever help is required. This official’s room should be near the main door so that visitors will always find someone there to greet them. As soon as anyone knocks on the door or one of the poor calls out, the response, uttered at once with gentle piety and warm charity, should be ‘thanks be to God’ or ‘your blessing please’. If the porter needs help, then a junior should be assigned to this task. 

The monastery itself should be constructed so as to include within its bounds all the facilities which will be needed, that is water, a mill, a garden and workshops for various crafts. Then there will be no need for monks and nuns to wander outside which is far from good for their monastic development. We intend that this Rule should be read at regular intervals in the community so that no one may have the excuse of ignorance. 

The porter is arguably one of the most important monks or nuns within the community. They are the face of the order, the face of the particular house, the first person that greets and newcomer, novice, pilgrim or the poor, and as such they need a disposition that is suitable for the task. There is no point in selecting an individual who is a poor sleeper and surly when woken, or someone that is so junior in years of profession that the lure of the outside world just beyond the door would be too appealing for them. That Benedict decrees that the room for the porter should be next to the main door again shows how important it is that the guest, whoever they may be, are greeted quickly – even if the hours of their calling are unsociable – and being close to the door will lessen the waiting time. There is nothing less hospitable than allowing a guest to stand on the doorstep exposed to the elements whilst you meander from one end of the complex to the other to let them in, if you even hear their knock at all.

The porter is not just a representative for the house and the particular community upon  which door they tend, they are an ambassador for the whole of the Order, for all avowed Religious. If you have never encountered a monk or nun before and the first that you do is unhelpful or with a difficult attitude, or, even worse, absent from their post, it is going to leave a bad impression – and as we are all too aware, bad impressions are very easy to shift, especially when they are first impressions.

The Porter is implored, by the Rule, to see every guest as an opportunity – as a blessing – just by calling upon the door. God is thanked in the first utterance of the Porter upon hearing the call, or, even more poignantly, the Porter asks the visitor for a blessing. The high value placed upon guests which we have already examined as being at the heart of the Benedictine charism is evident in this response to their arrival. But, also, on a more practical note, by ensuring that this greeting is established in practice engraves it on the heart and it is harder to treat those badly, if you are committed to seeing them as a blessing.

Benedict was aware, painfully and from personal experience when his own monks tried to kill him, that submission to the Rule can cause the enemy of the soul to be especially active. A Carthusian once wrote: ‘Where God is working, the devil is not idle’ and so it is not surprising that in the community, where unceasing prayer is sought and the school in the Lord’s service enacted that the Devil gets to work on the minds, hearts and souls of the monk or nun, to drag them form their path. So the Holy Father makes it very clear that the Porter must be an individual who is very stable in their submission to the Rule. Being so close to the main door, being trusted with the keys, means that they have temptation before them to leave the confines of the monastery (even though everything they need is provided for them, as Benedict says in the final paragraph of the chapter)

Importantly also, it means that others who wish to leave would have to pass the Porter and be let out. If this is man or woman of considerable wisdom and strength in the Rule they are likely to be able to offer counsel to the one who wishes to leave, encourage them and help them keep their monastic vocation. They are both the welcome to the community for those without, and the gatekeeper of those within. As they are the first point of contact it is not suprsing that very often they were the most known monks tot he locale, and would often be sought out by people for spiritual direction and wisdom.

An example of this in our modern times is the life of the Venerable Solanus Casey, an american friar in the The Order of Friars Minor, Capuchin. He was the porter for many years in Detroit and became an inspirational figure for those that encountered him. The cause for his canonisation is still on going.

For those of us in the world this chapter has a lot to say about how we treat those that impose upon our time, we have already looked in some detail at hospitality in the previous chapters that deal with the reception of guests in the monastery specifically (Chapter fifty three) so instead let us look at how we may apply this in our life to those who come to us for charity or with particular issues.

It is a sadly common occurrence in our daily life that we will encounter those who, for whatever reason, have had to make the street their home. There are many different approaches to those who are homeless and many different way the statistics are counted and massaged by local authorities and national government to make it look as though it is an ever decreasing problem – but those who work with the homeless in any capacity from St Mungo’s, The Big Issue and Shelter through to the Salvation Army, all report that it is an issue that is increasing, especially in our cities. It is hard, in any city, to not be approached at stations or on shop parades and in town centres by those who are in need.

How do we see them when they come to us? Are they an irritation? Someone who is trying their luck, rather than just down on it? Is what they say fact or fiction? Does all their money go and support an expensive alcohol or drug problem? Are they part of a professional begging syndicate? All these thoughts may come to mind as we are approached, and some of our concerns and worries are indeed very valid. But do we see this individual as a exactly that, an individual, a fellow human struggling through life – for whatever reason having to approach strangers and ask them for money, do we consider the indignity?

Small acts of kindness can mean a huge amount. Whether it is a few coins, buying a big issue, buying a meal deal from the local supermarket or providing a cup of tea or coffee. One easy way to bless this person, is to remember the words of the Porter that Benedict teaches. When you are approached by someone in this situation, think to yourself, thanks be to God – that they have approached you, that you have been selected, out of all these people, to be the one to be able to provide something, no matter how small or how insignificant it may be to you. One of the responses I am often told by the homeless who live in my parish is that just being spoken with, conversed with, having the time of day passed with them, even a hello, can make a huge difference when they can go for days without any human interaction.

We can be like the Porter when we encounter those in need, greeting them. In doing so, like the Porter represents his or her community, we represent Jesus Christ to them, to those who are on the margins, the the poor, whom we know are so close to the heart of the saviour.

Chapter Sixty Five

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The prior or prioress of the monastery.

It has often happened that unfortunately conflicts have arisen in the monasteries as a result of the appointment of a prior or prioress as second in authority to the superior. There have been instances when some of the these officials have conceived out of an evil spirit of self-importance that they also are superiors and for that reason have assumed the powers of a tyrant, so that they encourage scandalous divisions in the community. This sort of thing is most likely happen in those regions where the prior or prioress is appointed by the same bishop of priest who appointed the abbot or abbess. It is clear how very foolish this arrangement is, because in provides the grounds for these subordinate officials to think proudly from the very beginning that they are exempt from the superior’s authority on the specious grounds that their own authority derives from the same source as their superior’s. That simply encourages the development of envy, quarrels, slander, rivalry, divisions and disorderly behaviour. The result it that, because of the conflict between the superior and the second in command, their own souls are at risk and their subjects take sides in the dispute, which brings ruin on them too. The responsibility for this and all the danger and evil it brings rests on the heads of those who devised such a confusing method of appointment. 

We have no doubt therefore, that it is in the best interests of preserving peace and charity that the authority for the whole administration of the whole of the monastery should rest with the abbot or abbess. If possible, as noted above,it is best that everything should be organised through deans according to the wishes of the superior. Then, since power is delegated to many, there is no room for pride to take hold of any individual. However, if local needs suggest it and if the community makes the request with good reason and deference and the superior thinks it the right course to follow, the superior should take counsel with God-fearing seniors and appoint a second in command. Then the prior or prioress so appointed must carry out the duties delegated to them with due respect for the superior, against whose expressed wishes nothing must be attempted by them. The higher the position thus conferred on anyone the greater must be his or her devotion to the observance of the Rule. 

If the prior or prioress is subsequently found to be led astray by pride into serious faults and shows scant respect for the holy Rule, then up to four times they must be rebuked in words. If there is no improvement the discipline of the Rule must be applied. If it brings no improvement, then there is nothing for it but dismissal from this position so that another more worthy candidate may be promoted. If a dismissed prior or prioress cannot live in peace and obedience in the community, then they must be expelled from the monastery. But the superior must take care not to be seared in soul by the flame of jealously or envy and to remember always the account we will have to give to God of all the judgements we make. 

This chapter of the Rule is quite eyeopening. Benedict is clearly not keen on the appointment of a Prior or a Prioress, instead wishing the superiors orders to be carried out by the deans of the monastery – the role that was introduced very early on in chapter twenty one. The way in which this chapter is laid out, with a long extended reasoning against the role of prior(ess) suggests that this is borne out by previous experience. There appears to be two issues with this particular role. Firstly, Benedict describes a particular scenario in which the Bishop (of the Diocese or, perhaps, what is known in monastic communities as the Visitor – the Bishop charged with looking after the house in particular, even if it is not in his diocese), an external force, appoints the prior(ess) is unhelpful – when the source of authority comes from the same place as the abbot or abbess (if that is how they have been appointed, perhaps after a particular failure or specific situation) then it causes tension. Also, that someone from outside the community appoints someone to this role undermines the authority of the superior, giving more opportunity for dissension.

Secondarily, Benedict is wary of instilling a large amount of power, very similar, to the abbot or abbess in one person, instead preferring to distill this amongst several Deans, thus removing some of the risk of an inflated ego or the sin of pride to creep in. Pride, the most destabilising factor in the monastery and one that Benedict is very keen to keep at bay.

The way in which Benedict writes this chapter is reads as a personal experience, or at the very least one that he has witnesses. Could it be that this was his experience in one of his own monasteries, or that he was made aware of a similar scenario during his life time?

If there is to be a prior(ess) in the community then Benedict allows for it to happen, once again showing a characteristic balance, despite his obvious strong feelings and personal preference, and giving responsibility to the community to govern themselves. The Holy Father, despite writing a Rule and ensuring that it is implemented is never authoritarian, and the local context, the needs of the community and the will of the Abbot or Abbess, in conjunction with the seniors of the monastery and the spirit of the Rule are permitted to interpret it how it suits best. (This is, probably, part of the reason why there have, since the time S. Benedict been many reforms of the Order and the foundation of different groups who wished to recapture some of the pure essence of the Rule – such as the Trappists) – if the community will a prior(ess) and have a good reason (perhaps the community is very, very large and the Superior cannot manage alone, even with the Deans, perhaps the abbot or abbess is going through a period of spiritual darkness, or convalescing after an illness or treatment) then one may be appointed – and it is suggested that this happens only after consultation by the superior with the seniors. There is no hard line about who this must be and we can therefore assume that similarly with the appointment of the superior it CAN be anyone from within the community.

Perhaps a helpful way for the prior(ess) to view their role is not as a deputy, to as a second in command to be Peter – as the superior is to be ‘Christ in the monastery’ – perhaps having the prior(ess) act in the same way as the Prince of the Apostles would make the most sense. Peter, flawed as he is, knew that he was not Christ, that his power and authority was only because it was vested in him by the authority of Jesus Himself, but he drew close to Him and was alongside him. The being alongside is key – Peter was also not afraid to challenge Jesus when he felt he needed to, but accepted the rebuke if he was mistaken. This sort of mutually accountable relationship is good for the support of high office, the development of fraternal love and the growth of humility.

What can we say about this role in our modern life, outside of the cloister?

Curates – If you are reading this as someone who is ordained, a deacon or in your first few years in the priesthood and therefore still undertaking your curacy under the authority of the Bishop and the Incumbent of the parish in which you are placed, this is probably the most similar to the position that is described above, and indeed the to the scenario that Benedict is wary of – someone with some authority being placed under someone else by an external force. Once studies at seminary have been completed and the ordination to the diaconate has occurred, the collar is on and the title has changed to ‘The Rev’d’ it is very easy to become a little boastful, or proud, of the achievement. We all need to remind ourselves that we undertake this sacred ministry by the power and grace of God alone – although it is invested upon and within us, it is not about us. The relationship between the parish priest and the curate needs to be one like the ideal of the abbot/abbess and the prior(ess) in the best possible way. The curate is to shoulder some of the burden of the responsibility without usurping the authority – being grateful for the privilege of the elevated status, whilst accepting with humility the subordination. Together the priest and curate, like the abbot/abbess and prior(ess) can lead their respective communities into greater fruitfulness.

For those in lay life – working in the world – there is much to learn about the way in which we should accepted the positions given to us, be that in work, in church, or within our social peer groups. All that we do, we must do in the name of the Lord. Whilst we may not have a superior as a tangible reminder of our lives being centred around Christ, that is our Christian belief, that our days are ordered around His ministry upon earth and our character conformed to His pattern. We need to cultivate within us a Peter like response to the Lord – who do you say that I am? You are the Christ, the Messiah. If we can renew this within our hearts and minds each day then the work that we undertake becomes worship, it becomes and expression of praise and thanksgiving, and it means that when we are elevated to positions of influence, in work or in parish, we will approach the task with a humble, servant heart.

Chapter Sixty Four

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The election of an abbot or abbess.

In the process through which an abbot or abbess is elected the principle to be borne in mind is that the one finally elected should be the choice of the whole community acting together in the fear of God or else of a small group in the coming, however small they may be in numbers, provided they have sound judgement. The grounds on which a candidate is elected abbot or abbess must be the quality of their monastic life and the wisdom of their teaching, even if they are the last in order in the community. 

If it should happen – and may God forbid it – that the whole community should conspire to elect one who will consent to their evil way of life,and if their corrupt ways become known to the bishop of the local diocese or to the abbots or abbesses or ordinary Christians living nearby, they should intervene to prevent so depraved a conspiracy and provide for the appointment of a worthy guardian for the house of God. They may be sure that they will receive a rich reward for this good act, if it is done out of pure intentions and zeal for the Lord, while if they neglect to intervene in such a situation it will be accounted sinful.

Chapter Sixty Four introduces an incredibly important set of principles for the guiding of the community in the election of their abbot or abbess. As we have read in the previous chapters of the Rule they hold the place of ‘Christ in the monastery’ and Benedict leaves much to their discretion – allowing them the freedom to execute judgement and prudence when it comes to locality and the customs of each particular house. Therefore the power that is vested in the superior is immense, even though the Rule makes clear that the power is used in such a way that collaboration from the community is the way in which things are done. It is vital that the community choose the superior well and because of the right gifts.

Fascinatingly, Benedict is very clear that the person chosen must be, as expected an exemplar of monastic life and someone who shows great wisdom, BUT that is can even be the youngest (in terms of entry to the Order) in the community. Whilst it is unlikely that a new recruit to the monastic life possesses those skills needed to be the abbot or abbess, never the less Benedict does not rule them out simply on account of their new coming. This extends the principle that all voices must be heard in the boldest possible way – if the youngest can become the most senior, the community is clearly working on an egalitarian principle – and, of course, the prompting of God in who He brings to the community.

Also, the whole community must be behind the choice, it would be no good electing a superior who was divisive and for whom many in the community had little respect because they believed he or she to be unsuitable for the role. This would lead to resentment, a greater risk of ill discipline and instability in the community. However, Benedict does recognise that it won’t always be possible to agree. There is an old saying that when you gather five Christians there will be eight opinions. And in this instance, if the whole community cannot decide for themselves, after consultation the a group will be formed who will make the decision on behalf of the wider community – this is especially useful in very large communities. The membership of this group is not set but we can assume it would include the Deans and the Prior, senior members and maybe even the priests of the monastery, those who have demonstrated a considerable commitment to the rule which has been reflected by their rank and position in order to trust their judgement on the most suitable candidate.

Then we come to where accountability lay. In Benedict’s time there was a lot of corruption in society and the abbey was not immune to the toxic influences of the world. There are plenty of accounts of medieval monasteries being places of drunken debauchery, with little regard for the poor, the Rule and even less for God. Unfortunately,  Benedictine monasteries often became very wealthy because of their work ethic, and money can lead to corruption. Benedict sets into the Rule a safety net. That should the community be leading such a life and elect someone who is going to allow that to continue, rather than reform the community in line with the Rule, firstly the Bishop of the Diocese should intervene, or if it comes to the attention of other monastic houses, their superiors may step in, but if all that fails, and it comes to the attention of local Christians, ordinary men and women, Benedict says it is their Christian duty to reform the House of God and install someone who will be a guardian of it. Benedict places oversight into the hand of the very people the monastery should be serving, lest the monks and nuns forget they serve the Church and the People of God with their service.

In our own lives then we must take the comments made by Benedict about the selection of people for tasks – and we would do well to remember not to make appointments based on anything other than their merit. It is also, then, arguably our Christian duty to hold those in power to account. There is no one correct way to vote in local and national elections, there isn’t a party line for Christians but if we apply the principle that Benedict uses for the election of the abbot or abbess we should be asking ourselves which of the candidates presented to us is going to act in the best way for the poor, for the downtrodden, for the weakest in society. We can look at their voting records on various aspects surrounding issues of life, like abortion and euthanasia, we can use our vote to ensure that the person chosen is going to be the best servant. Obviously this is a secular role, to be an MP or a local councillor, and adherence to faith won’t always be a factor, but it is important to ensure they are not hostile to faith. We should choose on merit and remember that we vote not just for ourselves but for the good of all the community in which we live.

The abbot or abbess once established in office, must think about the demands made on them  the burden they have undertaken and consider also to whom they will have to give an account of their stewardship. They must understand that the call of their office is not to exercise power over those who are their subjects but to serve and help them in their needs. They must be well grounded in the law of God so that they may have the resources to bring forth what is new and what is old in their teaching. They must be chaste, sober and compassionate and should always let mercy triumph over judgement in the hope of themselves receiving like treatment from the Lord. While they must hate all vice, they must act with prudence being conscious of the danger of breaking the vessel itself by attacking the rust too vigorously. They should always bear their own fragility in mind and remember not to crush the bruised reed.  Of course I do not mean that they should allow vices to grow wild but rather use prudence and charity in cutting them out, so as to help each other in their individual needs, as I have already said. They should seek to be loved more than they are feared.

They should not be trouble-makers nor given to excessive anxiety nor should they be too demanding and obstinate nor yet interfering and inclined to suspicion so as never to be at rest. In making decisions they should use foresight and care in analysing the situation, so that whether they are giving orders about sacred or about secular affairs they should be far-seeing and moderate in their decisions. They might well reflect on the discretion of the holy patriarchs Jacob when he said: If I force my flock to struggle further on their feet, they will all die in a single day. They should take to heart these and other examples of discretion, the mother of virtues, and manage everything in the monastery so that the strong may have ideals to inspire them and the weak may not be frightened away by excessive demands. Above all they must remain faithful to this Rule in every detail, so that after fulfilling their ministry well they may hear the words uttered to that good servant who provided bread for fellow servants at the proper time: I tell you solemnly the Lord sets his faithful servant over all that he possesses. 

When we read the words of the second half of this chapter of the Rule we may breath a sign of relief as Benedict goes into some detail about the qualities that an abbot or abbess should have, and the weight upon their shoulders is stressed as being, rightly, enormous. The list of qualities makes for an almost superhuman figure, someone of such great virtue, effectively a saint. As we are unlikely to be an abbot or abbess of a monastic community it would be very easy to skip passed these words and move on to another part of the Rule that speaks to our situation more directly, but, we would be prudent to ponder it all the more. If we have learnt anything from the endurance of the Rule it should be that it is never just limited to the Order and the houses for which it was written, it is primarily a document that speaks of Christian characteristics and we would all do well to craft within our heart a little cloister where the love of God can dwell.

Priests – read this chapter of the Rule carefully, I would implore you to read it at least three times and reflect upon it. Although the parish priest is in a very different form of community and the way in which the priest is appointed is, again, somewhat different – there are similarities. Even if the Bishop recommends a priest to a particular place the final say remains with the Patrons (if that is not the bishop) and representatives of the parochial church council. (NB: This is written from the perspective of the Anglican tradition generally, and in particular, the Church of England) In this sense there is an assessment of the suitability of the candidate to become the incumbent and the community receiving them as such do choose them.

It is worth, especially, upon being appointed to a parish that we reflect upon the great weight of the Office that we have accepted. This is not a job, this is not something we are paid to do and do as a career. If that is our feeling about it, frankly, we should take our collar off and go and do something else. This is a sacred calling, a privileged position and a community are placing their trust in you to lead and guide them in, literally, a matter of life and death, their salvation. At the end of our time we will make an account of the work we have engaged in – not just to the Bishop and/or patrons in the form of an annual revive but to God on the Last Day. This should always be in our mind and not crowded out by the inevitable administrative, box ticking bureaucracy that can consume church life.

Be well grounded in the law and doctrine of the church, continue your studies. You will be expected to stand before your people each week (if not more) and teach them, taking Holy Writ and expounding it, breaking it open and feeding them from it. You cannot do that if you are not feeding yourself, if you are not being nourished by the very same. Read, pray and read. The Benedictine principle of Lectio Divina is a good practice for the parish priest to develop for their own spiritual betterment.

The virtues that Benedict stresses such as compassion and always erring on the side of mercy over judgement are prudent especially in a parish. In a monastery if the abbot or abbess is slightly harsh, there is little the monk or nun can do, in the parish people can leave. That does not mean, as Benedict says, that we should allow vices to grow. As Priests we are guiding and leading our people in the growth of virtue and that will require hard teaching and tough love, at time, but we need to balance it. The best advice I was given in this regard was to ensure that we are good at making our own confession – the one who experiences mercy is better at offering mercy to others.

Laity – I don’t believe that not being a monastic or in the order of clerics means that this section of the Rule has nothing to say in the life of an Christian who lives outside of these two particular states and callings. There is one particular aspect that comes to mind from this section of the Rule is this; While they must hate all vice, they must act with prudence being conscious of the danger of breaking the vessel itself by attacking the rust too vigorously. They should always bear their own fragility in mind and remember not to crush the bruised reed.

We, as Christians, are primarily responsible for our own interior development, for the shaping and conforming our life in the pattern of Christ. God, in His grace and mercy assists us with this, sending the Holy Spirit, revealing Himself in the scriptures, giving of Himself in the Sacraments of the Church and providing those to guide us in the form of clerics and monastics, but the work rests in our hands. We can be our own worst enemies when it comes to interior progress. Either making none, for the task is too hard, too difficult and overwhelming, or, by zeal and desire we can really strenuously attack ourselves in order to rid ourselves of the vices we have. Benedict’s edict in this chapter shows that we must exercise mercy, not just on others, but on ourselves. If we do not approach the work the soul with mercy, we will approach it in a disordered way, and whilst the motivation and ultimate aim may be good, the outcome will be less so.

We must be moderate in our practices of piety, not taking on too much, not running before we can talk. Although we may not be in training to be a monk, nun, superior in a monastic order or even a parish priest, we are fitting ourselves for Heaven. That does require us to strive but in the strength of Christ and the mercy of God, rather than in our own excessive efforts. As the Holy Father writes of the example of Jacob; If I force the flock to struggle on their feet they will die in a single day, so we should also remember that our life in faith, our Christian pilgrimage on earth is a marathon and not a sprint. We cannot do all things at once and we cannot expect perfection overnight – it is a long process and we need to discern and assess where our efforts are, take guidance, and be prudent in our attempts. The level headed stability that the abbot or abbess requires is a good example for us, as we craft the cloister of the heart, over which we set ourselves as the superior.