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.

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