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.