CHAPTER XXVIII. Of Those Who, Being Often Corrected, Do Not Amend
5 Mar. 5 July. 4 Nov.
If any brother who has been frequently corrected for some fault, or even excommunicated, do not amend let a more severe chastisement be applied: that is, let the punishment of stripes be administered to him. But if even then he do not correct himself, or perchance (which God forbid), puffed up with pride, even wish to defend his deeds: then let the Abbot act like a wise physician. If he hath applied fomentations and the unction of his admonitions, the medicine of the Holy Scriptures, and the last remedy of excommunication or corporal chastisement, and if he see that his labours are of no avail, let him add what is still more powerful – his own prayers and those of all the brethren for him, that God, Who is all-powerful, may work the cure of the sick brother. But if he be not healed even by this means, then at length let the Abbot use the sword of separation, as the Apostle saith: “Put away the evil one from you.” And again: “If the faithless one depart, let him depart,” lest one diseased sheep should taint the whole flock.
It is clear from the tone of this chapter that our father Saint Benedict had a firsthand experience of the things he describes. There have always been Christians, even within the cloister, who resist the grace of conversion. One can easily develop an affection for one’s sin. One convinces oneself that a particular indulgence makes life with all its hardships less unbearable. One talks oneself into believing that one cannot change when, in truth, one no longer wants to change. How easy it is to grow old in one’s sins the way one grows used to wearing a comfortable pair of slippers.
God forbid that, in the monastic life, patterns of sin should become so routine as to blind a monk to the point of not seeing that his habitual offenses are alienating him from God and will precipitate his descent into hell. The offender, deluded by pride, can even begin to rationalise his attachment to sin. The Abbot, therefore, is obliged to intervene before occasional faults metastasize into the systemic faults (vices) that are much more difficult to excise from one’s life, and from the life of the community. Saint Benedict orders the interventions of the Abbot in five incremental steps. These five steps are:
1) Fomentations and Admonitions. These are remedies that any wise physician would employ. A fomentation (or poultice) is the application of a hot compress, with or without some medicinal herb, to relieve pain and reduce inflammation. It is not uncommon that certain vices are merely an attempt to treat an underlying emotional pain. Repeated sin causes spiritual inflammation. What sort of fomentations would the Abbot use? Kind words capable of opening the heart, words of light and of hope, strong words to quick the will and spur it in the right direction. Very often a few honest, heart-to-heart conversations are sufficient to bring about an opening to grace and a fresh beginning.
2) The medicine of the Holy Scriptures. The Word of God is a powerful cleansing agent, a mighty disinfectant, a healing balm. The Abbot will direct the wayward brother to certain passages of Sacred Scripture—especially to those given in the Holy Mass and the Divine Office— enjoining him to read them, to repeat them, to pray them until, at length, they effect an inward conversion. Certain patterns of sin can be traced back to the neglect and, then, abandonment of lectio divina.
3) Excommunication. By excommunication a brother is excluded from the choir and from the common table. He is given time out, time to think, time to be alone with himself. Excommunication is an opportunity to enter into the desert. “Therefore, behold I will allure her, and will lead her into the wilderness: and I will speak to her heart” (Osee 2:14). Time apart can be a salutary thing.
4) Corporal Punishment. Saint Benedict does not shrink from the use of corporal punishment; he knows that man is a composite of body and soul. One will remember that “caning” was practiced in many schools right up into the 1960s and, in some places, even later. While there is no question of reviving such practices today, the underlying principle is that the physical may be engaged in the process of conversion, so as to dispose one hardened in sin to yield to the gentle and powerful action of divine grace. While beatings are no longer administered to this end, some form of corporal participation in the labour of conversion remains salutary. This may be as simple as depriving a brother of his portion of wine (a classic remedy, especially in Italy), or of sending him to weed an overgrown patch of garden.
5) The Prayer of the Abbot and of All the Brethren. It may surprise some to find that Saint Benedict puts this remedy last. He is referring here, not merely to a private supplication on behalf of the erring brother, but to a full-scale mobilisation of the entire community’s intercessory prayer that God, Who is all-powerful, may work the cure of the sick brother. In Saint Benedict’s day this may very well have taken on a public quasi-liturgical character. Today, an Abbot may direct his community to join him in making a novena for a brother in dire spiritual straits, or he may gather his community around him in a confident prayer of intercession, trusting in Our Lord’s words: “Again I say to you, that if two of you shall consent upon earth, concerning any thing whatsoever they shall ask, it shall be done to them by my Father who is in heaven. For where there are two or three gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:19-20).
When all of these remedies have been brought to bear upon a sick brother, the Abbot may be obliged to act in the best interest of the monastic family, by using the sword, or scalpel, of separation. It is clear that, for Saint Benedict, this is a last resort. The monk hardened in sin remains a son of the monastic household; it is a wrenching and terrible thing to have to send him away, analogous to sending away one’s own troubled adolescent in order to protect the younger siblings of the family. In our day, an Abbot cannot proceed with separation from the community without following strictly the procedure required by Canon Law.