CHAPTER LXVIII. If a Brother be commanded to do Impossibilities
26 Apr. 26 Aug. 26 Dec.
If on any brother there be laid commands that are hard and impossible, let him receive the orders of him who biddeth him with all mildness and obedience. But if he seeth the weight of the burden altogether to exceed his strength, let him seasonably and with patience lay before his Superior the reasons of his incapacity to obey, with out shewing pride, resistance, or contradiction. If, however, after this the Superior still persist in his command, let the younger know that it is expedient for him; and let him obey for the love of God, trusting in His assistance.
Why would an abbot lay upon a brother commands that are hard and impossible? Saint Benedict is speaking here from the perspective of the brother, not from that of the abbot. Saint Benedict knows well that at certain hours and seasons life, a brother may find certain things hard and impossible. The brother may be weary, or beset with temptations, or feeling unwell. He may be afraid of risking something new and different. He may feel that a particular task is above him . . . or beneath him. He may think another better suited to the task. All the same, Saint Benedict says, “let him receive the orders of him who biddeth him with all mildness and obedience”. Cum omni mansuetudine et oboedientia. A brother receives an order with mildness when he offers no resistance.
There are brothers who, even before an order is given, have thought up ten reasons why what is asked ought to be done differently, or not done at all, or be delayed, or reconsidered. Such brothers are always ready with a contrary argument. Their psychological default is set in resistance mode. Such brothers lack the virtue of mildness, also called meekness. Saint Thomas says that meekness is the virtue that tempers or mitigates anger.
Meekness disposes man to the knowledge of God, by removing an obstacle; and this in two ways. First, because it makes man self-possessed by mitigating his anger, as stated above; secondly, because it pertains to meekness that a man does not contradict the words of truth, which many do through being disturbed by anger. (II, 2. Question 157, art. 4)
It sometimes happens that a brother is in the grip of a repressed anger. This anger may the spawn of a festering resentment. It may have nothing at all to do with the matter at hand. It surely derives from pride, but pride is a many–headed monster. Anger, especially when it is a slow–cooking anger, seething below the surface, impairs a man’s reason and clouds his vision. The abbot, because he represents authority, easily becomes the object of a brother’s unresolved conflicts and rage. A brother must first recognise the anger that is eating him up. If he repents of it, confesses it, and asks Our Lord to destroy the very roots of it in him, he will become capable of responding meekly to what is asked of him.
Meekness, as virtues go, does not get very good press. The world sees meekness as weakness. There was a cartoon character at the beginning of the last century named Caspar Milquetoast. He was described by his creator, H.T. Webster, as “the man who speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick”. The term “milquetoast” (referring to a bland and inoffensive food for nervous or sensitive stomachs) came into popular parlance to mean weak, shrinking, ineffectual, hyper–sensitive, fearful, and timid. This is not the virtue of meekness. The meek man harnesses the passion that drives anger and uses it, instead, to face difficulties with equanimity, to replace traits of bitterness and harshness with sweetness of demeanour and gentleness. Father Garrigou–Lagrange says:
Meekness is that which is most visible and most agreeable in the practice of charity; it is what constitutes its charm. It appears in the gaze, the smile, the bearing, the speech; it doubles the value of a service rendered. And besides, it protects the fruits of charity and zeal; it makes counsels and even reproaches acceptable. In vain will we have zeal for our neighbor, if we are not meek; we appear not to love him and we lose the benefit of our good intentions, for we seem to speak through passion rather than reason and wisdom, and consequently we accomplish nothing.
Meekness is particularly meritorious when practiced toward those who make us suffer; then it can only be supernatural, without any admixture of vain sensibility. It comes from God and sometimes has a profound effect on our neighbor who is irritated against us for no good reason. Let us remember that the prayer of St. Stephen called down grace on the soul of Paul, who was holding the garments of those who stoned the first martyr. Meekness disarms the violent. (The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Part Three)
Meekness is, for Saint Benedict, a monk’s first response when something, anything, especially things that appear hard and impossible are asked of him. Such a meekness is the fruit of humility. It makes life in the monastery more pleasant, more peaceful, and more joyful. In such an atmosphere, a brother can more easily find the courage to set about doing things that at first appear daunting or unreasonable. “Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make our hearts like unto Thine”.