CHAPTER LXX. That no one presume to strike another
28 Apr. 28 Aug. 28 Dec.
Let every occasion of presumption be banished from the Monastery. We ordain, therefore, that no one be allowed to excommunicate or strike any of his brethren, unless authority to do so shall have been given him by the Abbot. Let such as offend herein be rebuked in the presence of all, that the rest may be struck with fear. With regard to the children, however, let them be kept by all under diligent and watchful discipline, until their fifteenth year: yet this, too, with measure and discretion. For if any one presume, without leave of the Abbot, to chastise such as are above that age, or shew undue severity even to the children, he shall be subjected to the discipline of the Rule, because it is written: “What thou wouldest not have done to thyself, do not thou to another.”
Saint Benedict speaks today of corporal punishment. Until fairly recent times, in homes, schools, and other social contexts, corporal punishment was still countenanced. Saint Benedict is often depicted holding a scourge or a rod for chastisement. We read in the Second Book of the Dialogues, that Saint Benedict used a blow of the rod as a means of exorcism. Much could be said of corporal punishment in the monastic tradition and of the exorcistical recourse to the rod. There is, however, another way of striking one’s brother; it is related to anger, to spite, and to the simmering hostility that, even in the cloister, if it is allowed to go unchecked, can explode in some kind of violence. The story is as old as the fourth chapter of Genesis.
And it came to pass after many days, that Cain offered, of the fruits of the earth, gifts to the Lord. Abel also offered of the firstlings of his flock, and of their fat: and the Lord had respect to Abel, and to his offerings. But to Cain and his offerings he had no respect: and Cain was exceedingly angry, and his countenance fell. And the Lord said to him: Why art thou angry? and why is thy countenance fallen? If thou do well, shalt thou not receive? but if ill, shall not sin forthwith be present at the door? but the lust thereof shall be under thee, and thou shalt have dominion over it. And Cain said to Abel his brother: Let us go forth abroad. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and slew him. And the Lord said to Cain: Where is thy brother Abel? And he answered, I know not: am I my brother’s keeper? And he said to him: What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth to me from the earth. (Genesis 4:3–10)
Ever since Cain grew exceedingly angry and, with a fallen countenance, lured his brother into a field and slew him there, the life of families, and of villages, and cities, and of nations has been marked by acts of violence. The cloister is not miraculously preserved from the germs of violence. The pax benedictina is a precious gift, and a fragile one. Each of us carries within himself something of Cain: the horrifying potential for violence. With good reason, then, does Saint Benedict begin the Instruments of Good Works with the fundamental moral code of the Commandments:
In the first place, to love the Lord God with all one’s heart, all one’s soul, and all one’s strength. Then one’s neighbour as oneself. Then not to kill. Not to commit adultery. Not to steal. Not to covet. Not to bear false witness. To honour all men. (Chapter 4)
Monks are not immune from the germs of violence, nor from temptations to adultery, theft, covetousness, lying, snobbery, prejudice, and racism. Today, following Chapter 70 of the Holy Rule, we concern ourselves with the potential for violence, without however forgetting that there is no sin of which any one of us is incapable. Saint Paul says, “Wherefore he that thinketh himself to stand, let him take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).
There can be, even in the cloister, a kind of low–grade violence that manifests itself in passive-aggressive behaviour: stomping about loudly; banging doors; being noisy in one’s movements; and showing undue haste. There is also the characteristic of Cain: the fallen countenance.
“Cain was exceedingly angry, and his countenance fell. And the Lord said to him: Why art thou angry? and why is thy countenance fallen?” (Genesis 4:5–6).
There is great virtue in showing a gracious, winsome countenance to one’s fathers and brothers in community. There is also great virtue in practising silence of action: walking, closing doors, moving objects, and serving in the refectory. With regard to the refectory, we have much to improve. The service of tables in the refectory is akin to the service of the altar in the sacred liturgy: there must be about it nothing that is rushed, peremptory, or noisy. The servers are to avoid any movement that troubles the peace of the meal. No crashing about; no precipitous movements; and no banging of plates and casseroles. Not for nothing do we bless the servers at the beginning of their week of service and, at the end of it, pray that they may be forgiven their shortcomings.
A related matter: the kitchen is a particularly neuralgic workplace. It is not permitted to go to the kitchen immediately before meals out of curiosity, to to find out why there is a delay, or to watch the action. The last minutes of preparation before a meal are always stressful for the cook and for the servers. One can, even quite innocently and with the best intentions, contribute to the stress or get in the way of the required efficiency. If there is a stress in the kitchen before the meal, it carries over into the refectory. Peace, then, in the kitchen. Peace in the refectory. And peace in every stomach.
Each brother is responsible for the climate of silence and peace that makes it good to live together as brothers in unity. This begins with attention to the little things.
Ecce quam bonum et quam jucundum, habitare fratres in unum!
Gracious the sight, and full of comfort, when brethren dwell united. (Psalm 132:1)