Reprove, entreat, rebuke

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Chapter II. What Kind of Man the Abbot Ought to Be
13 Jan. 14 May. 13 Sept.
For the Abbot in his doctrine ought always to observe the bidding of the Apostle, wherein he says: "Reprove, entreat, rebuke"; mingling, as occasions may require, gentleness with severity; shewing now the rigour of a master, now the loving affection of a father, so as sternly to rebuke the undisciplined and restless, and to exhort the obedient, mild, and patient to advance in virtue. And such as are negligent and haughty we charge him to reprove and correct. Let him not shut his eyes to the faults of offenders; but as soon as they appear, let him strive with all his might to root them out, remembering the fate of Heli, the priest of Silo. Those of good disposition and understanding let him, for the first or second time, correct only with words; but such as are froward and hard of heart, and proud, or disobedient, let him chastise with bodily stripes at the very first offence, knowing that it is written: "The fool is not corrected with words." And again "Strike thy son with the rod, and thou shalt deliver his soul from death."

In All Patience and Doctrine

Having established that the Abbot teaches, first of all, by the example of his own life, Saint Benedict applies to him Saint Paul's admonition to Timothy. The Abbot must not, under the pretext that mere example is enough, forsake preaching.

Preach the word: be instant in season, out of season: reprove, entreat, rebuke in all patience and doctrine. For there shall be a time, when they will not endure sound doctrine; but, according to their own desires, they will heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears: and will indeed turn away their hearing from the truth, but will be turned unto fables. But be thou vigilant, labour in all things, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill thy ministry. Be sober. (2 Timothy 4:2)

Daily Chapter

The Abbot preaches, first of all, at the daily Chapter.* My own experience is that the daily Chapter can have a transforming and revitalizing effect on a community. Nothing can replace the immediate, personal, living word of the father to his family. The daily Chapter need not be long; a five minute commentary on the text of the Rule is sufficient. What matters is that the Abbot speak from the heart. "A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good" (Luke 6:45). It is not enough to cite what others have said, and not enough to review what one has read in excellent books; the Abbot must freely impart to his sons what, freely, has been given him by the Holy Spirit in the humble school of experience.

Different Types

Today's section of the Holy Rule is fascinating in that Saint Benedict presents us with a cast of character types from his own monasteries. What were Saint Benedict's monks like? He refers to:
-- the undisciplined and restless;
-- the obedient, mild, and patient;
-- the negligent and haughty;
-- those of good disposition and understanding;
-- the froward and hard of heart;
-- and the proud, or disobedient.

In order to engage with such men profitably, the Abbot will act at certain times with the bracing sternness of a master, and at other times with the tender affection of a father. One approach is not suitable for all. What will bring forth wholesome fruits of repentance in one, will embitter and harden another. What will pacify one, will enrage another. The Abbot must know his monks (as a father must know his children, a bishop his priests, and a parish priest his flock) and, knowing them, must adapt himself to each one.

Hophni and Phinehas

Saint Benedict refers to the tragic story of Eli, the priest of Shiloh, and his wayward sons, Hophni and Phinehas in the First Book of Samuel. Hophni and Phinehas, serving under their father at the sanctuary in Shiloh, were sacrilegious and corrupt. They took for themselves the choicest meats offered to the Lord in sacrifice and fornicated with women come to worship at the sanctuary. Eli was aware of his sons' corrupt behaviour, but could not bring himself to intervene decisively. His correction was weak and half-hearted, like that of the father who excuses his sons' irresponsible behaviour by saying, "boys will be boys." In the end, Eli brought a curse upon himself, his sons, and his descendents. The reticence to correct is not always an expression of patience; it may also be a sign of cowardice or of capitulation in the face of evil.

The Rod

Saint Benedict used corporal punishment when needed. Some of Saint Benedict's monks would have come from a hard background, like the rough, untutored Goth who appears in the Second Book of the Dialogues. Not only would such a man have understood corporal chastisement; he would have expected it, and found it normal. Today, in most of Western culture, there is an altogether different sensibility. Saint Benedict's fundamental intuition is, however, sound: a chastisement that addresses only the reason and the will is not effectual for everyone. There are some who will need to experience the salutary sting of correction in their body and senses. For one this may take the form of an hour of weeding in the garden; for another it may mean cleaning a stream or part of the monastery's woodland. In the end, the work imposed as a penance may prove to be therapeutic, and even a source of joy.

* The Chapter is a daily meeting of the monastic family, generally held after the Hour of Prime, at which a designated chapter or portion of the Holy Rule is read. The room in which the community assembles is designated the Chapter Room. The entire Rule of Saint Benedict is read three times yearly in this way. Following the reading of the Holy Rule, the Abbot offers a living commentary on the text. This practice is one of the most effective ways of encouraging a community to "run in the way of God's commandments", preferring nothing to the love of Christ, putting nothing before the Work of God, and never despairing of His mercy. The daily Chapter meeting imparts freshness to the monastic tradition; it prevents a community from falling into mere routine, and obliges the Abbot to exercise the charism he has received for the building up of his monastic family.


«The reticence to correct is not always an expression of patience; it may also be a sign of cowardice or of capitulation in the face of evil.»

I've often dwelled upon this in my own life, asking for the Lord's grace to give me understanding and fortitude.

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About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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