Care and solicitude, prudence and zeal (XXVI and XXVII)

CHAPTER XXVI. Of those who, without leave of the Abbot, consort with the Excommunicate
3 Mar. 3 July. 2 Nov.

If any brother presume without the Abbot’s leave to hold any intercourse whatever with an excommunicated brother, or to speak with him, or to send him a message, let him incur the same punishment of excommunication.

CHAPTER XXVII. How careful the Abbot should be of the Excommunicate
4 Mar. 4 July. 3 Nov.

Let the Abbot shew all care and solicitude towards the offending brethren, for “they that are whole need not a physician, but they that are sick.” To which end he ought, as a wise physician, to use every means in his power, sending some brethren of mature years and wisdom, who may, as it were secretly, console the wavering brother, and induce him to make humble satisfaction. Let them comfort him, that he be not overwhelmed by excess of sorrow; but as the Apostle saith, “Let charity be strengthened towards him,” and let all pray for him. For the Abbot is bound to use the greatest care, and to strive with all possible prudence and zeal, not to lose any one of the sheep committed to him. He must know that he hath undertaken the charge of weakly souls, and not a tyranny over the strong; and let him fear the threat of the prophet, through whom God saith: “What ye saw to be fat that ye took to yourselves, and what was diseased ye cast away.” Let him imitate the loving example of the Good Shepherd, who, leaving the ninety and nine sheep on the mountains, went to seek one which had gone astray, on whose weakness He had such compassion that He vouchsafed to lay it on His own sacred shoulders and so bring it back to the flock.

It is significant that we should be reading these chapters in the days leading up to the summer festival of Our Father Saint Benedict on July 11th. In effect, every July we live a season of special closeness to Saint Benedict. There is the novena before his feast and, then, each evening during the Octave of his feast we go in procession to his statue to pray there the Filialis Commendatio, a prayer that some of us greatly cherish.

Each monastery has its own distinctive grace and a unique spiritual physiognomy. No two Benedictine monasteries are the same. A monastery’s defining characteristics are given by God making use of poor and often fragile human mediations. At the same time, a monastery’s defining characteristics develop over time and, with the passage of the years and, often, under the influence of a particular abbot, become stronger and more distinct. I dare not  say too much about our monastery’s defining characteristics after only ten years, but I may say something that reflects how others, and notably visiting monks, see our monastery. Benedictine monks from other abbeys who have spent time with us often remark that they find at Silverstream a striking attachment to the Holy Rule. I may not always see this, in the same way, from where I sit, nor may you always see it because you are living it and not watching yourselves live it. There is nonetheless something true in this observation that visiting monks have made. The Holy Rule is our primary reference. It is the living source of the monastic doctrine that shapes us, corrects us, and reshapes us again and again. This gift of devotion to the Holy Rule is something to be cherished, preserved, and faithfully transmitted to each successive generation.

This devotion to the Holy Rule will, over time, embody itself in the way we live our Declarations, Statutes, Customs, and Ceremonial. It will embody itself in the abbot’s resolve never to stop trying to conform himself to Chapters II, XXVII, and LXIV. It will embody itself in our readiness to return again and again to Chapters IV, V, VI, and VII, and to Chapters LXXI and LXXII. The Holy Rule participates in some measure in the grace of Sacred Scripture. The Holy Rule enshrines the Word of God and gives it to us in the way best adapted to monks. I experience in reading the Holy Rule the same unction that I experience in reading Sacred Scripture.

In Chapter XXVI, Saint Benedict enjoins his monks not to interfere in the abbot’s treatment and cure of a brother whom the abbot has removed from ordinary participation in the daily round of the common life. There are sometimes brothers who, holding inflated notions of their own spiritual maturity and pastoral skill, think that they know more or better than the abbot. If a brother is chastised, they find the chastisement too severe. If a brother is not chastised, they find the abbot excessively merciful and soft. If the abbot corrects a brother, they think he should have waited and allowed things to take their course. If the abbot waits and allows things to take their course, they think he should have corrected the brother without delay.

With regard to my own application of Chapters XXIII—XXX, my method is simple. I pray much for the troubled or delinquent brother. I wait for the opportune moment to make a correction and, when I correct him, I try to do so in a way that makes it easier for the brother to accept the correction. I do not shrink from taking action when a certain severity will hasten a brother’s spiritual recovery, but I do shrink from being severe when I know that a given brother will profit more from kindness, patience, and encouragement. No two brothers are alike. No two brothers can be corrected in the same way. One man’s medicine may be another man’s poison. The abbot is to act, in every case, “like a wise physician” (XXXVIII).

There are brothers whom the abbot cannot win by reason and by argument. Such brothers have a disconcerting ability to counter every proposal, admonition, and correction with an opposing argument. Often such brothers are bent on proving the abbot wrong and on justifying their own behaviour. It sometimes happens that brother says to me, “But, Father Prior, when I arrived at the monastery, things were not so demanding. The observance was not what it is today. Your expectations have increased.” This is but a variation of the reaction of the child who is quick to say that things are not fair, that the rules of the game have changed, and that he was tricked into playing by a new set of rules. The observance of a monastery grows over time. A community of twelve can do and must do things that a community of four cannot and ought not do. I cannot look at a photo of Dom Elijah in 2012 and claim that Dom Elijah in 2019 is a different person. He has grown, matured, and acquired new traits. A man cannot say to his wife of forty years, “You are not the woman I married.” The wife may have changed physically; motherhood may have taught her certain lessons; the wear and tear of family life may have left its traces on her face. She remains nonetheless the same woman whom the man took as his bride amidst great rejoicing.

A monastery develops organically. What is now has grown out of what came before. The observance is shaped not only by the community’s growth in numbers, but also by the spaces in which we live. We saw yesterday, in our visit to the ruins of Fore Abbey, that the very layout of the monastic allowed the monks to move together in an orderly and peaceful manner. The cloister, notably, with its walkways on four sides was the monastery’s main artery; its function was as much liturgical as it was  practical. As we continue the adaptation of existing buildings an the construction of new ones, our observance will be shaped and reshaped by them. And we ourselves will be shaped by the spaces we inhabit, even as we shape them into the house of God (Chapter XXXI) and the school of the Lord’s service (Prologue).

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