Sed infirmitatum consideratio (XXXIV)

CHAPTER XXXIV. Whether all ought alike to receive what is needful
12 Mar. 12 July. 11 Nov.

As it is written: “Distribution was made to every man, according as he had need.” Herein we do not say that there should be respecting of persons – God forbid – but consideration for infirmities. Let him, therefore, that hath need of less give thanks to God, and not be grieved; and let him who requireth more be humbled for his infirmity, and not made proud by the kindness shewn to him: and so all the members of the family shall be at peace. Above all, let not the evil of murmuring shew itself by the slightest word or sign on any account whatsoever. If anyone be found guilty herein, let him be subjected to severe punishment.

Saint Benedict opens Chapter XXXIV with a sentence from the fourth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, wherein Saint Luke describes the life of the Church of Jerusalem:

And the multitude of believers had but one heart and one soul: neither did any one say that aught of the things which he possessed, was his own; but all things were common unto them. And with great power did the apostles give testimony of the resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord; and great grace was in them all. For neither was there any one needy among them. For as many as were owners of lands or houses, sold them, and brought the price of the things they sold, and laid it down before the feet of the apostles. And distribution was made to every one, according as he had need. (Acts 4:32-35)

This passage is, as Dom Germain Morin famously demonstrates in his classic little work, The Ideal of the Monastic Life Found in the Apostolic Age (1914), a most compelling description of how monks are to live together: in the unity of the faith; having one heart and one soul; renouncing personal proprietorship and holding all things in common; giving testimony of the resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ; under grace; with care for the needy; making distribution to each according to his need.

This paradigm of the monastic life cannot be detached from the verses that precede it in the Acts of the Apostles. You will recall that Peter and John were arrested after the healing of the man lame from birth who sat begging alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple. Saint Luke has artfully constructed Chapters 3 and 4. The whole narrative begins with the prayer of Peter and John:

Now Peter and John went up into the temple at the ninth hour of prayer. (Acts 3:1)

It is a beautiful thing, this prayer of Peter and John together. Peter and John were the witnesses of the empty tomb, and of “the linen cloths lying, and the napkin that had been about his head, not lying with the linen cloths, but apart, wrapped up into one place” (John 20:6–7). Peter and John together go up into the temple at the hour of the evening sacrifice and of the death of Jesus on the Cross. The evening sacrifice of the temple remained, for so long as the temple stood, a reference to the immolation of the Lamb upon the altar of the cross, which fulfilled it.

The healing of the infirm man sets in motion a great drama: the preaching of Peter in the power of the Holy Ghost; the arrest of Peter and John; the conversion of five thousand men by the preaching of the Apostles; the interrogation of Peter and John the next morning; the testimony of Peter; the warning issued to Peter and John, and their release; the Apostles’ account of all that happened; and then, the unanimous prayer of the Church, a prayer altogether worthy of Saint Luke, and no less significant for us than the Magnificat, the Benedictus, and the Nunc Dimittis of his Gospel.

Qui cum audissent, unanimiter levaverunt vocem ad Deum, et dixerunt:
Who having heard it, with one accord lifted up their voice to God, and said:

Lord, thou art he that didst make heaven and earth, the sea, and all things that are in them. Who, by the Holy Ghost, by the mouth of our father David, thy servant, hast said: Why did the Gentiles rage, and the people meditate vain things? The kings of the earth stood up, and the princes assembled together against the Lord and his Christ. For of a truth there assembled together in this city against thy holy child Jesus, whom thou hast anointed, Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, to do what thy hand and thy counsel decreed to be done. And now, Lord, behold their threatenings, and grant unto thy servants, that with all confidence they may speak thy word, By stretching forth thy hand to cures, and signs, and wonders to be done by the name of thy holy Son Jesus. (Acts 4:24-30)

This is a true liturgical oration, containing all the distinctive elements of Jewish prayer that would, over time, give to the Collect of the Roman Rite its classic shape: (1) the opening address to God; (2) the remembrance made to God of what He has already wrought; (3)the petition; (4) the conclusion in “the name of thy holy Son Jesus.” What follows is the divine response to the prayer of the Church.

They were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they spoke the word of God with confidence. (Acts 4:31)

All of this is the background to the sentence with which Saint Benedict opens Chapter XXXIV. The word “distribution” hearkens back to the words of Saint Peter: “Silver and gold I have none; but what I have, I give thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, arise, and walk” (Acts 3:6). The infirm man at the Beautiful Gate is the image of the monk for whom the abbot must have the consideratio infirmitatum.

Consideration for infirmities is not incumbent upon the abbot alone; the cellarer and the abbot’s other collaborators, and the whole community are held to practice consideration for infirmities. It is an indispensable element of the pax benedictina. Benedictine peace is not the absence of weaknesses, infirmities, and tensions; it is the integration of these things into the functioning of the Body of Christ. Certain weaknesses may lead to faults. Is the brother who fails out of weakness or stumbles by reason of his infirmity shunned? God forbid. He is rather looked after with a solicitude that is at once gentle and merciful.

Brethren, if a man is found guilty of some fault, you, who are spiritually minded, ought to shew a spirit of gentleness in correcting him. Have an eye upon thyself; thou too wilt perhaps encounter temptation. Bear the burden of one another’s failings; then you will be fulfilling the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:1–2)

Chapter XXXIV gives us the very key to the pax benedictina:

Let him, therefore, that hath need of less give thanks to God, and not be grieved; and let him who requireth more be humbled for his infirmity, and not made proud by the kindness shewn to him: and so all the members of the family shall be at peace.

First, there is thanksgiving. The man sees rightly who looks at others and at himself through the lens of gratitude. Ingratitude, because it proceeds from self-absorption and from pride leads to the most frightful distortions of reality. The man who cannot assess his life gratefully will fall into melancholy and into every manner of wrong thinking. Second, there is humility. The man who accepts his infirmity and, then, admits that he cannot get by without the help of others, will also recognise his utter dependence on divine grace. He will hold fast to the word of Our Lord to Saint Paul: “My grace is sufficient for thee: for power is made perfect in infirmity” (2 Corinthians 12:9). In a monastery where there are both thanksgiving and humility, “all the members of the family shall be at peace.”