The cure of the sick brother (XXVIII)

CHAPTER XXVIII. Of those who, being often corrected, do not amend
5 Mar. 5 July. 4 Nov.

If any brother who has been frequently corrected for some fault, or even excommunicated, do not amend let a more severe chastisement be applied: that is, let the punishment of stripes be administered to him. But if even then he do not correct himself, or perchance (which God forbid), puffed up with pride, even wish to defend his deeds: then let the Abbot act like a wise physician. If he hath applied fomentations and the unction of his admonitions, the medicine of the Holy Scriptures, and the last remedy of excommunication or corporal chastisement, and if he see that his labours are of no avail, let him add what is still more powerful — his own prayers and those of all the brethren for him, that God, Who is all-powerful, may work the cure of the sick brother. But if he be not healed even by this means, then at length let the Abbot use the sword of separation, as the Apostle saith: “Put away the evil one from you.” And again: “If the faithless one depart, let him depart,” lest one diseased sheep should taint the whole flock.

At the end of the First Epistle to the Thessalonians, the Apostle says:

And may the God of peace himself sanctify you in all things; that your whole spirit, and soul, and body, may be preserved blameless in the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is faithful who hath called you, who also will do it. (I Thessalonians 5:23–24)

It may happen that a brother’s recovery, that is, his restoration to health and holiness of body, soul, and spirit, may take a long time. There may be seasons of convalescence followed by relapses. Neither the brother concerned nor the abbot ought to become discouraged when relapses occur.  Saint Paul says, “He is faithful who hath called you, who also will do it” (I Thessalonians 5:24).

There may come a point at which the abbot says, “I have tried everything with Brother X. I have applied “fomentations and the unction of admonitions, the medicine of the Holy Scriptures, and the last remedy of excommunication or corporal chastisement,” but all my efforts are of no avail. Brother X remains resistant, almost in spite of himself. He cannot change himself, nor can I change him.” This realisation is a turning point. The brother himself, having “hit bottom,” as the expression goes, needs to say, “I am powerless over my self–sabotaging behaviour. My life has become unmanageable.”

It is, I think, at this point, helpful to look at the human wisdom and pragmatism of the Twelve Steps made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous. By this, I am not suggesting that the Twelve Steps can in any way replace the full sacramental and ascetical life, nor the Holy Rule, nor the principles of our Declarations and Statutes, nor the teachings of the saints. The Twelve Steps, while they refer to God, to self-abandonment, and to prayer are not primarily religious in scope; they are practical steps to recovery from alcoholism or from any other addiction or vice. The Twelve Steps are not specifically Catholic or monastic; but there is nothing in them that a Catholic man or a Benedictine monk may not retain or adapt as useful for himself and put into practice.

The Twelve Steps are a useful tool, even in the monastic life, because they represent a way to recovery that works. Commitment to the Twelve Steps has restored sanity to people whose lives had spun out of control. Commitment to the Twelve Steps has even saved lives. Ask any recovering alcoholic. What are the Twelve Steps?

Step 1: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.

Step 2: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Step 3: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

Step 4: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

Step 5: Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

Step 6: Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

Step 7: Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

Step 8: Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

Step 9: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

Step 10: Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

Step 11: Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

Step 12: Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

It is clear that the Twelve Steps can be used effectively in conjunction with Chapter XXVIII of the Holy Rule. Saint Benedict would heartily approve Step 2, even if the formulation of it would strike him as foreign: “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” Saint Benedict says,

If the abbot see that his labours are of no avail, let him add what is still more powerful — his own prayers and those of all the brethren for him, that God, Who is all-powerful, may work the cure of the sick brother.

This does not mean that the abbot and the brethren have not prayed with the recovering brother and for him up to this point. It means, rather, that there comes a point at which the abbot must mobilise the whole community in a prayer of supplication and intercession for the recovering brother. There is great power in such a prayer, even as Our Lord Himself tells us:

Amen I say to you, whatsoever you shall bind upon earth, shall be bound also in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose upon earth, shall be loosed also in heaven. Again I say to you, that if two of you shall consent upon earth, concerning any thing whatsoever they shall ask, it shall be done to them by my Father who is in heaven. For where there are two or three gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.  (Matthew 18:18-20)

Is there anything that can block such a prayer or render it ineffectual? Yes, there is. If there is any lingering sentiment of unforgiveness, any deep-seated resentment, any hardening of the heart against anyone, our prayer is like an arrow that misses the mark over and over again. In the verses immediately following His teaching on prayer together, Saint Matthew recounts:

Then came Peter unto him and said: Lord, how often shall my brother offend against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith to him: I say not to thee, till seven times; but till seventy times seven times. (Matthew 18:21-22)

Men of a more sentimental bent may think that forgiveness is a matter of feelings. It is not. Forgiveness is a decision It is a decision that one does well to articulate in words, and in words spoken aloud. This is one of the reasons why we make the Prayer of Forgiveness and Reparation available to people in the Gatehouse. Forgiveness is an essential component of any program of spiritual recovery. There are people who say, “I can forgive him (or her), but I shall never forget what he (or she) did or said.” So long as one holds on to the memory of past wrongs, those wrongs continue to control one’s life and to thwart one’s best efforts at prayer. This is why prayer for the purification of the memory must accompany every prayer of forgiveness. I know of a man who struggled for years with an addiction to pornography. His life was a roller–coaster of momentary triumphs over the addiction and then of utter defeat. The man would actually chart his falls and victories on a calendar. It was only when this man realised that he was holding onto rage at having been sexually abused and humiliated by a particular family member, that he thought of asking God to cleanse his memory and remove the poison from it; only then did the addiction lost its grip on him, allowing him to begin the way to complete recovery.

Saint Benedict says that the abbot together with the whole community are to intercede “that God, Who is all-powerful, may work the cure of the sick brother.” This God will surely do, more often than not by showing the abbot and the recovering brother exactly what steps need to be taken in order to emerge from patterns of destructive behaviour and vice.

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