The bruised reed must not be broken (LXIV:4)

CHAPTER LXIV. Of the Appointment of the Abbot
21 Apr. 21 Aug. 21 Dec.

And even in his corrections, let him act with prudence, and not go too far, lest while he seeketh too eagerly to scrape off the rust, the vessel be broken. Let him keep his own frailty ever before his eyes, and remember that the bruised reed must not be broken. And by this we do not mean that he should suffer vices to grow up; but that prudently and with charity he should cut them off, in the way he shall see best for each, as we have already said; and let him study rather to be loved than feared. Let him not be violent nor over anxious, not exacting nor obstinate, not jealous nor prone to suspicion, or else he will never be at rest. In all his commands, whether concerning spiritual or temporal matters, let him be prudent and considerate. In the works which he imposeth, let him be discreet and moderate, bearing in mind the discretion of holy Jacob, when he said “If I cause my flocks to be overdriven, they will all perish in one day.” Taking, then, the testimonies, borne by these and the like words, to discretion, the mother of virtues, let him so temper all things, that the strong may have something to strive after, and the weak nothing at which to take alarm.

Saint Benedict obliges the abbot to make corrections as needed. He says in Chapter II:

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.

You will recall that Heli, the priest of Silo, had two sons, Hophni and Phinehas. Like their father, these were priests at the sanctuary of Silo, but they were corrupt, taking the best portion of sacrifices for themselves, and interfering with the women who served at the gates of the sanctuary. Greed and lust. Heli was indulgent towards his sons. He was loathe to correct them, and so their corruption increased, and this in spite of the warning that Samuel had given on the part of God:

I have foretold unto him, that I will judge his house for ever, for iniquity, because he knew that his sons did wickedly, and did not chastise them. (1 Kings 3:13)

In the end, both Hophni and Phineas were slain on the battlefield. A messenger brought the news to Heli:

Israel is fled before the Philistines, and there has been a great slaughter of the people: moreover thy two sons, Ophni and Phinees, are dead: and the ark of God is taken. And when he had named the ark of God, he fell from his stool backwards by the door, and broke his neck, and died. For he was an old man, and far advanced in years: And he judged Israel forty years. (1 Kings 4:17–18)

In Chapter II, Saint Benedict refers to this episode to warn the abbot of the dangers of being soft and over-indulgent with wayward sons. Today, nonetheless, he balances this reference by saying,

And even in his corrections, let him act with prudence, and not go too far, lest while he seeketh too eagerly to scrape off the rust, the vessel be broken. Let him keep his own frailty ever before his eyes, and remember that the bruised reed must not be broken.

The reference to the bruised reed is especially significant. We find it first in the prophet Isaias

Behold my servant, I will uphold him: my elect, my soul delighteth in him: I have given my spirit upon him, he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles. He shall not cry, nor have respect to person, neither shall his voice be heard abroad. The bruised reed he shall not break, and smoking flax he shall not quench, he shall bring forth judgment unto truth. He shall not be sad, nor troublesome, till he set judgment in the earth: and the islands shall wait for his law. (Isaias 42: 1–4)

The prophecy is fulfilled in Our Lord Jesus Christ and, specifically, in reference to the quietness and humility with which He goes about his ministry. Our Lord’s healing of the man with a withered hand in the synagogue and the sabbath stirred up the ire of the Pharisees. Listen to Saint Matthew’s account:

And the Pharisees going out made a consultation against him, how they might destroy him. But Jesus knowing it, retired from thence: and many followed him, and he healed them all. And he charged them that they should not make him known. That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaias the prophet, saying: Behold my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved in whom my soul hath been well pleased. I will put my spirit upon him, and he shall shew judgment to the Gentiles. He shall not contend, nor cry out, neither shall any man hear his voice in the streets. The bruised reed he shall not break: and smoking flax he shall not extinguish: till he send forth judgment unto victory. And in his name the Gentiles shall hope. (Matthew 12:14–21)

There are two interpretations of the image of the bruised reed; the first, and it derives from the context, is that the Servant of the Lord, the Christ, shall so move among men that, in his hiddenness and quietness of movement, he shall not even break a bruised reed. Our Lord moved gently among men, never making noise, and never causing injury. This interpretation is related to what Our Lord says concerning Himself:

Take up my yoke upon you, and learn of me, because I am meek, and humble of heart: and you shall find rest to your souls. (Matthew 11:29)

The second interpretation of the image is that favoured by Saint Benedict in Chapter LXIV: Our Lord, in treating those who are bruised and frail, does so with such a delicacy of touch that there is no risk of their being broken. Both interpretations of the image of the bruised reed speak to what Saint Benedict would see in an abbot: a certain quietness of movement; care to act in such a way as not to disturb the peace of the community; and a delicacy of touch that takes into account the frailty of the brother who must be corrected.

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