The virtues of religion and humility (XLV)

CHAPTER XLV Of those who make mistakes in the Oratory
25 Mar. 25 July. 24 Nov.

If any one make a mistake in the recitation of Psalm, responsory, antiphon, or lesson, and do not humble himself by making satisfaction there before all, let him be subjected to severer punishment, as one who would not correct by humility what he did wrong through negligence. But children for such faults are to be whipt.

A man newly-come from the world to the cloister, and hearing Chapter LXV read for the first time, might well think it rather severe and “over the top”. Saint Benedict’s inclusion of provisions for the correction of mistakes in the Divine Office proceeds, not from any disordered zeal—for the zeal of Saint Benedict is always a good zeal, tempered by charity, and characterized by meekness and mercy—but from a rightly ordered zeal for the worthy praise of God and a deep conviction that humility is the ground of true piety.

The monastic choir is one of the places in our common life where there is the greatest scope for the practice of virtue. First among these is the virtue of religion by which we seek to give God latria, that is, the worship rightly due to Him alone. Given that we are not in choir alone, but together as members of a body united one to another, there are countless opportunities to practice charity, patience, meekness, forgiveness, and forbearance.

Underlying both the virtue of religion, and the virtues proper to the common life, is humility. The virtue of religion without humility risks becoming pharisaical and formalistic. The virtues of the common life without humility may be perverted into a kind of patronising condescension, or else become an occasion for self-glorification, causing a monk to say to himself, “You alone, of everyone in the choir, have the merit of putting up with weaknesses, of bearing with the defects of those who surround you, and of holding everything together”.

In this very short chapter, Saint Benedict speaks twice of humility. The humble man is quick to acknowledge his mistakes. He does not seek to gloss over his mistakes. He is lucid without becoming scrupulous. I have, in the past, been obliged to ask brothers to stop making satisfaction for faults in choir, either because they did so mechanically, popping up and down like a jack-in-the-box; or because they did so awkwardly, kneeling down with a great bang and then rising with an audible sigh; or because they fell into an obsessive scrupulosity, making satisfaction for inaudible mental mistakes or for imagined ones.

The practice of Chapter XLV is not supposed to foster neurosis; it is supposed to foster awareness of the majesty of God and of the immense privilege that is ours when we join the Angels and Saints in singing His praise. Satisfaction for offenses during the Divine Office ought to increase our joy, and this because every act of satisfaction expresses the characteristically Benedictine virtues of religion and humility.