CHAPTER LXX. That no one presume to strike another
28 Apr. 28 Aug. 28 Dec.
Let every occasion of presumption be banished from the Monastery. We ordain, therefore, that no one be allowed to excommunicate or strike any of his brethren, unless authority to do so shall have been given him by the Abbot. Let such as offend herein be rebuked in the presence of all, that the rest may be struck with fear. With regard to the children, however, let them be kept by all under diligent and watchful discipline, until their fifteenth year: yet this, too, with measure and discretion. For if any one presume, without leave of the Abbot, to chastise such as are above that age, or shew undue severity even to the children, he shall be subjected to the discipline of the Rule, because it is written: “What thou wouldest not have done to thyself, do not thou to another.”
By the time Saint Benedict wrote the Holy Rule, he had already acquired a long experience of the complexities and messiness of cenobitic life. Pravum est cor omnium, et inscrutabile: quis cognoscet illud? “The heart is perverse above all things, and unsearchable, who can know it?” (Jeremias 17:9). One has only to read Saint Gregory’s Life of Saint Benedict to see that our holy Patriarch was not spared suffering, nor temptation, nor disappointments, nor betrayals, nor persecutions.
Who then shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation? or distress? or famine? or nakedness? or danger? or persecution? or the sword? (As it is written: For thy sake we are put to death all the day long. We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.) But in all these things we overcome, because of him that hath loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor might, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35-39)
How strong must the theological virtue of hope have been in Saint Benedict for him to sum up all the monastic observances inherited from the Fathers before him in this one thing: Et de Dei misericordia numquam desperare. “And never to despair of the mercy of God” (Chapter IV).
Saint Benedict recognises that even monks will, at certain hours, be tempted to think themselves justified in meting out rebukes and punishments. A monk puffed up by pride may act towards another in a way that is censorious, or overbearing, or aggressive. A monk inflamed by anger may lash out with sharp words or violent gestures. Saint Benedict is intransigent: all such behaviour is to be banished from the monastery. And there is to be no bullying and no preying on the brother who is younger, or weaker, or unable to defend himself.
Our Declarations on Chapter LXX treat wisely of such troubled and troubling situations. Declaration 194 sets forth a very practical way of dealing with offences.
194. It is expressly forbidden that any monk take it upon himself to correct another. This is reserved to the Prior and, in his absence, to the Subprior. If there be any who, being offended in some way by another, have not the courage to make it the matter of a generous sacrifice, let them bring their complaints to the Prior and, in his presence, the matter will be brought to closure, without seeking further satisfaction, in submitting to what shall have been decided, and in making no more mention of it.
If a brother offends you, or annoys you, or causes you distress, the first thing recommended is that you make it the matter of a generous sacrifice. “A sacrifice to God is an afflicted spirit: a contrite and humbled heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (Psalm 50:19). What is sacrificed? All desire for revendication, for vindication, for retribution. What else is sacrificed? Any claim to a settling of scores. This takes humility and no small dose of courage. It means not speaking about the offence, the annoyance, the distressing behaviour, not with yourself in your head, nor with others, nor with the abbot. It means imposing silence on one’s thoughts and words. It means acting as if the offensive thing never happened. It means letting go of it. Is this difficult? Yes, it is. Is it impossible? No, it is not. Omnia possum in eo qui me confortat. “Nothing is beyond my powers, thanks to the strength God gives me” (Philippians 4:13). Do not be like the bitter monk who, even in great old age, after more than fifty years, used to ruminate ancient wrongs done to him and say, “Ah! Father X! You may think well of him, but I shall never forget what he said to me in 1943!” Let go of hurts and offences before they embitter you and snuff out your joy. Imitate what God does with our sins:
Bitter, bitter the discipline that brings me peace! And now thou hast saved the life that was in peril, thrusting away all my sins behind thy back. (Isaias 38:17)
Was there ever such a God, so ready to forgive sins, to overlook faults, among the scattered remnant of his chosen race? He will exact vengeance no more; he loves to pardon. He will relent, and have mercy on us, quashing our guilt, and he will cast all our sins into the bottom of the sea. (Micheas 7:18-19)
If you would do the perfect thing, in imitation of God’s dealings with men, forgive your brother’s sins; overlook his faults; exact no vengeance; love to pardon; relent, and have mercy on him; quash his guilt; cast all his failings into the bottom of the sea. I am reminded of the story of Abba Moses the Black:
A brother at Scetis committed a fault. A council was called to which Abba Moses was invited, but he refused to go to it. Then the priest sent someone to say to him, ‘Come, for everyone is waiting for you.’ So he got up and went. He took a leaking jug, filled it with water and carried it with him. The others came out to meet him and said to him, ‘What is this, Father?’ The old man said to them, ‘My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another.’ When they heard that they said no more to the brother but forgave him.
If, however, a brother cannot shake off the effect of an offence, the next best thing is for him to go to the abbot—if possible, together with the brother who has caused the offence—and to lay the whole matter before him. The abbot will hear both sides of the story, and then he will bring the matter to closure. The offended brother is not to mention the matter again, nor is he to agitate for further satisfaction. The offender, for his part, is to desist from every attempt to justify himself or to explain away his fault. Both are to submit to what the abbot has decided, without falling into murmuring and criticism. The abbot may sometimes be obliged to say Sufficit! Enough! The matter is to be cast into the bottom of the sea and never again fished out of its depths.
Declaration 195 treats of fraternal correction.
195. Following the Holy Gospel, the brethren may admonish one another charitably in order to hearten one another in the pursuit of perfection. If they have a true desire to advance, they shall have joy when the Prior takes note of their faults for the increase of humility and the downfall of the pride that one must vanquish at all times.
Listen to what the Apostle says:
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. The man who thinks he is of some worth, when in truth he is worth nothing at all, is merely deluding himself. Everyone should examine his own conduct; then he will be able to take the measure of his own worth; no need to compare himself with others. (Galatians 6:1-4)
And in the Gospel, Our Lord says:
If thy brother does thee wrong, go at once and tax him with it, as a private matter between thee and him; and so, if he will listen to thee, thou hast won thy brother. (Matthew 18:15-16)
No man likes to be corrected. No man likes to be told that he has acted wrongly, or given offence, or provoked or wearied another. Fraternal correction requires uncommon delicacy and tact. Saint Paul speaks of “a spirit of gentleness.” It is never good to correct a brother on the spot, unless, of course, the offence threatens another’s safety or is disturbing the peace of the monastery. As a rule, it is better to wait before correcting another, and to bring the matter first to Our Lord in the Most Blessed Sacrament. Never say to another what you cannot say first in the presence of Our Lord. Fraternal correction is risky. If the correction is not well received, it can cause a deeper rift than the original offence. A fraternal correction should never leave a brother feeling belittled, or scolded, or a failure. What does Saint Benedict say in Chapter LXIV? “And even in his corrections, let [the abbot] act with prudence, and not go too far, lest while he seeketh too eagerly to scrape off the rust, the vessel be broken.” Fraternal correction should be administered with a gentle spirit and matched with an equal or greater dose of encouragement. Again, I refer you to the Apostle:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the merciful Father, the God who gives all encouragement. He it is who comforts us in all our trials; and it is this encouragement we ourselves receive from God which enables us to comfort others, whenever they have trials of their own. The sufferings of Christ, it is true, overflow into our lives; but there is overflowing comfort, too, which Christ brings to us. (2 Corinthians 1:3-5)
Finally, in the corresponding article of our Statutes we read:
194a. The monks will be on their guard against seeking to correct or reform brethren over whom they have no authority, whether it be in matters of the chant, or of the rubrics, or of the manner of working.
God deliver us from self-righteous, priggish, censorious monks! You know the type, even if, thanks be to God, we have no one of this ilk in our monastery. He keeps a record of every rubrical inexactitude. He is forever mentally grading his brethren on their performance in choir, in the refectory, and in their employments. He takes a secret sour delight in noticing the mistakes of brethren less gifted than he, and has a way of letting others know that he, looking down from the heights of his perfection, sees everything. No one feels safe in the company of such a brother. He is a kind of self-appointed inquisitor. If you have an urge to correct someone, begin with yourself. If you are compelled to reform your brethren, practice first on reforming yourself. Do this, and you will probably discover that you have no time left to correct and reform others.
Abba Joseph asked Abba Poemen, “Tell me how I can become a monk. Said the elder to him, “If you want to find repose here and in the age to come, say in every situation, ‘I, who am I?’ and do not pass judgment on anybody.”