The thorns of scandal which are wont to arise (XIII:2)

CHAPTER XIII. How Lauds are to be said on Week-days
16 Feb. 17 June. 17 Oct.

The Office of Lauds and Vespers, however, must never conclude without the Lord’s Prayer being said aloud by the Superior, so that all may hear it, on account of the thorns of scandal which are wont to arise; so that the brethren, by the covenant which they make in that prayer when they say “Forgive us as we forgive,” may cleanse themselves of such faults. But at the other Offices let the last part only of the prayer be said aloud, so that all may answer, “But deliver us from evil.”

Saint Benedict speaks of scandalorum spinas quae oriri solent, of the thorns of scandal which are wont to arise. The image of thorns is clear enough. Thorns are sharp. Contact with thorns is painful and wounding. Our Lord was crowned with thorns causing Him indescribable physical suffering. The same thorns represent the mental sufferings of Our Lord in His Passion: the piercing pain of betrayal, abandonment, rejection, scorn, and indifference. Since the 17th century, we have been accustomed to seeing depictions of the Sacred Heart of Jesus surrounded by thorns. These represent the most intimate sufferings of Our Lord, the sufferings inflicted on His Heart by the ingratitude, coldness, and contempt of men. In the great apparition of 16 June 1675, Our Lord appeared to Saint Margaret Mary, religious of the Visitation at Paray-le-Monial and, showing her His Heart, said:

Behold the Heart which has so loved men that it has spared nothing, even to exhausting and consuming Itself, in order to testify Its love; and in return, I receive from the greater part only ingratitude, by their irreverence and sacrilege, and by the coldness and contempt they have for Me in this Sacrament of Love. But what I feel most keenly is that it is hearts which are consecrated to Me, that treat Me thus. Therefore, I ask of you that the Friday after the Octave of Corpus Christi be set apart for a special Feast to honor My Heart, by communicating on that day, and making reparation to It by a solemn act, in order to make amends for the indignities which It has received during the time It has been exposed on the altars. I promise you that My Heart shall expand Itself to shed in abundance the influence of Its Divine Love upon those who shall thus honor It, and cause It to be honored.

The sufferings occasioned by the sins, or betrayals, or weaknesses of another, such as we experience them, are nothing in comparison  to what Saint John Henry Newman calls, “the mental sufferings of Our Lord in His Passion.” Listen to Newman:

Oh, who does not know the misery of a haunting thought which comes again and again, in spite of rejection, to annoy, if it cannot seduce? or of some odious and sickening imagination, in no sense one’s own, but forced upon the mind from without? or of evil knowledge, gained with or without a man’s fault, but which he would give a great price to be rid of at once and for ever? And adversaries such as these gather around Thee, Blessed Lord, in millions now; they come in troops more numerous than the locust or the palmer-worm, or the plagues of hail, and flies, and frogs, which were sent against Pharaoh. Of the living and of the dead and of the as yet unborn, of the lost and of the saved, of Thy people and of strangers, of sinners and of saints, all sins are there. Thy dearest are there, Thy saints and Thy chosen are upon Thee; Thy three Apostles, Peter, James, and John; but not as comforters, but as accusers, like the friends of Job, “sprinkling dust towards heaven,” and heaping curses on Thy head. All are there but one; one only is not there, one only; for she who had no part in sin, she only could console Thee, and therefore she is not nigh. She will be near Thee on the Cross, she is separated from Thee in the garden. She has been Thy companion and Thy confidant through Thy life, she interchanged with Thee the pure thoughts and holy meditations of thirty years; but her virgin ear may not take in, nor may her immaculate heart conceive, what now is in vision before Thee. None was equal to the weight but God; sometimes before Thy saints Thou hast brought the image of a single sin, as it appears in the light of Thy countenance, or of venial sins, not mortal; and they have told us that the sight did all but kill them, nay, would have killed them, had it not been instantly withdrawn. The Mother of God, for all her sanctity, nay by reason of it, could not have borne even one brood of that innumerable progeny of Satan which now compasses Thee about. It is the long history of a world, and God alone can bear the load of it. Hopes blighted, vows broken, lights quenched, warnings scorned, opportunities lost; the innocent betrayed, the young hardened, the penitent relapsing, the just overcome, the aged failing; the sophistry of misbelief, the wilfulness of passion, the obduracy of pride, the tyranny of habit, the canker of remorse, the wasting fever of care, the anguish of shame, the pining of disappointment, the sickness of despair; such cruel, such pitiable spectacles, such heartrending, revolting, detestable, maddening scenes; nay, the haggard faces, the convulsed lips, the flushed cheek, the dark brow of the willing slaves of evil, they are all before Him now; they are upon Him and in Him. They are with Him instead of that ineffable peace which has inhabited His soul since the moment of His conception. They are upon Him, they are all but His own; He cries to His Father as if He were the criminal, not the victim; His agony takes the form of guilt and compunction. He is doing penance, He is making confession, He is exercising contrition, with a reality and a virtue infinitely greater than that of all saints and penitents together; for He is the One Victim for us all, the sole Satisfaction, the real Penitent, all but the real sinner. (John Henry Newman, Discourse 16)

Our father Saint Benedict had direct personal experience of the thorns of scandal, not only from his enemies outside the monastery walls, but even from the monks who sought him out to be their abbot. You know the stories that Saint Gregory relates: the murderous machinations of the wicked monks of Vicovaro and the persecutions of the wretched priest Florentius. Apart from these, Saint Benedict knew firsthand the piercing thorns that grow up in daily life. There is no escape from such sufferings. Wherever there are men there will be the thorns of scandal, and even if a monk were to take himself off to a solitary place and isolate himself from all contact with other men, he would soon discover a peculiar variety of thorns growing up all around him. The seeds of these thorns lie dormant in each man’s heart and there is no escaping from them.

It sometimes happens that a brother thinks that there is a geographical solution to his mental sufferings, to the things that wound him, and torment him, and become infected, leaving him no rest. There are no geographical solutions. There is but one solution, one remedy, one therapy that brings lasting healing and peace. And what is it? Saint Benedict tells us:

The Office of Lauds and Vespers, however, must never conclude without the Lord’s Prayer being said aloud by the Superior, so that all may hear it, on account of the thorns of scandal which are wont to arise; so that the brethren, by the covenant which they make in that prayer when they say “Forgive us as we forgive,” may cleanse themselves of such faults.

It is not enough that this prayer of forgiveness should be said once a day. Saint Benedict enjoins that the prayer be said twice a day, morning and evening. Why does he prescribe this? Even in the most observant, the most enclosed, the most perfect monastery, it is impossible to get through a day without feeling in some way the pain of another brother’s weaknesses and offenses. Would a man be safe in the isolation of a remote hermitage? No, for even there the memory of past offenses will combine with his own weaknesses to haunt him and trouble his peace. The only remedy, the only solution, the only healing lies in unconditional forgiveness of all past offenses. The failure to forgive is the single greatest impediment to mental peace, to growth in holiness, to perseverance in prayer, and to divine intimacy:

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. Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened to a king, who would take an account of his servants. And when he had begun to take the account, one was brought to him, that owed him ten thousand talents. And as he had not wherewith to pay it, his lord commanded that he should be sold, and his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. But that servant falling down, besought him, saying: Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. And the lord of that servant being moved with pity, let him go and forgave him the debt. But when that servant was gone out, he found one of his fellow servants that owed him an hundred pence: and laying hold of him, he throttled him, saying: Pay what thou owest. And his fellow servant falling down, besought him, saying: Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he paid the debt. Now his fellow servants seeing what was done, were very much grieved, and they came and told their lord all that was done. Then his lord called him; and said to him: Thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all the debt, because thou besoughtest me: Shouldst not thou then have had compassion also on thy fellow servant, even as I had compassion on thee? And his lord being angry, delivered him to the torturers until he paid all the debt. So also shall my heavenly Father do to you, if you forgive not every one his brother from your hearts. (Matthew 18:21-35)

Forgive, then. Forgive your brother from your hearts, not once, not twice, not seven times, but again and again, in imitation of the forgiveness of God. Herein is the secret of the pax benedictina set round about with thorns; not in the perfection of our liturgical performance, not in the vastness of a man’s learning, not in the architecture and landscape of the monastery, not in the strictness of the observance, but in forgiveness from the heart.

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