We insist that no one is to strike or excommunicate a brother unless ordered by the abbot.
What is that to you?
I want to begin with a confession. I regularly dream of committing great acts of physical violence on other people. Often these people in my dream show no sign of being impacted by the punches, bites, kicks, etc. that I inflict on them. Part of the build up of violence in these dreams is that no matter how hard I attack my opponent they merely smile or continue to taunt me.
These dreams clearly reveal an inner violence within me of some sort; a form of anguish, frustration building up inside me. The figure who takes the most amount of beatings in my dream is my brother who I always associate with antagonism. He and I growing up had a typical brother relationship of competition, bullying and taunting. We are very different people with very different outlooks and approaches to life and this continues to cause (when we spend any long period of time together) a regression to childish responses in me. He has become a totem in my sub conscious for those people who seem oblivious to my frustrations and continue unchanged in their behaviour which irritate me.
I want to be clear that it has been 16 years, 3 months, 1 week and 6 days since I last punched someone in the face… it was my brother. We were sharing a room on the way up to a millennium celebration with our family and he was deliberately winding me up and we had wrestled with each other until I had pinned him down and, as usual, he taunted me, knowing that I never used physical violence. This time, however, I lost control and punched him clean in the nose… we haven’t fought since… Violence solves nothing, kids!
When St. Benedict insist on not striking someone many of us can’t imagining monks beating each other up but we must assume it must have been a common occurrence or it wouldn’t have been specified. The insistence also highlights, as Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount, that,
…if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement (Mt 5:22a)
Violence can be expressed in many forms and we ‘strike’ one another more than just physically. The same is true of excommunication.
Official excommunication is the task of the abbot only, as has been clearly defined previously in the Rule, but we can excommunicate others from our lives by choosing not to be near them or avoiding them. We are able to exist in the shallow comfort of community life if we hold onto the control of who we allow into our inner life. We look upon one others with the eyes of judgement choosing to give worth and value to one and not the other. In this way we excommunicate people from the community of our heart.
St. Benedict is insisting that we change our heart.
It is in this deeper area of our personal conversion that we must be attentive. Only with the progress through the ladder of humility and under the obedience that is required in that that we can be changed. Again we see the Benedictine vows of stability, obedience and conversion creating the dynamic, paradoxical tension in the life of discipleship.
As with the previous chapter in which the presumption of coming to the help of another monk, in striking or excommunicating another we are placing ourselves between them and God. It is God alone, through the authority of the abbot, that judgement (if it is passed at all) is made. If we presume to step in and mediate we ourselves fall short for in doing this we ultimately say to God,
We don’t trust you’ll do what we expect.
The last two chapters have reminded me of the end of the gospel of John where Jesus has re-instating Peter after his denial.
Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” (Jn 21:20-22)
The sins and failings of our brothers and sisters must first be a call to our own repentance as we acknowledge that ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Rom 3:23) Again we must place ourselves in the narrative of creation, redemption, sanctification.
Our discipleship begins with an acknowledgement that we are dust and to dust we shall return. We are created beings formed from the earth by a loving and gracious Father. Our life is solely dependent on his good will and pleasure. From this point we know that we are called to live out a life of freely chosen devotion to him, a life of willing obedience. It is in following him by way of his Son that we are transformed into his likeness. He bestows himself upon those who desire conversion in the person of the Holy Spirit who continues to equip and empower us to continue the work of redemption. The Holy Spirit also makes us holy, distinct from the way of the world and marks us out as God’s own people; beloved.
If we miss out the important acknowledgement, in full force, that we are dust, nothing, sinners, then we limit our appreciation of grace within our life. A community grows and flourishes when all truly inhabit this story of our faith. If we can rightly believe the truth of this in our life and the life of each other then we are able to see Christ working out his purposes in one another.
I’ll finish with a story from the life of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. It is said that she ‘sought out the company of those nuns whose temperaments she found hardest to bear.’ A fellow novice nun, Martha of Jesus, who spent her childhood years in various orphanages and who was described by all as emotionally unbalanced, with a violent temper, became the focus of Thérèse’s attention. It is said that the Mother Superior became concerned that Thérèse was infatuated with Martha and ordered her to stop spending so much time with her. After Thérèse’s death it was discovered that
[she] went out of her way to spend time with, and therefore to love, the people she found most repellent. It was an effective means of achieving interior poverty, a way to remove a place to rest her head. (Kathryn Harrison, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (New York: Penguin Group, 2003) p. 111)
A commitment to conversion of life relies on a rootedness in humility achieved through obedience to authority outside of ourselves. That conversion, for Thérèse of Lisieux, was about achieving interior poverty in the likeness of Christ.
What I am about to say is not as controversial as it may first appear: conflict and tension gives a community the necessary dynamic to grow and move forward. Disagreement is not only expected within community it is necessary. Without it life together becomes, firstly, bland and also, secondly, stagnated, dare I say, dead. In the tension of polarised opinion there is a movement in thought, ideals, opinions and direction. As people wrestle with one another in disagreement we all develop and grow.
That’s why the foundational commitment to the narrative outlined above alongside a vow to chastity and stability alongside an equal vow to conversion of life creates the environment to disagree well. It won’t come as a surprise that there are members of my Christian community, locally, nationally and internationally, that I have consider punching in the face on a number of occasions (I’m sure my face has been imagined being pushed through a wall more than once!) It is a natural response to frustration and conflict but the next step is the most important in spiritual growth. Do we choose to consider how to, not necessarily physically strike them or officially excommunicate them but internally do so? What do we do with these internal temptations and thoughts? Father Maximos, in Kyriacos C. Markides book, ‘The Mountain of Silence, suggests,
We ignore them. That is what the Church fathers tell us to do. They explain that they are like flies and we are to bat them away… We can take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ by His grace. (Kyriacos C. Markides, The Mountain of Silence: a search for Orthodox spirituality (Indiana: Doubleday, 2002), quoted in Celtic Daily Prayer Book 2: farther up and farther in (London: William Collins, 2015) p.1158-9)
Community life is fraught with dangers of division and it is in the dynamic interplay of the trinitarian vows of stability/chastity, obedience and conversion/poverty and under the narrative of creation, redemption and sanctification that these issues can be a positive force rather than a destructive one.
How often in Church life do we avoid conflict because we do not know how to travel through the terrain? It is far better, I propose, that we live within the context of a life committed to the principles outlined here; that, along with the previous chapter, we are to give attention to our own growth in faith rather than take on the growth of others. It is our own conversion that we are responsible for and to allow others to sort out their own growth, trusting and praying for them as they do so. To see them through the eyes of humility, obedience and holiness.
Father Maximos also suggests that it is the practice of the Jesus Prayer that keeps ‘repetitive assaultive thoughts’ at bay.
St Mark the Ascetic said that he gave credit for his prayer life to Satan. Every time he was tempted by the devil, he prayed, thus, he prayed alot. (Kyriacos C. Markides, The Mountain of Silence: a search for Orthodox spirituality (Indiana: Doubleday, 2002), quoted in Celtic Daily Prayer Book 2: farther up and farther in (London: William Collins, 2015) p.1159)
Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Come, Lord Jesus.