Thursday, September 13, 2007

Chapter 2: What Kind of Person the Abbess Ought to Be cont'd Jan. 13, May 14, September 13

January 13, May 14, September 13
Chapter 2: What Kind of Person the Abbess Ought to Be

In her teaching
the Abbess should always follow the Apostle's formula:
"Reprove, entreat, rebuke" (2 Tim. 4:2);
threatening at one time and coaxing at another
as the occasion may require,
showing now the stern countenance of a mistress,
now the loving affection of a mother.
That is to say,
it is the undisciplined and restless
whom she must reprove rather sharply;
it is the obedient, meek and patient
whom she must entreat to advance in virtue;
while as for the negligent and disdainful,
these we charge her to rebuke and correct.

And let her not shut her eyes to the faults of offenders;
but, since she has the authority,
let her cut out those faults by the roots
as soon as they begin to appear,
remembering the fate of Heli, the priest of Silo (1 Kings 2-4).
The well-disposed and those of good understanding
let her correct with verbal admonition the first and second time.
But bold, hard, proud and disobedient characters
she should curb at the very beginning of their ill-doing
by stripes and other bodily punishments,
knowing that it is written,
"the fool is not corrected with words" (Prov. 18:2; 29:19),
and again,
"Beat your son with the rod,
and you will deliver his soul from death"(Prov. 23:13-14).

Some thoughts:

My first reaction is always "No way, Jose", none of that beatings, whippings and other things my society considers abusive. And then I trip over the "my society" bit and have to remind myself that Benedict is not a product of my time but his so I have to work that much harder to see through what I don't like to try to see what the main theme is of today's reading.

Another thing about "my society" is that we have somehow got to a place where it is so fashionable to believe that none of us has any business judging another, it is also "wrong" to take action based on any judgment.

An example: last Saturday, The San Diego Knit Together met in Balboa Park. At a distance to the west of off were three men smoking marijuana. We knew this because the prevailing westerly winds blew the smoke in our direction. They had a huge bag of the stuff which they were busy rolling into joints. I asked for a cell phone to call the police and no one would loan me one because "it's only dope. It's not like it's crystal meth."

Silly me. Here I thought breaking the law was breaking the law and don't get me started on the horrible things i have witnessed as a result of smoking "only dope."

What we have in this day's reading, I believe, is not a passage about physical punishment so much as it is about standards of conduct. I daresay few of us who read this are in an abbess or abbot. But have we among us parents? Teachers? Supervisors or management at the office? Maybe some of what is said here is really applicable to our own lives?

So far we have seen that something Benedict stresses is the judgment of God, fear of the Lord, which we are told is the beginning of wisdom. "Fear of the Lord" does not mean crouching in terror. The Hebrew word translated as fear, or so I have been told by those who actually know Hebrew", has many meanings as do all Hebrew words. Among them are: " awe at immense grandeur"; " feeling small in the face of something much greater than our minds can conceive"; "love/wonder/joy" all rolled together that creates within us a very complicated feeling, such as Job had, that before such a Mighty One, we are but dust and ashes but the surprise of the story is that this Mighty One, Master of the Universe, loves us and wants us.

What we have going in this passage, I believe is just this: how do we accommodate ourselves to this God? How do we conform ourselves to His will? What do we need to do?

Hard questions, but thanks be to God, Benedict's Rule provides simple, concrete, practical ways of doing just these things.

Commentary By Sr. Joan Chittister

To "vary with the circumstances" may be the genius of the entire Rule of Benedict. It is undoubtedly clear here.

The Rule of Benedict does not turn people into interchangeable parts. Benedict makes it quite plain: people don't all learn the same way; they don't all grow the same way; they can't all be dealt with the same way. Those concepts, of course, have become commonplace in a culture that is based on individualism. But they were not commonplace as recently as fifty years ago. Historically, there has been a more acceptable way for just about everything: a more acceptable way to pray; a more acceptable way to celebrate the Mass; a more acceptable way to think; a more acceptable way to live. Not everyone did it, of course, but everyone had very clear criteria by which to judge the social fit of everyone else.

Personalism is a constant throughout the Rule of Benedict.Here, though, in a chapter on the abbot or prioress, you would certainly expect at least to find a clear call for order, if not for perfection and discipline and conformity. There is no room in Benedictine spirituality, though, for bloodless relationships between people in authority and the people for whom they have responsibility. Benedictine authority is expected to have meaning. It is to be anchored in the needs and personality of the other person. For the prioress or abbot or parent or supervisor, it is an exhausting task to treat every individual in our care as an individual but nothing else is worth our time. It is easy to intimidate the stubborn with power. It is simple to ignore the mediocre. It is possible to leave the docile on their own and hope for the best.

In the Rule, though, the function of the leader is to call each individual to become more tomorrow than they were today. The point of the paragraph is not how the calling is to be done, with firmness or tenderness or persuasion or discipline. The theories on that subject change from period to period. Some types respond to one approach, some respond better to another. The point here is simply that the calling is to be done. The person who accepts a position of responsibility and milks it of its comforts but leaves the persons in a group no more spiritually stirred than when they began, no more alive in Christ than when they started, no more aflame with the gospel than when they first held it in their hands, is more to be criticized than the fruitless group itself. It was Eli, Benedict points out, the father who did not correct his sinful sons, whom God indicts, not the sons alone.

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