Sunday, July 12, 2015

Ancient Rule, Modern Guide

Commemoration of Benedict of Nursia

If it happens
that difficult or impossible tasks are laid on a sister,
let her nevertheless receive the order of the one in authority
with all meekness and obedience.
But if she sees that the weight of the burden
altogether exceeds the limit of her strength,
let her submit the reasons for her inability
to the one who is over her
in a quiet way and at an opportune time,
without pride, resistance, or contradiction.
And if after these representations
the Superior still persists in her decision and command,
let the subject know that this is for her good,
and let her obey out of love,
trusting in the help of God.  Rule of St Benedict chapter 68

I read a lot of religious books, but I won't say that I'm passionate about rulebooks, those books that set up specific things that must and must not be done. That sometimes includes the Bible. There's a book I've read several times, though, that is like a guidebook for spiritual living, one which I appreciate more each time I read it. Others have found the same thing in the Rule of Benedict, a book on living a life dedicated to God and in community with others striving to reach the same goal.

Sr. Joan Chittister's book, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages, takes Benedict's rule, chapter by chapter, and puts a contemporary perspective on the ancient book. Her perspective was a translation which alternated chapters between male and female followers of the rule, acknowledging that women, as well as men, live by the rule and are equal participants in the journey.

One chapter that particularly interested me was chapter 68 quoted above. Now Benedict did not write in what we would consider a politically correct manner. His rule was aimed at monks who followed him. It described how their lives were to be ordered and made holy. The chapter calls out what a monk or nun should do if he or she is given a task they feel is too hard for them to bear.

Honestly, the first thing I thought about was that Jesus gave us a pretty impossible task or actually several of them. Love your neighbor? Now if that is not difficult I don't know what is. Lately events have proven that it is probably one of the most difficult things we could be asked to do, and we don't do it very well.

The nun or monk who has been given a job to do by the abbot or abbess might feel that the task is too hard, too far beyond their physical or even spiritual ability. While the rule stresses obedience and meekness, another word for humility, it does also present an opportunity for discussion. Benedict even gives guidelines for how to talk about such situations should be conducted. If, though, the superior's mind is unchanged or their heart feels this is what God would want this monk or nun to do, then obedience must kick in and every attempt made to complete the task.

It's not that the superior would want to test the faith or even see how much the monk or nun could handle, but rather to offer them an opportunity to grow and to learn where they could find strength that they didn't know they had and increase the faith they already possessed. It's an exercise in trust, but not necessarily the case of "God won't give us more than we can handle."  That particular phrase makes God seem like some kind of game-player, somewhat on the level of the God of Job who had a wager about whether or not Job would remain faithful under pressure. I never liked that kind of God very much.

There are times, though, when we seem to need to be reminded that we only grow when things happen that force us out of our comfort zone and into something we never expected to encounter. I think Benedict understood that very well and made it part of the rule. All growth involves some kind of struggle. It's how learning takes place.

Benedict was a very wise man. Although he had his eyes focused on God, he realized the importance of giving guidelines to help others find what he had. Regular hours of prayer, work, worship and rest, moderation in all things, hospitality to all, obedience, humility and charity -- these were the building blocks Benedict left for the future generations to use. It's been doing its job since the sixth century, and continues today both in Benedictine communities and in the lives of lay people who find a spiritual guide in the Rule of Benedict.

I think that next time I'm asked to do something I think might be impossible or beyond my skills, I'll remember Benedict's chapter 68 and the advice he gave in it. Perhaps it will help me to think a bit more positively about what I'm being asked to do, or, at least, give me a framework to request a dialog seeking enlightenment or perhaps a more detailed explanation of what I am supposed to do. Most of all, perhaps it will teach me to be patient and try my best to do the job as if I were doing it for God.

I wonder -- did Benedict ever work in customer service?

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 11, 2015 under the title "Benedict of Nursia."

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