Salus – Healing in the Rule
of St Benedict
we celebrate our salvation, our healing
and renewal in Christ. Christ comes at Christmas
to rejuvenate our souls by His grace, and at the end He will make our bodies young again by His
glory. In this talk, Mother Abbess reflects on these themes in the Rule.
The monastic life, according to
St Benedict, is “a way that leads to salvation”, a via salutis (Prologue 48). Salus is the noun for both “salvation”
with all its spiritual connotations, and of “healing” of body and soul. It is a prominent theme in the Holy
Rule. Our Holy Father St Benedict
with his christocentric vision knows that we are the sick in need of a
physician. He has taken a long, deep,
compassionate look into the human heart and no doubt into his own also and
diagnosed its maladies. His instinct is
to heal and bring wholeness.
He is a physician, not a nanny. Although kindly, he will not
mollycoddle. The road to health is
uphill not back to bed. What he will do
and expect others to do is to go with us on the way, encouraging us, even
scolding us on occasion if we flag, punishing us if we hinder others from
progressing by our self-centredness, lifting us when we fall and binding our
wounds; above all praying for us. Each
one of us is the one who stumbles and the one who upholds. We go, rather slowly, up the hill together, a
motley, ragged, maimed crew, in an image of Flannery O’Connor, waving our
crutches and singing our psalms. The
most important fact is not that we are sick, but that we are ascending and that
we are helping each other to ascend. We
are on the move; we know where we are going and that, when we reach our
destination, our lowly bodies and injured souls will be transformed. More, we shall be transformed as a
community. The faintly disrespectable
company will become a shining little army.
St Benedict does care about our bodies. He knows that overdriven and underfed sheep
don’t perform well. He would rather a
brother be given some work that will not task him too much than that he should
be driven away from the monastery by excessive toil. He recognises that there are individual
weaknesses in the matter of digestion; and that there is such a thing as
justifiable grumbling when things are too hard.
He legislates for the aged and the very young, even for the kitcheners
and weekly reader, and devotes a whole chapter (36) to sick brethren.
This chapter is one of the most beautiful in the Rule and
could only have been written by someone who profoundly understood and loved
Christ. It begins with one of those
statements in the Rule which set an absolute value on a particular attitude:
“Care of the sick must rank above and before all else.” St Benedict has surely not forgotten his
other “absolutes” eg “nothing is to
be preferred to the work of God” (43).
They are aspects of the one absolute preference: the love of
Christ. Why are the sick to be given
this preferential position, comparable to the Opus Dei? So that they may be truly served as
Christ. We praise and adore the glorious
Christ without difficulty; here is our chance to serve the suffering Christ, to
prostrate ourselves before His veiled presence in the sick, with faith,
gentleness and courtesy. What you did
for one of these least brothers, you did for me. It requires faith on the part of the sick
also. They must know that they are in loco Christi for the healthy; they
give their hale and hearty brethren the chance to serve, to touch, to feed, to
console Christ. Lack of willingness to
be served, through a desire for independence and the assertion of our own self
will would deprive us of this grace and disturb the delicate balance of giving
and receiving. To receive can be as
supernatural an act as to give. Both can
be for the sake of Christ.
St Benedict knows his monks, however. He knows that physically weak people feel at
a disadvantage vis à vis the
strong. Querulousness, petulance, can
appear, understandably, in a low moment.
Sometimes it is simply an unpremeditated reaction to a fright, a
shock. It is not, then, very serious,
far less a reason for affording them less courtesy and attention than
before. Any such human movements on the
part of the sick must be patiently borne with, says St Benedict, because
forbearance “leads to a greater reward”.
Ever the practical man, St Benedict goes on to make
concrete suggestions (still in Chapter 36) about baths and diet. Vegetarianism is not an absolute; it may be
waived for the sake of common sense. In
the space of ten sentences, the abbot is given two specific warnings to ensure
that the recommendations in this chapter are kept. Such is its importance. There is the unmistakable assumption also
that we can cure each other. The
monastery may be a hospital but it isn’t a nursing home. People get better; there is even a very good
chance of recovery, because there is a lot of hope around. Kindness, cheerfulness and respect, not
forgetting the courage and self-forgetfulness of the sick, all help to create a
common pool of moral and physical energy, whose ultimate source lies in the
Physician who created our bodies as well as our souls.
The health of the soul, nonetheless, is
St Benedict’s prime concern and forms a central theme of the Rule’s penal
code. Although he explains the healing
rôle of certain people in the monastery, he knows who is the only Healer and
what is the best remedy. “If the abbot
perceives that his earnest efforts are unavailing … he and all the brothers should
pray for him, so that the Lord who can do all things may bring about
the health of the sick brother” (28).
Note the rôle of the community here in the restoration of health. Under God, the community has a responsibility
for the well-being of the whole organism.
The abbot is to be chosen by the sanior
pars of the community, those who will advise by their saniore consilio, their “more sound judgement”. Good government depends partly on the wisdom
of the governed. On a more obviously
practical level, they are all to practise the corporal works of mercy
(4:14-19), which bring consolation to the bodies and souls of the
afflicted. They are even to heal
themselves by washing the moral and spiritual wounds caused by negligence,
during Lent. When they have caused a
disturbance in a senior, they cure it by humbling themselves, until the
commotion is calmed by a blessing usque
dum benedictione sanetur illa commotio.
If one upsets a balance by pride or some other fault, only the one
responsible can restore that balance adequately, by a contrary act, usually an
apology. If the monk knows that he has a
sickness of soul, he is urged by the Rule to expose his little or great wound
to the spiritual father. It is strongly
implied that the very fact of exposure, of non-concealment, is the decisive
element in spiritual health.
St Benedict does, however, lay some onus on the one who received
the confidence. “When the cause of the
sin lies hidden in his conscience, he is to reveal it only to the abbot or one
of the spiritual elders who know how to heal their own wounds as well as those
of others, without exposing them or making them public” (46). The troubled monk reveals his hidden fault;
the spiritual father covers it over. He
takes it on himself and brings it to Christ along with his own sins. St Benedict suggests this image again in
Chapter 27, when he compares the spiritual father to the Shepherd who
places the erring sheep on his own shoulders and carries it back to the
flock. In a change of metaphor, one
might say that he goes down into the arena with the struggling brother and
fights alongside him, not as a judge but a brother-in-arms. It is a private contest, away from the gaze
of others. Some problems, by their very
nature, would be exacerbated by publicity.
Shame – which has usually a social element – added to guilt
might entrench the person in the harsh judgement he is very prone to make on
himself. The covering action of the
healer is meant to protect the wound from further hurt. Note that it is, first of all, an action,
even if accompanied by a word. Sometimes
one tends to long for a word or insight which will change everything for one,
alter one’s interior landscape forever.
It does happen, thank God. Even a
chance word can sometimes cause a quantum leap in one’s spiritual life. But in the end it is love that heals and love
is self-giving action, the desire and the will to suffer with and for the
other. Everyone can help. Says Isaac of Nineveh: “Spread your cloak
over anyone who falls into sin and shield him.
And if you cannot take his fault upon yourself and accept punishment in
his place, do not destroy his character” (Ascetic Treatises 58).
In Chapter 27 the senpectæ, the wise and mature
brothers sent in by the abbot to support a wayward brother, also have the duty
to cover the wound. “Under the cloak of
secrecy quasi secrete they urge him
to be humble as a way of making satisfaction and console him lest he be
overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.” Here
again is the beautiful spirit of our Rule, the spirit of the Gospel. The soul is not to be condemned, but saved by
the restoration of a peace, which in turn comes only from humility. The desire of the community is to bring true
happiness to the brother, not to serve him right. This part of Chapter 27 ends with the
paramount remedy, which will be repeated in Chapter 28: “Let love for him
be reaffirmed” or better, in McCann’s translation “let love be strengthened
towards him” and “let all pray for him”.
If healing is to be laid at the door of the whole
community, it is clearly the abbot’s responsibility also. Although he is not to hug the charism to
himself, but, in true and objective solicitude, will send in the person he
deems best qualified for the task in hand, he has the ultimate cura of the spiritually sick. “He should so regulate and arrange all
matters that souls may be saved” (41), animæ
salventur. If it is he who is
required to doctor the weaknesses of others, mindfulness of his own fragility
will suggest to him kindly methods and procedure. The bruised reed is not to be broken. Strength will be elicited from the wounded
brother, not demanded under penalty. “He
should realise that he has undertaken care of the sick not tyranny over the
healthy”. He must not prefer the fat in
virtue to the brother picking among the scraps.
His aim is not to build a dazzling community but a loving one, where the
weak are not allowed to go to the wall but encouraged to grow and integrate and
play their part.
Not blind to faults, however, the abbot will “prune them
away with prudence and love as he sees best for each individual”. Patience and “allowing faults to flourish”
may sometimes resemble each other; only the healer can know which procedure he
is following and he has the right to request that onlookers trust his motives
and his methods.
Chapter 28 shows also that love may sometimes have to
wear a stern face. True, there is the
ointment of encouragement, the medicine of divine scripture and the earnest
prayer of the brethren, but there is also the “cauterizing iron of
excommunication”, the strokes of the rod and, when all else fails, the knife of
amputation. The motive is always love,
though it may be experienced by a diseased organism as invasion and pain. The sick person may not want his
self-centredness to be healed, because of the more rigorous demands, even death
to self, that health, understand: selflessness, would place on him. Yet health has to be the aim, individually
and collectively. As Origen will suggest
in his Commentary on John 10, it is not wholly in the cure of the sick
that the Word shows His Beauty, but also in rejoicing the hearts of the healthy
with good wine. Each one of us and our
community is called to spiritual health, to sober intoxication, to the party
where Christ is both guest and host.
That would be a suitable finale but there needs also to
be a reminder that the attainment of spiritual health is not, of course, a
one-off event like a party. It is a
commitment to continue choosing health, as well as a gift. It is a capacity, sometimes a restored
capacity, to enjoy the truth and to live in the love of the Lord, giving and
receiving in all simplicity. In this new
way of being, the self has found its true place, the place that God desires for
it; and that means a security, which sets it free for fruitful work and for the
enjoyment of the peace of Christ, the peace He comes to bring at Christmas.
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