In early times, the daily Chapter was a traditional feature of the monastic timetable. The monks left church at the end of the office of Prime and processed to a room near by, where a portion, or "chapter," of the Rule was read and the abbot commented upon it. It was also the natural occasion for announcements to be made affecting the life of the community and for a blessing to be given upon the day's work. Soon the room itself came to be called "the Chapter Room, or House" or simply "Chapter." Even today some form of this practice exists in many monasteries, including our own. Each month this page will feature a chapter talk given to the Community, as well as news and features. We hope you will visit us regularly.

 

Salus – Healing in the Rule of St Benedict

At Christmas, 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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