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.



            “You have heard it said ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. But I say to you, do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also, and if anyone would sue you and take your coat let him have your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.”  (Mt. 5: 38-42)

            This passage causes us moral discomfort.  The Church has formulated the concept of the ‘just war’ subject to clear and searching conditions.  However carefully judged, almost reluctant the permission, therefore, the Church stops short of making non-resistance a principle of secular life.  Jesus, however, is not drawing up a political blueprint.  One commentator remarks that he is illustrating in an extreme and vivid way how the individual is to respond to a radical demand, a new situation. (cf. N. Perrin Rediscovering the teaching of Jesus).  This is likely to be a correct reading, but rather sucks the life out of the text, so that is where we now turn.

            “You have heard it said ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’.” (Ex. 21:23f)  This statement of the lex talionis was not originally, as you know, a call for revenge, but a ruling to limit unrestricted revenge.  Exodus 21 is thus an advance on the custom which required an individual, a family, a clan to take vengeance not only upon the wrong-doer but on all connected with him (cf. Hendrickx).  Matthew however creates a strong antithesis.  “But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil.”  In the words of Jesus, there must be no resistance whatever to evil.  This apparent passivity is not a condoning of evil; it is, in fact, a most powerful way of countering or rendering it toothless; for evil becomes harmless when it meets no opposition; it is like a raging fire with nothing to feed on.  Anger becomes faintly absurd, if it has no object; non- resistance merely shows up its inherent sinfulness.

            Christ was able to make this statement about total non-retaliation, because he himself offered unlimited love and forgiveness to his persecutors.  This in turn enables and obliges the baptised (us) to imitate him. Moreover, by contemplation of the cross and its    consequences, we are given an acute insight into the nature of evil, as well as the capacity to lose our fear of it.  For, on the Cross, it looked as if evil had conquered, whereas the devil had in fact, been duped: the real victory belonged to Christ. (cf. Bonhoeffer)  Says Bonhoeffer: “Suffering willingly endured is stronger than evil; it spells death to evil…this is our justification for the precept of non-violence.”  In the Litany to the Sacred Heart we sing:  Cor Jesu saturatum opprobriis; Cor Jesu attritum propter scelera nostra; Cor Jesu victima peccatorum; yet many more are the invocations which acknowledge implicitly his triumph and which recognise him, precisely because of his sacrifice on the Cross, as the source of our life and happiness.  Cor Jesu fons vitae et sanctitatis; Cor Jesu totius consolationis and several others.  The Heart of Jesus is the fons salutis, described in the Preface to the Mass as the source of the streams of grace flowing from his wounded side.  If, then, this is the ultimate consequence of non-violence in the God-man, we are confident that our own patient endurance will be acceptable to the Heart of Jesus and win his mercy.

            Our text gives some concrete examples of what the disciple may have to endure.  It is not evil in the abstract, but the action of an evil person.  “If anyone strike you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”  Hendrickx comments that striking someone on the right cheek was particularly contemptuous, since it can only be done (by a right handed person) with the back of the hand.  It is suggested that the situation referred to by this saying was the persecution of the disciples and the abuses they had to undergo.  There may also be a reference to Is. 50:6, “I gave my back to the smiters and my cheeks (plural) to those who plucked out the beard.”  However, to limit the saying to a specific situation would appear to weaken it.  The mild response, the gentleness towards an aggressor is the universal Christian answer.  It runs directly counter to our instinctive desire to defend ourselves and to deflect blame.  More honourably, it offends our sense of justice and fair play.  Yet Our Lord is relentless.  If we remain on this human level, self-defence and moral indignation are comprehensible reactions and even expected or encouraged by our entourage.  They may not be wrong. But the perfect disciple has to go further. To live beyond the instinctual level requires a deep security (which should not be confused with self-confidence) and a deep faith in the power of Christ’s Cross. We can only manage to renounce basic human rights which affect our personal dignity, if we know ourselves secure in Christ’s love and if our sense of self-worth does not depend on human factors alone.  Excursus: without wanting to psychologise, this awareness varies from individual to individual, often on account of personal history.  Sometimes there has to be a preliminary healing on the human level.  If however, in the sphere of grace, we feel that we lack a Christ-given sense of ourselves as loved and valued, then we must ask for it in prayer and, where possible, act as if we possessed it, knowing by faith that the dignity of the child and heir of Christ is an established truth.

            “And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic (chitōn), let him have your cloak as well.  The tunic, Prof. Barclay tells us, ‘was the long, sack-like inner garment made of cotton or linen. The poorest man would have a change of tunics.  The cloak was the great, blanket-like outer garment which a man wore as a robe by day and used as a blanket at night.  Of such a garment the Jew would have only one.  Now it was actually the Jewish law that a man’s tunic might be taken as a pledge, but not his cloak.  “If ever you take your neighbour’s garment in pledge (his cloak), you shall restore it to him before the sun goes down; for that is his only covering; it is his mantle for his body; in what else shall he sleep? (Ex. 22, 26-27)”’

            The cloak was regarded as a basic necessity and so could not be taken for debts; yet here Jesus is telling us that we should be ready to give up even what is legitimately ours.  Why should this be, unless to express the true character of love, which is not content with observing a negative command but wants to respond positively as well.  The first gives what is due in justice; the second goes beyond the bare minimum in an excess of giving.  Says Hendrickx, both “demand a radical openness to the assailant to whom the possibility of love should be offered.”  It is thus a practical illustration of what it means to love one’s enemy, in imitation of Jesus.  St Benedict quotes this passage of the Sermon in his 4th degree of humility.  Although he is very aware of the difficulty of meekness under provocation – even comparing the sufferer to a sheep marked down for slaughter – he is equally or even more convinced of the value of such radical humility.  It will lead us, he suggests to a sweet-tempered patience and suppleness under adversity: “tacita conscientia patientiam amplectatur.” Even more, sufferers can “be confident in their hope of the divine reward…They go on to declare with joy: in all these things we overcome through him that hath loved us.”  The security of Christs’ love, enabling us to rise above the human condition, not fearfully or reluctantly but joyfully.

            “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.”  No doubt you are aware of the background for this saying.  To recall: Palestine was an occupied country, in which forced impressment into the service of the occupying power was a deeply unpopular feature of daily life.  Citizens could be compelled to supply food, to provide billets and to carry baggage for the Romans.  Sometimes the right of compulsion was exercised in a tyrannical and unsympathetic way.  It happened to Simon of Cyrene when he was compelled to carry the Cross of Jesus.  Disgruntlement, to put it mildly, would be a natural reaction in such a situation.  Yet Jesus says: not so; go two miles with cheerfulness and good grace.  Bitterness corrodes; it harms both the human psyche and the soul; to allow bitterness entry is to hand the victory to the one who compels unjustly.  Far better to let oneself be exploited, for exploitation cannot touch the soul and what is purely external cannot injure what is interior, guarded by faith and love.  When we dislike imposed tasks, we are being jealous of our freedom to do as we like; and if we neither want to serve nor think it a privilege to serve, we are setting up a tension of our own making. Although exposed to such a tension, tradition has it that Simon of Cyrene became a disciple.  Accepting to carry the crossbar brought about a transformation, along with the grace of adherence to Christ.  However, we can act in this way only if Christ had not done it first.  His meritorious sacrifice on the Cross was free; he need not have won our redemption in this extreme way of total self-offering.  But this is how he chose to express his love for and glorify the Father, and to save us from evil.  It is his manner of exercising freedom and of showing an excess of love. Far from being exploited by men, he turns the so-called exploitation into a victory for all men.  He exposes the immorality of man’s act and opens a new way of freedom in self-sacrificial love.

            “Give to him who begs from you and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.”  This does not seem to refer to an act of unjust aggression as in the other sayings.  It is even something of an anti-climax, but the underlying idea is similar.  There is a hint of a reluctance to part with one’s goods, especially if one suspects one will never see them again.  These goods are legitimately ours and we are being asked effectively to renounce them.  No one would blame us for trying to hold on to them or to ensure their return.  Once again Christ is saying to one aspiring to perfect discipleship: No: you must be ready to give up anything at all.  It is a chance, in the words of Bonhoeffer, to affirm ones “absolute adherence to Jesus” and “freedom from the tyranny of one’s own ego.”  I am reminded of the Desert Fathers’ story, where thieves broke into the Abba’s cell and relieved him of his few belongings.  As they were departing, he ran after them with something they had missed and begged them to take it as well.  This is not the place to go into questions of prudence and ethical donations; the spirit of the saying is clear.  If Christ is our only treasure, if we are content with Christ alone, then we shall give willingly more than is demanded of us.

            In all these sayings from the Sermon on the Mount, it is instructive to ask in what role we cast ourselves.  I suspect it would be the role of victim, not aggressor.  Our true difficulty, as we see it, is in behaving as Christ did under aggression.  This is a valid perspective, but if we are honest, it is sometimes we who are the aggressor; we the ones who insult, who make unreasonable, selfish demands, who refuse the extra service on grounds of inconvenience to ourselves, who want the best for ourselves and take what we need from others without regard to the discomfort we may be causing them.   Clearly, at those times we need conversion.  A moment’s sincere reflection should be enough to reverse our attitude and our conduct.  Monastic life is not about the survival of the fittest; it is about following a crucified Lord to glory and helping others to do likewise.  And that means death, not survival.  Here is another passage from Matthew for our contemplation: “Then the soldiers took Jesus into the praetorium and they gathered the whole battalion before him.  And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and plaiting a crown of thorns they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand.  And kneeling before him they mocked him, saying, Hail, King of the Jews.  And they spat upon him and took the reed and struck him on the head. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him and led him away to crucify him.”  (Mt 27: 27-31)

            Cor Jesu saturatum opprobriis miserere nobis.  Have mercy on us when we are the blind assailants of others.  Have mercy on us when we fail to respond with meekness and forgiveness.  Make us worthy to receive “an overflowing measure of grace from the fount of heavenly gifts.”  (cf. Collect).

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