Impossible Things

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Benedictine Wisdom

I have been studying the Rule of Saint Benedict and trying to live it (however badly) for nearly forty years. This, however, is one instance where familiarity has not bred contempt. On the contrary, as I grow in age, so too does my admiration for the Holy Rule grow apace. Saint Benedict, in addition to being an astute observer of human nature and of social relationships, was steeped in that wisdom that the world does not understand: the wisdom of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. "Now, we have received not the spirit of this world, but the Spirit that is of God, that we may know the things that are given us from God" (1 Cor 2:12).

Daily Chapter

This morning, as we do every morning after Lauds, we read the appointed chapter of the Holy Rule. Today it was Chapter 68: "If A Brother Be Commanded to Do Impossible Things." I offered a little commentary on it. Here is something of what I said.

Something Hard or Impossible

If it happen that something hard or impossible be laid upon any brother, let him receive the command of his superior with all docility and obedience.

First off, implicit in this verse, and illuminating it from within, are the words of the Lord Jesus: "Come to me, all you that labour, and are burdened, and I will refresh you. Take up my yoke upon you, and learn of me, because I am meek, and humble of heart: and you shall find rest to your souls. For my yoke is sweet and my burden light" (Mt 11:28-30). The father of the monastery (abbot or prior) is bound to imitate the meekness of Jesus in all things. He needs to knows his sons, their strengths, their weaknesses, and their need to be stretched in some areas without, of course, risking that they should snap under the strain of stretching.

When the father of the monastery gives a brother a particular obedience (monastic word for area of responsibility, a project, or a job) he does so meekly and humbly, taking care to adapt the obedience to the brother to whom it is given, and so adjusting the yoke to him, that it is sweet rather than oppressive, and light rather than burdensome. The father of the monastery must be prudent lest he break the bruised reed, extinguish the smouldering wick, or ruin the vessel while trying to remove the rust.

The brother, for his part, must ask himself, "What can I learn from this obedience? In what way will it stretch my possibilities and allow me to grow beyond my self-imposed limitations?" His initial response is always positive. Only if, after trying to carry out the obedience, he finds it more than he can manage, does he approach the father of the monastery and ask to be relieved of it.

Calmly and in Due Season

But if he see that the weight of the burden altogether exceeds the measure of his strength, let him explain the reasons of his incapacity to his superior calmly and in due season, without pride, obstinacy, or contentiousness.

If the weight of the burden altogether exceeds the measure of his strength, the brother is right to express his difficulties to the father of the monastery. He does this in due season, that is to say, at the appropriate moment. Not everything can be said at all hours. The brother is to make his representations calmly, says Saint Benedict. No histrionics. No carrying on. No grand scenes inflating one's difficulty into a major vocational crisis.

Saint Benedict mentions three attitudes that are incompatible with the monastic way of making even legitimate representations. These are pride ( I knew all along!); obstinacy (I will never give in on this!); and contentiousness ( Good! At last I have a reason to pick a fight with him!) Even with my own mercurial temperament, I have learned the diplomatic value of reasonable understatement. A monk speaks gently, calmly, humbly, and peacefully. If he is incapable of doing this, he needs to replenish his interior resources in prayer, asking Our Lord to replace harshness with meekness, violence with calm, pride with humility, and agressivity with peace.

Obedience, Love and Trust

If after his representations the superior still persist in his decision and command, let the subject know that it is expedient for him, and let him obey out of love, trusting in the assistance of God.

The father of the monastery, listening to the brother's representations may find them altogether reasonable and so adapt the obedience or change it altogether. He may also see that this is a salutary crisis, an opportunity for spiritual growth, and an occasion of pushing beyond certain self-imposed limitations. Thus, he may persist in his decision and command, helping the brother to see it as an opportunity to grow in virtue. Should this be the father's discernment, the brother needs to say, "I will trust you on this and, relying on the grace of Christ, obey to the best of my ability. Somehow this will work out for my good." Saint Benedict says, "Let him obey out of love, trusting in the assistance of God."

Our Mother of Good Counsel

The fact that Chapter 68 of the Holy Rule falls on April 26th, the feast of Our Mother of Good Counsel, suggests that a monk in crisis (or anyone else in crisis, for that matter) will do well to seek out the guidance and direction of the very best of counselors, the Blessed Virgin Mary. She who told the servers at the wedding feast of Cana to do whatsoever her Son would say to them, still seeks to foster obedience in us. Our Lady knows that obedience, more than anything else, effectively breaks through the limitations imposed by our pride, vanity, fear, and selfishness. The fruit of that obedience is, as Saint John tells us (Jn 2:11), a manifestation of the glory of Christ, and a wonderful increase of faith.

Every moment of crisis is an opportunity to confide our perplexities, worries, fears, and griefs to the maternal Heart of Mary. She is capable of listening to all with a benevolent silence. Her Immaculate Heart discerns what is best for each of us. And if we are silent enough, childlike enough, and even a little humble, she will counsel us and restore our troubled hearts to a peace that the world (and all its professional counselors) cannot give.

2 Comments

Father Mark,

Thank you for posting these counsels of St. Benedict. Such good advice for anyone seeking to advance in the spiritual life.

I love the beautiful picture of the Blessed Mother and the Child Jesus.

Our Lady of Good Counsel, pray for us!

Hello Father Mark. I'm very glad to find your site because it seems to cover issues I have for some time considered (Benedictine silence, monastic life, lectio divina) and others I wish to explore in the near future. I used to think the Benedictine ethos was a way to escape the world but the more I learn about it, I find it is a way to face and engage the world as a sovereign being.

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About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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