‘…and if anything should be found with anyone that he [sic] did not receive from the Abbot let him fall under the severest discipline.’
Who is it that disciplines? What is this falling? Sometimes we can do it to ourselves. The discipline can be experienced in the behaviour we ourselves have chosen. It is an inner discipline of our conscience, one that is formed enough in the Spirit and community. We can realise and seek forgiveness – or repent. If this is not happening, then a wise Abbot or guide can help us make the connections between our behaviour and our motivations, doing so with love so as to help us grow in love.
Benedict wanted his monastic brothers and sisters to identify with Christ without the distraction of private ownership. This is my knife, my towel, my tablet. If someone came into my room and took my computer to use I would soon discover that I am much too attached to the machine – to the point of emotional reaction.
Benedict wanted monastics to have Christ as the sole focus of their whole lives with nothing that the ego could claim as its own. Ownership is an illusion which can claim attention and identify us more with material things and less with the Divine within the material. We can lose a sense of context, of the temporariness of stuff.
The human heart longs for that which endures. Any promise of comfort and security that comes with the material is, ultimately, short-lived. Stability and growth in real love is about identification in and with the Divine. Nothing else will deeply satisfy. This is what the stance of the Rule towards private ownership can teach us today.
In the monastery of Benedict’s time the individual bed was for many a new experience. For us it can be a place of privacy and intimacy (with our selves and others). This privacy and intimacy can encourage the question: what do I cover up, hide within that keeps me from living and from God? What needs to change, to be uprooted? In this search, this discerning, we can learn to be with the ‘Abbot within’, that wisdom alive in us that Buddhists call the prajna-eye, that which the Christian would see as the life of God, the wisdom of Christ, the Holy Spirit. It is the art of learning to look without thinking, of simple observance from the heart – like Mary, pondering things in her heart (Luke2:19).
Maybe there are little habits that keep us from attending to, being with others. Perhaps the things in our lives encourage these habits. A practice like meditation helps uncover the motivations sustaining these habits and attachment to things. A contemplative practice looks without thought. It is a way we can regularly attend to those inner intimate parts of us.
Currently, at Meditatio House, we each have our own coffee cup. What would happen in me if someone else used my cup, or if it broke? A simple thing like a coffee cup can be a healthy statement of identity and can also be something that the ego clings to as it feels its own de-centreing as a threat. Little, everyday things can become egoic fetishes. Benedict knew this.
And so the Abbot should take into account the weakness of those who are in need, rather than the ill-will of the envious.
The Abbot is asked to make the example of the Apostle’s their model. As the early Christian community gave what was once the resources of a few to the Apostles, they would then distribute according to the needs of others in the community rather than allowing any dissension or envy shape the way they gave, or who they gave to (Acts 4:32-35). This way requires from the Abbot an awareness of the people around them and their needs, and a compassionate focus that tends to these needs. The Abbot is to be someone mature enough in the spiritual and human life to have a genuine and sustaining focus on others and not themselves. The position of community leader models the use of attention in the service of love.
Meditation and community is a practice and a growth in this other-centred attention. In meditation we give attention to the mantra – a word which draws attention into the silent love life of God at our depths. This love, as we attend to it, transforms us in and for love. As this happens we forget not only ego, but also the deep Self as we become love for love’s sake. As this happens our relationships, our communities, become the places where we can tend to the needs of those around us. We discover an inner resource that is inexhaustible and we grow in being an abbot to ourselves and others.