If monastics are found to be stubborn, disobedient, or proud, if they grumble or in any other way despise the holy rule and defy the orders of the elders, they should be warned twice privately by them in accord with Christ’s injunction (Matt. 18:15,16). If they do not amend, they must be rebuked publicly in the presence of everyone. But if even then they do not reform, let them be excommunicated, provided that they understand the nature of this punishment. If however they lack understanding, let them undergo corporal punishment.
We can all be stubborn, disobedient and proud. Given the circumstance, we grumble, defy, and despise. All this is part of the human journey from fear to love, trauma into healing, from isolation to community. What is different, however, is when these things become intractable. When this is happening, it is difficult, perhaps even impossible, for the person concerned to live gracefully – to allow divine love its transforming way (even just a little bit). At this point, Benedict says we need help; for the sake of our best selves, and for that of the communal life, we need help. And so, this chapter begins the way the Rule gives help; it is the frame through which the rest of the chapters regarding excommunication are viewed.
Today, the word excommunication has an authoritarian hue. This was never Benedict’s intention. The Rule’s spirit is the Gospel’s spirit and the Gospel’s spirit is the Holy Spirit. If we are to be faithful to this Spirit, then the response to sin must be grace. Grace, however, does not ignore accountability. If it did, how then would we grow in this grace, how would we become our better selves?
The Holy Spirit encourages us into accountability and responsibility via compassion and forgiveness. And so, the way of excommunication must also be one of compassion and forgiveness. If it is not, then it too has lost its way. The community must always be mindful of authoritarian tendencies. This process of excommunication, of bringing someone back to themselves and grace, must be held lightly and faithfully. The wisdom and non-judgment of communal leadership, their guidance and sense of keen observation, must be kind, gentle and unwavering. The longing of God for the one lost needs to be made explicit.
The Rule gives every opportunity for change. At the heart of the Rule is the fact that we are all essentially good and that change is always possible. However all too often we are at odds with this. So the Rule attempts to weaken this deep prejudice about possibility and change. When push comes to shove the community and communal leadership present themselves as an unambiguous way back into the ‘ordinary way’ of graceful change from which the excommunicated has turned.
Today, the use of violence in this process of change cannot be condoned. In the time of Benedict (and, historically, up until quite recently) it was acceptable to treat accountability and understanding as separate, and in the absence of understanding it was also acceptable to administer accountability via behaviour management in the form of physical violence. Today we see that accountability for behaviour needs to accompany an understanding of behaviour. And we know that violent behaviour management can rupture any chance at all for insight and change. Growth in responsibility for change happens when accountability and understanding happen together.
This chapter recommends a scriptural and human approach working within a communal dynamic. Once the behaviour has been seen and something of its motivation discerned, leadership attempts to help their fellow community member into awareness and change privately once and then, if needed, twice. If no change is forthcoming, an open communal call to reform occurs. If none of this works, only then does the process of excommunication start; a process of increasing non-association with the person while they are still a community member.
In Matthew 18:18 Jesus asks that the community treat the excommunicated member like a “gentile or a tax collector”. It is worth noting that other gospels have Jesus associating with gentiles and tax collectors. What we have here, then, is a tension between association and non-association – a tension that all live with as the process of excommunication unfolds. It is in this tension that grace has every chance to have an effect.
What about meditation, where is it in all this? The excommunicated must be welcome to meditate with the rest of the community. As a daily and contemplative practice, meditation is a way through which grace acts to undermine our hidden unbelief in what is possible. It is, then, another way through which the Holy Spirit, lovingly and gently, holds us to account; it places us in the midst of that same dynamic of change the excommunicated are in. We are all in this together. During meditation, all that is required for change is our turning and re-turning to the mantra. Thoughts and concepts of unbelief change and fade as healing happens. Faith-sight in what is possible blooms as attention finds a home in the heart. As we meditate together, God acts to make excommunication unnecessary.
What do you think? If someone owns a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go look for the one that went astray? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he will rejoice more over it than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray. In the same way, your Father in heaven is not willing that one of these little ones be lost. (Matthew 18:12-14, NET)