Chapter 24: Degrees of Excommunication

March 1, July 1, October 31

There ought to be due proportion between the seriousness of a fault and the measure of excommunication or discipline. The abbot determines the gravity of faults.

If monks are found guilty of less serious faults, they will not be allowed to share the common table. Anyone excluded from the common table will conduct themselves as follows: in the oratory they will not lead a psalm or a refrain nor will they recite a reading until they have made satisfaction, and they will take meals alone, after the others have eaten. For instance, if the monks eat at noon, they will eat in midafternoon; if the monks eat in midafternoon, they will eat in the evening, until by proper satisfaction they gain pardon.

There is a loving dynamic of growth and change existing at the heart of communal life. In Christian community this dynamic is named the Holy Spirit – that life of love that is the oneness of Being and Christ expressing for all. Community is where people become, mysteriously and certainly, expressions of this same Holy Spirit. This expression, deeply personal, is not the egoic expression of individualism; it is the essence of who we are, and its expression cannot be sustained without community. In community we become, and are supported in, who we are. All healthy human maturing involves this movement from ego-expression into personal self-expression.

This self-expression, by definition, is not done for itself; ideally, it is an expression of love that is at the same time forgotten. As we mature in this expression we are always, to some degree, a mix of the selfless and the ego. When a community member is found to be somehow stuck in egoic expression – something that inhibits self-expression and can disrupt the dynamic of the Holy Spirit in community – the community leader may then finally decide, after the warnings of the previous chapter, to start the excommunication process.

What might be a practical example of this ‘being stuck’ and at what point is it of sufficient weight to have the member eating by themselves and not leading prayer? Benedict asks that the community leader discern this mix. It is a mix that does its best to balance the needs of the communal life and the needs of the one at fault.  

A practical example might be if a member refuses to do any household chores. Community leadership sits with this, discerning something of the mix going on between the members personality and communal life generally. After being counselled three times, a decision is then made that it is appropriate this community member eat separately and not lead prayers until they show an understanding of the importance of everyone doing their share and show remorse.

Another example could be that a community member does not participate in the community’s life of hospitality for guests. Again, the leadership sits with this, lovingly and wisely discerning the way personality and communal hospitality combine in this instance. They may then decide that excommunication is not the best way; indeed, the process generally may not get past the first private meeting.

Different motivations for similar behaviour are often in play. Housework avoided as a powerplay is different to hospitality avoided because of a lack of self-confidence. Both may require different approaches: one is the result of a stubborn refusal to be a part of the communal life, while the other allows for fragility and hopes that in time the example and support of community life will have an effect. Both decisions are done with love and enacted compassionately.  

As other members react to disturbing community behaviour, there is always the chance that this will further isolate the person behaving this way. What excommunication can do is take this potential for further isolation and regulate it, using it for the benefit of the non-participating member. If isolation as a consequence of their behaviour was going to happen anyway, the rule attempts to use it as a way to help their ‘being stuck’, a way involving the whole community. There is then less chance of resentment, anger, rejection, and more chance of kindness, receptiveness, and acceptance.   

I always thank my God, when I mention you in my prayers, because I hear of the love and faith which you have for the Lord Jesus and for all the saints. I pray that your fellowship in faith may become effective in the full knowledge of all the good we can do for Christ. (Phm 1: 4-6, RNJB)