The abbot and prioress must exercise the upmost care and concern for the wayward because “it is not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick (Matt. 9:12). Therefore they ought to use every skill of a wise physician and send in senpectae, that is, mature and wise members who, under the cloak of secrecy, may support the wavering sister or brother, urge them to be humble as a way of making satisfaction, and “console them least they be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow” (2 Cor. 2:7). Rather, as the apostle also says: “Let love be reaffirmed” (2 Cor. 2:8), and let all pray for the one who is excommunicated.
It is the responsibility of the abbot or prioress to have great concern and to act with all speed, discernment, and diligence in order not to lose any of the sheep entrusted to them. They should realise that they have undertaken care of the sick, not tyranny over the healthy. Let them also fear the threat of the prophet in which God says: “What you saw to be fat you claimed for yourselves, and what was weak you cast aside” (Ezek. 34:3-4). They are to imitate the loving example of Christ, the Good Shepherd, who left the ninety-nine sheep in the mountains and went in search of the one sheep that had strayed. So great was Christ’s compassion for its weaknesses that “he mercifully placed it on his sacred shoulders” and so carried it back to the whole flock (Luke 15:5).
A society shows its health in the way it takes care of its most vulnerable. It is the same in community. The vulnerable, the rebellious, the somehow ‘different’ must not be made scapegoats for others’ inadequacies, ignorance, jealousy, anger, fear. Community is about growing in the compassionate life. Scapegoating is not compassionate. The Rule is always inclusive; if it were not then it would be undermining compassion. Without compassion the Rule would not be able to hold and support all the tensions of human relating. Grace works in this tension, compassion grows there. In the end, how a community is with the excommunicated says a lot about how its members live with inclusiveness, grace, and compassion.
During this time, for the excommunicated, senpectae are instruments of compassion for Christ and the whole community. In the absence of a practiced communion, senpectae act as agents of a practical wisdom and kindness now withdrawn. This is typical of the Rule, always working in differing ways and at different levels for the good of the whole community no matter where they might be on the journey. Compassion is always creative and active; in the economy of grace nothing is wasted.
Perhaps there is a ‘dark sheep’ in the family or someone at work that does not really fit in, or perhaps someone at school who is ‘different’. There may be a senpectae, an uncle, aunt, teacher, or friend; or perhaps a work colleague who feels drawn to relate and help. Maybe, like the senpectae can be in the Rule, they are wise and discerning enough to relate in the sincere and gentle ways that Benedict encourages. In sincerity, gentleness, and wisdom, love is always affirmed and reaffirmed.
Humility assures, satisfies communal leadership that the God life is finding a way in the heart of the excommunicated. There can be no real remorse without humility; and with humility insight can be accepted. Senpectae stand with those who are being confronted with the option of humility.
While the Community Leader acts with all “speed, discernment, and diligence”, here they have no direct contact with the excommunicated. Instead, the leader acts in the way the rest of the community is asked to act, being for them an example of non-association. They hold the community while other members of the community be the compassion the leader would like to be for the one lost. There may come a time when they, like the father of the prodigal son, rush to the lost one who has come to their senses, embracing them with a compassion too long unexpressed.
In meditation, as contemplative prayer, there is an attending into this compassion, a compassion that is the divine life. In going, with the mantra, beyond word, image, and idea we are changed, becoming this compassion at the heart of all things. In meditation, the meditator prays with the excommunicated, the ‘dark sheep’, the different, that all of us might be humble enough to live compassionately.
Now while he was at table in the house it happened that a number of tax collectors and sinners came to sit at the table with Jesus and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your master eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ When he heard this he replied, ‘It is not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick. Go and learn the meaning of the words: Mercy is what pleases me, not sacrifice. And indeed I came to call not the upright, but sinners.’ (Matthew 9:10-13, NJB)