March 5, July 5, November 4
If a monk has been reproved frequently for any fault, or if they have even been excommunicated, yet does not amend, let them receive a sharper punishment: that is, let them feel the strokes of the rod. But if even then they do not reform, or perhaps become proud and would actually defend their conduct, which God forbid, the abbot should follow the procedure of a wise physician. After applying compresses, the ointment of encouragement, the medicine of divine Scripture, and finally the cauterizing iron of excommunication and strokes of the rod, and if they then perceive that their earnest efforts are unavailing, let them apply an even better remedy: the abbot and all the monks should pray for them so that the Lord, who can do all things, may bring about the health of the sick one. Yet even if this procedure does not heal them, then finally, the abbot must use the knife and amputate. For the Apostle says: “Banish the evil one from your midst” (1 Cor. 5:13); and again, “If the unbeliever departs, let him depart” (1 Cor. 7:15), least one diseased sheep infect the whole flock.
As we grow in the compassionate life, the action of drawing a line like this, as recommended by Benedict in this chapter, might feel like a betrayal of compassion. Isn’t compassion always about being open and accepting of the other despite the cost? Isn’t it better to risk being used while ever we can maintain a space for change?
There comes a point where we need to look after ourselves. A loving life is not about being used and abused. Here, Benedict outlines every chance given to the one excommunicated. We are asked to provide every opportunity and encouragement for the Spirit to work in the human heart; to provide all the reasonable space necessary for the one alone to make an informed and loving decision. If all this is to no avail, then the community and its members must be protected.
Community life, no matter its form, needs safeguarding. A school of love needs its integrity if it is to do its work. Community, as a school of love, is always vulnerable – this is its strength. In being vulnerable love can flow, growth can happen, the Spirit can work. It is precisely this vulnerability that needs to be protected. Its protection is vital if community is to be preserved. A line must be drawn somewhere.
Here, the reality of non-association is becoming the reality of broken communion. Broken communion means that community can no longer be a place of change for the one leaving. Because of this, the last action of the community is to earnestly pray that God be allowed to work in the heart of the excommunicated. This last chance, along with all that has led to this point, gives the prayer extra poignancy and weight. After this, the one leaving will have to rely on the world ‘outside’, and the Spirit in it, if change is to occur. Often this can be a harder lesson. Like the prodigal son, someone may have to enter a deeper low before anything shifts – if at all.
This action of breaking community is the same as a friendship group asking a member to leave or a family turning away from a member with a pattern of destructive addiction. Today this might be called ‘tough love’. Perhaps the spirit of the Rule might better describe this breaking as a last loving attempt to find a place in the world where grace can finally be allowed to act and transform. Sometimes the collapse of resistance, wherever and whenever this occurs, is all the yes love needs.
Maybe the experience of impending break will be enough to move someone for the better. Perhaps this could be the beginning of a re-deciding, a re-committing to the community and what needs to happen for them to stay. Like the looming end of a marriage, maybe a deeper realisation of the importance of the other and the community they are a part of will break through. Whatever happens, what will not change here is the leadership’s commitment to the preservation of a communal life free of those factors that run contrary to its safeguarding.
Do you not realise that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Clean out the old yeast so that you can be a new batch, unleavened as you are, for indeed our Passover, Christ, has been sacrificed. Let us keep the feast, then, with none of the old leaven of evil and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Corinthians 5:6b-8, RNJB)