Every age and level of understanding should receive appropriate treatment. Therefore, as often as the young, or those who cannot understand the seriousness of the penalty of excommunication, are guilty of misdeeds, they should be subject to severe fasts or checked with sharp strokes so that they may be healed.
One of the great challenges of parenting is that we are not doing too much of it impatiently, nor are we reacting to our children too much from our own woundedness and trauma. In its own way, the same could be said about how we live generally with those who have some form of cognitive limitation (be it temporary or permanent). People in these places of life can expose to us the ways we avoid others who ‘make us’ uncomfortable. Relating in this way can also show us the limits of our own personalities. All of this is quite human. The question is how might we approach these interactions? The way we react and interact with the vulnerable around us can be an occasion for growth in self-knowledge as we come to an appreciation of the motivations influencing the way we act. And how aware might we be that divine love is in all of this wanting and waiting to heal and change everyone into ever more loving people?
Community is where we come to know, where we become aware of these dynamics of avoidance and discomfort. If we are living with people who have little insight into the significance of their actions on others, then this is an invitation for us to experience the effect this has on both ourselves and those around us. What we then are invited into is an approach to others that is more about creative love than reaction and impatience. This can be the journey of a lifetime and is best done in some way together with loving support and guidance.
The recommendation here of Benedict is for ‘severe fasts’ and ‘sharp strokes’ to be given to those without the necessary insight for excommunication. Today, these recommendations are not appropriate nor consistent with loving creativity. What might be some other practical and creative ways to help those around us who do not have this necessary understanding?
What is important to appreciate here is the difference between a head understanding and a heart understanding. To understand with the head is kind of like approaching relating as if it were a formula: follow the method and you will understand. Heart understanding is not head understanding; it is not something to be figured out before it can be lived. Heart understanding flows into action without us having to think about it first. Creative loving draws on the heart first. Conception and reasoning of course happen; however, we do not have to understand love in this way to love. If love is predicated on thought, then how many of us might grow in love?
The loving creativity of the Rule, indeed of all Christian spirituality, addresses the heart first. It is a call of the heart to the heart. This call assumes that everyone has in them, regardless of the nature of their understanding, a way to appreciate heartfully. And perhaps the most powerful way to develop this way in others is to do so is via personal and relational example. So, a significant way in which to help the understanding of every community member, including people who may not be able to understand cognitively enough, is to practice loving them creativity and uniquely from the heart. In this way, a heartful appreciation of what is the loving thing to do can be there within the person before misdeed arises. This is the power of example within loving and respectful relationships.
The capacity to notice others lovingly is shaped by the ways we ourselves have been lovingly noticed. To have a family member who sees us and loves us uniquely is an unparalleled gift: the mother who knows their child now needs space; the father who encourages in their child an interest that he does not, at first, appreciate; the way parents commit to the development of their children’s gifts. The ways we have been or not been loved manifest themselves in our relationships and communities.
Here contemplative prayer is vital because it can put us in contact with divine and unconditional love within us, a love that is not dependent on how it might or might not be expressed by others. A meditation practice works away at how we receive this divine love. God lovingly notices us and never stops noticing. Attention on the mantra radically changes our reception of God’s noticing. In time the way we love and appreciate others, especially those with limited understanding, becomes more like the way God notices and appreciates.
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. (Mark 10:13-16, NRSV)