It is written: “Distribution was made as each had need” (Acts 4:35). By this we do not imply that there should be favouritism – God forbid – but rather consideration for weakness. Whoever needs less should thank God and not be distressed, but those who need more should feel humble because of their weakness, not self-important because of the kindness shown them. In this way all the members will be at peace. First and foremost, there must be no word or sign of the evil of grumbling, no manifestation of it for any reason at all. If, however, anyone is caught grumbling, let them undergo more severe discipline.
As we come to this last chapter focusing on the goods, the stuff, of communal life, we find that its focus is a compassionate one. After the strong line of the previous chapter in particular, what Benedict presents here is an encouragement to compassion and kindness. Once again, the rule gives instruction towards the fullness of life and then tempers it with allowance and mercy. This tempering is not a compromise of guidance; it is a way of inclusion that encourages all into practice saying, ‘start simply and gently from where you are’. Possibilities and growth happen with the grace that moves us as we practice.
The divine life is not a hard task master. Heathy leadership encourages us towards possibility while respecting limitation. What is important is that our limits do not stop us from discovering and realising something of our possibilities. Sometimes limit can be transcended, we may just not know it yet.
If someone is in a place where they can see the dangers inherent in private ownership and is acting accordingly, this is good. They may also be free enough within themselves to view compassionately those who do not see what they see. The more compassion there is, the less grumbling there will be.
What happens if it is too much of a challenge for someone to move past ownership? What if a community member has a special need, say a walking stick, or medication; what about a hobby or calling that requires specialized equipment that non-one else can or will use; what if I love having plants in my room? This chapter covers all these possibilities and more. What is reasonable for living, and what is too difficult for some to live with, are all seen and accepted.
What is most important is that the differing ways people are seen, and what they are then given, not create dissent and resentment. Compassion gives according to need; it does not necessarily give to all equally. When need is met and the response is grumbling, then this grumbling reveals that we are not yet compassionate enough. More practice in kindness and empathy is necessary. This practice is what community and meditation is.
If we are not seeing another’s weakness and vulnerability, preferring instead to ‘gloss over’ it, even reject it, what does this say about how we live with our own weaknesses and limitation? If we are ‘holding it all together’, and ‘being strong’, this can lend a hardness to our relating and our personalities. The distribution of goods according to need can unlock in us how we live with ourselves and others. And it shows us, in practical terms, how grace responds to weakness. Grace embraces weakness. In this embrace, the power of God is revealed as full mercy and love.
But he [the Lord] said to me, “My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” So then, I will boast most gladly about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may reside in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, with insults, with troubles, with persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10, NET)