Although human nature itself is inclined to be compassionate toward the elderly and the young, the authority of the rule should also provide for them. Since their lack of strength must always be taken into account, they should certainly not be required to follow the strictness of the rule with regard to food, but should be treated with kindly consideration and allowed to eat before regular hours.
An exception as a response to genuine need is not a compromise of the rule, it is the rule’s expression. Exceptions like this one, given to the elderly and the young, are a kind of compassionate common sense. However, when the realities of people’s lives are overlooked in favour of keeping structure set and the letter of the law fixed, common sense is lost. Benedict undermines this tendency by placing into the “authority of the rule” exceptions guided by and expressing this compassion. It can be too easy for people living within structure and routine to become too ‘left brained’ in the daily. Practicing intuitive compassion undermines this, so much so that some of us might experience this compassion as a scandal to the system rather than simply love’s expression.
The risk here is that this expression of compassionate common sense in the rule might become too isolated within the rule itself. Rather than inspiring the expression of compassionate human nature generally, it becomes itself a kind of concession that has lost the ability to inspire heartfelt exception as the rule’s expression in other circumstances. Here, common sense has lost its intuitive grounding in the heart.
As a community our meditation practice works on keeping attention supple and intuitively balanced, that is, in the heart and at home there. There is less chance, then, that any firmness around the rules will stop us from seeing and acting when chances for compassionate common sense present themselves, both for ourselves and for others.
Sometimes community is about ‘breaking’ rules so that the spirit of the rule is discovered and expressed. The spirit of Benedict’s rule is the Holy Spirit – a Spirit that is love blowing where it will. So, grandma gives her grandchildren extra lollies; a son stays up past bedtime with his dad to watch the final minutes of a TV show; the new community member missing morning prayer is left to sleep in. The Spirit of love is ready to be kind and considerate. Human goodness expresses this kindness and consideration, making allowances when it is apt to do so. Compassion is then revealed.
Love is always patient and kind; love is never jealous; love is not boastful or conceited, it is never rude and never seeks its own advantage, it does not take offence or store up grievances. Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but finds its joy in the truth. It is always ready to make allowances, to trust, to hope and to endure whatever comes. (1 Corinthians: 4-6, NJB)