{Practicing Benedict} Compassion and Sober Judgment

“The abbot or abbess, once established in office, must often think about the demands made on them by the burden they have undertaken and consider also to whom they will have to give an account of their stewardship. They must understand the call of their office is not to exercise power over those who are their subjects but to serve and help them in their needs. They must be well-grounded in the law of God so that they may have the resources to bring forth what is new and what is old in their teaching. They must be chaste, sober and compassionate and should always let mercy triumph over judgment in the hope of themselves receiving like treatment from the Lord. While they must hate all vice, they must love their brothers or sisters. In correcting faults they must act with prudence being conscious of the danger of breaking the vessel itself by attacking the rust too vigorously. They should always bear their own frailty in mind and remember not to crush the bruised reed.” (The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 64, emphasis mine)

There are a few things the past ten years have taught me about myself:

  1. Left to my own devices, my brain wants to devour itself and then complain about how bad it tastes.
  2. We are all weak. We are all capable inflicting great pain upon each other.
  3. I really believe that the Spirit of God brings healing. But healing doesn’t come easy; it requires self-honesty. And, usually, the self is the most difficult person with whom to have an honest conversation.

This past weekend I heard another story in the long tale of the broken Church. A friend explained how, during her divorce, she was no longer allowed to take communion in her church. It was a terrible time for her and instead of the church being a supportive place, it was a place of judgment and exclusion. It just so happens that while she was removed from the table, a founder of the church took communion weekly, all while secretly involved in a six-year extramarital affair. We are poor judges of each other.

“They should always bear their own frailty in mind…” What would happen if we actually recognized our own frailties and treated others’ weaknesses with a sober understanding of our own?

Correction in the church is rightfully a scary topic. We’ve all seen that process fail. We’ve all seen people in positions of authority dishing out rebukes while they’re the ones hiding the darkest secrets. Who is worthy to judge?

I keep thinking about this in terms of parenthood. (Shocker!) I’m asking myself how I know when I’m making the right call in terms of correcting my kids. I’m also asking myself when I most believe in the need for justice in the world. You know when? When the kid at the park is purposefully throwing sand in my kid’s eye, that’s when. You want to see someone claiming authority and judgment? See a mama protecting her baby.

Protecting. We are all weak, but we are called to protect each other, protect the body of Christ. And there’s nothing more important to protect than the most vulnerable among us. There are places and moments where we have to take a moral stand, especially when it comes to people in a position of leadership whose choices are harming another.

Judgment is a tricky business, but it is necessary because people deserve protection.

Disciplining your kid is tricky business too, isn’t it? There is a line for behavior that is tolerable. There is a line for behavior that is intolerable. But where is it? And how come no one can seem to agree on it?

I have friends who spank. I have friends who time-out. I have friends who despise time-outs and only believe in time-ins. I have friends whose hairs stand on their necks to even consider that I might have friends who spank. And I have friends who roll their eyes at all of it. We’re all trying to raise kids to live well in this world. How do we make those judgment calls? How do we choose well, respond well, love well, protect well?

I’m starting to believe that it begins in a simple place, whether we’re talking about “discipline in the church” (doesn’t that phrase just make your insides cringe?), discipline for people in positions of authority, or discipline in the home. How do we draw lines, hold out consequences, love well?

I’m convinced that St. Benedict’s words are of utmost value to us right now in this generation of the Church, in this culture of Mommy-wars.

We must be “chaste, sober and compassionate.”

We must “let mercy triumph over judgment.” (That, by the way, is much more complicated than taking the easy way out and not confronting the problem. Think Jesus and the woman caught in adultery—John 7-8.)

We must always “bear [our] own frailty.”

I’m thinking that maybe before I spit out discipline for my kids, I’d better examine my heart. Maybe parenting a stubborn child who deliberately drops his pasta on the floor with a look of rebellion in his eyes should remind me my own rebellion toward God. Parenting should always be changing my view of God and my understanding of mercy. When I’m willing to see it, my children’s sin inevitably points back to my own.

And when I consider such an idea on the grand scale of the Church, I sigh. How beautiful would it be for pastors to be the most vulnerable of all of us? How powerful if every time a pastor was confronted with the sin in her congregation, she were forced to examine her own heart, to find her own faithless wanderings there, to find her own deep need for mercy?

The power of repentance is that God did not create it to be an individual task. He created us to need each other, to draw repentance out of each other, and to walk humbly with each other, always recognizing our own deep needs.

So, let us parent and minister and serve with chaste, sober, compassionate judgment. And let us always see, at the forefront of our lives, our own frailty. Then we can dream to be the Church that loves in the fullest expression, the Church that “always protects, always trusts, always hopes … never fails” (1 Corinthians 13).

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