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The Concern of the Prioress for the Excommuncated

Thursday, July 4, 2024
Chapter 27

The abbot and prioress must exercise the utmost care and concern for the wayward because "it is not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick (Mt 9:12)." Therefore they ought to use every skill of a wise physician and send in senpectae, that is, mature and wise members who, under the cloak of secrecy, may support the wavering sister or brother, urge them to be humble as a way of making satisfaction, and "console them lest they be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow (2 Cor 2:7)." Rather, as the apostle also says: "let love be reaffirmed (2 Cor 2:8)," and let all pray for the one who is excommunicated.

The place of punishment in the Rule of Benedict is never to crush the person who is corrected. The purpose of excommunication is to enable a person to get life in perspective and to start over again with new heart. So, though not just anyone with any agenda--personal dissatisfaction, a misguided sense of what support implies, community division--is encouraged to talk to the person who is enduring excommunication, someone must. The abbot and prioress themselves are expected to see that the confused or angry or depressed person gets the help they need to begin fresh again from discerning and mature people who are skilled in the ways of both the mind and the soul, who know life and its rough spots, who realize that humility is what saves us from the blows of failure.

Excommunication is no longer a monastic practice but help from the wise through periods of resistance and reluctance must be a constant or the spiritual life may never come to fullness. Community--family--is that place everywhere where we can fail without fear of being abandoned and with the ongoing certainty that we go on being loved nevertheless. Perfection is not an expectation in monastic life any more than it is an expectation in any healthy environment where experience is the basis both of wisdom and of growth.

A contemporary collection of monastic tales includes the story of the visitor who asks of the monk: "What do you do in the monastery?" And the monastic replies: "Well, we fall and we get up and we fall and we get up and we fall and we get up." Where continual falling and getting up is not honored, where the senpectae--the wise ones who have gone before us--are not present to help us through, life runs the terrible risk of drying up and blowing away before it is half lived.

It is the responsibility of the abbot or prioress to have great concern and to act with all speed, discernment and diligence in order not to lose any of the sheep entrusted to them. They should realize that they have undertaken care of the sick, not tyranny over the healthy. Let them also fear the threat of the prophet in which God says: "What you saw to be fat you claimed for yourselves, and what was weak you cast aside (Ez 34:3-4)." They are to imitate the loving example of Christ, the Good Shepherd, who left the ninety-nine sheep in the mountains and went in search of the one sheep that had strayed. So great was Christ's compassion for its weakness that "he mercifully placed it on his sacred shoulders" and so carried it back to the flock (Lk 15:5).

The idea that the spiritual life is only for the strong, for those who don't need it anyway, is completely dispelled in the Rule of Benedict. Here spiritual athletes need not apply. Monasticism is for human beings only. The abbot and prioress are told quite clearly that they are to see themselves as physicians and shepherds tending the weak and carrying the lost, not as drill sergeants, not as impresarios. What we have in monasteries and parishes and all fine social movements and devoted rectories and most families are just people, simple people who never meet their own ideals and often, for want of confidence and the energy that continuing commitment takes, abandon them completely. Then, our role, the Rule of Benedict insists, is simply to try to soothe what hurts them, heal what weakens them, lift what burdens them and wait. The spiritual life is a process, not an event. It takes time and love and help and care. It takes our patient presence. Just like everything else.