This is my fifth article offering reflections based on my reading of Judith Valente’s book, How to Live: What the Rule of St. Benedict Teaches Us About Happiness, Meaning, and Community (Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads Publishing. 2018). You can see the four previous articles as follows: “Being Spiritual in the World Today”, “Striving to be Disciples of Christ.”, “Overcoming Anger with Prayer“, “Community and Balance of Work in the Rule of St. Benedict.”
Today I begin with chapter 12 on forgiving. Valente opens with this quote from chapter 27 of the Rule, “The prioress or abbot 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).” The prioress or abbot are called to be the leaders of their monastic community. To be a leader includes helping those who go astray to return to the path that God has placed them on. We should not rush to exclude. We must ask what we can do to bring healing.
Valente speaks of a time when she made what she herself describes as a “mindless mistake” (109). She expected that her boss would reprimand her. Instead he said, “You made a mistake, but it’s not the end of the world. Learn from it and be more careful in the future” (110). Her boss could have been harsh. Instead he sympathized with her. Sometimes punishment is necessary but we often learn more from compassion than punishment. We can be more motivated by a caring boss than a boss we are afraid of.
St. Benedict refers to this type of leadership response as applying the “ointment of encouragement” (Valente,112). St. Benedict calls for the whole community to “pray for the one who is struggling so that the Lord, who can do all things, can bring about the health of the sick” (112). If we expect others to change, we must pray for them. If we care for them, if we love our neighbor, we will pray for them.
Even if we are the one they have hurt, we must pray for them. We must let go of our hurt. The baggage is to hard to carry and it only hurts us to keep it with us. (See my video series Finding Peace and Healing in a Troubled World).
Speaking of letting go, part of monastic living is “living simply.” Monks and nuns own nothing individually. This is the vow of poverty. The vow of poverty is not purely a material thing. It is to let go of earthly attachments (see my article, “How Do Our Attachments Affect Our Relationship with Jesus?”). We let go of that which we do not need so that it might not control us. Letting go of our attachments frees us to give more to God. You may not live in a monastery where you can give up all earthly possessions but what do you have that you can and should let go of to make room for Jesus?
Sometimes we hold on to things for purely sentimental reasons. This is not necessarily bad if we do not let it control us. How much stuff do you have from the past that you never even look at. Valente speaks of a time when she accidentally gave a sentimental possession away and found herself “oddly liberated” by it (137-138). How many sentimental possessions do you have? Do you value them now or are you holding onto to them to avoid having to let go? For the average person there is nothing wrong with a few sentimental possessions as long as we understand why we are holding onto them.
Letting go of some things can be a sign of trust in God. In a monastery everything is provided. Outside the monastery one does not have that luxury. We need to care for our families and ourselves. Living simply doesn’t mean we have no possessions. It does mean that we limit our possessions and that we do not let our possessions control us.
People often judge their worth by what they have in material possessions. As Christians, our ultimate goal is to live in Heaven. We cannot take our earthly possessions with us to Heaven. Our actions in this world should demonstrate our love for God and our neighbor, not material wealth and power.
We may fall short. Valente offers the following, “St. Benedict exhorts his community members to admit faults as soon as they happen. But admit them, he says, only to those who can be trusted, to those who know how to heal their own wounds” (145). Ask for forgiveness. Ask for help. We are not perfect. Valente writes, “As I age, I realize that I don’t so much desire to be seen as flawless, but rather as both flawed and still worthy. Worthy of receiving love and giving love. From the monastic elders, I’ve learned that I am not my faults any more than I am my thoughts or my emotions” (147).
I am not perfect. You are not perfect. Jesus loves us anyway. Hand your faults to him and receive his forgiveness. Jesus does not condemn us. He does call us to sin no more (see John 8:11).