I have been getting mixed messages from my Lenten reading, domestic life and the Rule of St Benedict! Through the years, the Rule has been a guiding light in many situations. However, in discussion with a fellow-oblate recently, we agreed that some of its maxims have to be adapted for the modern, domestic situation. We were thinking specifically of the 4th degree of humility:
‘The fourth degree of humility is that he hold fast to patience with a silent mind when in this obedience he meets with difficulties and contradictions and even any kind of injustice, enduring all without growing weary or running away … ’ (Chapter 7).
There can be situations where just absorbing criticism without trying to put your side of the story can cause long-term misunderstandings. I have often puzzled over this and just recently came across an interesting approach. In a commentary on the phrase ‘To go the extra mile’ the origin of this phrase was explained. Roman soldiers could tell any passing Jew to carry their pack for a mile. Jesus tells his listeners that, if this happens to them, they should carry the pack for another mile. Usually, this is interpreted as Jesus telling us to be meek and humble, willingly give more than is asked for, accept the rules of those in authority etc. My commentary gave an interesting twist to this. It pointed out that the soldier could get into serious trouble if he was caught making the Jew carry his pack for more than the regulation one mile. So, by doing this, the Jew is causing the soldier sufficient anxiety that he will think twice before taking that risk again. Is Jesus saying that, if someone treats us unjustly, we can get our revenge by finding a way of putting them in the wrong? I don’t think so. I think that a more plausible explanation is that Jesus’ message is that we can sometimes make others stop and analyse their behaviour by refusing to respond to mistreatment in the expected way. The soldier expects the Jew to resent being imposed on and to drop the pack as soon as he can. By acting as though the soldier needs his help, which he is freely giving, he reverses the power structure of the relationship, forcing the soldier to rethink his own behaviour.
There is a modern example of this theory in some school anti-bullying programmes. They advise the bullied pupil to think of the bullying as a game and decide that they are not playing. When they do not react in the usual way, it throws the bullies off balance, denying them whatever reward they get from their bullying. At the least, the bullies might reduce their bullying because it is no longer ‘fun’ and might even begin to look at their own behaviour pattern.
Where does this leave the Rule? I think that the key phrase in this section is ‘without growing weary or running away’. We are not being asked to passively absorb abuse but to react to it in a positive way and to persevere in that reaction in the hope that the perpetrator will see the error of their ways. The final phrase of this section is ‘and bless those who curse them’. If we genuinely wish that our tormentors see the error of their ways, repent and turn to God and are willing to wait patiently for this, then we ourselves are one step closer to dwelling in that tent of the Lord.
Jane Coll Oblate of Pluscarden