Sept 23: Vs 5-6: supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another.”
Last week we spoke about our responsibility for maintaining good zeal through showing respect to others and today we have two more maxims for fostering this fervent love: “supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another”. Chapter 26 expounds on how we are to support the sick. We are to see Christ in those who struggle with illnesses and bodily limitations. Benedict states that there are responsibilities on both sides. “The sick must rank above and before all else, so that they may truly be served as Christ” but adds “Let the sick on their part bear in mind that they are served out of honor for God, and let them not by their excessive demands distress their sisters who serve them.”
However, the ways in which we are to support each other in behavioral weaknesses is not listed in one specific chapter but is sprinkled throughout the Rule. And this is a more difficult precept to practice. Seeing Christ in the sick is easier than seeing Christ in those who are angry, controlling, lazy, or abrupt. Yet we are called and challenged to find Christ in these exchanges as well. Both bodily and behavioral weaknesses entail a need for patience, which means we must cultivate a peaceful, selfless, and generous heart. None of us are without faults or a certain lack of charity, so we must see our self on both sides of this picture. When I am rough on the edges I look to my sisters to patiently bear my weaknesses. In turn, knowing this, I can more patiently carry other peoples’ weaknesses. Do I recognize my own faults which others must carry? And how do I bear others weakness of character?
If that isn't hard enough, we are given a second precept of “obedience to one another”. We are to work at being obedient not only to the abbess and way of life but to each other. However, how many of us actually “compete” with each other in obedience! As novices, Mary and I decided one day to compete in charity. We use to have the practice of washing the abbess’ dishes after supper. (This is when we ate supper in common after Vespers.) We waited until we could be in front of the abbess in the dish-washing line and started aggressively fighting over who was going to clean the abbess’ dish – trying to yank the dishes out of each other’s hands. It was done in humor. However, there was something to this competition towards charity. What would community be like if we competed not only in opportunities for charity but also in obedience? What does “competing in obedience” even look like? To compete in obedience implies two things: one is that there are different degrees of obedience and secondly that we should to be vigilant and attentive to these opportunities to let go of our self-will for another. In these differing degrees I suppose the worst case would be the failure to even recognize a call to obedience…this reflects a blindness. Then there is obedience with reluctance - shown by facial expressions of being put out or done with hesitation or half-hearted…this reflects a blandness. But there is a perfect obedience in letting go of our self-will and to do so cheerfully and w/o delay…this reflects a blessedness. If we lived this one precept well, just think of the perfect harmony we would have in community. So what does your call to obedience look like? Blind, Bland, or blessed?
One obstacle to this ‘obedience to service’ is a preoccupation or worry over our own jobs and duties. We can become so responsible for our charges, that we lose sight of the charity demanded of us by circumstances and other people’s needs. Responsibility is an important quality but never above that of charity. What would please God more, another item crossed off our work list or helping each other in charity in the larger scheme of things? Most of us have more jobs than we can accomplish during candy season and so we have to discern priorities. Some jobs will have to be done less well during this season.
But another tendency can be to see work responsibilities as more important than our other monastic duties of prayer and study and holy reading. So there is a balance that needs to be discerned…a giving of self in patiently bearing with our own and other people’s weaknesses. And as we can see there is a direct tie between this and the call to compete in obedience…not blind or bland but blessed obedience to one another.
We must pray for each other and be gentle with each other in this delicate balance of love.