In my ordinary daily sequence of reading, prayer and meditation, I’ve been reading the really uncongenial part of the Rule of Benedict, chapters that deal with punshment in the community. To put things in historical perspective, corporal punishment was universal in the sixth century, and Benedict’s use of it minimal compared to contemporaneous sources. The Rule is not designed to absolutise the disciplinary practices of its age any more than the Parable of the Good Samaritan is designed to make people beat up Samaritans.
However, it is interesting to note who gets punished in the rule. Unlike our age, Benedict does not punish incompetence, human failing, ignorance, lack of spiritual intensity, failure, or saying the wrong thing openly. The rule does punish subversive grumbling, and sabotage of the community life. He expects dissent within the community, indeed encourages it as an expression of repect, but takes its toxic forms very seriously. A stable community cannot grow without basic respect, humility and realism all round. Community is not a syrupy and largely meaningless synonym for “everybody”, but a testing ground for character and motives.
So farewell then, if we want to walk in the way of Benedict, to email firestorms, hypocritical finger wagging, control by threats and manipulation, angry cynicism, and ego driven community sabotage. These need to be exposed for what they are, not tarted up with Conservative, or for that matter Radical suspenders. The community needs to be honest about what is really going on. Nobody gets punished for making bad tea, but however passionately they feel they are right, if they start slipping arsenic into it, three strikes and they’re out (another interesting Benedictine principle)