Liturgical reading and the Rule of Benedict

Keizersberg (Mont Cesar) Abbey cloister, Leuven, Belgium.
Keizersberg (Mont Cesar) Abbey cloister, Leuven, Belgium.

One of the most important patterns of liturgical prayer is the periodic return to certain texts and actions—for example, the slow turning of the three-year lectionary cycle, or the genuflections and signs of the cross that mark our crossing the threshold between sacred and ordinary space and time. At the heart of these patterns is our faith that the words and actions of tradition are inexhaustible: no matter how many times we have heard and done them, there is still room for them to further transform us, to mold us into the divine image.

Benedictine monastics read the Rule of Benedict this way, as well as the Office. And so do I. This week, I was reading through the passage for March 5, slowly, with a pause after each line for the Holy Spirit to stir up some response. Here it is:

If a sister who has been frequently corrected for some fault,
and even excommunicated,
does not amend,
let a harsher correction be applied,
that is, let the punishment of the rod be administered.

But if she still does not reform
or perhaps (which God forbid)
even rises up in pride and wants to defend her conduct,
then let the Abbess do what a wise physician would do.
Having used applications,
the ointments of exhortation,
the medicines of the Holy Scriptures,
finally the cautery of excommunication
and of the strokes of the rod,
if she sees that her efforts are of no avail,
let her apply a still greater remedy,
her own prayers and those of all the others,
that the Lord, who can do all things
may restore health to the sister who is sick.

But if she is not healed even in this way,
then let the Abbess use the knife of amputation,
according to the Apostle’s words,
“Expel the evil one from your midst” (1 Cor. 5:13),
and again,
“If the faithless one departs, let her depart” (1 Cor. 7:15)
lest one diseased sheep contaminate the whole flock.

This slow cycle of reading allows for interpretations to change, even while the text stays foundational to the community. So, for example, corporal punishment is no longer a staple of Benedictine life! Rather, what struck me about this reading was Saint Benedict’s deep and abiding faith that the ultimate father of the monastery is the Lord. As a parent, I read slowly through this passage, and can relate to the Abbess’s mounting frustration. “Will nothing work? I have tried everything, talked and talked, I’ve explained, I’ve taken away privileges, I’ve even punished, but my efforts are of no avail!”

Benedict is familiar with the temptation to ever escalate the payout of bad behavior, and its logical consequences in a spiral of out-of-control violence. After all, this is what happened with the first monastery he led, whose monks tried to poison him due to his inability to adapt his asceticism to their spiritual abilities. Here, he counsels his successors against repeating his mistake. The realization that one’s efforts are of no avail is a critical moment for discernment.

When human efforts come to naught, it is time not only for the conversion of the troublemaker, but of the whole community, for if one member is sick, the whole body is sick. Thus, the Abbot or Abbess should “apply a still greater remedy,” that is, humble and insistent prayer, “that the Lord, who can do all things may restore health to the sister who is sick.” Benedict’s resolution that his “school for the service of the Lord” should “introduce nothing harsh or burdensome” (Prologue) is not only why the Rule is still so powerful but also why so many Christians still esteem him as saint, father, and brother in Christ.

We need look no further than the news to see the spiral of violence caused by ongoing repression and alienation of peoples who instead need love, security, and support. As we walk towards Holy Week, let us reflect on the example of Jesus Christ, who at the crucial moment of human history, said, “Forgive them, Father.”

Only unmerited forgiveness can undo the knots of history. If we cannot find this forgiveness in ourselves… then let us pray.


  1. It’s interesting to think about the medical imagery here in Ancient terms, not modern ones. My study of ancient surgery is a few centuries earlier than the Rule, but it’s closer than modern surgical intuitions.

    Amputation was a very dangerous procedure, only undertaken when an infection in some part of the body (say, the foot), was so severe that it was felt certain that it were left to spread to the rest of the body it would surely cause death. Amputation would be incredibly painful and would risk causing death to the person through blood loss or post-operative infection. While I don’t know of an ancient source attesting to this, I imagine patients would often experience PTSD-like symptoms after such an experience.

    To apply this to shunning / excommunication: it is only to be performed when the alternative would be the death of a community; it will cause immense pain and suffering to those who remain in community.

  2. Kimberly, your words have left me with so much to consider. I am reminded that the road to actual amputation, if that is necessary, should be a long one. Not that I would be the one to rush, but it does offer me some insight into my work with those who might feel otherwise – and that God holds dear the places for all of us, all of us.

  3. Very interesting comment, Adam. I almost excised that part of the reading since I had nothing to say about it in this post, but I thought better of it, wanting the daily reading to hang together as such. I’m very glad I did!

    Fran, you are right, that is on my mind also as I reflect on this.

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