Fridays with Benedict: Chapter 43, Don't Be Late

Punctuality is the theme of Chapter 43 of The Rule of St. Benedict. The chapter is entitled "Tardiness at the Work of God or at the Table."

The basic exhortation, along with an example of the consequences to be doled out for being late, is found at the start of the chapter:
4If at Vigils anyone comes after the "Glory be to the Father" of Psalm 94, which we wish, therefore, to be said quite deliberately and slowly, he is not to stand in his regular place in choir. 5He must take the last place of all, or one set apart by the abbot for such offenders, that they may be seen by him and by all, 6until they do penance by public satisfaction at the end of the Work of God.
This is one of those passages where The Rule sounds a bit medieval, which it is. These references to public shaming and penance don't sit well with modern sensibilities.

I have no real interest in defending The Rule in this regard. I think it's to be expected.

What I am interested in is this concern for punctuality. For Benedict, showing up on time is a form of valuing and honoring. This is clear from the opening verses:
1On hearing the signal for an hour of the divine office, the monk will immediately set aside what he has in hand and go with utmost speed...3...nothing is to be preferred to the Work of God.
A few months ago a guest preacher at our church went off about people being late to church and what that signals about our valuing and honoring of God. If you grew up going to church you've likely heard similar criticisms and denunciations, that being late to church is a sign of spiritual apathy, that we aren't taking the worship of God seriously.

I struggle a bit with these criticisms. Mainly because they are tainted by self-interest. It's the preacher's job to be at church on time. He's getting paid. So it seems a bit, um, strange for someone being paid to be there on time criticizing people who don't have to be there at all yet still come.

More, the preacher is going to be a big part of the service and likely wants everyone there to hear what he or she has to say. So is the encouragement to be on time about God or about the preacher?

Those cynical concerns aside, though, I do think punctuality is a form of valuing and honoring. If something is important to you, you show up on time.

And yet, people do feel differently about punctuality. Some of this, I'm sure, has to do with how we score on trait conscientiousness on the Big Five personality traits, the standard assessment paradigm for personality psychologists. That is, people high on conscientiousness are going to be punctual and will value punctuality, in themselves and in others. Those lower on conscientiousness will be less concerned with punctuality. And the conflicts between these two sorts of people will be as inevitable as they are predictable.

We all have very different ideas about what being "on time" looks like.

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3 thoughts on “Fridays with Benedict: Chapter 43, Don't Be Late”

  1. Great post. This reminds me of when I read the book, "Ministering Cross-Culturally" by Sherwood Lingenfelter and Marvin Mayers. They have a whole chapter on being event or person focused. The idea is that some cultures value being on time for an event where others value spending time with the people around you, even if you are late for the event. For example, a good bit of America is very much event oriented. When I have gone to Peru, Honduras and Nigeria there is a different sense of time. Many (of course not all) of the people there show up what we would consider "late" to events, but they spent time with people. Of course the difficulty in working in a different context is that we do what Benedict did and assumed that our way of doing things culturally is the right and therefore Christian way of doing things.

  2. Having served in the military for 14+ years I can appreciate the need to be on time. Yet, I have learned that arriving late is better than not being there at all. After all, if you are late to church you till get to hear the sermon. If you don't even come you miss the whole thing.

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