Fridays with Benedict: Chapter 58, "This is the Law Under Which You are Choosing to Serve"

I'd like to stay with Chapter 58 this week--"The Procedure for Receiving Brothers"--as I'd like to reflect some more on the relationship between church membership and holiness.

Since the publication of Unclean I've been thinking a lot about the relationship between welcome and purity. As noted in Unclean, and as many of you can testify to in your own experiences with churches, welcome and purity are often antagonistic forces. That is, purity is often achieved by acts of social expulsion and quarantine. The reason for this, as I argue in Unclean, has to do with the underlying psychology of purity, which is intimately associated with our disgust response.

Seeking to be people of hospitality, then, we have to resist these innate tendencies to expel and scapegoat others. We have to join Jesus in the world where he welcomed "tax collectors and sinners." We must come to learn that God "desires mercy, and not sacrifice."

But if this is so, where is holiness--radical conformity to the life of Jesus--to be cultivated?

Well, in one sense the act of welcome simply is the act of purification, sanctification and holiness. I think that's a huge part of what Jesus is getting at. You aren't made holy in being a moral paragon. You're made holy in being humble, not judging and showing mercy to others. See: The Parable of the Pharisee and Publican and The Parable of the Good Samaritan.

And yet, Jesus takes all this to a really extreme place, a place well beyond what passes for liberal tolerance and social acts of kindness and politeness. The welcome of Jesus is radical, manifesting in its maturest forms as the love of enemies and universal servanthood (being, in Jesus's words, "the slave of all"). When welcome starts looking like that people start to balk. Welcome of that sort takes a lot of hard, hard work. You just can't roll out of bed and live out the Sermon on the Mount.

So where and how is that work to be done?

I think a cue might be taken from Benedict and the monastic tradition. Recall that in Chapter 1 from The Rule Benedict describes the monastery as a "school" for holiness. And I think churches could create such schools. And yet, we need to do this in a way that avoids the problems noted above.

How to do this? Well, I think you shift away from social expulsion to voluntary commitment. In any given "school" you state clearly what the expectations are and then you have people make a public commitment. Here's how Benedict describes this in Chapter 58:
9If [the novice] promises perseverance in his stability, then after two months have elapsed let this rule be read straight through to him, 10and let him be told: "This is the law under which you are choosing to serve. If you can keep it, come in. If not, feel free to leave."
And just to be sure about all this, Benedict continues:
12After six months have passed, the rule is to be read to him, so that he may know what he is entering. 13If once more he stands firm, let four months go by, and then read the rule to him again. 14If after due reflection he promises to observe everything and to obey every command given to him, let him then be received into the community.
The idea here is that before joining this "school" there must be a "prolonged period of reflection" (58.16).

I think here is a model that can be adapted and modified in various ways to set up "schools" within local churches. So you want to take the next steps in becoming a follower of Jesus? Okay, here's what that looks like in our church. Experience it a little bit, think about it, let's talk about what it will involve not once, but three times over the course of a full year. And you don't have to do this. It's a voluntary thing. But there is a lot of time commitment and a high degree of communal accountability involved. So count the cost.

Now the problem with all this, of course, is creating a snobby spiritual elite in your church. But I think that problem can be mitigated by thinking hard about curriculum. What will you be teaching in your school? Maybe your school will require, say, going on contemplative retreats once a year for five years so you can learn to pray. Maybe it will involve volunteering in every ministry of the church--from the food pantry to teaching Sunday School--with the goal of you finding a place to serve the church when the tour is over. Maybe it involves being mentored and shadowing people who do the hospital, prison or homeless ministries in your church. The point being, if the goal of the school is to make you ever more humble, ever more servant-hearted and ever more welcoming then I don't think we need to worry overcome about creating snobs. If you were creating snobs I'd revisit your learning outcomes.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

4 thoughts on “Fridays with Benedict: Chapter 58, "This is the Law Under Which You are Choosing to Serve"”

  1. Thanks for this. A leader in our own church is just now working on founding a monastery of sorts, in an effort to find an expression of monasticism within the Vineyard movement. I'm going to share this with him as food for thought.

    The close of the article gives me this thought: this language still sounds a bit instrumental to me. It makes me think of a rather simple, means-ends approach where we would be measuring learning outcomes and monitoring procedures. Which I'm not hostile to...I kind of like that. But dealing with these tensions might also involve a more through-going, periodic, critique. Two steps forward, one step backwards. I think the 'goods' of purity and discipline can't be achieved without some incidental 'bads' popping up, no matter how careful we are, and no matter how centered on Jesus we try to remain. That is a feature, not a flaw. It humbles us and reminds us that we are a people on a journey to the fullness of Christ's love, not engineers with a system for holiness.

  2. I like to use the PSOR model in these sorts of discussions. It stands for Purpose - Strategies - Outcomes - Reflection. The idea is to start by really getting to grips with the reasons you're doing this church thing, and the various levels of values that drive you.

    Once you've thought long and hard about this, you ask the question, what sorts of things would I see someone doing who held these purposes and values I've described.

    Then, and only then, you think about what you'd expect to see happen as a result. It's vital not to backwards engineer this to make your strategies fit the outcomes you want. That's called "selling out" and leads to a whole range of unintended consequences. Like excluding children with SEN from a school because their grades are bringing down the average.

    Finally, you review the whole thing - did we do what we said we would? If not, what stopped us? Did what we thought would happen, happen? If not, how come? Does this really feel like an authentic expression of our purposes and values? If not, do we need to review our purpose, or our strategies, or our expected outcomes?

    What about unanticipated events that cropped up - did we act according to our own purposes and values when we refused to marry that divorced couple? What if two different values conflict - which one wins? What principles help us to reach a decision? Who gets to decide? How do we communicate that to everyone?

    And so the whole process starts over. It's a continual learning process of becoming authentic, congruent, united, effective. It could be called discipleship, perhaps?

  3. I think it might be helpful to make a couple of pretty obvious points explicit, for the sake of clarity.

    First, there is paradoxical tension between being welcoming and offering a course of discipleship that will exclude many persons because of its difficulty. That paradox does not cross the line into contradiction, since the option to enter into the discipline is open to all--in theory, at least. So clearly you are correct to point to Benedict's emphasis on "choosing" to enter into discipleship. And a quick comment on my qualification, "in theory, at least." Those who entered Benedict's "school" were committed to not starting their own families. So some commitments that a person makes preclude them from subsequently entering into a disciplined life that would prevent them from honoring prior commitments... This complicates things a great deal!

    And second, there is another paradoxical tension between becoming part of a group that will for practical reasons be exclusive when that group wants to be known for its hospitality and love. Again, the paradox does not cross the line into contradiction, because those who enter into the discipline are committed to acts of hospitality and love as their very discipline.

    But the paradoxes lie on the edge of contradiction, ready to fall into it whenever the resolution to resist it is not maintained.

  4. I truly appreciate your statement, "You just can't roll out of bed and live out the Sermon on the Mount.", and your words, "voluntary commitment" form a mold for the keys to the kingdom.

    What I often see when people join a church is the effort to get back that old time feeling of childhood when church was a grand experience of being THE special people of God; not necessarily an attraction to Jesus. Now, this is not entirely bad. Many of us have experienced this second "new birth" for church. It is the road that we choose to take once we are back in and the excitement starts to wane that truly becomes our story.

    Schools within the church and retreats are wonderful ideas. Time in the gospels, as well as in the prophets, are mind and heart shaping adventures. The book, The Prophets, by Abraham J. Heschel, has helped me see the prophet in Jesus; one who recognized his time and the time's need. I found myself hungry for alternate readings between the gospels and the prophets, desiring to, in Heschels words, "Hold God and man in the same thought at the same time". It will be a process and growth until my last breath. I pray it can become a process and growth for those who are stuck in the rut of legalism, fundamentalism and shallow evangelicalism. It can be scary at first, and there will always be moments of self doubt and deep compunction; but, the new birth that happens each day turns the fright into a yearning never before imagined.

Leave a Reply