Living a Lay Monasticism: Further Thoughts on Humility and the Rule of Benedict

9 October 2006

The daily readings of the Rule continue to consider humility and the degrees by which it can be obtained.

Today’s reading exhorts us to “speak gently and without laughter, humbly and seriously, and . . . not . . . noisy in [our] speech.” Tough stuff unless you’re one of the monks and nuns Benedict was writing for.

We have to really think about what Benedict is saying to us, especially if we live in a modern, secular world. Benedict’s call is radical: the vows of obedience, stability, and conversion of life, the Rule’s strict understanding of a life of repentence, prayer, and work. It’s hard to try to re-interpret Benedict’s words in a way that can speak in a true and significant way to modern lay people while not distorting or watering down Benedict’s message.

Sometimes, I think the the key to understanding Benedict in a modern, lay context is to extrapolate a principle from the particular instruction of the Rule. When the Rule suggests that children should be beaten, and the Rule suggests this tactic often with the disobedient children many monasteries had as wards, what does this mean to us? Should we discard the Rule as an archaic and cruel regulation of an outmoded religious society? I think we have to discard it if we can’t make sense of the really disturbing or unattainable sections of the Rule. In the case of corporal punishment, I think Benedict’s principle —the wisdom behind the particular regulation— is that you can’t treat children like adults. Children do not understand reason very well, and in the end, you’re probably best off using stern and sometimes punitive measures to make sure children’s behaviors are safe, respectful, and ultimately positive. Children really don’t know what’s best for them, and if you are always permissive or friendly with them, you do them more harm than good. I think that’s what Benedict’s Rule tells us in regards to children: don’t try to reason with them all the time: explain, correct, guide, and, if necessary, punish.

But what of today’s reading? Does this mean that we, the lay people who wish to live Benedict’s vision as our station in life permits, must never laugh, never speak jokingly? Maybe.

People like to gossip. I try to discourage people I know from speaking gossip, but avoiding gossiping is not something I’m good at myself. I like hearing about what other people did or said. It’s juicy. It’s fun.

My students, who are all Orthodox Jews, are taught not to speak loshon hara, which they say roughly translates as “evil language.” Loshon hara is any utterance disparaging of another individual. It could be a nasty story. It could simply be an insult. The veracity of the utterance is irrelevant to its status as loshon hara. In other words, Jews are taught to avoid loshon hara even if it’s the truth.* The 19th Century rabbi called the Chofetz Chaim taught that the path to true happiness and peace in this life involves controlling one’s tongue and not speaking loshon hara.

Not speaking loshon hara is very difficult; we do it all the time. Maybe this is the kind of thing Benedict is asking us to try to do. He is not, I think, asking us to be absolutely taciturn and joyless in our interactions with others. He’s asking us to be mindful of how we speak. Is our speech rough with others, whether they are present or not, or is it gentle? Is our speech arrogant or humble? Is it laughter at someone else’s expense, or is our laughter a joyful laughter? Are we purposeful in our speech, or are we merely noisy?

The Rule of Benedict is hard to live, but imagine how transformative of our inner lives, our family lives, our friendships, and communities it would be if we all strove to live some of these principles more closely.

*Uttering loshon hara is allowed, I think, when the information could save someone’s life, but I’m no rabbi.

Sabbath: The Aftermath

In a scenario and storyline fitting for a David Lynch movie, my son locked himself in our bathroom while my wife was out watching a roller derby. It was a birthday present from a friend, and they had a good time.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the Little Guy ran into the bathroom ahead of me —I had just informed him it was bath time— and locked the door. After a quick 911 call and a frenzied father trying to undo the hinges and break down the door and injurying thumb and back in the process, Henry unlocked the door himself. The fire department came and was very polite. I was sorry to have wasted their time, but they were able to get here about 2 minutes after I called, which is a great response time, if you ask me. The firemen were very nice and even joked with the first floor neighbors.

Oy vey. So much for a restful Sabbath!


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