Even though monks and nuns are supposed to be holy, they are still human. As a result, they aren’t perfect. Saint Benedict is well aware of this as he writes The Rule. In a previous article, I discussed how punishments should be dealt out if a person did something really bad. (See the Chapter Twenty-Five segment of that article for details.) Today’s article will focus on how a monk can get back into the good graces of the community after doing those bad things.
The beginning of chapter forty-four of The Rule of Saint Benedict |Harley MS 5431 f.72v | Source: The British Library
Chapter Forty-Four of The Rule of Saint Benedict is titled “Those who are Excommunicated, how they are to Make Satisfaction” (pg. 60). (I will note that here “excommunicated” doesn’t mean being thrown out of the monastery or the Church forever. Instead, it refers to being isolated from the other members of the community.) If a monk commits a grave fault, coming back into the community isn’t going to be an easy or instantaneous thing. It’s important that the wrongdoer is punished, is actually sorry for their actions, and that the rest of the community thinks the punishment is sufficient. If these things are not done and people are still resentful, there runs the risk of discord being sewn into the monastery again.
So what does Saint Benedict recommend as penance?
The text starts off by clarifying that this is supposed to be for “graver offences [sic]” (pg. 60). (Saint Benedict gets into penance for minor offenses later in the chapter.) Then it goes on to explain that the bad monk is not allowed to go into the church or join the other monks during meal times at the table. But that doesn’t mean the bad monk is allowed to wander while everyone else is at Divine Office! Instead, he has to silently “prostrate himself at the door of the Oratory” (pg. 60) during services. He has to lay there on the floor face first until everyone exits the building. This assures that the bad monk is attending services with the rest of the community, but he’s still isolated from the group in a humiliating way. He has to do this until the abbot thinks he is truly penitent for his sins.
However, the bad monk isn’t immediately accepted back into the community. There are still further penances to go through. Before the penitent monk is allowed to come into the church again, he has to throw himself at the abbot’s feet as well as the feet of everyone in the community. Everyone is to pray for him. Once again, this happens until the abbot thinks the point has gotten across. And once again, this is not the end of the penitent monk’s discipline!
After all this, the penitent monk is finally allowed back into the church with the other choir monks. However, the monk may or may not be allowed to sit in the same place as before. Monasteries followed a hierarchical system based on how long a person had been a monk, so losing your place in the hierarchy was a Big Deal. And just because the penitent monk was able to go to services again, it didn’t mean he was allowed to lead the community in reading or song. That was a privilege that needed to be earned back when the abbot thought it appropriate.
Despite being allowed back at Divine Offices, the penitent monk still had one more penance to undergo. When the service was over he was to lay prostrate on the ground. However, he wasn’t allowed to find a good place to do so. The penitent monk was to do this “in the place where he standeth” (pg. 60). I’m sure you can guess how long he had to do this for! (Until the abbot said otherwise!)
Now, these were the penances for monks who committed grave faults. What about minor faults? Let’s let Saint Benedict explain himself:
“But let those, who for lighter faults are excommunicated only from the table, make satisfaction in the Oratory so long as the Abbot shall command, and continue so doing until he bless them and say it is enough.” (pg. 60)
As you can see, a lot of what happened in the monastery happened at an abbot’s discretion. This chapter emphasizes the abbot’s power in a monastic community. (Well, an abbot who has control over his brethren at least.) In Terrence G. Kardong’s commentary on The Rule of Saint Benedict, he compares Saint Benedict’s treatment of penitent monks to another rule written a few decades before, The Rule of the Master. (A lot of people wrote their own guides on how to live a proper monastic life.) Interestingly enough, in The Rule of the Master penances are slightly different.
One such difference is the use of verbal apologies. The Master required the abbot and the penitent monk to recite prewritten speeches during the penances. Kardong argues that the use of these would just make things worse. It’s not really a true apology if it doesn’t come from the heart. He also argues that The Master wants to rush the healing processes while Saint Benedict takes things extremely slow. By taking things slow, it allows the community to genuinely heal from the collective distress the actions of the bad monk inflicted upon them.
- Saint Benedict. Blair, D. Oswald Hunter, translator. The Rule of Saint Benedict, With Explanatory Notes. Ichthus Publications.
(I bought my copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict on Amazon. You can purchase my edition of it here.)
(This version on Project MUSE was available to download for free in the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic. While it is no longer accessible to the general public, I’ve included a link to it in case you have access to it through a university account or some other way.)
Christian Classics Ethereal Library’s translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict can be found here as a PDF. I used this to cross-check my translation. (You have to scroll down to see the text.)
Wikipedia’s overview of The Rule of Saint Benedict to double-check my interpretations of the text. Link to that article here.