Benedict writes a lot about when and how to excommunicate people from the monastery, whether those kicked out ought ever be welcomed back, and how to correct faults. Like much of what he writes, this just seems foreign to contemporary readers. Excommunication? Kicking people out? It seems so intolerant, we say. It illustrates all the problems with religion, we say.
After talking about excommunication, he moves on to talk about serving in the kitchen and caring for the sick:
Let the brethren serve each other so that no one be excused from the work in the kitchen, except on account of sickness or more necessary work, because greater merit and more charity is thereby acquired. Let help be given to the weak, however, that they may not do this work with sadness; but let all have help according to the size of the community and the circumstances of the place.
St. Benedict (2011-04-30). The Rule of St. Benedict (Kindle Locations 582-585). PlanetMonk Books. Kindle Edition.
Before and above all things, care must be taken of the sick, that they be served in very truth as Christ is served; because He hath said, “I was sick and you visited Me.” And “As long as you did it to one of these My least brethren, you did it to Me.” But let the sick themselves also consider that they are served for the honor of God, and let them not grieve their brethren who serve them by unnecessary demands.
St. Benedict (2011-04-30). The Rule of St. Benedict (Kindle Locations 597-600). PlanetMonk Books. Kindle Edition.
It is easy for me to read what Benedict writes on excommunication and instantly forget it as outmoded and close-minded. But these words on serving others and caring for the sick, this is the best of religion. This is what makes the world smile, what we want more of.
I think this is the context where excommunication might fit in. Benedict is not writing to a contemporary church where people show up on Sunday (maybe) and don’t know each other well. He is writing to a close-knit group of men who live and work and pray together. They take turns working in the kitchen and they provide care when a brother is sick. Brother is the right word, for they truly are a family. Whatever excommunication looked like, it was not something to be celebrated or taken pleasure in. In the context of a family, excommunication is as heart-breaking as a divorce or the wandering of a prodigal. It did not happen because some faceless member in a large group broke a rule and was kicked out, it happened when a beloved brother acted in such ways to poison the community and the only way to heal was amputation.
So what does this excommunication talk mean for us?
I don’t know. I still don’t like it, it still sounds mean-spirited and overly-harsh. But maybe if we focus on the other aspects – serve each other in the kitchen and care for the sick – then it might make sense. If we build close-knit communities which exist not just to gather together and sing some catchy songs once a week but instead exist to bring healing to the world then maybe…I don’t know, maybe we’ll see there is a time and a place to tell someone they are loved but it is better for both parties that a separation occur for a time.
Maybe if someone only wants the benefits of being in the community but does not want to do the hard work of serving others, maybe that is a time to ask them to go elsewhere?
Maybe if a person enjoys the glamorous work of the community but does not want to do the behind-the-scenes work that gets no accolades, maybe it is time to ask them to go elsewhere?
This is not a casting out beyond hope, there is always hope as long as there is Jesus and grace. Even in Benedict’s work, people are always welcomed back into the community if they make restitution. Excommunication may sound bad and has certainly been abused in myriad ways, but to go too far in the other direction into a community where anything goes and there is no discipline whatsoever is equally bad both for the community and the world around.
I am wrestling with this and still not sure what I think…just one more reason I like reading the classics.