Monastics may be assigned a burdensome task or something they cannot do. If so, they should, with complete gentleness and obedience, accept the order given them.
When is a limit a healthy boundary and when is it something that is blocking our growth? Often the only way to know the difference is to, with support, experience the limit. In saying yes to a task that seems impossible, and experiencing its weight, we have the chance to listen to the effect it is having on us. We come to a limit and learn to savour our reaction and response. Is the weight of the task causing new possibilities to grow in us? Do we sense, perhaps amid nervousness and fear, the stirrings of energy, expectation, and anticipation? Or has our life (at least for now) come upon its limit?
To become a human face of love we must experience our limits. In knowing our limits we come to understand and accept the context within which we can love, our own unique particular in which we can practice love. Limitation is the edge of the field within which the treasure of our giftedness is buried. A field has its boundary. Our limits are the boundary within which we love and grow. Limitation itself can be gift. Within our limits love grows without limit. All we need do is be faithful as we can be to the task at hand.
Should they see, however, that the weight of the burden is altogether too much for their strength, then they should choose the appropriate moment and explain patiently to the prioress or abbot the reasons why they cannot perform the task. This they ought to do without pride, obstinacy, or refusal.
The wise community leader shows the monastic how to listen by listening themselves to their fellow monastic. Perhaps the monastic in front of them has finally come to an understanding of healthy limit, their pride bowed and cracking under the weight. Or perhaps the monastic is still not seeing the potential that others wise enough to see can see in them.
Spiritual and wise leadership holds reality and possibility in a gentle balance. The things we are asked to do can often have in them grace that helps us move beyond ourselves. Whether we succeed or fail at a task is often not as important as learning about ourselves as we do it. New possibilities and identity can emerge. We can become and express more of who we truly are. In this we also experience something of who God is.
Moving beyond ourselves, our fears and old ways, can be a daily affair. Seemingly impossible tasks can be the stuff of life. New parents, stressed and tired, learning how to love the new life given them; the new job that we never really know about until we start; a new relationship that might prove too challenging, or not; the promotion that might ask of us more than we think we have; the death of a loved one. Sometimes the events of life are bigger than our fears and resistances. In this ‘bigger than’ we can discover resources in us we that we did not know were there.
And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)
Benedict wants to see these good fruits of character and task actually growing in our lives. He knows the importance of them being practiced. He asks that any insights we may discover in the attempt to perform a task be conveyed gently and patiently “without pride, obstinacy, or refusal” and at a time that respects the position of both the learner and the teacher. Explaining the experience of limitation in this way can be psychologically and physically challenging, often too much so. The challenge, however, assists in the growth of self-control (a gift of the Spirit).
If after the explanation the abbot or prioress is still determined to hold to their original order, then the junior must recognize that this is best. Trusting in God’s help, they must in love obey.
In all this the community leader and their fellow monastic are to be in, and edge ever closer to, love. The dialogue of listen and response (or obedience) between and within them, if forced or fearful, is not of God. When the exploration of ourselves and relationship is done gently and with careful consideration, Divine Love has the space to act and be experienced. There is every chance then of us being open to new possibility, growth, and suggestion. Inner life can be transformed.
What if anger is the dominant reaction to the community leader being “determined to hold to their original order”? Psychology tells us that under anger there is often significant sadness, pain, and loss. The Desert Father Evagrius observed that sadness often followed anger. Within us there can be a deep and repressed sense of injustice, stretching back into childhood and adolescence, fueled by anger, covering painful memories and woundedness. All of our lives, to some extent, have in them loss, rejection, and alienation.
This anger can erupt when the belief is that treatment has been unreasonable; when expectations have not or cannot be met. In this circumstance, our hidden grief, pain, and alienation can surface and be experienced. In the experience, what was hidden can be understood and named. This is the process of integration and healing. Energy is freed from the task of repression. We grow in simply being ourselves.
Growing obedience for a task can be an outward sign that the inner person is being healed and integrated. The task itself may seem meaningless. What is important is the fruit that grows.
It was said of Abba John the Dwarf that he withdrew and lived in the desert at Scetis with an old man of Thebes. His abba, taking a piece of dry wood, planted it and said to him, ‘Water it every day with a bottle of water, until it bears fruit.’ Now the water was so far away that he had to leave in the evening and return the following morning. At the end of three years the wood came to life and bore fruit. Then the old man took some fruit and carried it to the church saying to the brethren, ‘Take and eat the fruit of obedience.’
As meditators we know that to just ‘say your word’ can be an impossible task. We also know that, as we persevere, what becomes important is not that we do it well. What is important is that we practice it as an act of faith, not as a performance to be critiqued. In time then, we discover what this chapter is about: faithfulness and perseverance are what love and its fruits grow from. Performance is secondary.
If we are to be involved in God’s life here and now, because this life is freedom in love, it requires that we grow into ourselves as God’s image and into the responsibility of loving freely. The divine life asks that we grow in love, doing for loves sake and not so that we may be loved in return. An impossible task can teach us this. It can mature us in love.