St. Benedict on Mercy

Just a tidbit from Luke Timothy Johnson’s recent piece in Commonweal entitled “How a Monk Learns Mercy: Thomas Merton and the Rule of St. Benedict.”

“The most destructive forms of speech in community, Benedict understood, are those that involve judgments against the other.  Benedict calls this form of speech ‘murmuring,’ included [sic] all forms of griping, gossiping, and nagging.  He forbids it absolutely.  When I was a monk, I thought that the rule of silence was mainly in service of contemplation.  Now, after many years of suffering poisoned discourse in the halls of academe, I have come to understand that silence was mainly about charity.  As we learn every day in our new world of constant chatter, savage judgment, and long-distance shaming via (anti)social media, when speech is totally without restraint, mercilessness is an almost inevitable consequence.”

There are a number of other useful insights in the article, but whether it is at work, church, or in the home, I can relate to Johnson’s experience here.  So much of the talk is negative, tearing down either the hearers or others who aren’t in the room.  It makes me think, maybe my house needs more silence…

On the other hand, how do you convince kids to fold their laundry without nagging?  I am open to suggestions.

And then, how do you convince them not to nag and judge each other?  Besides by example, which, clearly, I’m not good enough at to count on.

Still, this passage in particular was a reminder for me to be careful with my speech.  Especially around my kids, who are forming their own patterns on mine.  Yikes.

Johnson closes with this thought, summing up the rest of the article.  It sounds like marching orders to me:

“But if Christians are to cogently and consistently represent the face of mercy – which is the face of Christ – in this valley of tears, then in some fashion, I think, they must find ways to gather together for prayer, to sing the psalms and canticles, to practice silence in the name of charity, to readily confess their faults to each other, and to receive strangers as Christ.”

Lay Hold of Goodness

A year ago – or maybe closer to two – I was at a friend’s house.  She had a little hand-written note on her refrigerator, on red construction paper, which said,

“Lay hold of goodness, rather than justice.  -St. Isaac the Syrian”

I commented that maybe I needed one of those for my fridge.  We could use that sentiment in my house.  So, being the woman she is, my friend moved the magnet and handed the note to me to take home.  It was on our fridge until we moved; it seems to have disappeared in that (ongoing) process.  But the impact hasn’t left us.

The girls were preparing for a All Saints’ Day party.  (How cool are our friends?  One hosted a party for 40+ children and their moms, and the kids prepared saint themed games, and everyone dressed up as saints and told the group about the saint they were dressed as.)

Anyway, Isaac needed a saint to impersonate.  Of course, Issac the Syrian (aka Isaac of Nineveh) was his choice because, well, his name was also Isaac.  And I knew the quote from the fridge…so we looked up the rest of the quote so Isaac would have something to say about Isaac the Syrian at the party.

Phew.  This is going somewhere, I promise.  Here is some more of the quote, from OrthodoxWiki:

“Be persecuted, rather than be a persecutor. Be crucified, rather than be a crucifier. Be treated unjustly, rather than treat anyone unjustly. Be oppressed, rather than zealous. Lay hold of goodness, rather than justice.”

Ouch.  Of course, I had to share that one with Craig when he got home from work.  And he looked up the rest of the homily, and took to it like a Cajun to gumbo, and has been working out its implications in our daily lives ever since.

And I even found myself using it a day or two ago.  (It only took a year – or maybe two – for the idea to be imbeded in my brain enough that I thought to use it!)

It was a little like this:

“Daughter A, can you please wipe the table?”  (Of course I was at least this polite.)

“No, it’s not my turn, and Daughter B skipped wiping it after breakfast, so she should do it.”

“Well, Daughter B is already laying down for quiet time, so could you please do it this time, just to help me out?”  (I was carrying a tired baby, who also desired nap time, and trying to do something else…who knows what…but it wasn’t very compatible with wiping tables.)

“No!  She should do it.”

[Lightbulb appears over my head]  “Daughter, remember how we have been talking about laying hold of goodness, instead of justice?  It would be just for me to drag your sister out of bed and make her wipe the table, but here is a chance for you to lay hold of goodness by doing it even though it’s not your job.”

“No!”

The table had to wait quite a while before it was finally wiped.

I suppose we can’t all live up to the standards of the desert fathers all the time.  

Despite such minor setbacks, I’m not giving up on this one.  I would guess that roughly three-quarters of the fights in our house have to do with someone thinking a situation isn’t just – who gets the last cookie, who has to do the extra chore, etc.  And this includes myself, with thoughts like, “I cooked, and did the dishes, can’t someone else at least take out the trash?”

Which would probably be just – but my whining about it doesn’t help any of us grow in holiness.

So I’m not prepared to take on all the dirty work, just to be good.  I don’t dare to hope that my kids will decide to follow my example and suddenly want to fold all the laundry and clean the chicken coop.  But I can start thinking a little differently about these situations, and start trying a little harder to do what’s good, rather than what is simply just.  I can try to point my kids in this direction, too.  Maybe if we can ask ourselves “what would be good for me to do” instead of “what would be just to me” we would make some progress.

After all, it’s God’s goodness, God’s merciful justice, that I’m counting on for forgiveness for all those times I’ve fallen short of goodness, or even simple justice.