Why bother with these biographies, stories, and sayings of monastic men and women from centuries ago? What can these extreme ascetics have to say to us who live in more sophisticated and modern times? They may have had something to say to people of their own times but hasn’t the world evolved since? Have we not found that science delivers what we truly desire? Is not the pursuit of freedom and inclusion shown to be the true aims in life?
To these and other questions of the same ilk, I probably cannot give answers that will satisfy everyone. I have already admitted that these men and women appear strange to us. They simply refuse to act normal. Besides, how can I not see the wonderful advances brought about through science and the modern state. And yet, when I spend time reflecting on these early monastics, I find in them a new way of seeing what is happening in my own life. Let me give you a recent example.
A brother at Scetis committed a fault. A council was called to which Abba Moses was invited, but he refused to go to it. Then the priest sent someone to say to him, “Come, for everyone is waiting for you.” So he got up and went. He took a leaking jug, filled it with water and carried it with him. The others came out to meet him and said to him, “What is this, Father?” The old man said to them, “My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another.” When they heard that, they said no more to the brother but forgave him.From Becoming Fire edited by Tim Vivian
We may say to ourselves, “Yes, I get it! I can open my bible to Matthew 7 and read, ‘Stop judging, and you will not be judged.’ So why the story about the old man and the leaking jug? He should have just quoted the bible when they asked him to come to the council.” Yet there is something about what Abba Moses did that really drives the point home. He doesn’t just tell the others that they were not acting according to the Gospel, he shows them. He introduces the notion of each person’s brokenness through the leaky jug. He reminds them that all of us are unaware of our own waywardness. When we think we are moving in the direction of righteousness we could very well be leaving behind a trail of sin. And finally he implies that he has been forgiven of his faults so he should do the same towards others.
At the university where I work one of our students recently committed a fault. On his Facebook page he posted an image that was racist. He thought it was funny, the community members did not. This young has sinned, that is without doubt. Being as we are in quarantine and this happening in the summer as it did, the following council was virtual for the most part. Some, I do not know how many, of our students, staff, faculty, and alumni called for the student’s expulsion from our University. Expulsion is the most severe penalty the university can impose on a student. Once expelled from a university it is unlikely that another university would accept that student into their institution. In effect, it locks the person out of getting a college degree. An action that will affect him for the rest of his life.
Now I imagine I could have increased my esteem among these members of our community if I would have added my opinion to theirs that this student should be expelled. I would have demonstrated that I stood on the right side of the issue, that I too abhorred racism in all its forms. Instead, I stayed in my cell so to speak. After some prayer, I wrote to our university president my opinion as the institution’s chaplain.
In the letter I stated that as a Catholic and Benedictine university we should always tend towards reconciling rather than expelling our wayward members. In the Catholic Church reconciliation is considered to be sacrament, a way that God touches us within our inner lives. As Benedictine we look back at the example set by these early monastics and try to follow in their footsteps. We see what Abba Moses did as a reflection on ourselves and how we are often not the best ones to judge. For who among us is truly free from racism? It is called our nation’s original sin for good reason. We are all stained by it.
The student will not be coming back in the fall. That saddens me. We had an opportunity for true reconciliation and conversation over racism to take place. The young man could have grown to understand how hurtful his sin is towards others. The community could have understood the context from which he was coming out of and why he saw what he was doing as funny. Instead we will have a young who will simply go on to another institution (we did not go as far as to expel him) and we will have several frustrated members of our community thinking that we are indifferent and unjust.
Does writing this make me a hero or a saint? No, it definitely does not. I am simply passing on what has been handed onto me through the grace of God. I am still a sinner with my own leaking jug on my shoulder as I walk through life. With the help of Scripture and the example set for me by these early monastics, I hope to become more humble in words and actions so as to allow God to act through me to bring reconciliation into a world that is sin sick.