I’ve observed a few things…and more…in this cloister that warrant an opportunity for fine-tuning. Some of these have to do with little inconveniences like late meals, cat food that tastes like cardboard and snoring confreres. But the ones that warrant serious attention are all about relationships. Fortunately we have a tried-and-true model to follow – the Benedictine model for relationship.
The Challenge of Being in Relationship
We all need the Benedictine model for relationships. My experience is that unless I am with another feline for under half a minute, the encounter can be
fraught with tension, staring and occasional hissing as my own will butts up against that of another cat. This can bring out some pretty un-Benedictine behavior, whether we mew out loud or murmur silently to ourselves. Here’s a little example from the Feline Cloister.
Prior John will bring something to Amma Jane’s attention, perhaps a tidbit of constructive criticism or a complaint or two. In a flurry of defensiveness with figurative fur standing on end, Jane responds, “Well, you do that, too.” My ears flatten because I know what’s coming. John then counters, “Do you always have to have the last word?” to which Jane retorts, “Sounds like you just gave the last word.” Etc., etc., etc. Needless to say, after nearly 21 years (now 31 years) you think they’d have figured out how to handle this stuff in a more constructive way! I envision St. Benedict holding hands over ears and moaning, “God forbid,” his favorite phrase to describe what never should happen.
After one such encounter, Jane confessed to me as she spooned out our tasty dinner that she needed to find a better way to deal with her reactions to John’s comments. I was really happy to hear this and made a paw note to get Br Mickey’s help in culling the Rule after dinner so we could offer suggestions to Jane.
The Cellarer as a Model for Being in Relationship
Mickey and I found a ton of positive directions in the Rule for who we are to be in our relationships. But we finally decided on cellarer as the Benedictine model for relationship that we would recommend to Amma. You may not be familiar with the various jobs in the monastery. The cellarer is the individual who distributes the goods and food of the monastery to community members. Monasteries do have cellarers today, but most work from a computer, keeping track of stuff. Even then there is los of interaction with community members.
Because of this intense personal contact with others the cellarer is to be “wise, mature in conduct, temperate…and not proud, excitable or offensive.”(RB 31.1) The cellarer has a position of great responsibility and is to be like a parent to the whole community. (RB 31.2) To me that takes patience, love and understanding.
Responding to Others
One of my favorite instructions is that the cellarer is not to annoy members of the community (31.6). Imagine if all of us had that as a goal in our
relationships – not to annoy each other. Benedict then gives us an example of what “non-annoyance” looks like in real life.
“If anyone happens to make an unreasonable demand, the cellarer should not reject the person with distain and cause him or her distress, but reasonably and humbly deny the improper request.” RB 31.7
Mickey and I pawed a modification in the Rule text to help Amma appropriate the Benedictine model for relationship to her specific challenge.
“If John happens to make what she perceives as an unreasonable comment, Amma should not reject him with distain and cause him distress, but reasonably and humbly receive the comment.” RB 31.7 by Randy and Mickey.
Then, if a comment seems unwarranted, Amma can keep in mind her own soul (RB 31.8), turn to God and get God’s help in responding with openness and calmness.
Connection with Kindness
Benedict says that “a kind word is better than the best gift” (RB 31.14 and Sirach 18:17). I really like that. The goal in personal interaction is not to cause the other person distress, but to do whatever can be done to remain connected to the other person. Maintaining connection is part of another aspect of the Benedictine model for relationship. Remaining connected with others is a part of the vow of stability. He also says that above all the cellarer must be humble (31.13).
Bottom-line, the cellarer looks at the bigger picture of relationships and finds ways to let peace be his or her quest and aim (Prologue 17). What else might contribute to fostering peace?
In Why the Rule of St. Benedict is Not Only for Humans by Scholastica Muffin, O.S.B.F. (Order of St. Benedict Feline) explains that peace “in the Benedictine sense is tacita conscientia, the quiet mind.” This kind of mind is “a stranger to murmuring and complaining”[i] (RB 4.35).
My thought is that this quiet mind comes from not pushing our own agenda. (I try to do this but it’s hard since I find my agenda is usually the right one!) Anyway, Sr. Scholastica also reminds us that we need to have a positive attachment to Jesus in order to let go of our self-will[ii], the smaller “I,” that makes us act from our emotions or our egos. Obedience is following Jesus in our relationships and not our self-will. It takes real humility. Remember, Jesus was no patsy – he was forthright and firm with his enemies. We need not be doormats but we aren’t to be reactive.
Being Like the Cellarer in Our Relationships
To be like a cellarer, to me, means that I respond to others in kindness, with a quiet mind and an open heart. I can also consider that there may be a
even a teeny shred of truth in any comment or observation mewed to me by another member of our cloister.
And so I offer to you the example of the cellarer. I think it’s the best Benedictine model for relationship because the cellarer hands out the food!
Thanks for reading my article. See you soon.