Panic in the Feline Cloister – Amma Flips Out!!
One morning there was LOTS of panic in the Feline Cloister. Here’s what happened.
I think I’ve told you about my pal Br Mickey, the oldest of our community. Twice a day Amma puts drops in his eyes because he has glaucoma. By taking this action she’s clearly following Benedict who says, “Care of the sick must rank above and before all else.” This means that the abbot or abbess (Jane) must make sure that the sick and the elderly are not neglected. (RB 36.1,10; RB 37)
Mickey’s drops need to be ordered at least three weeks before the last bottle runs out. Why such advanced preparation? This is because the medicine comes from Turkey! (I’ve been wondering why Amma doesn’t just go to the local Walgreen’s.) On this fraught morning we were stopped cold in our pre-breakfast milling about. Amma Jane had suddenly shouted in a LOUD voice, “Oh, no!! What happened to the other two bottles of Mickey’s meds that we just got?? This bottle almost gone!! John!!!”
She really flipped out and ran to find Prior John. Had he used up or thrown away the full bottles? she demanded to know. The ensuing turmoil considerably delayed our breakfast. Amma’s panic and the resulting turmoil replaced any calmness and peace we had that morning.
Is this the way for the superior to act? No! It’s not that Jane shouldn’t have been concerned. If Mickey doesn’t get drops every day, his eyes get bad.
What instruction or suggestion in the Rule could I mew to Amma to help her amend this disturbing behavior and restore Benedict’s desired calm and peace.
St. Benedict’s Suggestions for Calmness and Peace
First of all, Benedict gives us lots of tips on how we should be in times of stress, like all of the following:
“You are not to act in anger.”(4.22)
“Hour by hour keep careful watch over all you do.”(4.48)
“Place your hope in God alone.”(4. 41)
“Let peace be your quest and aim.” (Psalm 34 and Prologue 17b)
There are many more suggestions in the Rule about personal behavior that can help us ride out the storm.
Ways to Trade Panic for Calmness and Peace
The main thing that concerned me was that Amma, as superior, is not to be “excitable, anxious, extreme, obstinate, jealous or oversuspicious.” (RB 64.16) These troublesome qualities make it nearly impossible for a person to trade panic for calmness and peace. Angst abounds for that person and for everyone around them.
Except for the jealous part, I saw it all that morning, but thought it best not to approach her right then and point this out. I didn’t want to be overly critical for Benedict says, “Do not grumble or speak ill of others.” (4. 39-40).I could see that she was aware of it all herself, but just couldn’t do a thing about stopping the emotional train that had roared out of the station.
So I asked Br Ricky, our very youngest member, to help me cull the Rule to find Amma an antidote to this problem of being excitable, anxious, extreme and oversuspicious, This antidote is especially important when she is confronted with something that really concerns her and appears to be an immediate disaster.
Here’s what Ricky and I found in the Rule of St. Benedict. We hope that one or two of these suggestions helps Jane be able to trade panic for calmness and peace. Maybe one or two will help you, too.
Center on Christ
In the Prologue Benedict quotes that wonderful passage from Matthew 7 where Jesus tells us to build our houses upon rock (Him) so that when the floods and winds come our house (us) doesn’t fall. (Prologue 33-34) We can make it a priority to build life upon the rock of Christ. “Prefer nothing whatever to Christ,” Benedict advises. (72.11)
Ask for God’s Help and the Help of Others
Br Ricky found the next antidote: “What is not possible to us by nature, let us ask the Lord to supply by the help of his grace.” (Prologue 41) We can ask God to help us stay calm and handle whatever is happening from that place of calmness and peace. We can even consult with our community when there is a problem. be that family, workplace, church and so forth, Consultation with members is what the superior does in the monastic community. (Chapter 3 – Summoning the Monastics for Counsel). We don’t have to figure out everything on our own.
I added the tried and true monastic practice of honest self-knowledge. What are our “hot buttons” that cause us to flip out into panic mode? We need to gain skill in catching the very, very beginning of these troubling thoughts and actions, acknowledging them yet not acting from the emotion. Several places in the Rule Benedict tells us to right away “dash these things against Christ”. (Prologue 28, 4.50)
Embrace the First Step of Humility
I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the first step of humility in Benedict’s ladder of twelve rungs. This first step, as Jane herself interpreted it, is “To accept that God is present in my life and to live from that awareness.” She wrote, “God always sees us and knows what we are about. We, then, need to be vigilant, striving from evil and turning to do good…We are to be mindful of God’s presence and let that presence guide our lives.” Our motivation comes not from a place of fear, but from our love of God and our knowledge that God can help us. Remember – “God is God; I am not God.” ( This is tough for us felines to remember.) We are not ultimately responsible for everything!
Trust and Hope in God
Finally, as Benedict says, “Place your hope in God alone” (4.41). This is one of my favorite instructions from the Rule. I wrote on a post-it and put it by my favorite cat bed. Sr Charlotte told me that Amma writes a helpful phrase like this on a little pieces of paper and puts them in her shoe.
To share what we found I made an appointment with Amma. Br Ricky and I will gently mew these offerings from the Rule as a ways to trade panic for calmness and peace.
Why Panic Is Usually a Moot Action
One last thought on this subject. I often leap into panic mode too fast. Do you ever do this, too? The best course of action to trade panic for calmness and peace may be to take a deep breath and turn to God. Put a rein on those inflammatory words and actions.
A case in point. Later that infamous day Jane discovered that she had ordered the three new bottles only a couple weeks before. Not only that, the bottles were due to arrive at the house within the week. She’d forgotten about the order!
I know this isn’t in the Rule, but to ward off future turmoil, flattened ears, and delayed meals I’m going to also recommend that Jane take a daily dose of ginko biloba!
Have a great day…and stay calm!
 Jane Tomaine, St Benedict’s Toolbox: The Nuts and Bolts of Everyday Benedictine Living (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2015), 214.