… a Report and an Encouragement
(c) 2017, Davd
It occurred to me this week, that just less than twelve years ago, i began a visit to a Benedictine monastery in Saskatchewan. There i met brotherly love, philios free of eros, something i had seen and heard “out in the world”, but more mixed up with other motives and thoughts and feelings than it was in the monastery.
It was not a love of intense feelings. You could call the feelings strong, in the sense that they were able to weather difficulty and disagreement; they were durable feelings — but not excited nor excitable. Three weeks in a household of perhaps two dozen men, were among the most peaceful and also the most enjoyable of that year — and it wasn’t a bad year.
The qualities i best remember of that experience, are truth, goodwill, and equality.
I don’t remember any deceit among those monks, Novices, and Candidates. What i heard might have been untrue by mistake, but never by intention. What they said was what they sincerely meant (and the mistakes were very few, so nearly always, it was factually true.) For 20 days, I didn’t need to guard my listening against deceit, and that made thinking and learning far easier.
With a few exceptions which i won’t detail here, the Brothers all wished one another well and acted accordingly. Christian teaching forbids vengeance and admonishes believers to cleanse themselves of rancor. These men were not perfect; but they were much closer than the average “out in the World”; and the social atmosphere of goodwill extended to us inquirers. Many were the times some Brother, occasionally some Novice or Candidate, offered help with my inquiries. I don’t recall even one effort to exploit me.
(As an older inquirer, who had advanced education and a great deal of relevant knowledge, i may have spoken with the Brothers in a more equal manner than young Inquirers should have done. I may have had a better perspective on the fellowship among the Brothers, than a young lad.
Then again, the young Inquirer might have enjoyed the same relative equality that i did, in those aspects where his skill level was relatively equal to that of the monk with whom he was speaking or working. I never got the experience to compare.)
The men, whose ages ranged from the 20s into the 90s, spoke and worked with me as equals. I might be told something i said was in error (it didn’t happen often, but it did happen) but not scorned nor shamed — rather, gently corrected1.
In Benedictine terms, i was not equal: I would be put through the usual Candidate and Novice stages before becoming an accepted and equal Brother of the Order and the Abbey (had i been received into the community2.) The way I spoke with the Brothers, however, was much more nearly equal than the way i spoke with, for instance, bureaucrats. Equality was the foundation characteristic; inequality was a temporary condition of the learner, and limited (that I noticed) to subject areas where he was indeed inferior.
A dozen years later, i remember brotherly love better than i remember the liturgical ritual that was the main work of the monks. Had i stayed as a Candidate, i believe i would have left the following year, or the year after that, perhaps for some other religious household with a more working set of priorities … because repeating the same ritual daily, is something i might do for five minutes but not for five hours.
Brotherly love is not exclusive to monasteries. “Old Army buddies” and men who have worked together for months and even years in a remote camp, often have it. It can be found in the story of the self rescue of the Shackleton Antarctic expedition. Turnbull, as i read in The Forest People, found it among pygmy men in the Congo basin rainforest. I found it in a Boy Scout troop when i was a large boy. As I wrote in a book review published here in 2015, men bond by sharing hard co-operative work and a little adversity. These Benedictine Brothers seem to have bonded that way, though their work did not seem so very hard when i was there. Perhaps determination to co-operate made up for a lack of adversity.
If you have much brotherly love in your life today, be glad — but don’t think of it as the privilege of a fortunate few. It might be rare today; but (i not only contend but insist) it is normal to the human male condition. If there are very many men in Canada today, whose lives have little brotherly love — that is a sign of bad social health in Canada (and it seems, in many other “developed countries”.)
Tentatively, I would offer brotherly love as an important indicator of personal social health — if your life contains much brotherly love, it is socially healthy3. If it contains little or none, you really ought to reshape it, if you can, toward having more! If you cannot reshape your life to have abundant brotherly love, you are being somehow abused!
Brotherly love ought to be a human right (for male humans, obviously. What the female equivalent might be, i won’t try to say, not having been female.) I seriously urge you who read this, to pay attention to the brotherly love in your lives (if you haven’t been doing already), and to use it as a criterion for making life choices.
You’ll be better for it, i do believe.
1. I did not accept all the corrections, nor was my failure to return as a Candidate based in some correction i had not yet accepted (and might not ever accept.) Disagreement on matters other than the essentials of the Faith, was not encouraged but neither was it condemned.
2. The reason I was not blessed to return as a Candidate, and continue my inquiries for several months before they and i decided whether i would become a Novice, was that i had with me, and would not abandon, an old and beloved dog. The Abbey would not allow me to have old George with me in the main monastery; nor allow a Candidate to live in a hermitage (of which two at least were available) so I could keep George there.
Ironically, then, something very close to brotherly love, for George who had no other human to feed and protect him, excluded me from the community. I do believe that my loyalty to George had and has Creator’s blessing; and that my weeks in the Abbey were blessed not as a path to becoming a monk, but as “participant observation” of — brotherly love.
3. Yes, there are other contributors to social health; the statement isan oversimplification taken by itself … but i cannot recall a life with abundant brotherly love , that was socially unhealthy. A good marriage contributes to and indicates, social health — and from divorce statistics, it seems good marriages are much scarcer than they were a few decades ago. Liberty, i believe, contributes to and indicates, social health; and we have much less liberty than a few decades ago.