The prophet shows that, for the sake of silence, we are to abstain even from good talk. If this be so, how much more needful is it that we refrain from evil words, on account of the penalty of the sin…
The fourth degree of humility is, that, if hard and distasteful things are commanded, nay, even though injuries are inflicted, he accept them with patience and even temper, and not grow weary or give up…
The eleventh degree of humility is, that, when a monk speaketh, he speak gently and without laughter, humbly and with gravity, with few and sensible words, and that he be not loud of voice, as it is written: “The wise man is known by the fewness of his words.”
—St. Benedict of Nursia, The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapters 6 and 7.
In 2005 I became an Oblate of the Order of St. Benedict. This is a “third order” composed of lay people; one of the requirements to be an oblate is that one studies and follows The Rule of St. Benedict, as it might apply to a non-monastic contemporary situation. Other requirements are laid out in more detail elsewhere. For this post, I’d like to focus on those aspects of The Rule that might apply to behavior on the internet.
A bit of biography and a mea culpa (said in all seriousness) is in order. In my younger days I had a temper and an inability to take criticism. Moreover, I did not suffer fools gladly, but used all the resources of native wit to embarrass them and show them as foolish. Along came the internet, and I served for a while as moderator for the Magis Faith and Reason Facebook webpage. The snarky and vicious comments of evangelical atheists disturbed me greatly. (I recall one comment made by a particularly vicious female on her web page, announcing the new Magis Facebook page: “fresh meat, guys. Let’s go kill them.”) My blood pressure and pulse rate would rise, my stomach would churn, when I read slanderous, nasty, irrational comments about the Church, the Magis Institute and my own articles. So I got out of that kitchen. (“If you can’t take the heat….”)
This was a few years after I had become a Benedictine Oblate, but although I had studied the rules, I had not really taken them to heart. It was only after mentoring prison inmates who were learning to be Benedictine Oblates and seeing how they use The Rule in reacting to unjust treatment, that I began to see that The Rule had to be a way of life, not just an object of study. When the next occasion came to apply The Rule I was, if not altogether ready, more prepared.
Several weeks ago Ben Butera was kind enough to review my third ebook Science versus the Church—Truth Cannot Contradict Truth, in a post, “Four Big Bangs?” A commentator, “Anonymous”, lambasted the book, or rather Chapter 4, in which I discussed the Church’s dogma of Creatio ex Nihilo, creation of the universe by God from nothing, and several cosmological theories about the beginning (or non-beginning) of the universe. In that chapter I tried to follow the proposition set forth in the preface of my book:
That is the theme of this book: nothing that we know about the world from empirically verified scientific theories conflicts with Catholic teaching. Where there does appear to be a conflict, it arises from theories that are not verified by observation and that, in most cases, can never be so tested. As in many cosmology theories, theories about how (and whether) the universe came to be are untestable and lie in the domain of what might be best termed “mathematical metaphysics.” In short, there is no war between science and the Church.
However, according to “Anonymous”, I failed miserably. In attempting (not altogether successfully) to understand his/her criticisms, I tried to see whether I was misunderstood and how I could clarify misunderstandings. When Anonymous insulted me by belittling my status as a Catholic physicist (I’m not sure whether as a physicist, or as a Catholic or as the conjoined entity), I attempted to make a joke of it. This infuriated Anonymous. I guess that reaction validates the point made in the quote above about the 11th degree of humility—that the Benedictine should speak without laughter, something which is very difficult for me to do.
At any rate, toward the end of this exchange it seemed, and I’ll let the reader judge for himself/herself, that the tone of Anonymous’s comments become less heated and more conciliatory, so perhaps acting by the Rules did have some effect. There seemed to be more of a dialogue.
A BENEDICTINE RULE FOR THE INTERNET
To give a general discussion of The Rule of St. Benedict would require much more space than a single post. Much of it pertains to how monks in a community might best behave to follow Christ and to maintain the well-being and order of the community, but even the direction on how the steward best maintains the pantry and how and what the monks should eat and drink has relevance for us. Web references and books are given below for those who would like to learn more.
I’m going to focus on those parts of The Rule that seem to me to be most important in our relations with those with whom we interact by comments on posts, our own and those of others.
1. Be mindful of the wounds of others. We should remember that even the most hateful and spiteful commentator has some reason to behave that way and we should be careful not to hurt them more. We should not try to belittle them, to shame them, or make them seem less, just to win an argument or make ourselves feel superior. To quote Fr. Donald Raila, Director of Oblates at St. Vincent Archabbey:
The Rule of St. Benedict is written for a community of wounded persons. At the end of a series of precepts for dealing with wounded brothers, the abbot is enjoined to ‘realize that he has undertaken care of the sick, not tyranny of the healthy.’ Therefore, ‘he is to imitate the example of The Good Shepherd.’
In my replies to “Anonymous” I did not follow this precept as I should have. In explaining that the physics of the “raisin loaf analogy” for the expanding universe was correct, I made a comment that this explanation followed from first year physics. That was snarky, meant (albeit subconsciously) to belittle “Anonymous” and should not have been made. And, as the first quote says “we are to refrain from evil words.”
2. I interpret the second quotation “on the fourth degree of humility” as telling us to listen to criticisms even though they seem to be not justified or based on false premises. We should learn from them, and if they seem unintelligible, ask the person making that criticism to explain what premises or line of reasoning he/she is following.
3. We should reflect carefully on criticisms, even when they’re worded in a belligerent or belittling way, to determine whether there’s substance to them and, if so, how we can use that criticism to make our points more clearly and correctly.
4. One of the comments made by St. Benedict in the chapter on obedience has to do with accepting orders, just or unjust, without grumbling. And that means both external and internal grumbling. This can be translated to accepting justified criticism without grumbling, either external or internal.
5. Finally, the last of the quotations above, “that he speak gently …with few and sensible words” applies to comments and rebuttals. There’s an implication here that what we say should be instructive, not just empty chatter. I’m not sure about the injunction to abstain from laughter–perhaps St. Benedict meant laughing at someone, rather than with, and I am very often tempted to use humor to defuse anger (not always successfully, as pointed out above).
The rules above are just a few general ones that can be drawn from The Rule. There may well be others, and if the reader can supply others, I’d be most grateful. Also, I must confess that I have just begun to follow these rules, even though I’ve been a Benedictine Oblate for more than 10 years. It takes conscious effort; it’s very tempting to react in kind when someone is particularly nasty. But following these rules and The Rule is an aid, a prosthesis, to help us live as a Christian.