You’ve probably heard the old adage that meditating on scripture is meant “to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable.” It takes courage and patience to sit with our discomfort in the presence of God. For Saint Benedict, “seeking Christ above all else” meant seeking Truth found at the juncture of holy scripture and our daily lives. If that seeking leads to temporary discomfort, consider it a blessing! Let me explain.
In the early 1990’s, I lived and worked in Scotland. It was a dream come true to walk where my Scottish and English ancestors had lived. One of my church friends in Edinburgh poked lighthearted fun at Americans who come hoping to discover they are descended from nobility. What a disappointment when the truth reveals that the ancestors were poor peasants or cattle rustlers…or worse!
“Or worse” is what I stumbled upon in my genealogical search late last year. I was stunned to learn that in the early 18th century, my ancestor was one of the largest slaveholders in South Carolina. There is more to the story, even more shocking, but I won’t elaborate. All these months, I have sat before God with the discomfort and shame of this uncovered truth. The temptation was great to dismiss it as the sins of my ancestors and move on. Instead, I’ve let that truth ask questions of me – all the more now, when 400 years of systemic racism and white supremacy are being examined in this country.
Sixth century Italy into which Saint Benedict was born was a deeply class-ridden, hierarchical society. Everyone’s unchangeable lot in life was determined at birth. However, Benedict listened to the truths of scripture which value human life and relationships differently. I can imagine young Benedict sitting before God with that discomfort in the cave at Subiaco!
Later when Benedict formed his monastic community and wrote the Rule by which they would live, he chose to welcome anybody and everybody, as long as they came seeking God. In chapter 2 of the Rule, he wrote: “A man born free is not to be given higher rank than a slave who becomes a monk…because whether slave or free, we are all one in Christ* (Gal. 3:28; Eph. 6:8)…for God shows no partiality among persons (Rom. 2:11) [* emphasis added]. The abbot is “to show equal love to everyone and apply the same disciplines to all according to their merits.”
Can you imagine such a motley crew drawn from clashing social backgrounds and racial origins, with academics and illiterates, noblemen and serfs, clerical and lay, and persons of all ages? Can you imagine the discomfort of adjusting to this radical Gospel-shaped life that alone determined how they would treat one another? Understandably, Benedict urged, “Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation.” (RB Prologue 48)
With God’s grace, I am determined not to run away. I am still sitting before God with the discomfort of my ancestor’s racism and learning more about my own unwitting participation in today’s injustices. By joining the public conversation on racism in this country, I am engaging with others who are working toward systemic changes. Saint Benedict directs us toward transformation, away from apathy, by urging us not just to walk but to run along “the road that leads to salvation.” Those who travel this road will “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
By Sister Sara Aiden Burress, OSB