During these well-advanced months of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is difficult to refrain from grumbling about anything and everything, even in the monastery! Stress and fatigue caused by all that is “not normal” is super-abundant, which makes us more inclined to touchiness and frustration. So often these days we pray with the psalmist, “How long, Lord? Will this go on forever?” However, it benefits us to distinguish between expressions of genuine appeal for relief from difficult or unjust circumstances and grumbling.
St. Benedict in his Rule allowed individuals the opportunity to engage in dialogue with one’s superior about difficult assignments or overwhelming tasks (see RB 68), but this dialogue is to occur with a spirit of humility and with acceptance if necessary. For one’s mental health it might be necessary, on occasion, to “vent” one’s feelings of anger or frustration in the presence of a trusted friend, family member, or colleague so as to process or work through a difficult situation. In both cases, the goal is to arrive at some degree of inner peace or equilibrium as we wrestle with the challenges that face us.
Grumbling, on the other hand, is thoroughly unproductive and never results in the betterment of one’s situation. It operates out of a spirit of self-interested pride. Grumblers tend to focus on what is uncomfortable, inconvenient, or unpleasant for themselves, and they operate with a mindset of negativity toward the world around them, including others with whom they live and work. Nothing is good enough for them. St. Benedict regarded the hushed expressions or utterances of discontent and complaint that fall into the category of “grumbling” as antithetical to the environment of peace and harmony that is to characterize authentic Christian community; therefore, he urges his disciples to avoid this activity at all times.
The first mention of grumbling in the Rule is in Chapter 5, on obedience. Monastic obedience is considered acceptable only if it is free from a lazy, half-hearted attitude, any measure of unwillingness, and any sort of grumbling (v.14). Grumbling aloud or within one’s heart is an activity of discontent that is self-perpetuating. It is energized by ego-centered pride. Furthermore, it erodes the very fabric of community by sowing seeds of discontent in others. As it is said, misery loves company. In Chapter 34, St. Benedict writes: “First and foremost, there must be no word or sign of the evil of grumbling, no manifestation of it for any reason at all” (v.6). He goes so far as to add that grumbling is reason enough for severe punishment! In Chapter 40 he repeats this ban on grumbling: “Above all else, we admonish them to refrain from grumbling” (v.9).
Grumbling was more than a pet peeve of St. Benedict. He saw it as a substantial threat to one’s rightness of mind, to peacefulness of spirit and to the harmony of relationships within community. To “prefer nothing whatever to Christ” is to grasp tightly to the pattern of acceptance and loving obedience to the will of God that was Christ’s own way of being—the way of humility, surrender, and love. The formula for true peace within ourselves and in the communities to which we belong is acceptance of the things we cannot change and to place our hope in God alone. The Psalms teach us to bring our distress to God in prayer and to leave it there, confident that our prayer will be heard. It is this confidence in God’s attentive listening as well as God’s loving compassion that leads to serenity.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time. Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace. Taking as Jesus did, this world as it is, not as I would have it. Trusting that You will make all things right if I surrender to Your will. So that I may be reasonable happy in this life and supremely happy with you in the next.–Reinhold Niebur, The Serenity Prayer (long version)
By Sister Thérèse Haydel, OSB