A Heart to Heart Talk

Oblate Retreat: A Heart to Heart: Accountability according to the Rule of Saint Benedict
Conference 1: Accountability as a Heart to Heart Talk
Delivered on August 31, 2018 for the 78th Annual New York Oblate Retreat at the Mariandale Center, Ossining NY

In recent months, accountability has been a pressing topic in both the Church and in the wider society. In the Church, the revelation of the sinful behavior of priests and prelates and of the apparent cover-up by bishops and religious superiors has wounded the credibility of those who wear the collar and has rendered them suspect in this scandal. In the wider society, the Time’s Up and the #metoo movements have ignited intense conversations regarding sexual assault and harassment and have inspired impassioned confrontations of past and present problematic conduct and language. Associations with abusers are being scrutinized, and statements and stances from the past are being reviewed. There seems to be a frenzy in both the Church and in the wider society to hold people—and especially, people in power—accountable.

Surely, the topic of “accountability” should be directed then, not to Benedictine oblates, but to all those in the Church and in our society who are in dire need of shaping up. But I hope that, as we go through this initial conference, we will recognize that accountability is more than what we would expect from people after they are caught red-handed and are made to answer for what they have done or for what they have failed to do. It is more than just the discipline—and with discipline, we hear ‘punishment’—that is imposed upon the offending party. I would argue that accountability is a discipline, and by discipline here I mean that it is the way of a disciple of Christ, it is the path taken by someone who follows Christ.

Accountability as a Discipline of Mutual Obedience

Both the words ‘discipline’ and ‘disciple’ have the same Latin root: discipulus, which is a student or a follower. A disciple is a follower of Christ, a student of the Master. Discipline, then, is more than just the corporal punishment that was once so easily given by parents and school teachers to teach a particular lesson and to make it stick. Discipline here is also the training of a disciple of Christ, a training that involves, not so much the punishment for sins but rather, the practice of self-mortification, specifically, the daily carrying of one’s cross (cf. Mt. 16:24), so that one might grow in obedience to the will of God.

Accountability then as a discipline is part of our training as disciples of Christ. It is about following the example of Christ who “humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8).

This is what I propose as a definition for genuine Christian accountability: it is a discipline of mutual openness in a community, or, to borrow a more Benedictine phrase, it is a discipline of mutual obedience in community.

benedicere

Saint Benedict explains what mutual obedience is in chapter 71 of his Rule: “Obedience is a blessing to be shown by all, not only to the abbot but also to one another as brothers, since we know that it is by this way of obedience that we go to God” (RB 71:1-2). Obedience is a blessing to be shown by all and to all. It is a blessing, or, better yet, a benediction, which comes from the Latin verb benedicere which literally means to speak well of somebody, to commend another, to say something good to someone. Obedience is a blessing to be shown by all and to all. Obedience as a blessing therefore means that everyone ought to say something good to everybody. Saint Benedict insists that we owe the blessing of obedience not only to those in authority (the abbot); we owe it to everyone in the community. Basically, he is saying that we are all in this together, we are responsible for each other, we are accountable, not just to the boss but, to one another. When we forget this, we start getting careless in dealing with each other, and when I say care-less, I not only mean ‘sloppy,’ I mean ‘negligent.’ When we forget that obedience is a blessing to be shown by all and to all, we start neglecting one another’s feelings, one another’s needs, and one another’s dignity. We start getting careless because we care less.

I would argue that the #metoo movement has highlighted this carelessness that pervades much of our society. Those in positions of power who have harassed and even assaulted another, and, in some cases, have tried to cover it up, do not care about that other person’s feelings, much less his/her dignity. They see the other, not as a person who should be respected, but, as a thing to be used and abused. It has been difficult to get those abusers to be accountable because they could care less about the harm and damage that they had caused. All that they care about is themselves—their reputation, their business, their interests—and how this is going to make them look to other people. It is only when those things are put in jeopardy, that they come clean, attempt an apology, and try to make up for their care-lessness. I would argue that is what happens when people ignore the fact that the other person is someone who is made in the image and likeness of God, and, therefore, deserves, not just our respect but also, our obedience. Those who conveniently forget this fact start to play god and they end up being the devil.

Christian accountability is a discipline of mutual obedience in a community of disciples. It means that everyone cares about everybody, and everyone looks out for everybody.  It is a culture, not of selfishness but, of selflessness. It is a discipline, the way of a disciple of Christ for He Himself said, “This is how all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13:35).

Accountability then is not a weapon that we get to wield to knock down anyone who tries to get away with anything in community. Accountability is what each one of us—from abbot to novice, from monk to oblate—owes to one another to preserve stability in the community, because if everyone just does whatever s/he wants to do, then we will no longer be the Order of Saint Benedict. We will literally have dis-order; we will have chaos instead. Saint Benedict did not write a Rule to promote chaos in his community; he wrote it so that there would be order and harmony, peace and love in his community.

In common parlance, accountability does seem to have a negative connotation. It implies a confrontation: one is holding another accountable, calling him/her to responsibility, asking him/her to respond. Accountability therefore demands an answer. But, answering a call to accountability is not the only possible response. Ignoring it is one. Delay is another. These may not be appropriate responses, but they are still responses, and the Rule recognizes when such responses are made. For example, we read in Chapter 48: “If such a monk is found—God forbid—he should be reproved a first and second time. If he does not amend, he must be subjected to the punishment of the Rule as a warning to others” (RB 48:19-20). Accountability thus necessitates a confrontation; it is a face to face encounter that often carries consequences.

Accountability as a Heart to Heart Talk

Although it also presents consequences for bad behavior, the Rule of Saint Benedict actually provides us with a very positive and refreshing take on accountability. Esther de Waal does a great job pointing this out in her commentary on the Rule: A Life-giving Way (Collegeville MN: The Liturgical Press, 1995). In her reflections on the Prologue, she gives us what I think is a great image for accountability: a heart to heart talk (De Waal, p. 4).

For this retreat, I would like to pick up on that image from De Waal and develop it by focusing on the very first verse of the Prologue. The Prologue begins with these words:

“Listen, carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from a father who loves you; welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice” (RB Prol:1).

ausculta

The Rule begins with a command: “Listen!” I don’t know about you, but whenever I am told to listen, it usually means that I am in trouble. Either I am in trouble, or I have not been paying attention.

Saint Benedict says, “Listen.” Pay attention. I have something to tell you. I not only have something to tell you; I have something important to tell you. Better take notice or you will miss it. Better pay attention or you will pay.

I would argue, based on that initial word of the RuleListen—that the Rule is a call to accountability. Saint Benedict confronts us in 73 chapters with what we should do and what we should not do and he tells us what are the consequences in community if we fail to follow through. That is why it is important to: “Listen.”

It is interesting to note that the word ‘obedience’ is rooted in the Latin word audire which means “to listen.” Obedience therefore demands that we listen first to what the other one has to say before we open our own mouths or do anything. Accountability then as a discipline of mutual obedience is first of all a practice of listening to one another.

“Listen carefully” (RB Prol:1).

But, it is not enough just to pay attention, to focus on what is being said, to take note of the instructions being given. We also have to be attentive, and by attentive here I am pointing to the sense of care. Care expresses concern; care means that we are both interested and invested in this. So, when Saint Benedict says, “Listen care-fully,” he is saying that it is not enough to give an ear to what we are being told; we have to care about what is being said. “Listen care-fully, my child, to the master’s instructions” (RB Prol:1).

“And attend to them with ear of your heart” (RB Prol:1).

The reason, I think, that some calls to accountability do not work is because, instead of a heart to heart talk, it is a mouth to ear talk and we know that what goes in one ear, eventually if not immediately, goes out another. Saint Benedict though tells us, “Attend to them with the ear of your heart” (RB Prol:1). Do more than listen. Take this to heart. But why should we take this to heart? We should take this to heart because “this is advice,” this is counsel “from a father who loves you” (RB Prol:1).

This is what genuine Christian accountability is supposed to look like according to the Rule. It is not merely a face to face confrontation. It is not an angry superior talking down to a subordinate. It is not an irate challenge to problematic behavior. Those types of confrontations are often visceral and, because they are visceral, they tend to be vicious. (Remember that viscera are those internal organs where our bodies store our excrement before it is released.) Although they may be confronting vice, because they are vicious, these confrontations do more harm than good. Why? They do more harm than good because their main goal is to hurt. Their purpose is to humiliate. Their object is to get even.

For me, what is perhaps the most touching phrase in that first verse of the Prologue is: “loving father.”  That phrase already tells us that this call to accountability is not about guts; it is all about heart. “Listen carefully, my son…and attend…with the ear of your heart” (RB Prol:1). The father is doing this not to make the son feel bad for doing bad. He is opening up his heart because he cares about him, he is concerned about what he is doing—or not doing. He wants to see him do better and be better. “This is advice from a father who loves you” (RB Prol:1). Christian accountability then is not a shouting match. It is a heart to heart talk. If it isn’t a heart to heart talk, then it is coming from someplace else and that place stinks.

Genuine accountability has to be a heart to heart talk. Why? It has to be a heart to heart talk because the topic is deeply personal. It involves one’s behavior, one’s faults, one’s mistakes, those delicate details that nobody ever wants to discuss out in the open.

Genuine accountability has to be a heart to heart talk because it involves hurts. Most confrontations result in screams and ugly and angry insults thrown back and forth. Yet, what most everyone often forgets is that people are angry because they are hurting. Anger is a mask that people often wear to hide their hurts. It is a disguise that they use to conceal their fears. We have to see the hurting heart beneath that mask of anger and hear the cries of pain hidden behind those shouts of hate. A breaking heart has to dig through all that hurt before it can reach that other broken heart.

Genuine accountability has to be a heart to heart talk because there is a relationship that exists (child and father in the Prologue) and this relationship is very important to both and that relationship should grow and not end up broken from this talk.

Genuine accountability has to be a heart to heart talk. Why? Because that is how love operates: not through the mouth or the guts or the brain or the liver, but through the heart.

A Willingness to be Vulnerable

In this model of Christian accountability from Saint Benedict, both parties are willing to be vulnerable. They are opening up their hearts to one another. That is why it works. To be vulnerable here—from the Latin vulnus which is translated as wound—means that they show their wounds to each other, they reveal their injuries. Both parties have been wounded, one by what the other has done, and the other has wounded himself/herself by what s/he has done. Both have been wounded, and the relationship itself has been damaged. They show their wounds to each other so that they can be tended to and healed. The point of this Christian accountability is not to get someone to pay for what s/he did, or to hurt him/her back, or to give it to him/her good. The point is to heal the relationship, to cure the wound, to make things better, because, at the end of the day, we still have to live with each other.

christus

The greatest example of this kind of accountability, as I had mentioned in the beginning, is Christ who “humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). We see our Lord hanging on the cross and there He bares, not only His heart to us but also, all the wounds that our sinfulness has caused. The Almighty has put His utter vulnerability on display on that cross to reassure each one of us that He is willing to do anything and suffer everything, if only we would be reconciled with Him. He opens up His Sacred Heart, not to demand justice, much less to exact vengeance, but rather, to offer us mercy and forgiveness.

From that cross, the Lord invites us to a heart to heart talk. The question is: Are we ready? Are we ready to bare our own hearts to Him? Are we ready to follow His example and be humble enough to be obedient and listen, and care enough to be vulnerable? Are we ready to let go of the hurt and begin the healing? Are we ready to forgive? Lest we forget, the goal of this Christian accountability is not retribution; it is reconciliation. Is anyone ever ready for that? Perhaps, not. But, with God’s grace, a disciple’s determination, and the reassurance of mutual openness, this discipline of accountability can very well be a way of life, just as it has been for those who have followed the Rule of Saint Benedict these 1,500 plus years.

Let me end this conference with the opening words of Saint Benedict in his Rule. It is the counsel of one who tried to live up to the measure of the Lord’s cross in his community. It is the advice of a leader who had had to make difficult decisions and yet never forgot that it was his delightful duty to care for those who were entrusted to him.

“Listen, carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from a father who loves you; welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice” (RB Prol:1).

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~ by Fr. Mateo Zamora, OSB on Friday, August 31, 2018.

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