benedict’s skillful means

(fr Cyprian, for the feast of Saint Benedict)

Years ago when I was studying Buddhism there was one concept that struck me and stayed with me as being particularly brilliant. In Sanskrit it’s called upaya, which means something like an aid or a technique; it’s usually seen in connection with another word, upaya kausalya, which means “skillful means.” Upaya kausalya is a device or a way to entice individuals towards perfection. It is said of the Buddha that he was using “skillful means” whenever he said something, and that he could always find something that would be useful in furthering someone’s progress. And it could be a little something different for each person; there is an upaya specifically geared to me, to you, a certain way that you are going to be able to hear the dharma––“a thousand roads leading up the mountain.”

My first image of monasticism, and so Benedictine monasticism, was a kind of lock step way of life, everybody in line according to your statio, wearing the exact same outfit. With all due respect for other traditions, the kind of “strait jacket of observance” (as C. H Laurence calls it) that Benedict of Aniane put together in the 9th century, for example, or the long detailed customaries of Cluny or other congregations, is not necessarily in the spirit of Benedict. He leaves so much to the discretion of the abbot, and the abbot is to rely so much on the consultation of the brothers, even the youngest among them. Benedict wrote a little rule for his band of Italian monks in the 5th century. I’ll go once again to my image of the container and the energy: every community needs some kind of container for the monastic energy, and the trick is always to find one that is appropriate to that community, as well as being both sturdy and flexible. And if you scratch the surface, what we see in Benedict’s Rule––and I assume this means we can see it in Benedict himself––is a kind of upaya kausalya––a real penchant toward skillful means geared to individuals while at the same time gently holding the community life together.

The first example that came to my mind was right away in Chapter Two on the qualities of the abbot. When he writes about the means of discipline that the abbot should use, Benedict says he should vary with circumstances––use skillful means––threatening and coaxing by turns, sometimes as stern as a taskmaster, other times devoted and tender[1]

With the undisciplined and restless, he will use firm argument; with the obedient and docile and patient, he will appeal for greater virtue; but as far as the negligent and disdainful, we charge him to use reproof and rebuke.[2]

In a later verse in the same Chapter he says that the abbot is

directing souls and serving a variety of temperaments, coaxing, reproving and encouraging them as appropriate. He must so accommodate and adapt himself to each one’s character and intelligence.[3]

In other words, he’s using skillful means. (By the way, I went back to look for some examples in my old copy of the Rule. It’s actually the copy of the Rule that I had when I was a novice, during which time I was also reading a lot about Buddhism, and I have written in the margins on that page “upaya kausalya.”) Even in caring for brothers who have been excommunicated the abbot is to show the utmost care and concern for them with the skill of a wise physician; and if he himself can’t communicate for some reason with that wayward brother he sends in a senpectae, someone who can, some who has the upaya for this particular brother, because he has undertaken care of the sick, not tyranny over the healthy.[4] And this line comes to my mind a lot: Of course Benedict excoriates the scourge of private ownership, but he attenuates even that by twice quoting the line form the Acts of the Apostles: Distribution was made to each as he had need.[5] Not favoritism––God forbid!––but rather consideration for weaknesses. In this way, he says, all members will be at peace … and so that there must be no word or sign of the evil of grumbling.[6]

Even in the recommendations about cooked foods: Of course Benedict loathes over indulgence and assumes monks should avoid it––For nothing is so inconsistent with the life of any Christian as overindulgence; and he warns against excess and drunkenness[7] and he praises frugality[8]; and yet he provides that every table should have two kinds of cooked food because of individual weaknesses. In this way the person who may not be able to eat one kind of food may partake of the other. Upaya! I remember getting bogged down reading the long liturgical code in the Rule, but then you come across this line: …if anyone finds this distribution of psalms unsatisfactory, he should arrange whatever he judges better.[9] Another example is in chapter 68 on assignment of impossible tasks to a brother. Benedict doesn’t ask for blind obedience, as might be the case in the desert perhaps––“Make this basket and then tear it apart”; no, he says, if the superior asks you to do something that you don’t think you can do, first you accept with gentleness and obedience, and then choose an appropriate moment (so asking upaya also on the part of the monks!) and explain patiently without pride, without obstinancy … why you cannot perform the task… Skillful means! And one of my favorite lines of all, again concerning the abbot’s discretion: he must arrange everything that the strong have something to yearn for and the weak have nothing to run from.[10] I think these are all examples of Benedict’s version of this virtuous discernment, the ability to find skillful means for each individual. The person standing before me is always more important than an abstract standard.

In some way this is one of the things that marked the monastic culture in medieval times. According to Jean le Clerq (this is from The Love of Learning and the Desire for God), generally monks­­—and he is speaking here of the era of the birth of our own congregation—didn’t get educated or formed in a school, under a “scholastic,” by means of the scholastic method of quaestio. Instead, monks were formed “individually, under the guidance of an abbot, a spiritual father, through the reading of the Bible and the Fathers, within the liturgical framework of monastic life.” This is different from the schools for clerics, from diocesan seminary formation, for instance, where it is much more standardized. The monastic way at its best is marked by this charismatic approach––meaning to me, a relational approach, a contemplative approach, a wisdom approach, skillful means geared toward the individual. This was one of our Prior General don Alessandro’s points at the Assemblea last year, that, yes, there are objective standards in the formation process, but also, because we are small, we are able to personalize it so that there is always a flow between the prior, the formators, the candidate, and the community––and we find the skillful means.

And where does this discernment, this skillful means–upaya kausalya, come from? I come back over and over again to the first word of the Rule: Obsculta! Listen! It comes from listening, inclining the ear of our heart first of all to God, to the Word of God. But then having heard the voice of God it doesn’t make us turn a deaf ear on the rest of the world and certainly not each other, on our brother or sister to our side. It softens our hearts––If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts!––and urges us to open the ears of our heart to all around us, in a clearer, more discerning way. It gives us insight and a heart broken for love of the world, and in St. Paul’s words, we become anything to anyone so as to win the souls of many for the Lord.

We read Jeremy Driscoll’s fine article in the American Benedictine Review for table reading recently, and one line struck me and stayed with me this year as we celebrated the feast of Saint Benedict. He’s actually quoting Archbishop Rowan Williams:

If we renew our ardor for living the life and if our doors are open to any and all seekers of the spiritual dimensions of existence, what could be attractive in our communities for them would be the witness of … “a discipline of personal and common life that is about letting the reality of Jesus come alive in us.” Certainly that says in a fresh way what life in a Benedictine [community] is all about.

With Benedict as our guide, we hope today that the word of God would break through our deafness, and then break our hearts with compassion and teach how to accommodate and adapt ourselves to each other’s character and intelligence, to find the skillful means to be disciples of Jesus and let the reality of Jesus come alive in us anew in our personal and common life.

[1] 2:24

[2] 2:25

[3] 2:31

[4] 27:1-2, 6

[5] Acts 4:35

[6] 34:1-6

[7] 40:5

[8] 39:8, 10

[9] 18:22

[10] 64:19

Share Button