To be read: April 17, August 17, December 17
But if [a visiting monk] has not been shown to be deserving of dismissal, he should not only be admitted, if he requests, 9but he should even be urged to remain, that others may be taught by his example, 10because we all serve the one Lord and do battle for the one King everywhere. 11In addition, if the Abbot recognizes him as deserving, he may place him in a somewhat higher rank. 12It is at the Abbot’s discretion to place not only a priest or cleric, but also a monk, in a higher place than that of their entry, if he sees that he deserves it. 13But the Abbot must take care never to receive a monk in the community who is a member of another monastery without the consent of his Abbot or commendatory letters, 14because it is written: “what you hate, do not do to any one”(Tb 4:15).
Benedict once again advocates the virtue of stability for members of the community. It is nice to have visitors, but one who wants to stay must be tested over time; for as was noted in chapter 1 there are those “who wander their whole life long from one place to another…(v. 10)”. Throughout the Rule, Benedict advocates staying where you are planted, and deal with the issues of the community where you live and worship. And it is important that whoever desires to join a community not bring unwanted baggage with him or her. Thus, Benedict commands that “the Abbot must take care never to receive a monk in the community who is a member of another monastery without the consent of his Abbot…”
In the liturgical churches, when a clergyman transfers from one church to another, his transfer must be accompanied by “letters dimissory”. The canons of the Church prescribe that: “A transfer of a priest or deacon from one diocese to another shall be done with a letter dimissory, initiated by the Bishop of the transferring diocese and sent to the bishop of the receiving diocese. Upon acceptance of the transfer, the clergyman will be under the authority of his new Bishop.” The concept here is the same as that prescribed by Benedict, that the abbot must receive “commendatory letters” from the visiting monk’s previous abbot.
But what does this have to say to those who are not in either monastic or clerical orders? One of the plagues afflicting the Church today is church hopping. A church member is offended by something in his or her current congregation, or the pastor rubbed that member the wrong way, or for any of dozens of other reasons has found reason to become discontented. So, they “hop” over to another congregation. The pastor there welcomes this visitor and quickly makes them a new member of his flock. However, as he receives this new person, if there has been no closure with the previous congregation, and no letter of transfer of membership, the transferring member will be bringing all of the unresolved issues from the last church with him or her.
To combat this unhealthy practice, the liturgical churches use a similar form of transfer for lay members as they do for their clergy. A person who wants to transfer from one congregation to another within the denomination, or between related denominations, may ask for a “letter of transfer” from his or her local pastor. If the person is a “communicant in good standing” the pastor can then send a letter of transfer to the member’s new pastor. If, however, there are issues that remain unresolved, the clergyman should seek to help the member resolve those before transferring them to the pastoral care of the new church. Otherwise, there may be a change in location and community, but the problems that faced that member in the old congregation will still be there with the new one.
As we have seen in previous chapters (e.g. 7:44-48), Benedict advocates that we keep short accounts. If there is a problem within a local congregation, it is imperative for the health of the whole community to deal with those issues quickly, before they can fester and grow foul. Changing parishes, while leaving those issues unresolved only spreads the foul stench of unresolved hurts and sins. It is incumbent upon us to encourage one another to deal with the problems we face in community, and hold one another accountable.
The pattern of “commendatory letters”, set by Benedict in this chapter, is not limited to liturgical churches. It can be followed by non-liturgical churches as well. What Benedict advocates here is a matter of stability. It is far better to stay where we are and deal with the issues we face than to be like the gyrovagues described in chapter one who are “always roving and never settled” (RB 1:11). And yet, not all issues can be resolved, and not all hurts can be healed. If genuine efforts are made to resolve these differences, and if after attempts to reconcile there is no resolution to the conflict, then it is right and acceptable to submit to the authority of the pastor and kindly request a transfer. This pattern, set by Benedict in his Rule, will go a long way in helping heal the unhealthy pattern of “hopping” in the modern church.