“Above all things,” Saint Benedict instructs in Chapter 40 of his Rule for monasteries, “we do give this admonition, that they abstain from murmuring” The issue of murmuring–sometimes called gossiping, other times grumbling–is mentioned very frequently in Benedict’s Rule. The above admonition comes from the chapter entitled “On the Measure of Drink” and is given to monks who are not being provided with as much wine as they are used to drinking.
Even though Saint Hilda’s House is very far from a monastery, I’m finding this admonition to be particularly difficult during this year of living simply and in community. For a variety of reasons, the volunteer program is not sizing up to what I imagined it would be. Using Benedict’s language, I was expecting a gallon of wine and was given a tablespoon.
It is easy to complain–to spit and sputter–about the situation. I can wax angrily about how I feel abandoned by the program, about how I feel more distant from God, about how frustrated and angry and unforgiving I’ve become. (And when I say “can,” I actually mean “do.”) While it makes me feel good in the moment–catharsis and group processing–it ultimately adds up to nothing. Nothing essentially productive comes from my complaining.
That said, as much as Benedict abhors murmuring, the sainted abbot leaves room for “just murmuring.” In the following chapter (“At What Hours the Meals Should Be Taken”), Benedict writes, “Thus it is that [the Abbot] should adapt and arrange everything in such a way that souls may be saved and that the brethren may do their work without just cause for murmuring.” This implies that the Abbot is capable of ordering and arranging the monastic lifestyle in such a way that is damaging to souls and prohibits the work of the community. In such a case, of course, the community is justified in murmuring.
Where then is the line between just and unjust grumbling? That’s a question that I’m asking myself regularly–weekly, if not daily (or perhaps more accurately “daily, if not hourly.”)
In the end, the end is important. In which direction does my grumbling push me? Toward an open and productive critique of the system? Toward asserting my needs and desires? Toward first acknowledging my own short comings and only then the short comings of others? Or does it point in the direction of deceit? Toward bitterness? Toward self righteousness? Toward avarice?
These are the questions of the day, the questions that are implicit in community (any community–not just intentional living communities–for example, there’s a hell of a lot of murmuring in the workplace–but that’s another post entirely.)