When I read the Rule for the first time, I was surprised to learn that grumbling was considered a major sin in monastic communities. But when you read Benedict’s words (ch 5), it is clear why this is so.
Grumbling is an “after the fact” protest. Grumbling is a sign that our obedience is not genuine. It is an evidence that our ego still considers itself to be “higher” than the instruction we have received from another. Here, of course, the assumption is that the instruction is valid, not spurious. When that is the case, Benedict requires the monks to enact what they have heard. Grumbling is a sign that we are not willing to do this.
Moreover, grumbling can be a sign that we lacked the courage to interact about the matter while it was still being considered. We call it “Monday morning quarterbacking.” In monastic community, people were free to express themselves while the matter was being discussed and while decisions were taking shape. But once the decision was made, fidelity was expected. Grumbling was a sign of a person’s unwillingness to live in community and carry out the will of the group.
Finally, grumbling was a means of creating little “followings”—little “fan clubs”—little groups who would be more devoted to the counterpoint than to the point. Grumbling was egotism’s “fast track” to destroying unity, purity of intention, and singleness of action. Grumbling drained and deflected energy away from the mission and wasted it on complaining. It was more about “kingdom building” than Kingdom advancing.
Again, let’s be clear. Benedict was not talking about doing things without questioning them—and he surely was not talking about embracing anything false. But he knew that even when good and true things are being commended, there is still a temptation to “opt out”—not so much by public denial, but by words and actions that undermine the will of community and even the will of God.
It would be nice to think that this kind of thing only happens in monasteries, but it happens everywhere. It happens in parking lots after meetings have been dismissed. It happens on the phone when people keep the resistence alive. It happens whenever and wherever people will not surrender their individual wills for the will of the larger body. It happens when our egos prefer to keep a strangle hold on the community rather than letting go, so everyone can breathe.
Steve, we’re doing a series on Godly communication right now and this past Sunday’s message was about grumbling and complaining. Your timing is perfect. I’m going to post this on my Facebook profile right now! Thanks!
This is tough on both sides. It’s tough for me to learn not to be a grumbler. I process things slowly, and am unlikely to be the one who speaks up in a council meeting, etc. Yet, because of instances like you mentioned, I’m learning the importance of doing so- if my comments aren’t given in the appropriate context, I’m surrendering any leadership needed by them and turning other forms of my response into being subversive, which certainly isn’t my intent.
And it’s difficult on the other side, because in church leadership we will ALWAYS deal with grumblers. And some of them are really good at it- even considering it their duty to God to act in such a way.
That’s a difficult tension to manage- learning not to grumble ourselves, while also learning to be gracious to those who do.
Thank you for this insight Steve! It is so where I am right now and I needed to hear it!