1 If a brother, following his own evil ways, leaves the monastery but then wishes to return, he must first promise to make full amends for leaving. 2 Let him be received back, but as a test of his humility he should be given the last place. 3 If he leaves again, or even a third time, he should be readmitted under the same conditions. After this, however, he must understand that he will be denied all prospect of return.
Commentary by Philip Lawrence, OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert
Again we come face to face with the compassion and gentleness of Saint Benedict but also with a clear firmness about limits of behavior. We have already seen this gentleness and firmness in dealing with brothers who are corrected or who are excommunicated. Saint Benedict is a wonderful example of what is called today “tough love.” He truly sees the good intentions of the monks and encourages them. He truly sees the weakness of the monks and accepts that. He also know that a clear direction must be given and he gives that.
So it really comes down to this: if a monk wants to be a monk and continually tries to be a monk, that monk will still have defects but will always be accepted as a monk.
On the other hand, sometimes monks don’t really want to be monks and they must be expelled from the community. Or there are monks who choose to leave their vows because they want to do something else. It is important here to note that the monastic tradition in general does not accept the dispensation of vows. By the time of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, there is advice that two commitments cannot be discerned again once they have been made: priestly ordination and solemn vows.
So what happens if a monk leaves? We don’t know what the process was but we do not know that it was not acceptable. On the other hand, if a monk leaves and wants to return, then that opportunity is given to him. Saint Benedict really stretches out his hand of mercy and compassion towards the brother who makes mistakes, the brother who is stubborn, the brother who refuses to cooperate and even toward the brother who leaves. Again we see compassion at work. And this compassion can be extended to the point of a monk leaving three times! That means readmitting the monk three times. But beyond that, no more opportunities are given.
These are practical decisions that really do have to be made from time to time. Saint Benedict gives a limit. It is a reasonable testing of a vocation. The challenge for the monks’ spirituality is to remain and persevere, even when he wants to leave! May the Lord give us that grace!