[The abbot] must be aware of his own frailty, and remember that it is forbidden to break the already bruised reed. We do not mean that he should countenance the growth of vice; but that he use discretion and tenderness as he sees it expedient for the different characters of his brothers. He is to endeavour much more to be loved than feared.

~ Rule of St. Benedict, 64

There’s a lot that parents could learn from ancient monastics. They commonly called one another “Abba” and “Amma”—father and mother—which was later formalized into Abbot and Abbess, the elders of monastic communities. (In the East, even non-elders are still often referred to as father and mother.)

Of course, there are many important differences between families and monasteries, but the familial language of monastics ought to suggest that the difference is more one of degree. Families may not strictly fast, but generally children must eat their lunch or dinner before they get dessert. Families don’t observe vigils, but little children may wake their parents up at all times of night. And both families and monasteries ought to pray together.

There are real differences of kind, however, that account for some of the differences of degree. Despite strict discipline, monasteries are voluntary communities. People join of their own free will and they can leave in the same way. Similarly, the community can choose whether or not to accept a new member, as well as whether or not one needs to leave. The text above from St. Benedict’s Rule is, in fact, about the election of community elders. Children don’t get to elect their parents. They’re stuck with them until adulthood, at least. The family as an institution is a natural community, created by God himself. Monasteries aspire to be supernatural—a higher calling, a truer family—but they are also in many ways some of the first political communities in the liberal sense we think of them today: voluntary membership, election of leaders, and written or unwritten constitutions to establish order and fairness in the community.

Nevertheless, despite these differences there is still quite a bit for non-monastics to learn from them. St. Benedict speaks of the power of patience and gentleness. Too often, we confuse strength and brute force, whether in parenting or otherwise.

I recently took my oldest son to see a place that perfectly illustrates this. It was shown to me many years ago—sixteen, I think—but I was happy to discover that it is still there. Behind an apartment complex on the side of town I grew up, there is a trail the goes up a hill and into a forest. I think it used to function as a dirt road, and I remember—perhaps incorrectly—a gate at the bottom sixteen years ago, but it was far too overgrown for that. No one would try to drive up there now, and there was no gate.

Wildflowers line the path as it turns left and into a little wood atop the hill. It, too, was quite grown, but there were still paths a person could walk without having to trudge through too many weeds and branches. I knew we were on the right track, but I couldn’t quite remember exactly where it was we were heading. Just inside the wood, at the edge back toward the path that led up the hill, stood an old metal frame. It once had been a swing-set, but all that was left of the swings were the places where the chains would have connected to the frame. We were getting close, but this wasn’t it.

Looking down the hill in the wood, I wondered if the place I was looking for was down there but had become so overgrown as to be completely hidden. Still, I decided to keep going—even if we didn’t find it or it was no longer there, the forest was cool enough. We were having a good time.

We pressed onward following the path through the trees until I saw it, deeper into the wood and farther from the path up the hill: a clearing—not a natural clearing, however. When we got there, it was just how I remembered, except it had deteriorated even more than sixteen years ago. It was a parking lot or foundation of some sort. A building project begun and then abandoned to nature, and nature had taken it. Through cracks in the concrete, now wider than my car, grew bushes and flowers and reeds. Without constant upkeep from humans, our creations, however solid we may imagine them, prove weaker than a blade of grass.

What is stronger than concrete? I’ve seen ancient ruins in Greece and Romania. We think of them as eternal marks of humanity’s achievements, and, sure, they’re great. But the smallest plant, created by God, is greater and stronger. And how much more patient! Concrete must be continually mixed or it will harden fast. But year after year, through the rain and ice and snow, though hardened it cannot withstand the slow, patient, and gentle growth of the natural world. My son Brendan didn’t find the place to be as enchanted and magical as I did, but he liked the journey through the forest to get there, and he patiently listened to my attempt to impart this wisdom to him through my overly-elaborate metaphor.

Speaking of metaphors, St. Benedict did not make up the metaphor of the bruised reed but borrowed it from Scripture. It occurs first in the prophecy of Isaiah, concerning the coming Messiah. St. Matthew picks up on this in his account of the Gospel—to Christians, Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise, hence the title “Christ” (Greek for Messiah). Matthew either paraphrases a bit or the manuscript of Isaiah he used diverged a little from those we more commonly use today, but the illustration is wonderful.

Jesus hears of the Pharisees’ plot against him. And Matthew tells us,

But when Jesus knew it, He withdrew from there. And great multitudes followed Him, and He healed them all. Yet He warned them not to make Him known, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying:

“Behold! My Servant whom I have chosen,

My Beloved in whom My soul is well pleased!

I will put My Spirit upon Him,

And He will declare justice to the Gentiles.

He will not quarrel nor cry out,

Nor will anyone hear His voice in the streets.

A bruised reed He will not break,

And smoking flax He will not quench,

Till He sends forth justice to victory;

And in His name Gentiles will trust.” (Matthew 12:15-21)

Readers unfamiliar with Isaiah might think that this is where the reference stops, but St. Matthew is a better writer than that. In Isaiah, this is what comes next:

Thus says God the Lord,

Who created the heavens and stretched them out,

Who spread forth the earth and that which comes from it,

Who gives breath to the people on it,

And spirit to those who walk on it:

“I, the Lord, have called You in righteousness,

And will hold Your hand;

I will keep You and give You as a covenant to the people,

As a light to the Gentiles,

To open blind eyes,

To bring out prisoners from the prison,

Those who sit in darkness from the prison house. (Isaiah 42:5-7)

If we return to Matthew, we see that the very next story is meant to illustrate this point:

Then one was brought to Him who was demon-possessed, blind and mute; and He healed him, so that the blind and mute man both spoke and saw. And all the multitudes were amazed and said, “Could this be the Son of David?” (Matthew 12:22-23)

Here we see Jesus, God Incarnate, freeing a man not from a concrete prison, but from one much worse: psychological torment. Jesus opens his blind eyes, but even more so he brings him out of the darkness of mental disturbance. He sees someone that others believed unredeemable, beyond all help, as a bruised reed that ought not to be broken. With gentleness, he shows his power, and while the religious leaders of his day feared him as a threat to their authority, the crowds flocked to him in the hope that they, too, might feel the warmth of his love.

Patience is hard for parents. I have four children now! Each one is a blessing, but every day I struggle to get to bedtime without all my patience running out. I can’t imagine being a priest or an abbot. Having enough patience for whole communities is not something I can even think about when I so often come short in my own home.

But each day is a new beginning. I like St. Benedict’s words, because he refers not only to how the abbot ought to view the brothers at the monastery, but what sort of man the abbot ought to be as well. “He must be aware of his own frailty” in order to see the frailty of others.

Breaking a bruised reed might seem like strength in the moment, but it is far more powerful to nurture it back to health. So perhaps if I and other parents are also “aware of [our] own frailty,” we can turn that awareness outward toward our children and find the strength of gentle and patient care for them.