Chapter Four (Part One)


(Thomas  Merton’s  Cell)

Guidelines for Christian and monastic good practice.

‘The first of all things to aim at is to love the Lord God with your whole heart and soul and strength and then to love your neighbour as you do yourself. The other commandments flow from these two: not to kill, not to commit adultery, not to steal, not to indulge our base desires, not to give false evidence against another, to give due honour to all and not to inflict on someone else what you would resent if it were done to yourself’

I have always loved this explanation by Benedict on the Commandments. It may seem obvious to seasoned Christians, long in the faith, that following the words of the Commandments, which were then reiterated by Christ and put into the perspective of those first two, Love the Lord your God and Love your neighbour as yourself, that they should be the basis for the rest of our practice and behaviour. It is always pertinent to be reminded that the moral code that the Commandments created was not simply in the pursuit of some utopian ideal society but because of love. It makes complete sense that you would not desire to steal from, kill, injure or disrespect someone that you love, and so we are to view each other person, created and loved by God, as close to our hearts as our own family and loved ones.

‘Renounce your own desires and ambitions so as to be free to follow Christ. Control your body with self-discipline; don’t give yourself to unrestrained pleasure; learn to value the self-restraint and fasting. Give help and support to the poor; clothe the naked, visit the sick and bury the dead. Console and counsel those who suffer in time of grief and bring comfort to those in sorrow’ 

This small paragraph I think probably best summarises the though of Benedict when it comes to making progress in the Christian life and I think the order in which he places the various suggestions (or commands) is interesting. Firstly, the christian and/or monk (as he is for the first time in the Rule seemingly addressing not just the community but giving advice to Christians outside the cloister) is to renounce their own ambition and desires. I think this shows how pivotal that is in following Christ. It might be possible to do the other tasks that are listed, it may well be possible to be a good and decent human being by serving the poor and being generally decent to those who are in need, but if all of that is done without first renouncing the desires and ambitions of the self, then the good that is done is limited. I think of those famous folk who have given their time and money to charity only to later be found guilty of a terrible crime – their good work is tainted because they have followed too closely the desires of their own heart rather than a higher purpose.

‘Do not give yourself to unrestrained pleasure’

How often have you heard that people who are not Christian, or indeed of any practicing religion, find the ‘rules’ that are set in place to be suffocating, that it would make life boring, that the individual would no longer be able to have any fun at all. I am asked quite often if I am allowed to drink alcohol. I have even been asked if I am allowed to go to the cinema or the theatre, as though the Christian image they hold in their mind is one of Puritan proportions.

But here, Benedict writing to his monks and to Christians more generally does not outright say ‘do not have any pleasures at all’ but that there is to be a moderation. He is clearly warning against the excesses of pleasure with an insight into where that may possibly lead. It is a very slippery slope and one that is easy to fall, how often have you gone to have a couple of biscuits and before you realise half the packet has gone (spoken from someone with a very sweet tooth) – once again, balance is everything. The serious aspect of this comment though is to bring to mind who is being served. Are we looking after our own desires ahead of those of God? Can we be a good Christian if He is only ever second to our own personal wants or perceived needs?

‘Don’t get too involved in purely worldly affairs and count nothing more important than the love you should cherish for Christ. Don’t let your actions be governed by anger nor nurse your anger against a future opportunity of indulging it. Don’t harbour in your heart any trace of deceit nor pretend to be at peace with another when you are not; don’t abandon the true standards of charity. Don’t use other to make your point for fear of perjury, but speak the truth with integrity of heart and tongue.’

Quite often within The Rule the dichotomy of world vs cloister is brought to attention. I don’t think that Benedict is dismissive of the world as fundamentally a bad place, although it was the corruption of it, especially in the holy city of Rome that drove him to seek solitude and gave birth to this document,  but here he is warning about our engagement. This follows a similar line to the renunciation of self. The way the world operates is different to the way in which the kingdom of God works, we saw this in the parables of Christ too. The world demands a certain emphasis on climbing the latter, being successful, accumulating wealth and power for oneself in order to show that one has become worth something. The kingdom of God and therefore the cloister and the life of the individual Christian needs to be focused on something radically different.

The vision that Benedict imparts to the readers of Chapter Four is one of personal and inner conversion. In order to deal with the world, especially at the time in which he was writing, there was a requirement to be politically shrewd, somewhat conniving, to forge alliances behind closed doors and be prepared to break them to ensure you could remain on the correct side. That sort of approach does not work for the Christian attempting to secure entry to the Kingdom of God. Instead, along with the renunciation of ambition and desire is this command to be peaceable, honest and, arguably most importantly, not to abandon the true standards of charity, in other words, to love. This is the mark of the Christian and monk.

‘If you are harmed by anyone, never repay it by returning the harm. In fact you should never inflict any injury on another but bear patiently whatever you have to suffer. Love your enemies, then; refrain from speaking evil but rather call a blessing on those who speak evil of you; if you are persecuted for favouring a cause, then bear it patiently’

When I read this paragraph of The Rule, rightly or wrongly, my mind turned to the internet and the interaction that it brings. Twitter in particular can be a wonderful tool for sharing thoughts and quotations and projects, but it can also be a place where I have seen (and experienced) some awfully potent and barbed responses when disagreements occur. It is difficult to know how to react, and it it often tempting to reply with an equally cutting comment that you know could potentially cause injury, it seems that some people deliberately set out to goad others into this sort of response.

How to deal with people who are purposefully inciting such attitudes it hard. I have taken to not responding when it comes my way (thankfully this is not often) and I do pray for those who I clash with. Some people respond by posting ‘God Bless’ or ‘Bless You’ but at the end of a rant it can come across as a passive-aggressive, weaponising of those powerful words, especially if the person doing it is a priest.

Benedict urges blessings on those who persecute you, but I do not think he means to use it in the way that I have witnessed. It must come from a genuine love, or at the very least a genuine desire to love, them. As the previous paragraph suggests, we cannot be governed by anger and if we use those words of blessing in anger, what we are actually asking for is not a blessing, but a curse.

‘Avoid all pride and self-importance. Don’t drink to excess, nor over-eat. Don’t be lazy nor give way to excessive sleep. Don’t be a murmurer and never in speaking take away the good name of another’

These few short rules whilst clearly beneficial to the development of someones character are also vital for community life. One of the key aspects of community living is that you are no longer your own, you have a commitment not just to God in the eternal but to your brothers and sisters in the temporal too. If you drink too much or over-eat, apart from developing bad habits within yourself, you are depriving others in the community of their share, potentially. This was especially important to remember when monasteries had large numbers of people and limited resources. Laziness and over-sleeping may mean that others have to pick up your slack and fulfil the tasks that you have left incomplete by complacency or duty that you have missed through sleep. All of these put the needs of the self before the others in the community and Benedict is trying to break his monks out of that worldly way of living.

Perhaps the most interesting is the command about not murmuring, but that becomes a rather important part of Chapter Five, so I shall save my thoughts on that for then.

‘Your hope of fulfilment should be centred in God alone. When you see and good in yourself, then, don’t take it to be your very own, but acknowledge it as a gift from God. On the other hand you may be sure that any evil you do is always your own and you may safely acknowledge your responsibility.’

All good things come from God and that, Benedict reminds us, includes the success we may feel in our development of character. Each of us contains the divine breath of God from creation, each one of us is made in His image, but through the transgressions of our first parents, through the stain of sin, we are obscured from reflecting that image perfectly. When glimpses of it cut through the haze of humanity, when a flash of the divine life is spotted in a change in our character, a deepening or our prayer, our insight into the life of Christ, it is not because we have earned it through our own merits or skill, but because we have been obedient and been drawn closer to Him. There is a certain irony that when we feel that – the first response is often pride, which drives a wedge in once again. There is, perhaps, nothing less attractive than when we are boastful about our piety, a very easy habit to fall in to, mistaking it for virtue.

But we are to acknowledge that our failings, our sins, our transgressions are indeed our own. Again it is tempting to blame them on circumstance or on the wiles of the enemy, but ultimately our response to his trickery is our own. Therefore we should be thankful for the gift we receive in our personal growth in holiness and repentant for our failure. Repeatedly.


Chapter Three


(Trappist Monks in Chapter)

Calling the community together for consultation

‘When any business of importance is to be considered in the monastery, the abbot or abbess should summon the whole community together and personally explain to them the agenda that lies before them. after hearing the advice of the community, the superior should consider it carefully n private and only then make a judgement about what is the best decision. We have insisted that all the community should be summoned for such consultation, because it often happens that the Lord makes the best course clear to one of the youngest. The community themselves should be careful to offer their advice with due deference and respect, avoiding an obstinate defence of their own convictions. 

There are several parts of this rule that I find very appealing. Although the Abbot or Abbess has overall oversight of the community and the buck stops with them, there is a sense that they are not alone in the choices that they make. It is also telling that the superior is explicitly told that they personally must state the decision that needs to be taken to the community. This is not a task that they can delegate. One of the heavy burdens of responsibility is having to deal with unpopular or critical decisions and it is always tempting to try and pass that to someone else – using any sort of excuse – perhaps this individual has better knowledge or is more accustomed to speaking in this way. But that is not what Benedict endorses. The superior must be the one that brings the item for the agenda, it is their responsibility as their stewardship of the community.

Secondly, Benedict explains his reason for this gathering. While we might second guess and have our own ideas about community life, democracy and mutuality, the reason the holy father gives is because God may reveal His will to the youngest. Although the monastery has a hierarchical system – there is a privileged place afforded to the youngest. The youngest often are less cynical, not as worn down by the foibles of the community that they live in, not caught up in the politics of a situation which causes them to try and second guess what may or may not happen. As a result, their input can often be more pure. There is, also, a biblical precedent for this. Samuel as a young boy hears God and responds, David, the youngest of his brothers is the anointed king, Paul sings the praises of youth to Timothy when he is thrust into leadership at a young age and of course, Our Lord himself often used children as an example of how our faith and receptivity to God should be. The youngest monk may well be the one with the wisest head upon his shoulders.

Finally, Benedict gives some advice for those that are offering their advice. Just because they have been asked it is not an occasion for puffed up pride or a sense of entitlement that means no other opinion matters. I am sure you, as I am, have a tendency to give too many words when asked for an opinion, as though trying to argue that it is the only possible answer. The holy abbot reminds the community that whilst they are being consulted they are also still to remember their place. This is a forum for offering opinion rather than launching into a staunch defence.

It is for the abbot or abbess in the end t make the decision and everyone else should obey what the superior judges to be best. To get the balance right it should be remembered that, whereas it is right for the subordinates to obey their superior, it is just as important for the superior to be far-sighted and fair in administration’ 

Once again that Benedictine principle of balance appears in the rule. There must be balance between obedience from the community and fairness from the superior. This ensures that no one can feel as though the scales are unfairly weighted on one side, that they are giving too much or too much is expected of them. It is easier to slip into the comfortable pattern of obedience if you are aware that the level of importance placed on the administration of order and discipline is weighted evenly. Would any of us want to obey someone whom we could not trust to act justly? We must be hones that abuses of power happen and just because someone professes to be a person of God, committed to Christ and to a rule, that they are immune to the temptation or fallibility that can cause such corruption of the trust placed in them. But the great strength of the Benedictine Rule is that these issues are not shied away from. He does not take it as read that the superior will be fair, so takes the time to remind them, brining it to the forefront of the mind again.

‘Such an ideal an only be achieved if everyone duly conforms to the authority of the Rule and no one gives way to self-will by deviating from it. In a monastery no one should follow the prompting of what are merely personal desires nor should any monk or nun take it upon themselves to oppose the abbot or abbess defiantly, especially in a public forum outside the monastery. Anyone who is rash enough to act in such a way should be disciplined in accordance with the Rule. However the superior should in everything personally keep the fear of God clearly in view and take care to act in accordance with the requirements of the Rule while also remembering the future account of all such decisions to be rendered before the supremely just tribunal of the Lord.’

Sometimes this can seem like an uncomfortable aspect of the Rule. It could be argued that this creates a culture where those in charge cannot be challenged, even if it is clear that their actions are contrary to what the Rule requires of them. In the modern world this sort of atmosphere has been prevalent in corporations, government and the church and has, it could be argued, lead to some horrific abuses of power and corruption of trust. I do not believe that Benedict is suggesting that the superior within the monastery is untouchable, but that there are certain ways to approach. Making a public challenge, especially in the public form does not just challenge the superior who may rightly need to be challenged it also presents a particular view of the monastery, the other members of the community, the order as a whole and indeed Christians in general. This could be damaging, especially to those that are innocent of all offence.

Once again Benedict reminds the abbot or abbess of their solemn duty before God. He once again, as he did often in the previous chapter, brings up there own judgement before God. The watchful eye of the Father and the knowledge of judgement is to aid the superior in fighting off those temptations or inadequacies of character that lead to abuses of power.

There is a need for humility within both the members of the community and also those elected (perhaps especially) to the office of abbot or abbess. This is part of the renunciation of self. Not to push forward with your own agenda as the superior, but be prepared to consult others, especially the youngest. And members of the community not to press their own opinion or judgements too pointedly or publicly.

What has been said about consultation so far, applies to matters of weight and importance. When questions of lesser concern arise in the monastery and call for a decision, the abbot or abbess should consult with seniors alone. Such is the appropriate way to conform to that precept of scripture: If you act always after hearing the counsel of others, you will avoid the need to repent of your decision afterwards.’

Benedict, as ever, ends this chapter with a practical note. If the superior was to have to call the community and personally explain every little decision that was to be made two things would happen. Firstly, it would mean that no other work was done. The brothers and sisters would be spending all of their time on the administrative detail of the monastery and none of the practical tasks, or more importantly, any of the spiritual development would happen. Secondly, it would not be leadership. Whilst consultation and democracy is one of the pillars on which the Rule leans, it is not to down play the fact that a superior has been elected and that a certain amount of trust has been placed in them by the community. They are to act with the community in mind and the community must trust them to do so, they do not need to be called for smaller choices.

Once more Benedict weaves in scripture by quoting this passage from Sirach. The greater number of opinions that are heard and considered means that the decision that is finally taken has the greatest chance of success. Any ego, or stubbornness the superior may have had in their initial thoughts on the situation presented can be tempered by the inclusion of other thoughts, whatever choice is then made, has at least had a greater chance for input.

Humility, again, is called for.

Chapter Two (Part Three)


‘Reflection on their own high status in the monastery and the meaning of their title should be ever present to the abbot or abbess. This will make them aware of what is meant by the saying that more is demanded of those to whom more is entrusted. They should reflect on what a difficult and demanding task they have accepted, namely that of guiding souls and serving the needs of so many different characters; gentle encouragement will be needed for one, strong rebukes for another, rational persuasion for another, according to the character and intelligence of each. It is the task of the superiors to adapt with sympathetic understanding to the needs of each so that they may not only avoid any loss but even have joy increasing the number of good sheep in the flock committed to them’

Benedict here is once again reminding the abbot or abbess of the weighty responsibility that they have accepted. One Abbot that I spoke to upon his election to the lofty position did not think of it as a promotion, but more a demotion. This has often been reiterated by priests upon their ordination. Although the Abbot, Abbess or Priest does not leave the community, there is a ‘setting apart’ which means that relationships and connections become different, it is a time of change and can be quite isolating. For some, the prospect of being ‘in charge’ is a potent attraction and it is those people that Benedict is warning. There is, he says, a serious need for self-reflection – to constantly remind oneself that the task that gives the splendid title is one of hard work.

The examples that Benedict gives regarding how to deal with different characters in the  monastic life is interesting. The rule later will go into much greater depth about discipline and how to ensure that there is harmony amongst the community, but these few examples listed give one singular impression. The Abbot or Abbess must KNOW their community. Although when a superior is elected it is very often one of more advanced years, it is not simply because they are older but because they are likely to have spent much more time in the community, they will know their brothers/sisters well and therefore be able to give the correct encouragement, rebukes and so forth. Primarily it is about knowing the people and being embedded in the life of the community.

As a newly appointed Parish Priest who has changed Diocese to take up post, I am living in a completely new area, with a different community and a different way of life. In many ways I have accepted a position of responsibility for the people without knowing them, this would not happen in a monastery. It would be highly irregular for a brand new monk to be appointed as superior. So, taking this rule very much to heart in my new parish I am spending time embedding myself in the community. I have to be aware of what is happening, what events, politics, schedules and patterns will make an impression on the community. I need to spent time becoming a ‘local’. There is a tension here, because that loitering with intent amongst the community, on paper, does not look productive, but it is vital. Pope Francis when addressing his priests told them that he wanted them to ‘smell the sheep’ – they need to be amongst the flock.

‘It is above all important that monastic superiors should not underrate or think lightly of the salvation of the souls committed to them by giving too much attention to transient affairs of this world which have no lasting value. They should remember always that the responsibility they have undertaken is that of guiding souls and that they have to render an account of the guidance they have given. If resources are slender for the monastery they should remember this saying from scripture: seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you also; then also there is this text: nothing is lacking for those who fear him’

To be in a position of abbot or abbess in the monastic life does mean that one has to focus upon the spiritual and earthly. While the superior is responsible for the souls of the community they are also responsible for keeping a roof over their heads and food on the table. Benedict is an incredibly practical man and his Rule demonstrates this time and time again, so his words here and the focus on scripture is not to be read as a abdication of responsibility. Rather it is, as you may expect from the Benedictine school, about balance. An abbot or abbess that is focused solely on the material needs will be taken away from the daily community life by having to deal with it. Equally, a superior focused only on the spiritual will find their monks at prayer amidst leaking roofs and empty stomachs. The superior will have to balance the focus on both of these aspects. Another reason why the monastic that is elected for the role needs to have a suitable strength of character and understanding of monastic life in order to hold the tension of dealing with worldly affairs as well as teaching the transcendent.

As a parish priest this seems pertinent too. It is very easy to begin in a parish and instantly think of survival mode, starting to think about income, the money, the building. Of course, all of these things should be attended to and part of being a parish priest and having a stewardship of church is to ensure that the temporal affairs are kept in order, but the priest must be firstly at his prayers. When I was first installed some advice I was given was no to put in the daily round of Offices and Mass because I would not know what my diary would be like. I had to disagree with this advice and have subsequently put in the daily Offices and daily Mass because I want (and need) my diary to be built around these things – not the other way around.

Dealing with the temporal affairs of a community can often give greater satisfaction as the results are more immediate and quantifiable. A full diary looks impressive to those who are ‘in the world’ and it suggests that the person with it is somehow justifiably needed. This is appealing for the parish priest working alone in an increasingly secular age. However, the danger is that neglect of the Offices and the daily Mass, and those other practices that tend to the needs of the spirit leads to a rot within the priest himself and within those he has the cure of. Is there any point in keeping the roof on, if no one comes to pray?

‘It should be very clear to superiors that all who undertake the guidance of souls must in the end prepare themselves to give an account of that guidance. However many souls for whom they are responsible all superiors may be sure the they will be called to account before the Lord for each one of them and after that for their own souls as well. Frequent reverent reflection on the future reckoning before the Good Shepherd who has committed his sheep to them will, through their concern for others, inspire them to greater care of their own souls. By encouraging through their faithful ministry better standards for those in their care, they will develop higher ideals in their own lives as well.’

Making an account for your own soul is something that is always worth keeping in mind. It is the calling of each Christian, to tend to their own soul and, when their time comes, stand before Our Lord and give an account for what they did with that gift. For a monastic superior to also have to keep in mind not just one soul, their own, but all those in their care, however many that may be, is a sobering thought. When they rise from their bed early in the morning and have no inclination to pray because of tiredness or laziness, remembering the community gathering (even if it is just one) should spur them on. The example that they set is important.

This morning I had morning prayer at 9am. I have come to know the pattern of attendance of the faithful and Thursday at 9am is a time when I usually am alone for the Office. It would be easy to not bother to unlock the door, to sit in the chill and pray. This morning as I arrived and opened the church, a few minutes later a visitor arrived. They were not a regular, they were not on the electoral roll but they had come to pray. The pattern and the regular routine allows people to drop in and as the priest I need to ensure that happens.

There are many churches that offer daily prayer in the morning and in the evening but they are not always attended by the priest himself. There are many reasons for this that can range from empowering laity by giving them responsibility to lead to having other diary commitments. However, I would be bold in suggesting that if the priest is not attending daily prayer the message it sends is that this act is not that important. Our prayers, our interaction with God, in private and in public, is the most important aspect of our lives and that needs to be demonstrable. For the superior in the community to frequently miss offices in order to deal with temporal ‘stuff’ would send a  negative message about what was most important.

We may be confident in our own complacency to stand before God when He asks ‘Why did you not do this for me?’ but do we have an answer when He asks ‘Why did you not do it for them?’ – I don’t think we do.

Chapter Two (Part Two)


‘They should not select for special treatment any individual in the monastery. They should not love one more than another unless it is for good observance of the Rule and obedience. One who is free-born should not, for that reason, be advanced before one coming to monastic life from the condition of slavery, unless there is some other good reason for it. If such a reason is seen by the abbot or abbess to be justified they can decide on a change of any member of the community. Otherwise all must keep their proper place in the community order, because whether slave or free we are all one in Christ and we owe an equal service in the army of one Lord, who shows no special favour to one rather than another. The only grounds on which in Christ’s eyes one is to be preferred to another is by excelling in good works and humility. The abbot or abbess, then, should show equal love to all and apply the same standards of discipline to all according to what they deserve.’

In the world that Benedict addressed with this Rule there was a very pronounced class system, more so that we have today. Wealthy families often sent third sons into holy or religious orders, a sort of offering to God for their family prosperity. (Once the heir and the spare had been produced to ensure the continuation of the family name) It wouldn’t have been uncommon for these wealthy young men to suddenly find themselves rubbing shoulders in their new community with people they would consider themselves superior too. Benedict makes clear that this view holds no water in his monastery. Equality is demanded and there is more than a faint echo of the words of S. Paul; ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free’ – this is a foundational aspect of the Benedictine community. How can you love your brother monk if you also think him to be your social inferior? It is death to the life that you lived outside the walls, once in and that habit is on, a new way of life takes hold.

But this is mentioned in the section on the qualities of an Abbot or Abbess. Why? Because they have to lead by example. It is highly likely that the superior within the community may well have come from a good lineage in order to have the education and competency to be elected, which means they may have a natural inclination to promote and surround themselves with like minded folk. Benedict is reminding those called to this high office that they are not playing power games in a Lord’s household – they are serving the King of heaven in his court.

Then there is a paradox. The only way in which to progress is to be humble enough not to want to and to do good works. A focus on progression in the monastic life, or indeed the Christian life, will not lead to life in Christ but to an inflation of the self – which is contrary to the state we should be attempting to attain. Only by not chasing the earthly trappings of power, wealth and the flesh can we increase our union with Christ.

‘They should make their own the different ways of teaching which the Apostle Paul recommended to Timothy when he told him to make use of criticism, of entreaty and of rebuke. Thus in adapting to changing circumstances they should use now the encouragement of a loving parent and now the threats of a harsh disciplinarian. This means that they should criticise more sternly those who are undisciplined and unruly; they should entreat those who are obedient, docile and patient so as to encourage their progress; but they should refute and punish those who take a feckless attitude or show contempt for what they are taught’

Here is where the word Abba, Father, being the root word for Abbot begins to make more sense and why in female religious orders the Abbess is often Mother Superior or simply Mother. The way in which they are encouraged by Benedict is to be like a parental figure and the Rule gives them the freedom to adapt the way in which they approach discipline, but not to shy away from the required rebuke when it is needed.

Reading this in the 21st Century church when people are very critical of discipline being given to anyone, let alone by a parish priest to the flock, perhaps this is quite shocking. But we should not be surprised by it. Since the 1980s there has a been a tendency to soften Christ and God, to focus on the love (which is right and proper) but this is sometimes done to the detriment of the image of master and judge. We are, as Christians, under the authority of the One who knows what is best for us. To submit ourselves spiritually to another, especially in a community such as Benedict describes, means that a certain trust in the structure and therefore the person at the top has to be given. These monks are under the spiritual authority of their Abbot and must take critique, rebuke or encouragement whenever it comes their way.

It is interesting that strongest description of rebuke is saved for those that show a ‘feckless attitude or show contempt’ for what they are taught. Benedict clearly has a great respect for the knowledge and wisdom that is shared and to squander that within the life of the community is an attitude that needs to be squashed for the good of the health of said community. To those that try and fail there is mercy, to those that succeed their is praise and encouragement, to those that do not try or could not care less then there is rebuke and the superior must keep a tight rein on it.

‘A monastic superior should never show tolerance of wrongdoing, but as soon as it begins to grow should root it out completely to avoid the dangerous error of Eli, the priest of Shiloh. Any who are reliable and able to understand should be admonished by words on the first and second occasion; but those who are defiant and resistant in the pride of their disobedience will need to be corrected by corporal punishment at the very beginning of their evil course. It should be remembered that scripture says; a fool cannot be corrected by words alone; and again; strike your child with a rod whose soul will by this means be saved from death.’

The error of Eli that Benedict alludes to in this passage refers to Solomon casting out Abiathar because of the sins of the house of Eli and Eli’s passivity in dealing with his sons. Abiather, although not guilty himself, is punished for the sins of his forebears. Interestingly, this is a stinging prophecy, the word used when Solomon removed Abiather from his priestly service is the same word that is used when God casts Adam and Eve from paradise. They are not merely dismissed, they are removed in a powerful way.

It seems here that Benedict is speaking of the order. If a superior lets wrongdoing take hold of the community, it will not just affect those that are currently living within it, but any who come after. The damage done in one community could spread and tarnish the entire Benedictine order, a pertinent warning when we consider our modern age and the problems that have arisen in the church.

The hardest part of the rule, in my opinion, appears in this chapter. Benedict advocates corporal punishment. I think that we have to consider the time that this Rule was written and understand the way that society at that time operated. Admittedly to our modern ear it is hard to reconcile. How could a Rule that is designed to promote holiness first and foremost be advocating physical beatings for rule breakers? I do not know of any communities within the Benedictine tradition that still follow this aspect of the rule in this way, I don’t know if the Cistercians with their stricter observance of the Rule do it either.

However, physical punishment aside, it does show how seriously this is to be taken. Benedict is not playing games here, he is not offering some advice simply for the good of small group of people in order to promote a harmonious life, he is writing this Rule because it is a matter of life and death, it is focusing on purifying the soul in order that one may attain union with Christ and save their soul from eternal damnation. These words that seem harsh to us should remind us that our Christian ancestors would have accepted that discipline because what they are striving for truly matters. In our modern age would we accept a rebuke from a fellow Christian, parish priest or spiritual director without becoming protective of ourselves or indignant at the injustice of being ‘told off’? Benedict is reminding us that we must. We must be prepared to learn from our spiritual elders and superiors in order to continue that purifying and cleansing of the soul.

(To be continued)

Chapter Two (Part One)


Gifts needed by an abbot or abbess

‘Anyone who aspires as Abbot or Abbess to be superior of a monastery should always remember what is really meant by the title and fulfil in their monastic life all that is required in one holding the office of monastic superior. For it is the place of Christ that the superior is understood to hold in the monastery by having a name which belongs to Christ, as St Paul suggests when he writes: You have received the spirit of adopted children whereby we cry abba, Father. That means that the abbot or abbess should never teach anything nor make any arrangement nor give any order which is against the teaching of the Lord.’

That Saint Benedict places this chapter on the gifts needed by an abbot or abbess as the second in his rule shows the high importance that he places on such instruction. It can safely be asserted that the community will stand or fall on the action of their superior, the one who is charged by God to set the tone for the entire community.

The first aspect that Benedict focuses on is the extraordinary weight of the office. It is not something that should be taken lightly. Benedict goes on to quote Saint Paul taking those words he wrote of the relationship between the believers and Christ and applying it to the monks and their superior. The monks are likened to children who will cry out to their superior ‘Abba, Father’. The title Abbot is derived from the Aramaic word Abba, or Father, showing that this man is the Father of the community. It is a reminder not so much of his rank but of the call and emphasis to be like Christ.

Calling the Abbot or Abbess ‘Christ in the monastery’ (which will crop up again in the rule later, especially surrounding obedience) may sit uncomfortably with our modern sensibilities. We may see that someone who is put into a position where they occupy the place of Christ means that abuses of power can easily take place, that obedience can give way to a dictatorial society. Of course, abuses of  power can indeed happen, our fallen human state means that we are susceptible to the temptation of wielding absolute power, but this position of Christ is a reminder of service. What did Christ do for His ‘children’, He washed their feed, He taught them, He rebuked them when it was required but ultimately He died for them. To be willing or called (as the two may not be mutual) to stand in the place of Christ means a willingness to surrender your life for those that look to you as Father.

This is why I am pleased that those I know call me Father. It is not because I enjoy some sense of inflated ego when people address me as such, but this respectful greeting is a reminder that this person recognises the position I have been called to and it reminds me that I am not my own, but I am His and theirs. To be addressed as Father instead of my name it feels as though, slowly and surely my worldly identity is being chipped away as I (God willing) grow more into His likeness. It is the beautiful Christian paradox, you are called to stand in His place, in a community or at the altar, knowing nothing you can do will ever make you worthy of it, and yet, accepting that is the first step toward Him.

Benedict reminds the superior very succinctly that the eyes of the community and, indeed, God are upon them and that their example, their plans, their teachings must be impeccable and in line with His own.

‘Far from it, everything he or she commands or teaches should be like a leaven of the holiness that comes from God infused into the minds of their disciples. In fact they should remember that they will have to account in the awesome judgement of God both for their own teaching and also for the obedience of their disciples. They should be well aware that the shepherd will have to bear the blame for any deficiency that God, as the Father of the whole human family, finds his sheep. However, it is also true that, if the flock has been unruly and disobedient and the superiors have done everything possible as shepherds to cure their vicious ways, then they will be absolved in the judgement of God and may say with the psalmist: I have not hidden your teaching in my heart; I have proclaimed your truth and the salvation you offer, but they have despised and rejected me.’

It is quite telling that Benedict begins this chapter by addressing those that would aspire to the office of Abbot or Abbess. A whole book could be dedicated to the understanding of ambition and can it ever be holy, is there such thing as a personal ambition that is good for the soul, the church, the people? If God takes our ambition and uses it, does that risk us being clouded in our judgement about what our ambition could achieve and is it contrary to the need to die to self in order to serve? In this section Benedict lays out his stall, very clearly, that anyone who does aspire to that office must be aware of what they are setting themselves up for.

If the superior thinks that they will have a comfortable life (which in a material sense they may do, looking at the ruins of many old monasteries in this country and abroad, the Abbot or Abbess did live in relative comfort, or at least privacy, compared to the other members of the community) however that comfort may quickly ebb away when they are faced with Judgement Day and two accounts are to be presented, their own earthly life, as any has to give but also, the lives of those in their care….

That is a responsibility beyond measure. If the actions, words and example of the superior has lead any astray, they will be held to account for that too. For the parish priest, who is called to stand at the altar of God, is called Father by the flock and often likened to a shepherd of the people, this is a charge laid at our door too.

‘Everything he or she commands or teaches should be like a leaven of the holiness that comes from God infused into the minds of their disciples’

That line really caught my attention. It is a beautiful image and conjures the romantic notion of the wise, old elder speaking profound and insightful words that seep deeply into the soul of the others. Until the reality of it hits you. Someone has to live up to this instruction. And how? By being less and less themselves and more and more like Him who called them, it is the only way. This is a position that cannot be executed in order to find oneself but can only be executed if the one occupying it is prepared to lose themselves completely, in Him.

But it is not completely one sided. The role of the superior and the account they shall have to make, while a yoke upon their shoulder, does not exempt the rest of the community without blame. Those who have not listened, who have been unruly or disobedient cannot slip past using there superior as a scapegoat, offering them as a sacrifice for their own shortcomings. Benedict is quite firm on this point both here, when he absolves the superior in those circumstances and later in the rule when he writes of monastic obedience.

‘Any, then, who accept the name of abbot or abbess should give a lead to their disciples by two distinct methods of teaching – by example of the lives they lead (and that is the most important way) and by the words they use in their teaching. To disciples who can understand they may teach the way of the Lord with words; but to the less receptive and uneducated they should teach what the Lord commands us by example. 

There is a phrase that is often attributed to S. Francis of Assisi, although there is no evidence that he ever said it, that is oft quoted; ‘Always preach the gospel, if necessary use words’ – but here Benedict says something quite similar about the superior and their teaching. The most important way in which they can demonstrate a life ordered toward God is not through what is said, but how it is lived.

Quite aside from this being an analysis of learning style that is ahead of his time, Benedict here is attempting to show how it is important to focus not just on what words pass ones lips, but how those words settle in the heart, mind and soul of an individual and drive them to act. The Abbot or Abbess must embody the rule of the community. This always reminds me of the phrase that the priest should be a walking sacrament, the superior in the community should be a living, breathing rule.

By living and giving the example practically the words gain a weight of authenticity. Without action, the words that are taught may well sound hollow. Without the words, the actions have little meaning. The superior must combine both in their being save error is made, as Benedict explains.

‘Of course, whenever they teach a disciple something is wrong they should themselves show by the practical example they give that it must not be done. If they fail in this they themselves, although they have preached well to others, may be rejected and Good may respond to their sinfulness by saying: Why do you repeat my teaching and take the words of my covenant on your lips, while you yourself have rejected my guidance and cast my words away? And again: you noticed the speck of dust in your brother’s eye but failed to see the beam in your own’

The parental claim of ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ holds no sway with Benedict, or indeed with God. The superior, the priest, the Christian must live a life that is balanced between word and example.