Chapter Twenty One

 

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The Deans of the monastery 

‘Deans should be chosen from among the community, if that is justified by size. They should be chosen for their good reputation and high monastic standards of life. Their office will be to take care of all the needs the groups of ten placed under them and to do so in all respects in accordance with God’s commandants and the instructions of their superior. They must be selced for their suitability of character and gifts so that the abbot or abbess may, without anxiety, share some responsibilities with them. For that reason they should not be chosen simply because of their order in the community but because of their upright lives and the wisdom their teaching.

If any of the deans are affected by some breath of pride which lays thumped to adverse criticism, they should be corrected once or twice or even three times. After that if any are unwilling to change for the better, they should be deposed from their position of responsibility so that another who is more worthy of the office may be brought in.In the case of the prior or prioress we propose the same course of action.’

 

Far too often within the structures of the church positions are granted to people because of their long service – as though elevation to the episcopacy or becoming a Venerable Archdeacon is akin to a carriage clock or wrist watch given by a secular company for being on the staff for thirty years. The Holy Father rejects this way of doing things when it comes to the election of a dean within a community and clearly states that age or length of time within the order is not a barrier to election. Some of the holiest and most suitable people for the position may well be the youngest in the order. It is important to weigh the merits of the individual. What would the church look like if we removed the minimum age for a Bishop in the Church of England? What would it look like if Cathedral Deans or Archdeacons were not people approaching, or already in, the last phase of their active ministerial life? (This is certainly not to say that we should ignore the need for experience but Benedict does mention gifts and the importance of those)

There is, as is always the case with Benedict, good scriptural precedent for such a move. The younger brother of Esau, Jacob, usurps his brothers birthright. Joseph, one of the youngest of Jacob’s children is chosen by God, David, the youngest of the children of Jesse, is chosen by God and anointed by Samuel to be King over all God’s people. In the New Testament also we are introduced by S. Paul to people like Timothy – who is explicitly told not to allow people to disregard him for his young age.

A common phrase within our language is ‘older and wiser’ – and that is, in many ways, completely true. There is a great wealth of wisdom in the older members of our population. However, wisdom is a gift from God and can be granted to anyone whom He chooses. King Solomon was not ancient in age when he was granted such great wisdom,  and another well known phrase, ‘an old head on young shoulders’ reveals that those who’s span of life may not have been as long, extensive or experienced can possess wisdom beyond their earthly years.

The way in which the role of Dean is structured is partly to do with succession planning. If you have a monastery of, for example, 40 monks, there may be 4 elected deans with some level of oversight over 10 brothers. These brothers are, as Benedict says, to be chosen for their good character and the high standard of their monastic life – in many ways these are markers for who may well be the next Abbot, prior or sub-prior as the normal rhythms of life in the monastery continue and those in authority either die or leave office.

It is pertinent that Benedict also mentions pride. Pride is an especially insidious trait in youth. There is an old expression ‘When I was a child my parents knew nothing, by the time I was 18 they had learned a lot’ – such is the pride of youth that can often spill over into arrogance or even contempt of others. But, of course, it is not only the young who can fall prey to this trait, anyone is susceptible especially when they are elevated to positions of seniority. Benedict responds to this possibility with his characteristic balance. Those who exhibit this character trait must be corrected, a few times, in order that they may change. Here the Holy Father recognises that the feeling of elation of being elected by your peers, or having your gifts recognised and your monastic standards praised, can inflate the ego and increase pride – and it can take some time for that to settle again, for perspective to be brought and for the practices of common life to temper those inclinations. Only when they refuse to change should they be removed of their position.

The community gives and the community takes away. Being elected does not give job security for life – the monastic community ebbs and flows with each arrival and departure and the offices of the superiors must reflect that.