Chapter Sixty Four

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The election of an abbot or abbess.

In the process through which an abbot or abbess is elected the principle to be borne in mind is that the one finally elected should be the choice of the whole community acting together in the fear of God or else of a small group in the coming, however small they may be in numbers, provided they have sound judgement. The grounds on which a candidate is elected abbot or abbess must be the quality of their monastic life and the wisdom of their teaching, even if they are the last in order in the community. 

If it should happen – and may God forbid it – that the whole community should conspire to elect one who will consent to their evil way of life,and if their corrupt ways become known to the bishop of the local diocese or to the abbots or abbesses or ordinary Christians living nearby, they should intervene to prevent so depraved a conspiracy and provide for the appointment of a worthy guardian for the house of God. They may be sure that they will receive a rich reward for this good act, if it is done out of pure intentions and zeal for the Lord, while if they neglect to intervene in such a situation it will be accounted sinful.

Chapter Sixty Four introduces an incredibly important set of principles for the guiding of the community in the election of their abbot or abbess. As we have read in the previous chapters of the Rule they hold the place of ‘Christ in the monastery’ and Benedict leaves much to their discretion – allowing them the freedom to execute judgement and prudence when it comes to locality and the customs of each particular house. Therefore the power that is vested in the superior is immense, even though the Rule makes clear that the power is used in such a way that collaboration from the community is the way in which things are done. It is vital that the community choose the superior well and because of the right gifts.

Fascinatingly, Benedict is very clear that the person chosen must be, as expected an exemplar of monastic life and someone who shows great wisdom, BUT that is can even be the youngest (in terms of entry to the Order) in the community. Whilst it is unlikely that a new recruit to the monastic life possesses those skills needed to be the abbot or abbess, never the less Benedict does not rule them out simply on account of their new coming. This extends the principle that all voices must be heard in the boldest possible way – if the youngest can become the most senior, the community is clearly working on an egalitarian principle – and, of course, the prompting of God in who He brings to the community.

Also, the whole community must be behind the choice, it would be no good electing a superior who was divisive and for whom many in the community had little respect because they believed he or she to be unsuitable for the role. This would lead to resentment, a greater risk of ill discipline and instability in the community. However, Benedict does recognise that it won’t always be possible to agree. There is an old saying that when you gather five Christians there will be eight opinions. And in this instance, if the whole community cannot decide for themselves, after consultation the a group will be formed who will make the decision on behalf of the wider community – this is especially useful in very large communities. The membership of this group is not set but we can assume it would include the Deans and the Prior, senior members and maybe even the priests of the monastery, those who have demonstrated a considerable commitment to the rule which has been reflected by their rank and position in order to trust their judgement on the most suitable candidate.

Then we come to where accountability lay. In Benedict’s time there was a lot of corruption in society and the abbey was not immune to the toxic influences of the world. There are plenty of accounts of medieval monasteries being places of drunken debauchery, with little regard for the poor, the Rule and even less for God. Unfortunately,  Benedictine monasteries often became very wealthy because of their work ethic, and money can lead to corruption. Benedict sets into the Rule a safety net. That should the community be leading such a life and elect someone who is going to allow that to continue, rather than reform the community in line with the Rule, firstly the Bishop of the Diocese should intervene, or if it comes to the attention of other monastic houses, their superiors may step in, but if all that fails, and it comes to the attention of local Christians, ordinary men and women, Benedict says it is their Christian duty to reform the House of God and install someone who will be a guardian of it. Benedict places oversight into the hand of the very people the monastery should be serving, lest the monks and nuns forget they serve the Church and the People of God with their service.

In our own lives then we must take the comments made by Benedict about the selection of people for tasks – and we would do well to remember not to make appointments based on anything other than their merit. It is also, then, arguably our Christian duty to hold those in power to account. There is no one correct way to vote in local and national elections, there isn’t a party line for Christians but if we apply the principle that Benedict uses for the election of the abbot or abbess we should be asking ourselves which of the candidates presented to us is going to act in the best way for the poor, for the downtrodden, for the weakest in society. We can look at their voting records on various aspects surrounding issues of life, like abortion and euthanasia, we can use our vote to ensure that the person chosen is going to be the best servant. Obviously this is a secular role, to be an MP or a local councillor, and adherence to faith won’t always be a factor, but it is important to ensure they are not hostile to faith. We should choose on merit and remember that we vote not just for ourselves but for the good of all the community in which we live.

The abbot or abbess once established in office, must think about the demands made on them  the burden they have undertaken and consider also to whom they will have to give an account of their stewardship. They must understand that the call of their office is not to exercise power over those who are their subjects but to serve and help them in their needs. They must be well grounded in the law of God so that they may have the resources to bring forth what is new and what is old in their teaching. They must be chaste, sober and compassionate and should always let mercy triumph over judgement in the hope of themselves receiving like treatment from the Lord. While they must hate all vice, they must act with prudence being conscious of the danger of breaking the vessel itself by attacking the rust too vigorously. They should always bear their own fragility in mind and remember not to crush the bruised reed.  Of course I do not mean that they should allow vices to grow wild but rather use prudence and charity in cutting them out, so as to help each other in their individual needs, as I have already said. They should seek to be loved more than they are feared.

They should not be trouble-makers nor given to excessive anxiety nor should they be too demanding and obstinate nor yet interfering and inclined to suspicion so as never to be at rest. In making decisions they should use foresight and care in analysing the situation, so that whether they are giving orders about sacred or about secular affairs they should be far-seeing and moderate in their decisions. They might well reflect on the discretion of the holy patriarchs Jacob when he said: If I force my flock to struggle further on their feet, they will all die in a single day. They should take to heart these and other examples of discretion, the mother of virtues, and manage everything in the monastery so that the strong may have ideals to inspire them and the weak may not be frightened away by excessive demands. Above all they must remain faithful to this Rule in every detail, so that after fulfilling their ministry well they may hear the words uttered to that good servant who provided bread for fellow servants at the proper time: I tell you solemnly the Lord sets his faithful servant over all that he possesses. 

When we read the words of the second half of this chapter of the Rule we may breath a sign of relief as Benedict goes into some detail about the qualities that an abbot or abbess should have, and the weight upon their shoulders is stressed as being, rightly, enormous. The list of qualities makes for an almost superhuman figure, someone of such great virtue, effectively a saint. As we are unlikely to be an abbot or abbess of a monastic community it would be very easy to skip passed these words and move on to another part of the Rule that speaks to our situation more directly, but, we would be prudent to ponder it all the more. If we have learnt anything from the endurance of the Rule it should be that it is never just limited to the Order and the houses for which it was written, it is primarily a document that speaks of Christian characteristics and we would all do well to craft within our heart a little cloister where the love of God can dwell.

Priests – read this chapter of the Rule carefully, I would implore you to read it at least three times and reflect upon it. Although the parish priest is in a very different form of community and the way in which the priest is appointed is, again, somewhat different – there are similarities. Even if the Bishop recommends a priest to a particular place the final say remains with the Patrons (if that is not the bishop) and representatives of the parochial church council. (NB: This is written from the perspective of the Anglican tradition generally, and in particular, the Church of England) In this sense there is an assessment of the suitability of the candidate to become the incumbent and the community receiving them as such do choose them.

It is worth, especially, upon being appointed to a parish that we reflect upon the great weight of the Office that we have accepted. This is not a job, this is not something we are paid to do and do as a career. If that is our feeling about it, frankly, we should take our collar off and go and do something else. This is a sacred calling, a privileged position and a community are placing their trust in you to lead and guide them in, literally, a matter of life and death, their salvation. At the end of our time we will make an account of the work we have engaged in – not just to the Bishop and/or patrons in the form of an annual revive but to God on the Last Day. This should always be in our mind and not crowded out by the inevitable administrative, box ticking bureaucracy that can consume church life.

Be well grounded in the law and doctrine of the church, continue your studies. You will be expected to stand before your people each week (if not more) and teach them, taking Holy Writ and expounding it, breaking it open and feeding them from it. You cannot do that if you are not feeding yourself, if you are not being nourished by the very same. Read, pray and read. The Benedictine principle of Lectio Divina is a good practice for the parish priest to develop for their own spiritual betterment.

The virtues that Benedict stresses such as compassion and always erring on the side of mercy over judgement are prudent especially in a parish. In a monastery if the abbot or abbess is slightly harsh, there is little the monk or nun can do, in the parish people can leave. That does not mean, as Benedict says, that we should allow vices to grow. As Priests we are guiding and leading our people in the growth of virtue and that will require hard teaching and tough love, at time, but we need to balance it. The best advice I was given in this regard was to ensure that we are good at making our own confession – the one who experiences mercy is better at offering mercy to others.

Laity – I don’t believe that not being a monastic or in the order of clerics means that this section of the Rule has nothing to say in the life of an Christian who lives outside of these two particular states and callings. There is one particular aspect that comes to mind from this section of the Rule is this; While they must hate all vice, they must act with prudence being conscious of the danger of breaking the vessel itself by attacking the rust too vigorously. They should always bear their own fragility in mind and remember not to crush the bruised reed.

We, as Christians, are primarily responsible for our own interior development, for the shaping and conforming our life in the pattern of Christ. God, in His grace and mercy assists us with this, sending the Holy Spirit, revealing Himself in the scriptures, giving of Himself in the Sacraments of the Church and providing those to guide us in the form of clerics and monastics, but the work rests in our hands. We can be our own worst enemies when it comes to interior progress. Either making none, for the task is too hard, too difficult and overwhelming, or, by zeal and desire we can really strenuously attack ourselves in order to rid ourselves of the vices we have. Benedict’s edict in this chapter shows that we must exercise mercy, not just on others, but on ourselves. If we do not approach the work the soul with mercy, we will approach it in a disordered way, and whilst the motivation and ultimate aim may be good, the outcome will be less so.

We must be moderate in our practices of piety, not taking on too much, not running before we can talk. Although we may not be in training to be a monk, nun, superior in a monastic order or even a parish priest, we are fitting ourselves for Heaven. That does require us to strive but in the strength of Christ and the mercy of God, rather than in our own excessive efforts. As the Holy Father writes of the example of Jacob; If I force the flock to struggle on their feet they will die in a single day, so we should also remember that our life in faith, our Christian pilgrimage on earth is a marathon and not a sprint. We cannot do all things at once and we cannot expect perfection overnight – it is a long process and we need to discern and assess where our efforts are, take guidance, and be prudent in our attempts. The level headed stability that the abbot or abbess requires is a good example for us, as we craft the cloister of the heart, over which we set ourselves as the superior.

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