The prior or prioress of the monastery.
It has often happened that unfortunately conflicts have arisen in the monasteries as a result of the appointment of a prior or prioress as second in authority to the superior. There have been instances when some of the these officials have conceived out of an evil spirit of self-importance that they also are superiors and for that reason have assumed the powers of a tyrant, so that they encourage scandalous divisions in the community. This sort of thing is most likely happen in those regions where the prior or prioress is appointed by the same bishop of priest who appointed the abbot or abbess. It is clear how very foolish this arrangement is, because in provides the grounds for these subordinate officials to think proudly from the very beginning that they are exempt from the superior’s authority on the specious grounds that their own authority derives from the same source as their superior’s. That simply encourages the development of envy, quarrels, slander, rivalry, divisions and disorderly behaviour. The result it that, because of the conflict between the superior and the second in command, their own souls are at risk and their subjects take sides in the dispute, which brings ruin on them too. The responsibility for this and all the danger and evil it brings rests on the heads of those who devised such a confusing method of appointment.
We have no doubt therefore, that it is in the best interests of preserving peace and charity that the authority for the whole administration of the whole of the monastery should rest with the abbot or abbess. If possible, as noted above,it is best that everything should be organised through deans according to the wishes of the superior. Then, since power is delegated to many, there is no room for pride to take hold of any individual. However, if local needs suggest it and if the community makes the request with good reason and deference and the superior thinks it the right course to follow, the superior should take counsel with God-fearing seniors and appoint a second in command. Then the prior or prioress so appointed must carry out the duties delegated to them with due respect for the superior, against whose expressed wishes nothing must be attempted by them. The higher the position thus conferred on anyone the greater must be his or her devotion to the observance of the Rule.
If the prior or prioress is subsequently found to be led astray by pride into serious faults and shows scant respect for the holy Rule, then up to four times they must be rebuked in words. If there is no improvement the discipline of the Rule must be applied. If it brings no improvement, then there is nothing for it but dismissal from this position so that another more worthy candidate may be promoted. If a dismissed prior or prioress cannot live in peace and obedience in the community, then they must be expelled from the monastery. But the superior must take care not to be seared in soul by the flame of jealously or envy and to remember always the account we will have to give to God of all the judgements we make.
This chapter of the Rule is quite eyeopening. Benedict is clearly not keen on the appointment of a Prior or a Prioress, instead wishing the superiors orders to be carried out by the deans of the monastery – the role that was introduced very early on in chapter twenty one. The way in which this chapter is laid out, with a long extended reasoning against the role of prior(ess) suggests that this is borne out by previous experience. There appears to be two issues with this particular role. Firstly, Benedict describes a particular scenario in which the Bishop (of the Diocese or, perhaps, what is known in monastic communities as the Visitor – the Bishop charged with looking after the house in particular, even if it is not in his diocese), an external force, appoints the prior(ess) is unhelpful – when the source of authority comes from the same place as the abbot or abbess (if that is how they have been appointed, perhaps after a particular failure or specific situation) then it causes tension. Also, that someone from outside the community appoints someone to this role undermines the authority of the superior, giving more opportunity for dissension.
Secondarily, Benedict is wary of instilling a large amount of power, very similar, to the abbot or abbess in one person, instead preferring to distill this amongst several Deans, thus removing some of the risk of an inflated ego or the sin of pride to creep in. Pride, the most destabilising factor in the monastery and one that Benedict is very keen to keep at bay.
The way in which Benedict writes this chapter is reads as a personal experience, or at the very least one that he has witnesses. Could it be that this was his experience in one of his own monasteries, or that he was made aware of a similar scenario during his life time?
If there is to be a prior(ess) in the community then Benedict allows for it to happen, once again showing a characteristic balance, despite his obvious strong feelings and personal preference, and giving responsibility to the community to govern themselves. The Holy Father, despite writing a Rule and ensuring that it is implemented is never authoritarian, and the local context, the needs of the community and the will of the Abbot or Abbess, in conjunction with the seniors of the monastery and the spirit of the Rule are permitted to interpret it how it suits best. (This is, probably, part of the reason why there have, since the time S. Benedict been many reforms of the Order and the foundation of different groups who wished to recapture some of the pure essence of the Rule – such as the Trappists) – if the community will a prior(ess) and have a good reason (perhaps the community is very, very large and the Superior cannot manage alone, even with the Deans, perhaps the abbot or abbess is going through a period of spiritual darkness, or convalescing after an illness or treatment) then one may be appointed – and it is suggested that this happens only after consultation by the superior with the seniors. There is no hard line about who this must be and we can therefore assume that similarly with the appointment of the superior it CAN be anyone from within the community.
Perhaps a helpful way for the prior(ess) to view their role is not as a deputy, to as a second in command to be Peter – as the superior is to be ‘Christ in the monastery’ – perhaps having the prior(ess) act in the same way as the Prince of the Apostles would make the most sense. Peter, flawed as he is, knew that he was not Christ, that his power and authority was only because it was vested in him by the authority of Jesus Himself, but he drew close to Him and was alongside him. The being alongside is key – Peter was also not afraid to challenge Jesus when he felt he needed to, but accepted the rebuke if he was mistaken. This sort of mutually accountable relationship is good for the support of high office, the development of fraternal love and the growth of humility.
What can we say about this role in our modern life, outside of the cloister?
Curates – If you are reading this as someone who is ordained, a deacon or in your first few years in the priesthood and therefore still undertaking your curacy under the authority of the Bishop and the Incumbent of the parish in which you are placed, this is probably the most similar to the position that is described above, and indeed the to the scenario that Benedict is wary of – someone with some authority being placed under someone else by an external force. Once studies at seminary have been completed and the ordination to the diaconate has occurred, the collar is on and the title has changed to ‘The Rev’d’ it is very easy to become a little boastful, or proud, of the achievement. We all need to remind ourselves that we undertake this sacred ministry by the power and grace of God alone – although it is invested upon and within us, it is not about us. The relationship between the parish priest and the curate needs to be one like the ideal of the abbot/abbess and the prior(ess) in the best possible way. The curate is to shoulder some of the burden of the responsibility without usurping the authority – being grateful for the privilege of the elevated status, whilst accepting with humility the subordination. Together the priest and curate, like the abbot/abbess and prior(ess) can lead their respective communities into greater fruitfulness.
For those in lay life – working in the world – there is much to learn about the way in which we should accepted the positions given to us, be that in work, in church, or within our social peer groups. All that we do, we must do in the name of the Lord. Whilst we may not have a superior as a tangible reminder of our lives being centred around Christ, that is our Christian belief, that our days are ordered around His ministry upon earth and our character conformed to His pattern. We need to cultivate within us a Peter like response to the Lord – who do you say that I am? You are the Christ, the Messiah. If we can renew this within our hearts and minds each day then the work that we undertake becomes worship, it becomes and expression of praise and thanksgiving, and it means that when we are elevated to positions of influence, in work or in parish, we will approach the task with a humble, servant heart.