The three criteria for the order of precedence in the community are first of all the date of entry, then monastic observance and the decision of the abbot or abbess. But they must not cause unrest in the flocks committed to them by acting unjustly and as though with arbitrary authority but must remember at all times that an account will have to be given of all their decisions and works in this world. Well then, whenever the community gets into order for the kiss of peace, or for Holy Communion or for intoning the psalms or taking their place in choir or in any other circumstances they must be guided by the superior’s directions or the order established by the date of their entry. Age must never be the deciding factor in the community order just as it was that Samuel and Daniel judged their elders when they were still only boys. So, apart from those who the superior has promoted for a more cogent reason or demoted for specific faults, all the others retain the order of their conversion to monastic life so exactly that one who arrived at the monastery door at the second hour must accept a place junior to another who came an hour earlier whatever their age or former rank may have been. Children, of course, must be kept in their subordinate place by everyone on all occasions.
Juniors in the community should show due respect for their seniors and seniors should love and care for their juniors. When they address each other it should not be simply by name, but senior monks call their juniors ‘brother’ and the juniors address their seniors as ‘nonnus’ or ‘reverend father’. The abbot is understood to hold the place of Christ in the monastery and for this reason is called ‘lord’ or ‘abbot’, not because he demands it for himself but out of reverence and love of Christ; (For the same reasons an abbess is called ‘lady abbess’ and nuns in monastic community address each other as ‘sister’ or ‘mother’) it is a point on which he should often reflect to help him to live up to so great an honour.
When members of a monastic community meet each other, the junior asks a blessing of the senior. As a senior passes by, the junior rises and yields a place for the senior to sit down and will never sit without the senior’s permission. In that way they will conform to scripture which says they should try to be the first to show respect for each other. Small children and adolescents must keep their places in the oratory and the refectory in a disciplined way. Anywhere else, and especially outside the monastery, they must be under supervision and control until they have learnt responsibility as they get older.\
In this chapter, the order of the community, we are given an insight into exactly how many aspects of life are governed by the position someone takes in the monastery. In the previous chapters we have been told that the position in the community is primarily based on date of entry – what Benedict calls – the conversion to monastic life. And the use of the word conversion is very important as it demonstrates that the entry into monastic life is not something to be treated lightly (we have already read of the rigorous process for accepting new recruits in chapter fifty eight) and that, as ever, the primary concern of Benedict (save from the individual sanctification of the soul) is the balance of the community, to allow that progress toward Holiness to happen.
You would be forgiven for thinking that the order in the community, the rank one holds, does not have much impact on daily life and may only be considered when it comes to permissions being given by the superior for certain tasks – especially those that take the individual away from the community for any length of time – but here, Benedict shows us how much it impacts daily life and governs the actions of all. The ordering of the community is important, he says, so that the flock are not disturbed, and so all are expected to play their part and take their place, senior and junior, as instructed by Benedict.
The terminology the monks use in relation to one another shows the development of the familial and fraternal environment. The seniors are to greet their juniors as brother, as a relation, not as a subordinate. The juniors in return, being greeted with respect offer a reciprocal reverend father or nonnus. (this word has become synonymous with the word monk but comes form a more child-like vocabulary with inference to tutor or ‘old person’ but without a negative connotation) – this acknowledges that the junior, whilst being treated as a brother, recognises that they are to be guided and taught by those more senior to to them in orders.
Sometimes the mere mention of order is difficult for people accept, it has many negative images – such as those of hierarchy and privilege of power. Of course, there are times when these are true. Most monks that I have met and had the privilege of learning from actually speak very little about order, because they live in such an ordered way that it is just naturally part of their existence. But order is helpful, namely because it prevents a cult of personality or the domination of the group by any one particular person. For example, if you have a very charismatic individual in a group with no order, very quickly they will rise to the top of the pile and the group will be shaped by their personality and their whim. This, arguably can be a good thing, we see that in the lives of many of our great saints – perhaps even Benedict himself, but on the whole it is not a positive experience – at the very least it means the group is unlikely to survive post the life and leadership of that individual. Order establishes a longer lasting pattern, charismatic individuals are curbed in their overall influence and voices that are otherwise not heard are given an opportunity – an equality is created because all are following the same order. There is one Rule for all, not one Rule for one and one for another.
The principle aim of this order is humility. The rank within the community is a constant reminder that there are those above us and those below and causes us to think outside of ourselves, limiting the scope for selfish and egotistical though. There is an obvious, physical reminder of the need to be humble and obedience.
For those of us navigating a Christian life outside of the monastery what might order look like? We don’t rank the members of our church and congregation based on the date of their baptism, but it is also true to say we don’t, like the model of Benedict, do it purely on age. Very often those in positions of leadership may be considerably younger than those in the pew, and the learning between them is mutual – the formal teaching from the front and the teaching of a faith filled life can often be more apparent from the congregation.
But we should look at the ordering of our lives, as in where our focus and attention is and part of that needs to be a lessening of focus on the self in favour of the other. It is probably the most difficult aspect of our Christian life to put into practice. We are constantly surrounded by images from culture that tell us that we are the centre of our universe, we are living in the ‘i’ generation, the selfie, social media, self-care generation where looking out for number one is the prime goal, and number one is clearly the self.
What is commonly misunderstood in the lessening of focus on self is not the belief that we are somehow worthless, but that awareness of the needs of others should be a first thought and where most of our energy is place. Otherwise we end up in a very inward looking, naval gazing existence, making ourselves an island in a sea of chaos.
Ordering our lives needs to reflect our priorities. First, our duty is to God, He must be the centre of our life, we must live in humble submission to Him, whatever else we do then flows from that relationship. The care for ourselves becomes part of that, respecting His creation and recognising the Divine Spark within us. Then our focus must be to others, seeing Christ in the poor, the downtrodden and the outcast, seeing those who are without our privilege and comfort, without the ease of our lives, and doing what we can to raise them up and alleviate their suffering. Then we may turn to ourselves, and expend effort on our own needs.
How might it be best to remind ourselves of the need to focus primarily on God and then, as an outward expression of that, on others? Beginning each morning in prayer, asking for God’s blessings upon the day, on the activities before us, the situations we will be in and the people that we will meet.
One prayer that I use often is ‘Lord, help me to see others as you do, amen’ In praying this short prayer it is imploring God to be infused with His love and compassion for the world, and if I receive even a fraction of that for others, I am already ahead of what I would be able to muster from the recess of my damaged heart.