Tuesday, June 2, 2009

RB, Chapter 2: Qualities of the abbot

Chapter 2. Qualities of the Abbot 1 - 5

1To be worthy of the task of governing a monastery, the abbot must always remember what his title signifies and act as a superior should. 2He is believed to hold the place of Christ in the monastery, since he is addressed by a title of Christ, 3as the Apostle indicates: You have received the spirit of adoption of sons by which we exclaim, abba, father (Rom 8:15).
4Therefore, the abbot must never teach or decree or command anything that would deviate from the Lord’s instructions. 5On the contrary, everything he teaches and commands should, like the leaven of divine justice, permeate the minds of his disciples.
This is a difficult chapter for the abbot to comment on. The abbot must always remember what his ttle signifies and act as a superior should.

The title, abbot, obviously signifies the father of the monastery but also, in some ways then reflects the role of God the Father. It is enough, for sure, that the abbot should try to live as a person who is the superior of a community.
The superior is one who must set an example, who must lead the community forward (towards God, not towards himself) and who must strive to keep the community united at brothers and as men who are committed to living the Gospel of Jesus Christ as monks. This is not easy!!

The abbot is believed to hold the place of Christ in the community. It is only belief that can make this possible since the abbot is always riddled with faults and defects and sinfulness.

Although this sounds almost impossible, so is it almost impossible to love my neighbor as Christ. So we monks should not complain that something difficult has been put on us.
So often we can criticize the abbot's decisions, the abbot's way of life, the abbot's shortcomings, the abbot's sinfulness, the abbot's lack of understanding—and on and on and on. That is all true! On the other hand, if we want to live by faith, we have to accept that the abbot holds the place of Christ in the community and we can trust in that.

The abbot for his part, however, must never teach, decree or command anything that deviates from the Lord's instructions. This part is not so difficult for the abbot, at least in presenting teachings. It is not so easy in the way he lives.
Always he has to be aware that Saint Benedict is so clear that the abbot teaches not only by word but by example. How difficult!!

Only the abbot could teach in such a way that his words are so pure and clear that they change the thinking of the monks!
We can all pray for that in our own respective community. Surely if the abbot preaches only Christ, then his words become effective.

Every day we need to pray for the abbot of the community!

Verse 6 - 10
6Let the abbot always remember that at the fearful judgment of God, not only his teaching but also his disciples’ obedience will come under scrutiny.
7The abbot must, therefore, be aware that the shepherd will bear the blame wherever the father of the household finds that the sheep have yielded no profit.
8Still, if he has faithfully shepherded a restive and disobedient flock, always striving to cure their unhealthy ways, it will be otherwise: 9the shepherd will be acquitted at the Lord’s judgment. Then, like the Prophet, he may say to the Lord: I have not hidden your justice in my heart; I have proclaimed your truth and your salvation (Ps 39[40]:11), but they spurned and rejected me (Isa 1:2; Ezek 20:27).
10Then at last the sheep that have rebelled against his care will be punished by the overwhelming power of death.

This Chapter 2, on the abbot, is given a whole week to be read for the community—three times a year. It is obvious that the Chapter is considered very important. The abbot is considered one of the two basic elements of monastic life. We monks serve under a rule and an abbot.
Today the abbot is told that he must answer to God not only for his own teachings but also for the obedience of his disciples, the monks of his community.
The Rule of Benedict presumes that the abbot has a relationship with his monks. Surely it is not exactly the kind of relationship that an abbot might have with his monks in the present age, but it does imply that the abbot knows his monks, that he relates personally to the monks of the community, that the abbot listens to the monks and that there is some "give and take" in this relationship between abbot and monks.
The abbot's goal is not to develop friendships with the monks, but rather to help each monk relate deeply with God. Each monk must have God as the central purpose and meaning of his life. The abbot must keep that goal in mind all of the time. If the abbot puts other goals in front of God, then the abbot must bear the responsibility at the time of the final judgment.

On the other, if the abbot honestly tries his best and the monks do not listen to him, then the monks bear the responsibility and will answer at the time of the last judgment.

This in this short segment of Chapter Two of the Rule, we have Saint Benedict speaking both to the abbot and to the monks. The abbot must hear his responsibility for guiding his monks on a spiritual path to God. The monks must hear their responsibility to listen to their abbot and to try to do in their lives what the abbot asks of them.

For the abbot this role is difficult because he is not a saint and tries to find the road to God for himself. After many years, perhaps, the abbot is away of God's presence and now must seek ways to show to the monks of the community how to live that life in God. Each monk has his own ideas and often, in reality, they are probably better than the abbot's!

The monk for his part finds it difficult to follow everything that an abbot says because he sees all the defects of his abbot and the defects of the community, which the abbot has formed. Yet the teaching of Rule is so very clear: the abbot must try to teach and guide the monks toward God; the monks must listen to the abbot and try to live what he asks of them. So simple! May the Lord help us live this simple teaching and become saints!

Verse 11 - 15
11Furthermore, anyone who receives the name of abbot is to lead his disciples by a twofold teaching: 12he must point out to them all that is good and holy more by example than by words, proposing the commandments of the Lord to receptive disciples with words, but demonstrating God’s instructions to the stubborn and the dull by a living example.
13Again, if he teaches his disciples that something is not to be done, then neither must he do it, lest after preaching to others, he himself be found reprobate (1 Cor 9:27) 14and God some day call to him in his sin: How is it that you repeat my just commands and mouth my covenant when you hate discipline and toss my words behind you (Ps 49[50]:16–17)? 15And also this: How is it that you can see a splinter in your brother’s eye, and never notice the plank in your own (Matt 7:3)?

Today's short section from the Chapter on the Qualities of the Abbot is clear: the abbot must teach more by example than by words—but he must still teach with words.
The role of the abbot is not simply to be an administrator of the monastery, someone who keeps the monastery going materially. The role of the abbot is to form monks who are strong in their seeking of God, strong in monastic practice, strong in their Catholic faith.

So first the abbot must be strong in his seeking of God. The abbot must spend time in prayer. This has nothing to do with seeing the abbot praying—that is the example—this has to do with abbot actually praying. If the abbot is not praying, there is no way that he can be faithful to the clear directions of Saint Benedict in this Chapter.
The abbot must be tireless in his seeking the face of the Lord. That does not mean that the abbot is a saint, only that he must himself constantly be putting his whole life before the Lord, asking for help, seeking to know the Lord, thanking the Lord.

The element of prayer must be the most basic element in the life of the abbot. After that, however, he must set an example. The first example is to be present and on time at all of the community activities. If the abbot is not present and on time, how can he possible expect his monks to be present and on time.
The abbot must strive to follow Christ, the Church, the Rule, the Constitutions and the Customary. Again, how could an abbot expect that his monks would value Christ, the Church, the Rule, the Constitutions and the Customary if he does not!

The abbot must always be faithful to the Catholic faith. Saint Benedict did not establish a monastery of just any type. He did establish a monastery that was in communion with the local bishops and with the Church. Without doubt there have been developments in our understanding of the Church, of the role of the Holy Father, the role of the bishops, etc.
On the other hand, the local abbot must lead his brothers to be living in the heart of the Church. When monks begin to want to be leaders in changes, leaders in theology, etc., the basic role of the monk gets lost: the role of the abbot and the monk is simply to seek the face of the Lord, to remain a calm and praying presence in the heart of the Church.

That does not mean that the abbot and the monks cannot think and cannot be theologians. But the abbot and the monk must be aware of the deepest commitment of their energies: to a silent, loving and joyful praying presence in the heart of the Church.

Verse 16 - 22
16The abbot should avoid all favoritism in the monastery. 17He is not to love one more than another unless he finds someone better in good actions and obedience. 18A man born free is not to be given higher rank than a slave who becomes a monk, except for some other good reason. 19But the abbot is free, if he sees fit, to change anyone’s rank as justice demands.

Ordinarily, everyone is to keep to his regular place, 20because whether slave or free, we are all one in Christ (Gal 3:28; Eph 6:8) and share alike in bearing arms in the service of the one Lord, for God shows no partiality among persons (Rom 2:11). 21Only in this are we distinguished in his sight: if we are found better than others in good works and in humility. 22Therefore, the abbot is to show equal love to everyone and apply the same discipline to all according to their merits.

Always it is a challenge for an abbot not to favor any monk over another monk—unless there is a clear case of being better in good works and humility. And it is the abbot's right to make that judgment about his monks, although the monks generally will not be happy about it.

Monks often complain even when an abbot makes the regular appointments of the house because these appointments are not those that the monk would have made.
The abbot must strive to be as impartial as he can be. On the other hand the abbot often knows more about the individual monks than the other monks do and so is able to make decisions that the other monks would not.
IN any community, the monks differ in their abilities and in their capacities. Generally the abbot must appoint brothers to various responsibilities because he believes that the appointed monk is truly capable of doing the work that is need to serve the community. It is the abbot's responsibility to appoint monks that he, the abbot, deems capable and well suited for the responsibilities to which he is appointed.

The abbot will have to answer for this impartiality in appointments and also the impartiality of his treatment of each of the monks. The monks will have to answer both for their response to the abbot's appointments and also for their way of supporting the abbot in his appointments.
This chapter focuses on the abbot's responsibility while other chapter will speak of the monk's responsibility. Normally each monk should have the order in the community given to him by his entry and he should be treated accordingly. The abbot must be very care not to interfere with that seniority unless there is a compelling reason.

Normally the abbot must be totally consistent (or at least as consistent as he can be) in his treatment of the monks of the community. Such a way of acting leads to a calm and peaceful community. Each of us must strive to live with this peace and calm.

Verse 23 - 29
23In his teaching, the abbot should always observe the Apostle’s recommendation, in which he says: Use argument, appeal, reproof (2 Tim 4:2). 24This means that he must vary with circumstances, threatening and coaxing by turns, stern as a taskmaster, devoted and tender as only a father can be.

25With the undisciplined and restless, he will use firm argument; with the obedient and docile and patient, he will appeal for greater virtue; but as for the negligent and disdainful, we charge him to use reproof and rebuke. 26He should not gloss over the sins of those who err, but cut them out while he can, as soon as they begin to sprout, remembering the fate of Eli, priest of Shiloh (1 Sam 2:11–4:18).

27For upright and perceptive men, his first and second warnings should be verbal; 28but those who are evil or stubborn, arrogant or disobedient, he can curb only by blows or some other physical punishment at the first offense. It is written, The fool cannot be corrected with words (Prov 29:19); 29and again, Strike your son with a rod and you will free his soul from death (Prov 23:14).

This is one of the most difficult of Saint Benedict’s demands on the abbot of the community. The abbot must vary with circumstances, sometimes threatening, sometimes coaxing, sometimes stern, sometimes devoted and tender.
Objectively it sounds quite good, but when the abbot actually tries to live this way, then the other brothers often criticize him. When the abbot thinks he must be tough, many of the monks tell him he should be lenient. When the abbot is tender and devoted as a father, then the monks tell him to be stern. And so ordinary life goes on.

So a basic requirement for the abbot is that he must truly listen and then make a decision in conscience and then accept all the criticism that may come, but have all of his hope and confidence in the Lord.

Everyone knows that an abbot must keep the goal in the mind of serving his brothers so that they relate more and more deeply to the living God. Serving the brothers, clearly, in this chapter means some kind of insistence that they move towards this goal of knowing and loving the Lord. That insistence can include gentleness and love and tenderness, but also tough love and penances and difficult tasks in the monastery.
Today, most of us want the gentle abbot, the abbot who does not push us very much, the abbot who accepts all of our failures.

Saint Benedict is clear that this type of gentle abbot, who has only a sweet and tender side, is not his kind of abbot. The abbot has to have a tough side, a side that can be strong and uncompromising. And for many of us abbot, this tough role is the most difficult. It is always much easier to be gentle and sweet—or at least not a person who always confronts.
The growth of the abbot is always to develop whatever aspects of him that are present here in the Rule but not in his personal life. So the abbot must study the Rule and see what is expected of him and then try to cooperate with God’s grace so that all aspects of his personal life are able to be put at the service of the community. The gifts which he does not have naturally, he must pray for so that he can serve the Lord and the community even more.
Verse 30 - 32
30The abbot must always remember what he is and remember what he is called, aware that more will be expected of a man to whom more has been entrusted. 31He must know what a difficult and demanding burden he has undertaken: directing souls and serving a variety of temperaments, coaxing, reproving and encouraging them as appropriate.
32He must so accommodate and adapt himself to each one’s character and intelligence that he will not only keep the flock entrusted to his care from dwindling, but will rejoice in the increase of a good flock.
Saint Benedict is very clear in his teaching that the abbot holds a very special place in the community. This special place cannot be compared to the president of a company nor to the leader of a group.
Rather the abbot is, for the community, Christ present in their midst. This is the clear teaching of the Rule and the abbot is called upon in this small section of Chapter 2 to remember this teaching.

The word abbot has all kinds of meanings associated with it. If we simplify them all, we are left with the meaning of “father” in the sense of caring for all the needs of the monks and in the sense of spiritual fatherhood.
The life of the abbot would still be difficult if he were only responsible for the physical well-being of the monks, but Saint Benedict expects the abbot delegate that responsibility to the cellarer. The main role of the abbot is in teaching by example and by word, striving to form the monks as spiritual men. This instruction is both intellectual at some level and practical in terms of the practice of the monastery and of the individual monk.

Some of the ideas of Saint Paul in his letters are surely reflected in this section of the Rule of Saint Benedict. The abbot “begets sons” by the power of the Gospels. That means, in stronger terms, that the only important reality of life for the abbot to transmit is life in Jesus Christ. If an abbot tries to develop followers, it is a mistake.
The abbot strives to transmit the life given to us all in Jesus Christ. The abbot strives to find ways by which each monk is drawn deeper and deeper into the mystery of our Christian faith within the Catholic Church.

The abbot must teach. The abbot must proclaim Jesus Christ. The abbot can only give what he has received. Thus the abbot must himself be walking a spiritual path and seeking the Lord. The abbot will not be perfect. On the other hand, it is the wisdom that the abbot has gained from his experience that he is trying to transmit.
Thus the abbot does not need academic degrees (they might help, but only if those degrees reflect living experience and not merely some academic knowledge) as much as he needs a living and vibrant faith in God, in Jesus Christ and in the Church.

The second focus of this short section is on the abbot’s capacity to adapt himself to others so that he really can serve them. Benedict tells us: “32He must so accommodate and adapt himself to each one’s character and intelligence….”
This task of really coming to know each brother and then being able to encourage that brother to follow the Lord Jesus is perhaps one of the biggest challenges of our day, especially when a monastery may have monks from anywhere in the world and each one has his own culture in addition to his own personal choices and background.
Yet Saint Benedict will not let the abbot shirk this duty and the abbot must continually strive to accommodate and adapt himself to the brothers—whereas most would think that it should be the other way around!
Verse 33 - 40
33Above all, he must not show too great concern for the fleeting and temporal things of this world, neglecting or treating lightly the welfare of those entrusted to him. 34Rather, he should keep in mind that he has undertaken the care of souls for whom he must give an account.
35That he may not plead lack of resources as an excuse, he is to remember what is written: Seek first the kingdom of God and his justice, and all these things will be given you as well (Matt 6:33), 36and again, Those who fear him lack nothing (Ps 33[34]:10).

37The abbot must know that anyone undertaking the charge of souls must be ready to account for them. 38Whatever the number of brothers he has in his care, let him realize that on judgment day he will surely have to submit a reckoning to the Lord for all their souls—and indeed for his own as well.
39In this way, while always fearful of the future examination of the shepherd about the sheep entrusted to him and careful about the state of others’ accounts, he becomes concerned also about his own, 40and while helping others to amend by his warnings, he achieves the amendment of his own faults.
Finally we finish this chapter of the Rule of Benedict about the abbot of the community. Even in this last section we have some very good and strong teaching for the abbot to hear.

First, the abbot must not put very much attention to the fleeting and temporal things of this word and neglect the welfare of those entrusted to his care. Probably today we could hear the secular wisdom telling us: give them bread first and then you can talk religion. But for Saint Benedict, it is the opposite.
Don't worry about bread, worry about the spirit, the relationship of the brother with God, not his material well-being.

Saint Benedict is not telling the abbot to forget about the material necessities of this world, but he is stating clearly that the material necessities of this world are really not as important as the spiritual necessities.
Our present culture simply does not believe this and so it is difficult for the monks of our time to believe this. It is difficult for an abbot to speak about fasting, for instance, or about giving up some of the material goods that our present age thinks are necessary: internet, electronic gadgets, phone calls, concern for one's career, etc.
There are also other concerns that I am convinced fall under this same type of thinking: having a perfect observance, having brothers who all agree on the same way of monastic life, thinking that every brother should have the same monastic ideal, etc.
The abbot has to try to lead brothers to a more spiritual life in which each of the brothers is truly seeking God and not looking at the world nor at his brothers. That is a very difficult teaching today.

There is great consolation in this chapter as well, since Benedict points out that as the abbot seeks to lead his own brothers to the Lord, the abbot will also find his own path to salvation. That is surely the experience of any abbot who has, with good intentions, served his community for many years.

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