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The Rule of St. Benedict: Commentary on Chapter 2: Qualities of the Abbot

The Rule of Saint Benedict Chapter 2: The Qualities of the Abbot
Commentary by Jake Kettle

Throughout the course of one’s study of monasticism, the doubtful researcher will surely ask, why does a monastery need a domineering Abbot in order to function properly as a spiritual and mystic enterprise? The question is valid, but it comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of Saint Benedict of Nursia’s writings in Chapter 2 of the Rule, which are on The Qualities, and furthermore, illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding of monasticism and western asceticism in general. The Abbot is not the judge and the jury, nor is he a domineering figure, put in place by the Church in order to keep the Brothers and Fathers of the Monastery in order, but rather it is the role of a gentle Shepard, and though sometimes he must use his staff for the general protection of his flock, and for the protection of their souls, he is still a Shepard who loves and cares for his flock. A Shepard gives the flock direction, support, and nourishes them. This is the same as the role of the Abbot in the Monastery, he is a Shepard of men seeking God. This fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the Abbot, which will be discussed in greater detail in the following passages, may be the crux for many individuals seeking the monastic life, or seeking a fuller understanding of Christianity, and Monasticism.

Many people simply fail to read the Rule of St. Benedict, and rather rely on what they see or what they hear to understand the Role of the Abbot. The only true way to get an idea of the function of the Abbot is to read the Rule of St. Benedict itself, or to visit a Monastery and observe the daily functions of the Abbot in his native setting. In the very first paragraph of Chapter 2 of the Rule, St. Benedict states “He (the abbot) is believed to hold the place of Christ in the monastery, since he is addressed by a title of Christ, as the Apostle indicate: You have received the spirit of adoption of sons by which we exclaim, Abba, the Father.” With that in mind, he is required to be fair. If he holds the place of Christ in the monastery, he must emulate Christ, as all Christians or Monastics do, but he must do so in his rulings over the brothers, and in his other functions in his Monastery. This is a very important point to understand, for it lays the foundation for the rest of Chapter 2. St. Benedict then writes the follow a few sentences later,
“Let the abbot always remember that at the fearful judgment of God, not only his teaching but also his disciples’ obedience will come under scrutiny. The 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. Still, if he has faithfully shepherded a restive and disobedient flock, always striving to cure their unhealthy ways , it will be otherwise: the shepherd will be acquitted at the Lord’s judgment.”
This clearly illustrates that the Abbot must be fair. He cannot be the domineering figure that many would like to make him out to be. He is at the judgment of the God, he is responsible for the souls of the faithful brothers of the Monastery. It is he who will be held responsible, for not only his actions but for theirs. He must be prudent in his proclamations and decrees, for it is Almighty God who he will ultimately answer to. This provides for a check and balance system within the Monastery. It allows for the proper formation of a religious superior. Without this spiritual guidance of the Abbot, the brothers would fall into spiritual disunion and become prone to vanity and strokes of mortal sin. Furthermore, in the Rule itself the Abbot is instructed to be a fair and wise man, for it is of the benefit of all in the Monastery to have such a superior.

When examining Chapter 2 of the Rule of St. Benedict, the first sentence of the second chapter is crucially important, “…anyone who receives the name of abbot is to lead his disciples by a twofold teaching: he 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.” The Abbot is to both lead by teaching, by word, and by example, through the living of the word. It goes on to discuss that the Abbot must not do that which he instructs those he shepherds to do. He must demonstrate the principles in which he practices. This further illustrates that the Abbot is held accountable, he is free of course to make decisions, but as all monks live by the Rule, he must adhere to these guidelines laid out by St. Benedict. St. Benedict quotes several important passages of scripture as well to further illustrate this point. “Again, 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’…And also this: ‘How is it that you can see a splinter in your brothers eye, and never notice the plank in your own?’ The abbot should avoid all favoritism in the monastery.” The Abbot is to avoid harsh judgment and must live by the principles both in action, word, and in heart, in order to properly lead his flock. The quote St. Benedict uses from the scriptures reinforces and clearly shows the importance of this teaching. He is to treat all equally, whether a freeman or a slave. One must remember the time in which St. Benedict wrote his Rule. The Roman Empire was still heavily involved in slavery, and in the slave trade. Many slaves were Christians, and some joined monastic communities after their freedom from bondage. All men were to be treated according their aptitude, and they are to be disciplined according to their aptitude, but with no favoritism. It must be completely put out of the mind of the Abbot. Favoritism is the enemy of a balanced decision, it sways one’s opinion towards one individual or the other if resolving a dispute, or having a discussion during a meeting of the Brothers in Counsel. Those who see the Abbots position as comfortable, easy, and domineering do not understand the great responsibility of the Abbot, and the burden that shepherding a flock can become.

The idea that the role of the Abbot is burdensome can be found directly in the Rule itself. “The abbot must always remember what he is and remember what he is called, aware that more will be expected of a man whom more has been entrusted. He 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.” This shows the demanding role of the Abbot, not a life of leisure and luxury, but one of constant inner contemplation, and outward prudence of action. This is a daunting task, and a heavy role for anyone to fill. To be elected by the community as the Abbot can be seen as both an honor, and as a great burden given to them by God. The last few sentences of Chapter 2 of the Rule of St. Benedict quote scripture once again, and dovetails directly into the other two main points being made, “…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, ‘ and again ‘Those who fear him lack nothing.’ The abbot must know that anyone undertaking the charge of souls must be ready to account for them.” The Abbot is always to remember the principles of Monasticism, seek first the kingdom of heaven, seek the eternal not the temporal, and to continue to retain that true monastic spirit in his heart, so that he may lead his flock properly, and with justice. He is accountable before God to the souls which he has tended to during his lifetime, and must answer for them upon the day of judgment. This is no easy role, nor is it a light load to be taken on. This is a heavy burden, both in the temporal world, and in the next world of the eternal, for the Abbot’s actions in the temporal world in his dealings with his flock will be harshly judged before God. This fundamental teaching must be adhered to by the Abbot, and always kept in mind.

There are many fundamental misunderstandings of Monasticism, and one of the largest amongst both believers and non-believers is the role of the Abbot. The Abbot is essential to the monastery, he is the crux to the spiritual journey, he is the Shepard who must guide his flock to salvation. Those who are under the impression that the Abbot is a domineering figure who uses a rod and staff to discipline and lives a life of luxury as a very warped perspective as to what monasticism is and furthermore, what the role of the Abbot fulfills. This fundamental misunderstanding can make or break the spiritual validity one puts in Western Monasticism, and it has not been addressed enough. In the second chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict, St. Benedict discusses the role, responsibilities, and work of the Abbot in great detail, quoting scripture, and making deductions and guidelines based on an authentic reading of the Gospels. The Rule of St. Benedict contains a rich history of scripture, spiritual evolution, and balanced living. These misunderstanding which prevent people from moving further in their search for God, and for spirit must be cleared away so that all may see the true beauty that lies at the heart of monasticism.

End Notes:

1. The Rule of St. Benedict in English (New York: Vintage, 1998), page 8
2. The Rule of St. Benedict in English (New York: Vintage, 1998), page 8-9
3. The Rule of St. Benedict in English (New York: Vintage, 1998), page 9
4. The Rule of St. Benedict in English (New York: Vintage, 1998), page 9
5. The Rule of St. Benedict in English (New York: Vintage, 1998), page 10
6. The Rule of St. Benedict in English (New York: Vintage, 1998), page 10

Posted By Jake at 2013-12-02 10:06:15 permalink | comments
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Core2. : 2013-12-04 18:30:02
Damn dude you dropped off the face of the earth. I thought you died for a while. Glad to see you are still around, hope all is well.

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