Friday, February 6, 2015

CHAPTER 64: How to Elect an abbot

An abbot...looking none too happy to be elected.
    In the election of an abbot let this always be observed as a rule: that he should be elected by the whole community, in the fear of God. And let him be chosen for the merit of his life and the wisdom of his doctrine, even if he is the lowest in rank. But once the abbot has been elected, he should bear in mind how great a burden he has taken upon himself, and to Whom he must give an account of his stewardship. Let him be convinced that it is better to serve than to rule. He must, therefore, be knowledgeable in the divine law, knowing when "to bring forth new things and old" (Mt 13:52). Let him be chaste, level-headed, and forgiving, and he should always prefer "mercy over judgment" (Jas 2:13), that he too may be shown mercy.
     Let him hate vice, but love the brethren; and when he disciplines them, he should act with prudence and not go to extremes.  Otherwise, he may break the vessel by rubbing too hard to remove the rust. Let him always keep his own weakness in mind, and remember that "the bruised reed must not be broken" (Is 42:3). Let him aim to be loved rather than feared.
     The abbot should not be fussy, over-anxious, exacting, headstrong, jealous or suspicious. Otherwise, he will never rest. In all his commands, whether they refer to things spiritual or material, he should be cautious and considerate. Let him so temper everything that the strong may have something to work toward and the weak nothing to flee from. But above all, he should be careful to keep this Rule in every detail.

    As the father of the monastery, it is the abbot’s responsibility to teach, instruct, command, even discipline his sons when he needs to.  But a monastery and its monks do not “belong” to the abbot.  He is “set over” them.  They aren’t his to do with any way he likes.  For anyone who aspires to any sort of leadership, this is a good thing to remember.  Everything we have—even our own bodies—are on loan to us by God.  We can’t just treat them as we please.  And we will be held accountable, if not in this world, then in the next.
    And if that doesn’t sound like a lot of pressure, listen to the list of qualities an abbot “must” have:  he must be knowledgeable, chaste, level-headed, merciful, loving, prudent, charitable, cautious, considerate, discerning, temperate, discrete and most of all obedient. It sounds like a scout oath on steroids.  But Saint Benedict knew what he was doing.  In fact, folks who know a lot about the Rule (scholars and historians and whatnot) seem to agree that Saint Benedict wrote this chapter long after he had finished the Chapter 60.  If you compare it with Chapter Two, you’ll see that he has mellowed quite a bit.  He is forgiving of his monks’ weakness, but uncompromising on the abbot’s strengths.
    And this is because the abbot has so much good advice to draw from.  Not only can he be assured of God’s assistance, he also has the writings of earlier abbots, the Church Fathers, the Doctors of the Church, the Scriptures and Canon Law.  He can read papal encyclicals and Church Council documents and all the other volumes of material that come with over 2000 years of tradition.  Like the wise steward of in Jesus’ parable, the abbot should “bring forth new things and old.”
     And so are we.  When it comes to making the big decisions and the hard choices, we are never alone.  We don’t have to reinvent the wheel.  Choose a topic…ANY TOPIC.  Choose any spiritual, medical, moral, or biblical controversy, and I guarantee you could fill a library with all the stuff that Catholic theologians have written about it.  We’ve got Thomas Aquinas, Augustine of Hippo, Teresa of Avila, Francis of Assisi, Mother Theresa and John Paul II all waiting to help.  We just have to find the humility to let them teach us.  All those qualities that the abbot must have—from prudence to temperance—can be borrowed.  WE just need to swallow our pride long enough to borrow them from our elders.