For many years now the Rule of St Benedict has been plundered for all kinds of purposes for which it was never intended, including — and I quote from the title of a book on our shelves — business success. Sometimes I almost despair. Yes, one can take many good ideas from the Rule about leadership, communal living, mutual service and so forth, but strip the less popular elements from the mix — the ceaseless round of prayer and observance, single chastity, obedience — and one takes much of the heart from the Rule. It was written for monastics, people with a lifelong commitment to seeking God in community under a superior. It is worth pausing for a moment to think what that means, especially in relation to the chapter of the Rule we begin re-reading today, The Kind of Person the Abbot Should Be.
Benedict was not writing about a temporary situation, one the individual could shrug off at will. He says quite clearly that the abbot ‘is believed to represent Christ in the monastery’ (RB 2.2) Nothing could make it plainer that, for him, authority and obedience are truly religious concepts, intimately connected with the search for God and marked by a seriousness and durability of purpose we cannot ignore. It matters who and what the abbot is because, in an important sense, he mediates Christ to the community. That requires faith and spiritual vision on the part of both abbot and community, for without it we are left with a merely mechanical interpretation of what it is to head the community/obey the superior. We end up with a boss and being bossed about rather than with a leader and being led.
The first requirement of the abbot is that he should ‘always be mindful of what he is called and act as a superior should.’ (RB 2.1) That ‘always’, semper, is significant. There is no time off for the abbot, not a single moment when he can relax his charge, can forget, however briefly, what he has been called to be and do. It is enough to make one shake in one’s socks! Then, just when one might expect Benedict to enlarge on the abbot’s powers, one finds a list of duties or restrictions laid upon him: he must not teach or ordain anything that would conflict with the law of the Lord (RB2.4); he must remember that there will be an examination of his own teaching as well as of his disciples’ obedience (RB 2.6); he must bear the blame for any lack of profit the Father of the household may discover in his sheep (RB 2.7). Only then are there a few words of comfort for the abbot. He will be acquitted on Judgment Day if he has ‘lavished every care on a restive and disobedient flock and taken pains to heal its unwholesome ways.’ (RB2.9) Even when he is being comforted, it seems, the abbot is to be reminded of how arduous a task he has undertaken and warned that he must be tireless in his efforts.
These first sentences of the first chapter on the abbot (Benedict has another later on) are often glossed over by those who use the Rule for courses in management theory. They are replaced by ‘inspirational’ remarks about the qualities a leader should have and the value of team-work. There is nothing wrong with that, but it isn’t exactly Benedictine. Everything in the Rule, like everything in the monastery, is meant to lead us to God. To begin, as Benedict does, with a sense of the spiritual significance of the abbatial role, the limitations inherent in its exercise, the context in which all actions are to be judged, is to demonstrate a radically different idea of what leadership is and how it should operate from that which we see all around us. There is no real distinction between the office and the person. For those called to serve in that way, the prospect is daunting, and it is no wonder that many fail or are, at best, mediocre. Mediocrity has always been the bane of monastic life and can lead to many abuses, not least the abuse of power. Perhaps today we could pray for all who hold leadership postions, not just in monasteries but in the world more generally. They certainly need prayer if they are not to give way to the temptations power puts in their way.