The Problem With Good Advice

The problem with good advice is that it is often contradictory. Only yesterday I asked the opinion of my Facebook friends about planting a lilac at the end of the garden. The gardeners among them responded with enthusiasm, some endorsing my putative choice (Syringa Vulgaris Belle de Nancy), others suggesting alternatives and talking about autumn colour/winter delights, and one even warning that some people are allergic to lilac. Now I am all of a dither — insofar as I am ever in a dither, that is — and busy researching the alternatives suggested and thinking some more. It comes as a relief to be re-reading chapter 3 of the Rule, On Summoning the Brethren for Counsel, especially verse 2 which states, ‘After he has heard the brethren’s advice, [the abbot] should reflect upon it, then do what he judges best.’ In the end, you see, a decision has to be made and its consequences borne with.

Very often chapter 3 of the Rule is taken as a kind of democratic charter, especially by the young whom Benedict singles out as frequently having a vision and acuteness their elders lack. Anyone who has lived in community for any length of time will know that the great reverence given to seniority needs to be balanced by openness to the insights of relative newcomers. It is, after all, a community enterprise on which we are engaged and God makes  some surprising choices. But Benedict was not a democrat, and chapter 3 is really about giving the abbot all the help he needs to formulate the response a difficult situation requires. Is there anything we can take from this that may be useful in the world beyond the cloister? I think there is.

Whether we are talking about the management of a household, a business, a corporation or a country, consultation and reflection are essential if we are to secure a result that will best meet the needs of the situation. But the right to be consulted, to give one’s opinion freely, does not necessarily mean the right to insist that one’s advice is followed. Occasionally, one reads of protests that go beyond a legitimate protest and assume a right to change something that has been determined by due democratic process. For example, one may not like the person put in office by one’s fellow electors, but trying to force him/her out of office by anything but the proper democratic process is to arrogate to oneself a power one does not have. Dictatorships often begin with the intention of putting right a perceived wrong or grievance. It is only in retrospect that we see the full implications.

Benedict’s abbot is far from being a dictator, however, and the workings of the community assembly or chapter are to be open and frank. Ultimately, the abbot must make the decision. Note, however, the obligation Benedict places on the abbot with respect to the advice given him. He is to listen carefully and ‘arrange matters prudently and fairly.’ (RB 3. 6) There should be no arbitrariness, no self-serving abuse of power — and no recklessness. His decisions must be for the greater good of those he serves.

This week will see several meetings and events that will have consequences for all of us. It is a pity that RB3 is unlikely to be on the reading-list of Donald Trump or those at Davos. To be rich and powerful is to bear a great responsibility, and comparatively few truly live up to it. Let us pray for them all, for unless we do, we have no one to blame but ourselves if our best hopes are dashed and our worst fears realised.

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7 thoughts on “The Problem With Good Advice”

  1. This struck a chord with me having lots of friends who, luckily for me, give lots of helpful advice. The only problem is, as you point out, when it’s contradictory. I’m happy to listen to different suggestions all of which are really useful, as long as friends don’t get hurt or angry when their advice isn’t necessarily the one that I follow.

  2. Love it. True leadership comes not from control but from acknowledging a shared authority. If we act solely under our own authority, we devalue the image of God.

  3. Long ago, I was told ‘in the end , you will follow the advice which is closest to your inclination’. I take this to mean we aren’t able to follow good advice if it is very different from what we would naturally do,, had we thought of it first.

  4. The Lilac should be planted anywhere.The sight and even the smell always seem to make one feel good. I have always loved Lilacs. I really did not miss the point of your writing today.

  5. I am with Susan. Consider the Lilac as you make your decision. I appreciate and agree with the larger point of this post, but I do want to put in a good word for the Lilac.

  6. As usual I come down on both sides: lilac is glorious, but only put it where you don’t want anything else. As something both strongly spreading and hard to grub out, lilac is a serious, long-term, commitment not to be undertaken lightly.
    But then, you and the Ladies already know something about that 🙂

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