Was St Benedict an Elitist?

St Benedict ends chapter 38 of his Rule, On the Reader for the Week, with the statement that the brethren are not to sing or read according to rank but according to the edification they give their hearers (RB 38.12). To some, this presents no difficulty. St Benedict had a sensitive ear and merely wished to ensure competence among those who perform some public office in choir or refectory. Others are more squeamish. We live in a world where we play down differences for fear of wounding others or stifling their talents. At the same time, we are aware that inequality is growing. Usually, we measure this in terms of inequalities of wealth or access to some perceived good such as nutrition or healthcare. The difficulty comes when we are confronted, as Benedict was, by inequalities of ability that are innate. For example, I am not much of a singer; my monastic ‘twin,’ who entered the monastery at the same time as I did, had a glorious voice which had been expertly trained. Only an idiot, or someone with a tin ear, would have preferred my singing to hers, and thankfully, as far as I am concerned, nobody did.

Not everyone would agree that that was a perfectly reasonable response to a perfectly understandable situation. We still tend to assume that elitism of any kind is bad. I certainly agree that inequalities of wealth and power have a very dangerous side to them, and I reject completely the sense of entitlement many of the rich and powerful assume. There is nothing nastier than seeing someone treat others as rubbish. But I do question whether we sometimes condemn what we see as elitism because we lack the generosity to celebrate the giftedness of others. St Benedict was wise enough and kind enough to regard every monk in his community as infinitely precious to God, no matter what his shortcomings as an individual. But he didn’t allow that to interfere with a very sound judgement about an individual’s suitability for the task in hand. Maybe there is a lesson there for all of us, monastic or not.

St Gertrude
if you are looking for a post on St Gertrude, try this: https://www.ibenedictines.org/2012/11/17/st-gertrude-the-catholic-church-and-women/

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3 thoughts on “Was St Benedict an Elitist?”

  1. I totally agree with you, Sister. Being Equal is not the same as being the Same. I like St John Henry Newman‘s words on this, that God has given each of us a particular task or purpose, which He has given no-one else and which we may only discover in the next life. He surely gave us all the necessary gifts to perform our tasks, but logically they cannot be interchangeable with each other. We should try to discover what our own gifts are, then use them, and not waste time and effort bothering about what someone else has. We all are in His image, but that image is too vast to be contained in one little human.

  2. A few years back, I started attending a church, out of my home area, as my work took me there, the attendees were well rooted in the who’s who’s of society, your family heritage was very important. As I new comer you were greeted with questions of who your mother/fathers etc names are and what work positions they held etc etc..
    I loved the services that this church held so keep attending. On talking with the Priest in charge after a service I said boldly, you would be hard pressed to pick up a friend here I have nothing in common with these people! He replyed, yes you do, you are christen as they are. That was just what I needed to hear, and I changed my whole approach in speaking with others and in the true be known, it was me who was acting elitist.
    Thank you Sister for a timely reminder to remain christen.

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