On Being an Abbot

It is very apt that we begin re-reading RB 64, On the Appointment of the Abbot, on St Bernard’s feast day. He was, after all, one of the most energetic and  successful abbots of any time or place, and as a White Monk rather than a Black Monk, shows us how the Benedictine charism is susceptible of development without undergoing fundamental change. (For reasons why I love St Bernard, see this.) Today, however, I want to share a few thoughts about St Benedict’s second chapter on the abbot.

Whereas the first, RB 2, The Kind of Person the Abbot Should Be, was idealistic in its portrayal of a humane, spiritual and discerning leader, RB 64 is much more worldly-wise. It starts with the nuts and bolts of how to get an abbot in the first place. (RB 64. 1–6) Ideally, he should be chosen by the whole community acting unanimously; but then comes the swift decline into realpolitik. If not a unanimous choice, he should be chosen by part of the community, and it needn’t be a majority, just the portion which has better judgment. Once appointed, the abbot is subject to the scrutiny of the local bishop and other Christians who are obliged to intervene if they see anything amiss in his administration and even make an appointment of their own, should it be necessary. That is pretty strong stuff and has, in the past, been used as a pretext for some distinctly unspiritual manoeuvrerings. It has at its core, however, something we sometimes forget: the importance of checks and balances on religious authority, no less than on any other kind.

St Bernard understood politics, but he understood sanctity even better. When Eugenius III became pope, for example, he sent him the treatise De Consideratione which contains invaluable reflections on authority and obedience and the nature of Christian presence in the world. Any reformation of the church — with or without a capital ‘C’ — must begin with the personal holiness of its head. In this, St Bernard shows himself a true son of St Benedict. The opening verses of RB 64 may give us the realpolitik of the Rule, but as the chapter goes on we shall be back to a portrait of the kind of leadership that encourages holiness in others, to the stewardship that results in a glorious abundance. (RB 64. 20–22)