Of Abbots, Obedientiaries and Children in the Rule of St Benedict – part 2

An obedientiary is someone who has received a specific obedience or task to perform in the monastery. Among those mentioned by St Benedict are the

  • prior (effectively the abbot’s deputy or second in command)
  • novice master
  • cellarer (administrator or business manager of the monastery)
  • guestmaster
  • infirmarian (who has care of the sick)
  • doorkeeper

In a small community one person may hold a number of obediences, e.g the prior may also be infirmarian, monastery cook, librarian, habit-maker and what you will. In a larger community, the cellarer, guestmaster and infirmarian will usually have assistants, while some communities also employ lay people to help with various functions. Today, however, I want to look only at those obedientiaries who have dealings with children in the monastery and examine what the Rule says about them.

Children in the monastery
Of course, the first thing to note is that Benedict takes for granted the presence of children in the monastery. He frequently uses the word infans, meaning young person, for those up to fifteen years of age, which roughly corresponds to the time when a Roman youth assumed the toga virilis, and puer or puer parvus, boy, for those younger than that. More rarely he uses the term adolescens, adolescent, or simply iuvens, youth.

In many instances, Benedict may be referring to child oblates, dedicated to the Lord by their parents at an early age, like the young St Bede (cf RB 59), or young people sent to the monastery to get some education. Benedict does not mention schools but from very early times we find evidence of small alumnates. We do know that both monks and nuns have cared for children in their communities for many centuries; and I think ‘care’ is the operative word. For example, Benedict obviously understood that the young appetite is a fierce and demanding beast. In his little chapter on the old and young, he stipulates that the rigour of the Rule as regards food is by no means to apply to them (RB 37. 2). On the contrary, they are to be shown loving consideration, pia consideratio, and allowed to eat before the regular hours (RB 37. 3), although he doesn’t think the very young, pueres, will necessarily need as much as their elders (RB 39.10).  He is aware that high spirits can sometimes lead to unruliness, so he charges the whole community with responsibility for ensuring that ‘boys up to fifteen years of age are to be carefully watched over by everyone, but with entire moderation and judiciousness’ (RB 70. 4). He goes on to say that anyone who treats the boys with immoderate severity is to undergo the punishment of the Rule (RB 70. 7), quoting Tobit 4.16, ‘Do not do to another what you do not want done to yourself,’ one of his favourite texts. A discordant note may be sounded by Benedict’s acceptance of corporal punishment, for adults as well as children(cf RB 30), but I daresay many of those reading this post will have experienced a wallop or two in their time. I can certainly recall being boxed on the ears for a false quantity in Latin — though not by a Benedictine!

On the whole, however, I think it is fair to say that the Rule is ahead of its time in making explicit provision for children and young people, and that the guidelines Benedict gives the community as a whole, though comparatively few, are based on personal observation and experience. It is a characteristic of the Rule that care and consideration are to mark everyone’s conduct, especially towards the most vulnerable, among whom Benedict expressly includes the young.

Obedientiaries and children
Given what I have just written, it may seem strange that Benedict does not explicitly name an obedientiary with responsibility for children. It may be, of course, that the novice master had care of them, at least the child oblates. RB 58, concerning the way in which brethren are to be received, does not give us any clues, unless we except Benedict’s admonition that the novice master is to watch over those in his charge ‘with the utmost care’ (RB 58. 6). With the cellarer, we are on slightly surer ground. The list of qualities he is required to have makes daunting reading, but there are two that are particularly striking. He is to be a God-fearing man, ‘like a father to the whole community’ (RB 31. 2), not allowing  anything to be neglected (RB 31. 11); and he is specifically told that he must take meticulous care of children, knowing that he will have to render account for them on Judgement Day (RB31. 9). Children are listed immediately after the sick, which shows how important Benedict regarded their proper treatment and how anxious he was that someone with a great deal of power in the monastery should, like the abbot, be aware of the consequences of any failure.

How far were children integrated into the life and work of the community, and how far were they kept apart? That is difficult to say. Benedict occasionally refers to children and youths who are clearly regarded as community members. For example, he says boys and adolescents are to keep to their entrance order at both table and in choir (Rb 63. 18) and are to have supervision and discipline until they come to the age of discretion (RB 63. 19), which suggests that they eat with the rest of the community and pray with them, too. We find young people assigned to specific tasks, e.g. the doorkeeper, who is singled out as being somebody old and wise, is to have someone younger to help him, but it is not clear whether the reference is to a young monk or an oblate (RB 66.5). The same is probably true of all the various assistants named in the Rule, although we do know that the novices occupied a separate part of the monastery. The degree of segregation probably varied from monastery to monastery, but the obedientiaries are constantly being warned that their conduct must be irreproachable; and where Benedict explicitly mentions children and young people, it is always to urge moderation and care.

A tentative conclusion
The Rule of St Benedict is quite short —it can be read through in an hour — but its language may be difficult for some because it reflects the age in which it was written, the sixth century. Benedict’s preoccupation with Trinitarian orthodoxy and his (for the time) quite novel lack of concern for social status may pass us by unless we are tuned into them, but there is much more that will be found arresting and worth pondering, whether we live in a monastery or not. I think no one who reads the text can come away from it thinking it is in any way ‘responsible’ for the kind of dreadful abuse we have read about at Ampleforth and Downside. The responsibility lies rather with a failure to follow the Rule. For that, there is both an individual responsibility, the personal failure of any one of us to live up to its precepts; and possibly also a collective or institutional failure in the way in which the Rule is interpreted in the Constitutions of the individual monastery, the Declarations of the Congregation to which the monastery may belong or even the directives of the Vatican if they contradict the provisions made by St Benedict. Every Benedictine house has its own ‘feel’, its own ‘take’ on the Rule. At its best, that is an enormous strength; at its worst, it can be misused by individuals to forward aims of their own, and that can be a great weakness.

The Constitutions with which I myself am most familiar are those of the monastery here at Howton Grove, and I do not think that they contain anything contrary to the Rule. We do not belong to a Congregation, so no Declarations to worry about, and though the potential effect of Cor Orans disturbs me greatly, there is absolutely no reason for any community member to argue that the Rule itself has been distorted and is the ’cause’ of any wrongdoing she may be guilty of. I think — I hope— anyone visiting our house will be struck by its authentically Benedictine character, and by its joyfulness. If we fail to live up to the demands of the Rule, if we sin, it is our own responsibility and no one else’s.

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