Of Abbots, Obedientiaries and Children in the Rule of St Benedict – part 1

Many have commented on the recent IICSA report into the abuse scandals at Ampleforth and Downside (I did so myself, see here). Without in any way wishing to contradict or dissent from their main conclusions, I have been struck by the way in which a few have identified the Rule of St Benedict as itself part of the problem. I think that is based on a misconception. Far from being part of the problem, the Rule, if properly followed, should be part of the solution. Obviously, I write as a nun, with no connection with schools, but the Rule has long been one of my areas of academic study and I have tried to live according to its precepts for nearly forty years; so I hope what I write will have some substance to it. To try to make it more digestible, I am dividing this post into at least two parts.

The authority of the abbot according to the Rule
Absolutely fundamental to any discussion of the Rule is Benedict’s conception of the role of the abbot and his authority. Some secular commentators have likened this to the authority of God the Father. Nowhere does the Rule do that. In every instance where abbatial authority is mentioned, in the two chapters specifically devoted to the abbot, RB 2 and RB 64, and at sundry other points, it is always likened to that of Christ. In saying, for example, that the abbot ‘is believed to represent Christ in the monastery’ (RB 2.2), Benedict is expressing an important truth: authority is to be exercised as service, and only insofar as it is service, is it genuine. Chapter 2 goes on to warn the abbot that he must not ‘teach, ordain or command anything contrary to the law of the Lord’ (RB 2.4); that both his teaching and the obedience of his disciples will come under God’s scrutiny, and that he will be answerable for the faults of all (RB 2.4–7). Again and again, the abbot is exhorted to set a good example (RB 2.13) or bear the consequences. In his relations with the community, the abbot is urged to be scrupulously fair and concerned for everyone’s welfare (cf RB  2.16, 22). He is to check evil-doing, never turning a blind eye to the sins of offenders (RB 2.26); and he is not to let concern for worldly things interfere with his concern for the salvation of souls (RB 2. 33–38). As if that were not enough, Benedict reminds the abbot that he will be judged by God on the way in which he has exercised his trust (RB 2. 6,7; RB 2.38, 39). If only every superior lived up to Benedict’s ideal!

RB 64 introduces some significant qualifications. For example, in discussing the election of the abbot, Benedict acknowledges that communities may sometimes wish to choose someone who winks at its vices (RB 64. 3). In such cases, Benedict explicitly enjoins the ‘local bishop and neighbouring abbots or Christians’ to intervene (RB 64. 4,5). For the rest, he lays down the kind of conduct the abbot should follow and the personal qualities he must cultivate, mindful always of the examination he will one day face (RB 64. 7–22). It is not a programme for the faint-hearted.

Moreover, I think it is worth noting that the abbot’s authority is by no means absolute. There is the chapter to which all are summoned and even the most junior are to be allowed their say (RB 3. 3). It is the abbot’s responsibility to make the final decision, but he is warned that he must ‘do all things in the fear of God and observance of the Rule, knowing that he will certainly have to render an account of all his judgements to God, the most just of judges’ (RB 3. 11). For their part, the monks are warned not to contend impudently with the abbot inside the monastery and not at all outside (RB 3. 8). Clearly, there can be abuses on either side and, over the centuries, RB 3 has been cited by both abbots and communities as justification for doing what they are explicitly told they should not do, ‘follow the will of their own heart’ (RB 3. 7), but where there is goodwill and a desire to grow in holiness, these checks and balances enable the community to flourish.

The abbot’s authority in practice
I have probably said enough to give you an idea of what the abbot should be. The problem comes with its realisation. Most Benedictines will have encountered superiors/communities who do not live up to the ideal. There are indeed abbots/abbesses who regard any questioning of their decisions as a failure in obedience; communities that are lax in observance or too comfortable for their own good. Mediocrity has always been the bane of Benedictinism, and it is easy to slip into. That said, I still think there is nothing in Benedict’s portrayal of the abbot or the kind of service he demands from him that could be said to be a fundamental weakness or structural/systemic failure. Once again, however, I want to add a few qualifications.

The monastery Benedict is writing about is a monastery without an external apostolate in the form of parishes. It is a monastery with children, which is not always the case nowadays, and one where all the community live together in one place, as nuns still usually do but monks not always. It is also likely to have been fairly small. Benedict is credited with having established twelve communities of twelve monks each — probably the number needed to ensure that all practical needs could be met from within the community. That is an important difference between the monastery of the sixth century and that of the twenty-first. Even in monasteries of monks leading a more or less cloistered life, those in priest’s orders may be absent for pastoral reasons, retreat-giving, studies, etc. There may therefore be less obvious cohesion and the abbot may not always know his monks as well as his sixth-century counterpart. But that is not the fault of the Rule. It is the fault, if that is the right word, of how it may be lived today.

One further point occurs to me, possibly only tangentially related to the abuse scandals. The Instruction Cor Orans is not very sympathetic to small communities of nuns, confusing autonomy and viability, and setting minimum numbers for their continued existence, yet St Benedict seems to have regarded small communities as being the most appropriate setting for the living of the Rule. Could it be that those who think the Rule is a problem have got it the wrong way round, i.e. it is not merely our personal failures, but also our institutional failure to remain small that is at least a contributory factor in some of the dreadful sexual abuse cases recently made public — and for abuses of authority in some other contexts? It is worth thinking about, although I don’t think there is any clear answer. There are large, fervent communities, with good abbots/abbesses. But I’d want to argue that they are so because of the Rule not in despite of it.

To be continued on Saturday, D.V. — I’m off for a PET scan and sarcoma clinic on Friday.


Being a Leader, Not a Boss: RB 2

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.