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.