Humility for Business Managers

Today we read the final section of RB 31, On the Cellarer or Business Manager of the Monastery. Once again Benedict stresses the importance of humility. I wonder how many corporate executives/business managers/Government ministers would agree. To be ‘dynamic’, cutting and thrusting, stirring up a Twitterstorm with wild and whirling words, never apologizing but only, if pressed, admitting one might have been quoted out of context — these seem to be much more likely. The net result is that taking responsibility is done reluctantly and only as a last resort. Is it any wonder, then, that trust becomes difficult? We look for integrity and see only varying degrees of self-interest and duplicity.

Such a jaundiced view is not fair to all those who dutifully go about their business, striving to uphold standards of honesty and honour that sometimes reach heroic levels. They incarnate what St Benedict has to say about the cellarer’s humility. They are kind, courteous, ready to serve. The more responsibility they are given, the more careful they are not to inflate or arrogate to themselves the powers they have been allotted, rightly seeing that they are given them for a time only and do not necessarily reflect any greater worth in themselves. St Benedict ends his chapter by expressing the wish that no-one should be troubled or vexed in the house of God. (RB 31.19) It is worth thinking about that. We are all called to administer something, even if it is only tiny and apparently of little consequence — our own room, maybe, or part of the household budget — but the aim we have in view is not mere economic efficiency. The stewardship we have been given has as its end the building up of peace, of community and of everything that is good and noble in the human spirit. That in itself is rather humbling, isn’t it?

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Gifted or Great?

Many people mistake giftedness for greatness. The gifts of some are more spectacular than those of others, but they do not make the possessors great. To be gifted is to bear a responsibility; to be great is to have discharged that responsibility well and faithfully. Benedict’s cellarer (business manager) is entrusted with multitudinous responsibilities. ‘He is to have care of everything’ says the Rule (RB 31.3), spelling out the many duties that fall to his lot:

He should take meticulous care of the sick, the young, guests and the poor, knowing for certain that he will have to account for them all on judgement day. All the monastery’s utensils and goods he should regard as if sacred altar vessels. He must let nothing be neglected. (RB 31. 9-11)

He is given a great deal of power, but his greatness will consist in one thing only: the faithful discharge of his office. That is why the qualities Benedict seeks are so profoundly revealing:

a wise person, of mature character, who is abstemious, not greedy, not conceited, nor a trouble-maker, not offensive or lazy or wasteful, but someone who is God-fearing and may be like a father to the whole community. (RB 31.1-2)

In tomorrow’s section of the Rule, we shall find Benedict saying that ‘above all, he should possess humility.’ (RB 31.13)

Clearly, what we have here is a portrait of the ideal steward, one who is obedient to his abbot, doing all things ‘in accordance with the abbot’s instructions’ (RB 31.12), but bringing to his task every gift of heart, mind and soul with which he has been endowed in order to serve God and the community. Benedict knows he will be gifted, but in chapter 31 he asks the person who serves as cellarer to become great, to rise above every natural inclination that may lead him away from his duty or cause him to misuse the power entrusted to him.

I think we can see an analogy here with many different forms of service outside the monastery. It is always tempting to be a little self-seeking, to enjoy one’s progress up the ladder, so to say. Those who have taken the Rule to heart and wish to apply Benedict’s principles to their daily lives are confronted in this chapter with the Gospel ethic, and it may not make comfortable reading. We have been called and chosen to give glory to God by our lives; we have had gifts lavished upon us. How we use those gifts, how we live our lives, is what will make us great — or not.

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Love of Country

St George’s Day is kept in rather low-key fashion here in England. We fly the flag from our church towers, celebrate a rather sombre liturgy and do our best to pretend that we are more or less indifferent to love of country. I think that’s nonsense myself. Love of country, of the place where we were born or nurtured, where we live now, is perfectly natural. Not to celebrate our landscape, seascape and cityscape, our language, culture, and customs, our very people, is to be mean-spirited, ungrateful.

Sadly, love of country has sometimes been identified with a false sense of superiority. We do not need to be better than others to have value; nor would anyone with any sense claim to be so. Today is a day for giving thanks for all we have and asking for wisdom and generosity in our stewardship of the good things God has given us. St George, pray for us!

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