Last time, I broached the subject of choosing the abbot towards the end of my discussion of rank in the monastery. The abbot should be chosen unanimously. I know a clergyman who has only even accepted a parish when the selection committee has been unanimous in its choice of him. Wisdom there, I think.
And what sort of man should be chosen?
The one to be appointed should be chosen for his virtuous way of life and the wisdom of his teaching, even if he is the lowest in rank in the community. (ch.64; p. 101 trans. White)
The only way for someone to cultivate the character of Benedict’s abbot is lots of prayer and Scripture. These are the two things the Benedictine life is most devoted to. Hopefully, then, a potential abbot has been well-shaped! In terms of modern application, we must free up our clergy who sometimes seem to me like administrators and undertrained psychologists who preach once a week rather than priests of God and shepherds of holiness.
He [the abbot] should strive to be loved rather than feared. (ch. 64, 103 English)
Indeed, if you read the lives of the early Cistercians, Stephen Harding, Aelred of Rievaulx, Bernard of Clairvaux, you will see men well-beloved by their communities.
In chapter 60, Benedict says that the priests who choose to join the monastery are equal to all, except that they can celebrate the Eucharist when asked to do so by the abbot. Otherwise, they act the same as if admitted as laymen. Two chapters later, we read that when the abbot selects someone for priestly ordination, all that changes is that he performs sacramental duties alongside the rest of the monastic routine.
Being a priest, then, is no benefit in the monastery. The same discipline applies.
Overall (ch. 63), rank is based either on time in the monastery or at the abbot’s discretion. Rank determines where one sleeps, where one stands to pray in the oratory, when one is fed, etc.
Although I’m not 100% an egalitarian, I suspect that rank should be avoided. I’m in favour of having prayerfully-elected church authorities — pastors, bishops — like abbots. But rank at large? No.
I thus wonder: How could we do Presbyterian/Quaker/Anarchist monasticism? That is, monasticism without an abbot, where every decision is made through prayer and either a vote (Presbyterian) or unanimity (Quaker/Anarchist).
The only unanimous decision in Benedict is the election of the abbot (ch. 64). Here we see, at the point of highest rank in the monastery, the wilful submission of all. Today, we often rail against authority. But what if someone is chosen freely and then wilfully submitted to thereafter? Moreover, one can always leave the monastery. (I know a Benedictine who did.)
Chapter 2 of the Rule of St Benedict is all about what sort of man the abbot should be. This is Benedict’s ideal abbot. My brother Jonathan mused a while back about what it means to be a priest (a herder of cats?), and John Cassian brought him to the idea that a priest should be like an abbot, seeking to help his congregation grow spiritually, giving them the spiritual nourishment they need as students enrolled in the school of the Lord’s service (that’s me putting a Benedictine metaphor in his mouth).
Benedict’s abbot is a spiritual father. He is called to be a man of compassion and virtue. Yes, he punishes, excommunicates, disciplines the brothers. But he also loves them and cares for them and seeks their growth in the Spirit. I think about St Aelred of Rievaulx (1110-1167), one of the great Cistercian fathers. He was mild in his punishment of brothers who deviated, and some people criticised him for this. Yet one of the brothers he treated with clemency made a complete change and recovery, if you will, becoming a holy and devout monk because of the mercy he was shown. The one who is forgiven much will love much, as Our Lord says.
This idea draws me to the idea in Ivo of Chartres (1040-1115) that canon law is a remedy. The regulations surrounding medieval ecclesiastical life and the monastic lifestyle, in an ideal sense, are meant to heal us of the disease of sin. Or, as DC Talk once put it, ‘the disease of self running through my blood, it’s a cancer fatal to my soul.’ Canons and penances are not, ideally, punitive but healing and restorative.
And they are to be applied to all equally — Benedict’s abbot does not play favourites. In fact, Aelred runs counter to Benedict here. Benedict says that you should not play favourites unless someone proves himself a better monk. Aelred, on the other hand, gets in trouble for seeming to favour his wayward monk. Yet this apparent favouritism was the right remedy. This is the value of discretion or discernment, one of the most prized monastic virtues of Late Antiquity (on which I’ve blogged here).
Of course, all this is well and good for the ideal abbot. But we know that this ideal rarely exists. Do we really want to trust the lives of so many souls to live in absolute obedience to anyone in a post-Jonestown world? This is a hard question to answer. I do think there is a way to think on the virtues of obedience in our own lives separately from how much authority we give an individual leader in our worshipping community. I’ll get to that in a bit.
Chapter 3 of the Rule makes it clear that the abbot is not meant to rule as a tyrant. Benedict writes:
Whenever any important matters need to be dealt with in the monastery, the abbot should gather the whole community together and set out the agenda in person. (p. 14 English)
The goal here is a balance between control and inclusion. The monks are included in the decision-making process, their voices are sought and heard. The abbot weighs their opinions and decides. After the decision is made, the monks must obey and not dispute with the abbot in public.
I wonder if they can respectfully dispute behind closed doors?
The concept of absolute obedience is very difficult for me to imagine…
However, what I wonder is, could there be room for a ‘Presbyterian’ monastic governance? That is, no absolute obedience to anyone. Remove the abbot and replace him with the deans. Make everyone mutually submissive to a commonly chosen rule. Decisions are made corporately and democratically by the ‘kirk session’. Or, even more radically, no monastic elders at all — monastic Quakerism? All decisions require unanimity and consensus.
My closing question, then: Do you, dear readers, know of intentional communities (besides local churches!) with either a ‘Presbyterian’ or ‘Quaker’ kind of leadership structure? I’d like to hear about them.