Blogging Benedict: Leadership (chapters 2-3)

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

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.

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The difficulty of the ‘high-church’ evangelical

I write this as one raised within the evangelical, ‘charismatic’ wing of Anglicanism who treasures the Prayer Book and the theology it and the 39 Articles espouse yet who finds himself at worshipping with Presbyterians at present.

I know of another evangelical Anglican, raised low-church evangelical, who attends one of the highest Anglo-Catholic churches I know of, and who sometimes wonders if he should leave — even mentioning a Baptist church in his neighbourhood as a possible destination!

What we two represent are the result of the tough choice that the liturgically-minded evangelical must face. I, personally, am more attuned to liturgical worship as the space where I can set aside my wandering thoughts and focus on worship of God and enter into His presence. However, I am also powerfully, inescapably, at times vehemently, attached to orthodox, biblical, ‘evangelical’ Christian teaching in line with the historic creeds as well as the Reformation principle of justification by faith.

What this means is that here, in Edinburgh, I have to make a choice. Worship in a way that I think brings great glory to God and where I am at my most natural in my response to His unchanging glory, or hear sermons where the Gospel is preached and orthodox doctrine clearly and unashamedly espoused and expounded.

I have chosen the latter, and chosen it outside of Anglicanism (there is one Anglican church here that might do the preaching [orthodox theology, but rumour has it shallow teaching] but misses the liturgy; it is easier for me to worship with non-Anglicans than Anglicans who don’t act Anglican). I use the BCP in my own private worship and sometimes turn up at Anglican churches for weekday services as well as my local Orthodox Church.

Other people I know choose the former; they worship with beauty and elegance and power. But they also read the Scriptures on their own and gather with Christians in the week. The person I mentioned above worships with the music of Palestrina and reads the books of J I Packer.

Why do we have to make this choice? I do not wish to abandon my evangelical theology and commitment to mission when I settle on a church home. Why must I abandon my love of liturgy that encapsulates that theology in ritual action and that ties me to a tradition over  a millennium long?

What times we live in!

Flirting with Monasticism

Every once in a while, Wycliffe College has a bunch of discount books for sale on some tables outside their bookstore.  On Thursday nights, I walk past these tables since they’re right outside the room where Graduate Christian Fellowship meets.  This past Thursday (March 26), I noticed Flirting With Monasticism: Finding God On Ancient Paths for sale there.  Since the U of T library system didn’t have it, I bought it on Friday.  And I read it on Friday, with the exception of the appendices which I read on Saturday.

Flirting with Monasticism is Karen E Sloan’s journey with Dominican friars through a year of novitiate.  The Dominican part of her pilgrimage began when she found she had a crush on a young man who was entering the novitiate.  Thus began a year of questions and searching for her as well as worshipping with a different group of Dominicans in the priory in her neighbourhood.  Over the year, Sloan journeyed into the monastic world as far as a Protestant woman really can, learning much about the Dominicans and Dominic, praying the Liturgy of the Hours and encountering God in rich, deep, powerful ways.

Christianity is about a life with God, about relationship, and the monks know it.

As a taste of what you find within, here are the chapter titles: “Finding God on Ancient and Not-So-Ancient Paths”, “Vestition: Receiving the Habit,” “The Liturgy of the Hours: Praying the Divine Office,” “In the Presence of Christ: Participating in Adoration & the Eucharist,” “Encountering Mary: Saying the Rosary,” “Community: Living Together Constantly,” “The Communion of Saints: Living in a Visual History,” “First Profession of Vows: Making Commitments,” “Epilogue: It’s Not a Program.”

Those chapter titles, now that I look at them, sound very Catholic.  However, Sloan is very up-front about her evangelical character as a Presbyterian pastor.  Thus, for those of us not in agreement with Rome’s doctrines about Eucharist, Mary, and the Saints, and for those of us not comfortable joining in on practices such as Eucharistic Adoration or the Rosary, don’t worry!  She finds lessons from these aspects of Catholic spirituality for the evangelical Protestant, many of them found in the meaning behind these actions and the contemplative nature of monastic life.

The biggest thing that runs through this book is the Liturgy of the Hours, which she prayed with the monks at the local priory twice a day for Morning and Evening Prayer.  Regular prayer has potency and the cycle of scriptures and Psalms is good for our souls.  We are bound together as we worship the one, holy Triune God.

So What?

So, I’ve been flirting with monasticism for a while.  You may recall posts on my old blog at St. Francis of Assisi.  My fondness for Francis led me to consider becoming an associate of The Society of Saint Francis (SSF) or to join the Brothers and Sisters of Charity, John Michael Talbot’s group, inspired by Talbot himself — including his book Lessons From Saint Francis, as well as Rich Mullins, GK Chesterton’s St. Francis of Assisi, and The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi. I also own Celebrating Common Prayer, a version of the Daily Office of the SSF.  And I’ve seen Brother Sun, Sister Moon. St. Francis is always an inspiration to me, and a painting of him sits on the shelves on my desk as I do my work.

My monastic flirtation goes beyond St. Francis, but is mostly bookish, cerebral, intellectual.  Not as spiritual as I’d like.  My current research is into the fifth-century monastic writer John Cassian.  I wrote a paper on the Desert Fathers for a course in my undergrad (the inspiration for my current work) — I have read many of their sayings as well as the Life of St. Antony.  I’ve also read selections from the Rule of St. Benedict and Gregory’s Life of Benedict.  I love the film Into Great Silence which led me to read a book (lent by my uncle) entitled Carthusians.  Add to all these Lady Julian of Norwich’s Revelations Of Divine Love, St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul, selections from the Philokalia, most of St. Theresa of Avila’s Interior Castle, Thomas Merton’s The Inner Experience, and selections from other monks/nuns/anchorites, and you could say that I’ve encountered a lot more monastic reading than the average person who thinks himself “evangelical.”

Flirting With Monasticism has challenged me to do more than just read about monks.  I should be seeking ways that monastic wisdom can be incorporated into my life as a married layperson.  And so I’m going to do just that.  I’ll keep you posted.