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The Deans of the Monastery

Friday, June 28, 2024
Chapter 21

If the community is rather large, some chosen for their good repute and holy life should be made deans. They will take care of their groups of ten, managing all affairs according to the commandments of God and the orders of their prioress or abbot. Anyone selected as a dean should be the kind of person with whom the prioress or abbot can confidently share the burdens of office. They are to be chosen for virtuous living and wise teaching, not for their rank.

In one simple paragraph Benedict does away with the notion of absolute hierarchy and the divine right to anything. The abbot and prioress are to be the last word in a Benedictine community but they are not to be its only word. They are to "share the burdens of their office," not simply delegate them, with those members of the community who themselves are models of the monastic life. The age of a person or the number of years they've been in the monastery has nothing to do with the decision to give one person rather than another a position of responsibility or authority in the group. What counts is the quality of their community life, the prayerfulness of their lives, their commitment to Benedictine values.

Whoever the leaders, the central thesis of the chapter remains: the community belongs to the community. Its sanctity and success does not rise and fall on the shoulders of one leader alone. It rises and falls on the shoulders of its members. What they are the community shall be.

It is an important concept in a culture that calls itself classless but which relies heavily on connections and prestige and money to define its centers of power and so overlooks the values and voices of many.

If perhaps one of these deans is found to be puffed up with any pride, and so deserving of censure, they are to be reproved once, twice and even a third time. Should they refuse to amend, they must be removed from office and replaced by another who is worthy. We prescribe the same course of action in regard to the subprioress or prior.

To share authority is not the same as to give it away. To share authority means that those who are responsible for the group must arrive at common decisions, share a common wisdom, come to a common commitment and then teach it together in such a way that the community is united, not divided, by the people chosen to lead it. To give authority away is to abdicate it, to leave the group open to division, disunity and destruction.

The government of a Benedictine community is to come out of a common vision, a common heart. There is one interpreter of the Rule in every Benedictine monastery, the abbot or prioress, who themselves are immersed in scripture and who have listened to the experience of the community and bring those elements to bear on every present situation. The unity of the community depends on the centrality of that teaching. To divide a group into factions until the unity of the teaching pales, to tear at its center until its fabric frays and rends, to refuse to give focus to its focus is to strike at the very heart of Benedictine spirituality. It is not possible to form a group when the group is being divided over the very items on which it should be being developed.

What Benedict is inveighing against, then, is the spirit of the coup d'etat, that war that is waged against authority by the very people named by the authority to uphold it. The person with a Benedictine mindset goes into the parish council or the union office or the hospital board to cooperate with the leadership, to carry the group, not to tug it to pieces over inconsequential matters for some gain of personal aggrandizement and ego satisfaction. A Benedictine family does not draw and quarter the children with two different sets of expectations. Benedictine spirituality uses authority to weld a group, not to fracture it.