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The Election of A Prioress or Abbot

Wednesday, August 21, 2024

Once in office, the abbot and prioress must keep constantly in mind the nature of the burden they have received, and remember to whom they will have "to give an account of their stewardship (Lk 16:2)." Let them recognize that the goal must be profit for the community members, not preeminence for themselves. They ought, therefore, to be learned in divine law, so that they have a treasury of knowledge from which they can "bring out what is new and what is old (Mt 13:52)." The abbot and prioress must be chaste, temperate and merciful, always letting "mercy triumph over judgment (Jas 2: 13)" so that they too may win mercy. They must hate faults but love the members. When they must punish them, they should use prudence and avoid extremes; otherwise, by rubbing too hard to remove the rust, they may break the vessel. They are to distrust their own frailty and remember "not to crush the bruised reed (Is 42:3)." By this we do not mean that they should allow faults to flourish, but rather, as we have already said, they should prune them away with prudence and love as they see best for each individual. Let them strive to be loved rather than feared.

At the end of an entire series of injunctions and prescriptions, Benedict suddenly reintroduces a description of the kind of abbot or prioress whom he believes should guide a Benedictine community. He is, in other words, giving us a theology of authority or parenting or leadership. The Talmud reads "Happy is the time where the great listen to the small, for in such a generation the small will listen to the great." In the Rule of Benedict the prioress and abbot are told to display the good like a blazing fire but always to "let mercy triumph over judgment" and to "strive to be loved rather than feared." Authority in Benedictine spirituality is not an end in itself nor is it an excuse to oppress the people for whom all law is made. Law is simply a candle on the path of life to lead us to the good we seek. Any authority that makes the law the end rather than the path are themselves worshipping at a lesser shrine.

Excitable, anxious, extreme, obstinate, jealous or overly suspicious the abbot or prioress must not be. Such a person is never at rest. Instead, they must show forethought and consideration in their orders and whether the task they assign concerns God or the world, they should be discerning and moderate, bearing in mind the discretion of holy Jacob, who said: "If I drive my flocks too hard, they will all die in a single day (Gn 33:13)." Therefore, drawing on this and other examples of discretion, they must so arrange everything that the strong have something to yearn for and the weak nothing to run from.

In the midrash Genesis Rabbah it reads: "A farmer puts a yoke on his strong ox, not on his weak one." The function of Benedictine leadership is not to make life difficult; it is to make life possible for both the strong and the weak. If a leader gives way to moodiness or institutional paranoia, if a leader is not emotionally balanced and spiritually grounded, a whole climate is poisoned. This chapter on the abbot or prioress is an important signal for parents and teachers and superiors everywhere: what we cannot model, we cannot expect, not of children, not of the professionals who work for us, not even of the people who love us enough to marry us. The people around us can only take our emotional battering so long. Then they leave or rebel or batter back. Benedictine leadership models a guidance that is firm but loving; clear but understanding; just but merciful; itself authentically committed to its own principles for, indeed, the rabbis also teach, "A little sin is big when a big person commits it."

They must, above all, keep this rule in every detail, so that when they have ministered well they will hear from God what that good servant heard who gave the other members of the household grain at the proper time: "I tell you solemnly, God will put this one in charge of greater things (Mt 24:47)."

In ancient civilizations, the law was the lawgiver's law. Subjects had no rights, only responsibilities. The lawgiver could change the law on a whim or a fancy. In the Roman empire, the pater familia, the Roman father, could do no wrong in his own home. No court of law would try him, no one would convict him. He himself according to the principles of Roman jurisprudence was judge and jury, king and lawgiver. In a climate and culture such as this, the chapter on the abbot or prioress, and this paragraph in particular, are extremely revolutionary. This section issues a clear warning: authority has limits; authority is not a law unto itself; authority is responsible to the persons under it for their welfare and their growth; authority itself is under the law. It is a theology such as this that makes people free and keeps people free because the knee we bow to government must really be bowed only to God.