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The Prior and Subprioress of the Monastery

Friday, August 23, 2024

For the preservation of peace and love we have, therefore, judged it best for the abbot or prioress to make all decisions in the conduct of the monastery. If possible, as we have already established, the whole operation of the monastery should be managed through deans under the directions of the abbot or prioress. Then, so long as it is entrusted to more than one, no individual will yield to pride. But if local conditions call for it, or the community makes a reasonable and humble request, and the prioress or abbot judges it best, then let them, with the advice of members who reverence God, choose the one they want and themselves make that one the subprioress or prior. The subprioress and prior for their part are to carry out respectfully what the prioress or abbot assigns, and do nothing contrary to their wishes or arrangements, because the more they are set above the rest, the more they should be concerned to keep what the rule commands.

The problems dealt with in this chapter are the problems of loyalty, honesty, humility and role and their effect on a group. The prior or subprioress in a Benedictine monastery are equivalent to the first assistant of any organization. They act as vicars, representatives, of the abbot or prioress but they do not have any specific role description or authority of their own. Most local constitutions of Benedictine communities to this day, in fact, say simply that the subprioress or prior are appointed by the prioress or abbot to "do whatever the abbot bids them to do." The point is that every community has one, single, ultimate authority, the abbot or prioress, and that any other arrangement or assumption is not only incorrect, it is dangerous to the unity and formation of the community.

Underlying the theological and organizational considerations, however, is the dark warning that the temptation to use a position, any position--vice-principal, vice-president, assistant, department director--to wrest authority away from the center or to promote our own careers by undermining the legitimate leader in order to make ourselves look good, is a sin against community. It uses a group for personal gain instead of for the good of the group. It is the story of a Rasputin or a Lucretia Borgia. It is a grasp at power for its own sake. It corrodes what we say we support. It eats like acid at anything in us that we say is real. It is cheap popularity and expensive advancement because, eventually, it will destroy what we say we value, the very community for which we are responsible.

If these subprioresses or priors are found to have serious faults, or are led astray by conceit and grow proud, or show open contempt for the holy rule, they are to be warned verbally as many as four times. If they do not amend, they are to be punished as required by the discipline of the rule. Then, if they still do not reform they are to be deposed from the rank of subprioress or prior and replaced by someone worthy. If after all that, they are not peaceful and obedient members of the community, they should even be expelled from the monastery. Yet the abbot or prioress should reflect that they must give God an account of all their judgments, lest the flames of jealousy or rivalry sear their soul.

The Tao Te Ching teaches: "Shape clay into a vessel; It is the space within that makes it useful." Every group has a distinct structure and history but without a single driving spirit,it may lack the heart to make a common impact. In Benedictine spirituality the abbot and prioress are the center of the community. They are the one voice, the one light, the one heart that the entire community can trust to act always in its true and total interest. In every group, in fact, it is that inspiriting space within that gives it energy. Destroy the axis, stop the heart, collapse the core of a world and the world shrivels or shatters or disintegrates in space. That's what rivalry between the leaders of a group does to a community. That's what divergence between husband and wife does to the family. That's what tension between idols does to a world. Benedictine spirituality sees the community as something to mold us, not something to be used for the interests and vanity and power struggles of a few. It is a life dedicated to the spirit, not enmeshed in the agendas of the political. Where the authority of the abbot or prioress is constantly contested, routinely ignored, mockingly ridiculed or sharply questioned, then the eye of the soul is taken off of the Center of the life and shifted instead to the multiple minor agendas of its members. At that moment, the mystical dimension of the community turns into just one more arm wrestling match among contenders. At that point, the Rule says, get rid of the people who lower the purpose of the group to the level of the mundane, making light of the great enterprise of life and diminishing its energy.

It is good advice in any human endeavor whose higher purpose is being fed to the appetites of the immature and the selfish to rid itself of those who have given over the lode star of the group to a lesser direction.