Chapter 2: Qualities of the Abbot

1 To be worthy of the task of governing a monastery, the abbot must always remember what his title signifies and act as a superior should. 2 He is believed to hold the place of Christ in the monastery, since he is addressed by a title of Christ, 3 as the Apostle indicates: You have received the spirit of adoption of sons by which we exclaim, abba, father (Rom 8:15). 4 Therefore, the abbot must never teach or decree or command anything that would deviate from the Lord’s instructions. 5 On the contrary, everything he teaches and commands should, like the leaven of divine justice, permeate the minds of his disciples. 6 Let the abbot always remember that at the fearful judgment of God, not only his teaching but also his disciples’ obedience will come under scrutiny. 7 The abbot must, therefore, be aware that the shepherd will bear the blame wherever the father of the household finds that the sheep have yielded no profit. 8 Still, if he has faithfully shepherded a restive and disobedient flock, always striving to cure their unhealthy ways, it will be otherwise: 9 the shepherd will be acquitted at the Lord’s judgment. Then, like the Prophet, he may say to the Lord: I have not hidden your justice in my heart; I have proclaimed your truth and your salvation (Ps 39 [40]:11), but they spurned and rejected me (Isa 1:2; Ezek 20:27). 10 Then at last the sheep that have rebelled against his care will be punished by the overwhelming power of death.

11 Furthermore, anyone who receives the name of abbot is to lead his disciples by a twofold teaching: 12 he must point out to them all that is good and holy more by example than by words, proposing the commandments of the Lord to receptive disciples with words, but demonstrating God’s instructions to the stubborn and the dull by a living example.

Commentary by Philip Lawrence, OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert

It is never easy to tell a superior what he ought to be, yet it is necessary. This chapter does not speak about the psychology of the abbot, nor about his relative wholeness as a human being. Rather it sets a goal for the abbot, which he must constantly strive to attain, even while he recognizes that daily he fails.

That the abbot holds the place of Christ in the community is a theological statement. We accept this by faith. We may find it difficult humanly to see the face of Christ in our abbot, yet by faith we must constantly strive to accept the abbot in this role. It is not easy for any of us.

The abbot must clearly teach sound Christian doctrine. In our time, it must be said that the abbot is bound to teach Catholic doctrine and be in union with the local bishop and the Holy Father. We are reminded that all of us are answerable to God. The abbot must strive to present a clear and faithful doctrine of prayer and holiness. The monks must strive to live a life of holiness that is clearly and unambiguously in the monastic tradition.

It is all too easy for the abbot to complain about the monks and insist that they are not all that they should be. It is just as easy for the monks to complain that the abbot has so many weaknesses that he does not really lead the community. A true Benedictine spirituality is one in which each monk (even the abbot) takes responsibility for his own life, for the challenge of loving each member of the community as he is, for the responsibility of being faithful to his own life of prayer however difficult it may be and for giving himself over to the community and to the work of the community with a strong decision of the will that is prepared for sacrifice and rejoices when God gives peace and stillness.

Our words and our life are to be of one peace. No one, and especially not the abbot, ought to be preaching a life that cannot be lived. We can teach, however, that there are goals for which we aim in this life, even though we know that most likely we shall never completely arrive there.

In this context it is interesting to read the tenth rule of Saint Ignatius for thinking, judging and feeling with the Church:

We ought to be more inclined to approve and praise the decrees, recommendations, and conduct of our superiors than to speak against them. For although some of these acts are not or were not praiseworthy, to speak against them either by preaching in public or by conversing among the ordinary people would cause more murmuring and scandal than profit. And through this the people would become angry at their officials, whether civil or spiritual. However, just as it does harm to speak evil about officials among the ordinary people while they are absent, so it can be profitable to speak of their bad conduct to persons who can bring about a remedy.

We are weak in this kind of thinking in our own time and our communities are therefore weak. We are so conditioned that we think only brutal honesty will help any situation. Instead, our monastic tradition, and that of Saint Ignatius, tells us always to find good in whatever it is that we are doing and in all the other persons in our lives.

This kind of thinking leaves us really free to listen to whatever the abbot says and to see whatever of Christ is in his utterances. It seems to be a part of human nature, however, to find the weaknesses of others. Once we find their weaknesses, then we tend to discount anything they have to say if it gets into the way of what we really want to do. This is not a good way of living, spiritually. Humanly, of course, we get just what we want. Spiritually, we are called to seek God and we know that that often means walking on the path of sacrifice and suffering.

The abbot is just as subject to this common human vice. He can begin to have deaf ears once he discovers the weaknesses of the monks. He can think to himself that it doesn’t matter, in any case, because the monks won’t really change–probably don’t even want to.

The Rule in this Chapter calls us to another way of living. A way of living that is clearly in Christ Jesus and is willing to listen to one another and accept one another, even after we have seen each other’s faults and weaknesses. We need a great deal of faith to do this. Oftentimes novices and those in the early stages of formation leave when they see the scandal of the human weaknesses and failings of their brother monks. This is one of the trials that those in formation must get through: how to live with the sinfulness and weakness of the community which I have joined. All of us must see the sins and weaknesses of our brothers as simply the call to us to live more deeply in Christ, not as a sign that I do not belong here. It is easy to become discouraged. It must be said quite openly that we are likely to encounter every possible sin in the monastic community–and, we would not be saved. We try to imitate Him and not run away because of the sinfulness and weakness of our brothers. The community is our encounter with grace.

May the Lord strengthen us to live in community and to fight for Christ and to love our brothers.

Chapter 2, Verses 13-26

13 Again, if he teaches his disciples that something is not to be done, then neither must he do it, lest after preaching to others, he himself be found reprobate (1 Cor 9:27) 14 and God may some day call to him in his sin: How is it that you repeat my just commands and mouth my covenant when you hate discipline and toss my words behind you (Ps 49[50]:16-17)? 15 And also this: How is it that you can see a splinter in your brother’s eye, and never notice the plank in your own (Matt 7:3)?

16 The abbot should avoid all favoritism in the monastery. 17 He is not to love one more than another unless he finds someone better in good actions and obedience. 18 A man born free is not to be given higher rank than a slave who becomes a monk, except for some other good reason. 19 But the abbot is free, if he sees fit, to change anyone’s rank as justice demands. Ordinarily, everyone is to keep his regular place, 20 because whether slave or free, we are all one in Christ (Gal 3:28; Eph 6:8) and share alike in bearing arms in the service of the one Lord, for God shows no partiality among persons (Rom 2:11). 21 Only in this are we distinguished in his sight: if we are found better in good works and in humility. 22 Therefore, the abbot is to show equal love to everyone and apply the same discipline to all according to their merits.

23 In his teaching, the abbot should always observe the Apostle’s recommendation, in which he says: Use argument, appeal, reproof (2 Tim 4:2). 24 This means he must vary with circumstances, threatening and coaxing by turns, stern as a taskmaster, devoted and tender as only a father can be. 25 With the undisciplined and restless, he will use firm argument; with the obedient and docile and patient, he will appeal for greater virtue; but as for the negligent and disdainful, we charge him to use reproof and rebuke. 26 He should not gloss over the sins of those who err, but cut them out while he can, as soon as they begin to sprout, remembering the fate of Eli, priest of Shiloh (1 Sam 2:11-4:18).

Commentary by Philip Lawrence, OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert

We can see Saint Benedict focus on the role of the Abbot in these verses. First he wants to make sure that the abbot is trying to live what he is preaching. This is not to say that the Abbot must be perfect–no one is–but that he must be trying to live the Gospel in the same way that he preaches it to others. It does no good for the abbot to speak about silence if he is never silent–and so with every observance of the house.

We note also that the abbot must not be looking for ways to correct the brethren, but rather ways to lead them deeper into the divine life. This is a very different role from simply making sure that everyone is obeying the observances of the Gospel and of the Church and of the Monastery. Saint Benedict wants the abbot to lead the monks into a living relationship with God.

Then Saint Benedict points out some of the dangers. The abbot can have favorites because of his personal likes and dislikes. The abbot must avoid this. In the 1990’s, many people thought that everyone must have a special friend, or that one should certainly not refuse a close personal friendship if one develops. Saint Benedict points the abbot in another direction: look for good works and obedience. Basically we are told that what matters in monastic life is the strong attempt to seek God and not the natural bonds of human affection. All of us can have entangled human relationships in our lives at some time, but we must work towards putting all of our relationships in the light of God’s invitation to us to be monks who seek Him and to always put Him first.

Saint Benedict also warns against preferring one person to another because of external circumstances. At the time of the writing of the Rule, there was danger of preferring a free man to a slave. In our times there is more danger of preferring one person to another on account of nationality or personal talents or such things. In any case, we are directed by the Rule to look at the things that are necessary: how does this person live the monastic life? Good works and humility are brought out in this context.

The abbot must be flexible and adapt himself to each situation. There is no room in the Rule for rigidity and for lack of creativity on the part of the Abbot. Rather, the abbot must take the time to look deeply into a situation and to pray about what to do and then try to choose a course of action that is truly according to the Gospel and the monastic tradition as he seeks to draw each monk deeper into the monastic life.

The abbot can be threatening or coaxing. Most of us prefer to be coaxed rather than to be threatened. There are times when threats are necessary to make a person see that he must come to his senses. The abbot should never love threatening others–neither should he love coaxing them. The ideal is when the monk is truly adult and mature and gives himself to a full living of the monastic life with neither threats nor coaxings. If an abbot is always threatening, the threats become normal and lose their force. So also with coaxing. The abbot must learn how to do both without using his own energy unduly.

Firm argument works with some monks but not with others. In the same way the appeal for greater virtue is only for some of the brothers. We would like to hope that we might be among those who can be invited to greater virtue rather than among those who need firm argument. We must always strive not to be among those who need reproof and rebuke.

Finally we come to that phrase in the Rule in which the abbot is not to gloss over the sins of those who err, but to cut them out while he can. This verse 26 of Chapter 2 is very important because most abbots and superiors hope that the monks will see their own errors or faults and correct them themselves, without the authority of the abbot having to come into the situation.

Saint Benedict would surely have felt the same, but recognizes that letting faults and sins grow without mentioning them is not healthy for the community. In the popular psychology of the 1990’s, it would be said that keeping family secrets makes everyone psychologically ill.

This does not mean publicizing the faults and sins of others. It means that the abbot must be able to speak frankly and openly to the monks about what he sees as their faults and errors and that he should be able to expect them to respond in faith. There is no compulsive seeking for the faults of the brothers here, only a gentle awareness that all of us have faults and that we usually work more courageously against them when we have told them to someone else or when someone else has told us that he is aware of them.

It is good if the abbot can make a commitment in faith to speak honestly to his brothers, with prudence, about their faults and their lacks. It takes courage because sometimes the brothers will get angry and reject the abbot. Other times a monk who is corrected can become resentful and rejecting. And if the abbot’s correction is not done in faith it will be useless.

We must encourage our abbot to be open with us. We might even ask him from time to time if he sees anything in us that needs special attention. If we can do this in faith, we can grow rapidly in the spiritual life.

May God give each of us the grace to be open to our Abbot or our superiors, prudently and with faith. May God open our hearts so that we may grow in this monastic way.

Chapter 2, verses 27-40

27 For upright and perceptive men, his first and second warnings should be verbal; 28 but those who are evil or stubborn, arrogant or disobedient he can curb only by blows or some other physical punishment at the first offense. It is written, The fool cannot be corrected with words (Prov 29:19); 29 and again, Strike your son with a rod and you will free his soul from death (Prov 23:14).

30 The abbot must always remember what he is and remember what he is called, aware that more will be expected of a man to whom more has been entrusted. 31 He must know what a difficult and demanding burden he has undertaken: directing souls and serving a variety of temperaments, coaxing, reproving and encouraging them as appropriate. 32 He must so accommodate and adapt himself to each one’s character and intelligence that he will not only keep the flock entrusted to his care from dwindling, but will rejoice in the increase of a good flock. 33 Above all, he must not show too great concern for the fleeting and temporal things of this world, neglecting or treating lightly the welfare of those entrusted to him. 34 Rather, he should keep in mind that he has undertaken the care of souls for whom he must give an account. 35 That he may not plead lack of resources as an excuse, he is to remember what is written: Seek first the kingdom of God and his justice, and all these things will be given you as well (Matt 6:33), 36 and again, Those who fear him lack nothing (Ps 33[34]:10).

37 The abbot must know that anyone undertaking the charge of souls must be ready to account for them. 38 Whatever the number of brothers he has in his care, let him realize that on judgment day he will surely have to submit a reckoning to the Lord for all their souls–and indeed for his own as well. 39 In this way, while always fearful of the future examination of the shepherd about the sheep entrusted to him and careful about the state of others’ accounts, he becomes concerned also about his own, 40 and while helping others to amend by his warnings, he achieves the amendment of his own faults.

Commentary by Philip Lawrence, OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert

Saint Benedict wants to make sure that the abbot does not rule the Monastery simply like a temporal ruler of his own time. Rather, the abbot must seek to give true Gospel teaching to the monks. Saint Benedict also recognizes that not all monks will be able to understand a teaching that is only verbal. It is interesting to us that Saint Benedict presumes that there will be monks who are evil and stubborn and arrogant and disobedient. These are real monks in a real community. We would prefer to think that all monks are good and docile and humble and obedient.

The challenge for our formation is to become all the positive qualities and to recognize and work against the negative qualities. Monastic life is a matter of growing in Christ, not something that we can just put on immediately.

There are monks who put on all the good qualities almost from the beginning. Often times they do not persevere because it was only a “putting on,” not a “becoming.” There is a subtle process at work here. At times we must “put on” while we strive to “become.” At other times we seem unable to “put on” and yet we must still strive to “become.” We are in deep trouble when we no longer struggle to become.

The abbot himself must constantly be striving to help his brothers, to be of profit to them. Saint Benedict makes it very clear that the abbot has a true responsibility for each of the brothers. As always, there are extremes. The abbot can lack responsibility and use the Monastery simply for his own honor. The abbot can also become over-responsible and not leave room for the brothers to grow and to make their own mistakes.

The Rule points out that the abbot always has God’s help. The first task of the abbot is to seek the Kingdom of God, then all else will be added. To seek the Kingdom of God means also to do whatever abbots have to do. It does not mean simply praying and hoping that God will take care of all the practical items of the Monastery.

There is a homily from the 2nd century that mentions that many people do not become Christians because they do not see Christians living the Gospel of Christ. Christ tells us to love even our enemies, and we find it difficult even to love our friends consistently! If Christians cannot forgive one another and everyone else, what hope is there for our world? On the other hand, we must recognize that loving one another does not necessarily mean being friends with one another. Love is rather a deep willing of the good of the other person and learning how to treat that person with respect and honor.

Saint Benedict ends this chapter on the abbot by reminding all monks that the abbot should be amending his own faults as he works with his monks on the amendment of their faults. It is said at times that the things that most bother us in other people are the things that we ourselves have yet to deal with in our own lives. This is not always true, but there is enough truth in it that it should be said here in the chapter on the abbot. All of us could take time in our lives to become aware of the things that really bother us in others. Then we ought to take a bit more time and ask ourselves how those things have been dealt with in our own lives. This is simply a suggestion to further our own growth and commitment to Christ. We must not become caught up in the psychology of all of this, but in the opportunity of dealing with our own challenges and finding ways of growing in ourselves and accepting others more deeply.

Saint Benedict is challenging the abbot to look at his own faults as he deals with the faults of others. This is a wonderful challenge for any monk who wants to grow deeply in the monastic life. Saint Benedict is surely not encouraging the abbot not to deal with the faults of others, but to deal with others’ faults always with this deep awareness of his own personal sinfulness and imperfection. This will bring much compassion to the monastic life.

The challenge for our formation, once again, is to grow in our ability to love one another while striving to be totally faithful to the Gospel of Christ and the teachings of the Church. We must not become disillusioned by the sinfulness of our brothers or of our abbot. We are challenged to live our own lives so deeply that the grace of God will come upon our community in abundance and invite each brothers to live his life faithfully.

The Curé of Ars often said that if a bishop wanted a holy diocese, he must challenge his priests to holiness. So also if an abbot wants a holy Monastery, then he must challenge each brother to holiness. So often today our inclination is to think that if our brothers were holy, I would be holy. Rather, it is the other way around: if I will strive to be holy, then my brothers will also be holy. The challenge is always for me to change my life. The challenge is never that my brothers must change so that I will be content.

May God give each of us this grace to live for Him alone.