Chapter 64: The Election of an Abbot

1 In choosing an abbot, the guiding principle should always be that the man placed in office be the one selected either by the whole community acting unanimously in the fear of God, or by some part of the community, no matter how small, which possesses sounder judgment. 2 Goodness of life and wisdom in teaching must be the criteria for choosing the one to be made abbot, even if he is the last in community rank. 3 May God forbid that a whole community should conspire to elect a man who goes along with its own evil ways. But if it does, 4 and if the bishop of the diocese or the abbots or Christians in the area come to know of these evil ways to any extent, 5 they must block the success of this wicked conspiracy, and set a worthy steward in charge of God’s house. 6 They may be sure that they will receive a generous reward for this, if they do it with pure motives and zeal for God’s honor. Conversely, they may be equally sure that to neglect to do so is sinful.

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

Saint Benedict spoke in the previous Chapter about the rule of the abbot being to hold the place of Christ in the community. Now he turns to the election of the abbot in the community. Having the community elect its own abbot is a daring method of choosing a leader. Often the abbot would prefer to have a particular monk succeed him–but if the abbot follows the Rule, he allows the community to make its own choice.

The guiding principles for electing an abbot are these important qualities: goodness of life and soundness of teaching. This is such an important teaching! It is so difficult for all of us to vote for a person whom we may not particularly like, but who has this goodness of life and wisdom in teaching.

Saint Benedict does allow that a community might choose a smaller group of its members to make the final choice. This has happened at some points in history, but it is very rare.

The worst thing that a community can do is to choose an abbot who will simply do what they want him to do. This is not the role of the abbot. The abbot has to follow God and follow the Rule and draw men to be faithful to monastic life.

Because it is easy to elect someone who will make our life comfortable, such elections have happened historically. Rarely do the local bishops intervene or anyone else. There is a huge pressure to let a monastic community make its choices freely, even when the monastic community does choose an abbot who is not worthy. Almost always, in history and today, no one wants to take a strong position saying: “That man you elected as abbot is unworthy!”

Let us pray that each of us will have courage and wisdom when we must participate in an abbatial election!

Chapter 64. The Election of an Abbot 7 – 22

7 Once in office, the abbot must keep constantly in mind the nature of the burden he has received, and remember to whom he will have to give an account of his stewardship (Luke 16:2). 8 Let him recognize that his goal must be profit for the monks, not preeminence for himself. 9 He ought, therefore, to be learned in divine law, so that he has a treasury of knowledge from which he can bring out what is new and what is old (Matt 13:52). He must be chaste, temperate and merciful. 10 He should always let mercy triumph over judgment (Jas 2:13) so that he too may win mercy. 11 He must hate faults but love the brothers. 12 When he must punish them, he should use prudence and avoid extremes; otherwise, by rubbing too hard to remove the rust, he may break the vessel. 13 He is to distrust his own frailty and remember not to crush the bruised reed (Isa 42:3). 14 By this we do not mean that he should allow faults to flourish, but rather, as we have already said, he should prune them away with prudence and love as he sees best for each individual. 15 Let him strive to be loved rather than feared. 16 Excitable, anxious, extreme, obstinate, jealous or oversuspicious he must not be. Such a man is never at rest. 17 Instead, he must show forethought and consideration in his orders, and whether the task he assigns concerns God or the world, he should be discerning and moderate, 18 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 (Gen 33:13). 19 Therefore, drawing on this and other examples of discretion, the mother of virtues, he must so arrange everything that the strong have something to yearn for and the weak nothing to run from. 20 He must, above all, keep this rule in every particular, 21 so that when he has ministered well he will hear from the Lord what that good servant heard who gave his fellow servants grain at the proper time: 22 I tell you solemnly, he said, he sets him over all his possessions (Matt 24:47).

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

After speaking about how to elect an abbot, Saint Benedict turns to how the abbot should live his life. There is another Chapter in the Rule, Chapter 2, that speak about the qualifications of the abbot and how he should live. If we look at the two Chapters together, we get a much fuller picture of the type of abbot that Saint Benedict wants.

Chapter 2 seems to favor an abbot who is fairly stern, although still in the image of Christ. In Chapter 2, the abbot holds the place of Christ, teaches, arranges, commands, expects obedience, teaches by his actions and by his words, does not play favorites in the monastery, arranges the seniority in the community, has equal charity to all, corrects, entreats, reproaches, threatens, entices, directs souls of different temperaments, disciplines, entreats, renders an account of his own soul and lives in fear of the judgment.

This Chapter 64 seems to bring a softer and gentler quality to the abbot. In Chapter 64 the abbot must profit others rather than precede them, must be learned in the divine law (the Scriptures), must be chaste and temperate and merciful, must always put mercy before judgment, should hate vices but love the brothers, must correct prudently and without excess, adapt himself to the individual monk, should try to be loved more than feared, should not be restless and troubled, should not be extreme and headstrong, should not be jealous or over-suspicious, should be farsighted and thoughtful, should give prudent and moderate orders, should always be discrete, should create a life where the strong are challenged but the weak are not discouraged and is subject to the Rule as a monk.

In this Chapter 4, the abbot seems to be called to be very loving and forgiving and compassionate. When Saint Benedict says that the abbot should strive to be loved more than feared, it is clear that the abbot is also feared. That is normal in the exercise of power. But the fear needs to come from good motivations. This is not the type of fear that comes from an abbot who is explosive, an abbot who is mean, an abbot who is too strict, etc. Nor is the love to be from an abbot who doesn’t know how to give direction, an abbot who is always involved in emotional relationships, an abbot who give no direction to the community. Love is always the basic and underlying reality in Jesus Christ that must be conveyed to each of the brothers, no matter how difficult he may be.

It is never easy to be a monk and it is not easy to be an abbot. The abbot must be able to love each one of the brothers, especially those most rejected by the community. In our day the abbot must accept the decision of the chapter not to accept someone for vows and see that as God’s will. The abbot must always be able to see the possibility of conversion and change in each monk. The abbot must be able to encourage each brother.

Really important is the abbot’s ability to correct brothers and insist on what is right. The abbot must be able to give direction to the community.

All with love!