Chapter 65: The Prior of the Monastery

1 Too often in the past, the appointment of a prior has been the source of serious contention in monasteries. 2 Some priors, puffed up by the evil spirit of pride and thinking of themselves as second abbots, usurp tyrannical power and foster contention and discord in their communities. 3 This occurs especially in monasteries where the same bishop and the same abbots appoint both abbot and prior. 4 It is easy to see what an absurd arrangement this is, because from the very first moment of his appointment as prior he is given grounds for pride, 5 as his thoughts suggest to him that he is exempt from his abbot’s authority. 6 “After all, you were made prior by the same men who made the abbot.” 7 This is an open invitation to envy, quarrels, slander, rivalry, factions and disorders of every kind, 8 with the result that, while abbot and prior pursue conflicting policies, their own souls are inevitably endangered by this discord; 9 and at the same time the monks under them take sides and so go to their ruin. 10 The responsibility for this evil and dangerous situation rests on the heads of those who initiated such a state of confusion.

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

Having just given a strong and loving treatment of the role of the abbot, Saint Benedict now turns to the Prior of the monastery. Always we need to be aware that Saint Benedict really did not want a prior and tries to find a way by which the system of deans will completely replace the office of Prior. Saint Benedict seems to recognize that monasteries will still have priors when he writes this chapter.

Immediately we see what has caused the problem: conflict between abbot and prior, the prior thinking that he is as important as the abbot, priors causing problems in communities.

Too often this bad situation has been brought about by people outside of the monastery who have the right to name both the abbot and the prior. Benedict’s feelings seem so very strong in this Chapter that we have to wonder if somehow this situation had not happened to him or to some other abbot known to him. Having a prior at all seems not a good idea when we read the Rule.

Yet almost always in monastic there is a prior serving under and abbot and most of the time it has not caused problems. Instead, in general, it has seemed a good way to exercise the governance in the monastery.

At the heart of the authority structure and the community structure in the community must be Christ Himself. The more that each of the monks is committed to following the Lord Christ, the stronger the community becomes in a very good sense. So especially among those who have roles of authority in the community, Christ Himself must be the center, not authority!

Another aspect of authority in the community is always listening to the brothers, listening to the Chapter, listening to the Council. The more that real counsel is taken, the less problems there are, even when decisions are taken that are not popular. The prior and the Subprior (not mentioned at all by the Rule!) should be true counselors for the abbot, then the full Council of Deans, then the Chapter and then finally the community.

Chapter 65. The Prior of the Monastery 11 – 22

11 For the preservation of peace and love we have, therefore, judged it best for the abbot to make all decisions in the conduct of his monastery. 12 If possible, as we have already established, the whole operation of the monastery should be managed through deans under the abbot’s direction. 13 Then, so long as it is entrusted to more than one, no individual will yield to pride. 14 But if local conditions call for it, or the community makes a reasonable and humble request, and the abbot judges it best, 15 then let him, with the advice of God-fearing brothers, choose the man he wants and himself make him his prior. 16 The prior for his part is to carry out respectfully what his abbot assigns to him, and do nothing contrary to the abbot’s wishes or arrangements, 17 because the more he is set above the rest, the more he should be concerned to keep what the rule commands. 18 If this prior is found to have serious faults, or is led astray by conceit and grows proud, or shows open contempt for the holy rule, he is to be warned verbally as many as four times. 19 If he does not amend, he is to be punished as required by the discipline of the rule. 20 Then, if he still does not reform, he is to be deposed from the rank of prior and replaced by someone worthy. 21 If after all that, he is not a peaceful and obedient member of the community, he should even be expelled from the monastery. 22 Yet the abbot should reflect that he must give God an account of all his judgments, lest the flames of jealousy or rivalry sear his soul.

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

We conclude the Chapter on the Prior today. There are really important teachings in this part of the Chapter. First, the abbot should make all decisions in the monastery–presuming, of course, that he has taken counsel. The abbot remains clearly the leader of the community. This is not democracy. But the abbot must listen and listen and listen.

We hear also Benedict’s deep preference for a system of deans rather than a prior, but if a prior is necessary, the abbot should appoint one. This “giving in” to the normal governance structures of his time is typically a part of Benedict’s manner. We find the same “giving in” in the matter o drinking wine. There is a real sense that Benedict can adapt to lots of things, as long as they are not intrinsically immoral.

There is a strong admonition for the person who will be appointed prior and strong limits are given for that role. Yet at the end, it is the abbot who is admonished because an abbot can feel threatened by the monk who is prior and perhaps actually a better monk or person than the abbot!

Let us try to live in peace and pursue the goal of being truly faithful monks. May we all be freed from jealousies. May we all see to serve the Lord and our brothers.