CHAPTER II. What kind of man the Abbot ought to be
9 Jan. 10 May. 9 Sept.
An Abbot who is worthy to rule over the monastery ought always to remember what he is called, and correspond to his name of superior by his deeds. For he is believed to hold the place of Christ in the monastery, since he is called by His name, as the Apostle saith: “You have received the spirit of adoption of sons, whereby we cry: Abba (Father).” And, therefore, the Abbot ought not (God forbid) to teach, or ordain, or command anything contrary to the law of the Lord; but let his bidding and his doctrine be infused into the minds of his disciples like the leaven of divine justice.
It is a terrifying and humbling thing to be chosen to rule over a monastery. If one knew, at the time of one’s election or appointment, how heavy the burden would become at certain hours, and how difficult it is to do the right thing for each brother, taking into account each one’s strengths, infirmities, temptations, hopes, and fears, one would not, I think, have the courage to say yes. The same may be said of the newly–married man who, together with his wife, sets about beginning a family. God does not permit one to see into the future. He asks for a yes full of faith; he asks that a man trust Him without seeing what His Providence holds in store. An abbot must linger over the experience of the great fathers of the Bible, the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He must go to Saint Joseph in order to learn from him, and ask often for a share in his virtues. He must place himself under the paternal mantle of Saint Benedict, as the least of his sons. To all of these great fathers, the abbot must say, “Help me to remember what I am called and to honour by my deeds the honour shown to Christ in me”.
Saint Joseph, in order to be the foster–father of the Eternal Son, needed the presence and intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was through Mary that Saint Joseph received the graces he needed to fulfil the paternal role that was his in the plan of God.
Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take thy wife Mary to thyself, for it is by the power of the Holy Ghost that she has conceived this child. (Matthew:1:20)
In the poverty of Bethlehem; in the anxiety of the flight into Egypt; in the search for the twelve year old Jesus in Jerusalem; and in his obscure life of humble labour at Nazareth, Saint Joseph drew strength from the Immaculate Heart of Mary. By this, I do not mean that Saint Joseph was in any way weak or indecisive; his faith and obedience, nonetheless, surpassed that of the patriarchs before him because the Blessed Virgin had come into his life. The closer an abbot is to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the more fatherly will he be for his monks. The grace of spiritual fatherhood is, by a mysterious disposition of Divine Providence, proportionate to the place that an abbot makes for Mary in his own life.
The abbot is believed to hold the place of Christ in the monastery: he is not Christ, but he points to Christ. He is not Christ, but he must be for his sons, who look at him through the eyes of faith, an image of Christ. Resemblance to Christ does not come to an abbot any more easily than to other men. It is a grace suffered. By this, I mean, that no man can make himself like Christ by human effort, nor by rational apprehension, nor by any pious or ascetical industry. The Holy Ghost engraves the likeness of Christ in a man by means of humiliations, failures, and much suffering. All the saints attest to this, though not all in the same way, for there are as many ways of being conformed to Christ as there are life stories. Every abbot has, in some way, an affinity with Saint John the Baptist, the Friend of the Bridegroom.
You yourselves do bear me witness, that I said, that I am not Christ, but that I am sent before him. He that hath the bride, is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, who standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth with joy because of the bridegroom’s voice. This my joy therefore is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease. (John 3:28–30)
For Saint Benedict, Christ is Father. This way of thinking may disconcert some, but it is easily shown to be right when one considers that Christ is the New Adam, the Second Adam conferring divine sonship upon those “born again of water and the Holy Ghost” (John 3:5). The Apostle says:
The first man Adam was made into a living soul; the last Adam into a quickening spirit. Yet that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; afterwards that which is spiritual. The first man was of the earth, earthly: the second man, from heaven, heavenly. Such as is the earthly, such also are the earthly: and such as is the heavenly, such also are they that are heavenly. Therefore as we have borne the image of the earthly, let us bear also the image of the heavenly. (1 Corinthians 15:54–49)
It is because the abbot holds the place of Christ in the monastery that he is a father. The abbot looks to the fatherhood of Christ and humbly, offers himself to Christ for the extension of His fatherhood in the monastic family. The primary task of the abbot is to foster in his sons all the potentialities of the grace of divine adoption. Not for nothing does Saint Benedict in this chapter quote the Apostle’s words to the Romans:
Those who follow the leading of God’s Spirit are all God’s sons; the spirit you have now received is not, as of old, a spirit of slavery, to govern you by fear; it is the spirit of adoption, which makes us cry out, Abba, Father. (Romans 8:14–15)
Saint Benedict says that the abbot ought not to teach, or ordain, or command anything contrary to the law of the Lord. The abbot who humbly submits his teaching to Mary, the Seat of Wisdom, will be helped to teach rightly and preserved from the delusions and deceits to which those who hold themselves aloof from Mary are so often exposed. I read recently that whenever Dom Gérard Calvet, the founder of Le Barroux, found that something was beyond him, he left it in the hands of the Blessed Virgin and prayed to her to intervene. This is a wise principle of government.
We hold to the tradition of a special veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary as heavenly abbess of the monastery. This is not unique to us at Silverstream; we see the same devotion among the monks of Mount Athos for whom the Mother of God is Abbess of all the monasteries of the Holy Mountain. I find great comfort in knowing that when I have said all that I can say in trying to help a brother who is struggling, and when I have done all that I can do in trying to resolve a difficulty, even a material one, there remains for me one final recourse: prayer to the Mother of God. Never was it known that anyone who fled to her protection, implored her help, or sought her intercession was left unaided.
The abbot who, as Saint Benedict says, would infuse his bidding and his doctrine into the minds of his disciples like the leaven of divine justice, must irrigate all that he undertakes, all that he asks of his sons, and all that teaches with the grace of countless Aves. An abbot who is often seen with Our Lady’s beads in hand can, I think, be trusted. The rosary keeps a man — even an abbot — humble, childlike, and poor, and with such a man Our Lady can do great things.