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: “Ye have received the spirit of the adoption of children, in which 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.
The name Abbot. meaning “the father”, is derived, through the Latin and the Greek, from the Aramaic abba, a title of affectionate reverence given to wise old men, and to respected teachers and rabbis. It would have been associated in Saint Benedict’s mind with the pius pater of ancient Roman society: the affectionate father, always merciful, severe when necessary, and utterly devoted to his sons. Even more, however, quoting Galatians 4:6, Saint Benedict associates it with the very name given to God the Father: “And because you are sons, God hath sent the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying: Abba, Father.”
The Fatherhood of Christ
Saint Benedict does not hesitate to attribute the title Abba to Christ Himself; Jesus was, in the midst of His apostles, the most devoted of fathers, loved and revered by the men whom He called to be with Him and to receive His teaching. Our Lord’s Divine Person had about it a paternal quality that did not escape His disciples, even if they were slow to recognize Him as the perfect revelation and living icon of the Father.
Philip saith to him: Lord, shew us the Father, and it is enough for us. Jesus saith to him: Have I been so long a time with you; and have you not known me? Philip, he that seeth me seeth the Father also. How sayest thou, shew us the Father? Do you not believe, that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? The words that I speak to you, I speak not of myself. But the Father who abideth in me, he doth the works. Believe you not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? (John 14:8-11).
The Fatherhood of the Abbot
Just as Christ held the place of His Father in the midst of the Apostolic College — He that seeth me seeth the Father also — so too does the Abbot hold the place of Christ in the monastery. The Abbot is not Christ, but he is a kind of sacrament of His presence. He is this, not by virtue of the sacrament of Holy Orders, as would be a bishop, priest, or deacon, but by virtue of a charism recognized by the community that chose him, and confirmed by the Church in a solemn rite of blessing or consecration. The charism of spiritual fatherhood is among the best and perfect gifts that are “from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17).
Listening to Christ
The Abbot must teach, set in order, and command in whatsoever things concern the life of his monastery and the welfare of his monks, who are to him as sons. In so doing, he must remain faithful and true to the law of Christ and to the teachings of the Church. Just as Christ listened at every moment to His Father, so must the Abbot listen at every moment to Christ. “My doctrine,” says Jesus, “is not mine, but his that sent me” (John 7:16). This, of course, obliges the Abbot to abide close to the Heart of Christ, in ceaseless prayer, and in humble adherence to all His designs and desires.
The Pure Bread of Christ
Saint Benedict compares the work of the Abbot to that of a baker kneading leaven into his loaves. The leaven is divine justice, that is to say, the very principle of holiness that is the Word of God, “living and active” (Hebrews 4:12). “The kingdom of heaven is like to leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, until the whole was leavened” (Matthew 13:33). Doing this, the Abbot will learn to make his own the words of Saint Ignatius of Antioch, “I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.” Unless the Abbot himself becomes the wheat of God, ground in weakness, humiliations and sufferings to become the pure bread of Christ, leavened by divine justice, his community will remain flat and all his kneading will be in vain, for nemo dat quod non habet, no one gives what he does not have.