Chapter II: Abba, Father!


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 office of abbot, as Saint Benedict, following Cassian and the Master, understands it, is a synthesis of two approaches. The first approach originates in urban Christian communities where, already, in the first centuries of Christianity, groups of ascetics and virgins sought, under the influence of the Holy Ghost, to reproduce among themselves the description of the apostolic church of Jerusalem. Again, I refer you to Dom Morin’s book, The Ideal of the Monastic Life Found in the Apostolic Age (1914). Such groups chose one of their number, filled with the Holy Ghost and with wisdom, to preside over them as the guardian of their unity and of the traditions received from the Apostles. The principal task of this superior is twofold: he is the guardian of unity and the guardian of tradition.

The second approach originates in the desert among men believed to have the grace of the prophets, men capable of transmitting the teaching of Christ. These men lived hidden in desert solitudes, apart from the urban ecclesiastical centres. They were sought out nonetheless by men who, recognising their prophetic grace, wanted to learn from them how to live as monks. These apprentice–monks called their spiritual father Abba. “Abba, give me a word”. The relationship between the father and his disciples was essentially vertical, that is to say that the father did not seek to attach his disciples to himself but, rather, to attach them, through himself, to Christ the Lord.

I am the vine; you the branches: he that abideth in me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit: for without me you can do nothing. (John 15:5)

The essential work of the abbot is, then, to foster the attachment of his sons to Christ. An abbot does not, after the manner of the leader of a cult, seek to attach his sons to himself, nor does he instrumentalise his office in order to fill up whatever affective deficits there may be in his own life, by attempting to satisfy personal needs for recognition and affection.

No less than other men, when an abbot suffers the terrible mid–life crisis, he looks around at his peers, and takes stock of his own achievements and failures, gains and losses. He sees his married contemporaries as fathers and grandfathers. He observes them growing into the second half of life in the company of a cherished spouse. His own life can, at certain hours, appear singularly grim and unfulfilling. This is when an abbot can be assaulted by temptations to fill the void by looking for compensations outside the monastery or within it. The abbot must, with lucidity and manly resolve, renounce every temptation to keep for himself, in any way, souls called to union with Christ. His model is Saint John the Forerunner, the Friend of the Bridegroom.

A man cannot receive any thing, unless it be given him from heaven. 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)

The surpassing joy of the abbot, a joy that makes up for the deprivation of all earthly joys, is to lead souls to the Bridegroom Christ.

Furthermore I count all things to be but loss for the excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ my Lord; for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but as dung, that I may gain Christ. (Philippians 3:8)

“That I may gain Christ” —to this, the abbot must add, “and gain others for Him alone”. The abbot, like the Master of Novices, will be “skilled in winning souls” (Chapter LVIII) insofar as he allows and “prefers nothing whatsoever to Christ” (Chapter LXXII).

In a manner analogous to the charge of the bishop set over a local church, the abbot is set over a particular schola Christi, a monastic microcosm of the greater church. Saint Benedict’s doctrine on the abbot can be applied fittingly to any person set over a portion of the flock of Christ. In this regard, the Holy Rule is particularly useful for bishops and for diocesan priests engaged in the parochial ministry. Nearly everything that Saint Benedict teaches concerning the abbot can be applied to the ministry of a pastor of souls labouring in the vineyard of the Lord.

The abbot is the superior (maior) of the monastery. Just as the lord of a great house appoints one of his servants majordomo, setting him above all others in the household, and authorising him to act on his behalf, so too does Our Lord Jesus Christ constitute certain men His vicars in the “household of God” (Chapters XXXI and LIII), in the Church or in the monastery. These vicars of Christ are the bishops who rule over local churches, priests having the care of souls, and abbots set over monasteries.

The abbot is also the the spiritual father of his monks. In the natural order of things the father engenders his sons; in the spiritual order of things, a family of brethren, pray God to raise up one from among their number and, under the impulse of the Holy Ghost, call him Abba and Father, and this in reference to Christ. Christ, in the midst of His disciples, made known the Father: “The Father is in me, and I in the Father” (John 10:38). Christ, in all His words, in all His actions, in all His mysteries, is the revelation of the Father.

If you had known me, you would without doubt have known my Father also: and from henceforth you shall know him, and you have seen him. 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. (John 14:7–9)

The abbot will reveal the fatherhood of God only insofar as he remains united to Christ. Christ—teaching, shepherding, and praying through the abbot—is the Father of the monastery. It is unusual today to hear Christ addressed as “Father”, and yet, Our Lord’s relationship with the Apostles was a paternal one, and their attachment to Him was filial. In the ancient Church it was customary to consider Christ, the New Adam, as Father, because it is Christ who generates souls to newness of life. The Gospels tell us that Jesus called the disciples His children.

But Jesus again answering, saith to them: Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches, to enter into the kingdom of God? (Mark 10:24)

Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You shall seek me; and as I said to the Jews: Whither I go you cannot come; so I say to you now. (John 13:33)

I will not leave you orphans, I will come to you. (John 14:18)
Jesus therefore said to them: Children, have you any meat? They answered him: No. (John 21:5)

It is in faith that the abbot is believed to be Christ’s vicar, participating in His fatherhood and His lordship. Faith is the hinge upon which hangs the whole doctrine of abbatial authority in the Rule. In faith, the brethren look to their abbot as holding the place of Christ. The abbot, for his part, makes of his whole life, an uninterrupted act of faith in the grace of Christ at work in and through his weakness. The abbot holds fast to the words of Christ to the Apostle, and to the Apostle’s words concerning himself:

And he said to me: My grace is sufficient for thee: for power is made perfect in infirmity. Gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. For which cause I please myself in my infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ. For when I am weak, then am I powerful. (2 Corinthians 12:9–10)

Addressing the portion of the Church, the ecclesiola, entrusted to him, the abbot learns to say with the Apostle:

I am jealous of you with the jealousy of God. For I have espoused you to one husband that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. (2 Corinthians 11:2)

The abbot fulfils his role only insofar as he pours himself out for the souls in his care. This he does: 1) as doctor, by teaching; 2) as physician of souls, by attending to the weak, the wounded, and the infirm among his sons; 3) as pontiff, by giving himself to the Opus Dei with unflagging zeal, and by assiduous intercession for his sons, both before the Most Blessed Sacrament and in secret, where only the Father sees him (cf. Matthew 6:6).

I cannot emphasise enough the critical importance of the abbot’s daily teaching. I know that in some other monasteries the abbot teaches in chapter only weekly, or monthly, or even four times a year. There may be historical explanations or compelling local circumstances behind such customs. For my part, however, I see the daily chapter as the principal means, after the sacred liturgy, by which our monastic family can “advance in wisdom, and age, and grace with God and men” (Luke 2:52).

All of this, the abbot does without seeking to win approval or applause and without calculating the measure of his service. He learns, by the grace of Christ, to say daily with Saint Paul:

But I most gladly will spend and be spent myself for your souls; although loving you more, I be loved less. (2 Corinthians 12:15)

abate-marmionPostscript: My admiration for Blessed Abbot Marmion is no secret to you. I can say that, in some mysterious way, Dom Marmion has been for me a true father in Christ, my heavenly abbot, ever since I began reading him as a young man.

Only in recent years have I come to understand the profound attachment of Blessed Abbot Marmion to Saint Paul. Blessed Marmion’s understanding of the abbatial office is entirely Pauline. The abundant use of Saint Paul and also of Saint John that characterises his teachings, and even his personal correspondence, can only be explained by a profoundly personal identification with Saint Paul and with Saint John. With the first our Irish Benedictine abbot says:

I admonish you as my dearest children. For if you have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet not many fathers. For in Christ Jesus, by the gospel, I have begotten you. Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me, as I also am of Christ. (1 Corinthians 4:14–16)

And with the second, Blessed Abbot Marmion says:

Little children, abide in him, that when he shall appear, we may have confidence, and not be confounded by him at his coming. (1 John 2:28)


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