All goodness and holiness (II:3)

11 Jan. 12 May. 11 Sept.
Therefore, when anyone receiveth the name of Abbot, he ought to govern his disciples by a two-fold teaching: that is, he should shew forth all goodness and holiness by his deeds rather than his words: declaring to the intelligent among his disciples the commandments of the Lord by words: but to the hard-hearted and the simple minded setting forth the divine precepts by the example of his deeds. And let him shew by his own actions that those things ought not to be done which he has taught his disciples to be against the law of God; lest, while preaching to others, he should himself become a castaway, and God should say to him in his sin: “Why dost thou declare My justice, and take My covenant in thy mouth? Thou hast hated discipline, and hast cast My words behind thee.” And again: “Thou who sawest the mote in thy brother’s eye, didst thou not see the beam in thine own?”

Saint Benedict returns to the name given to the father of the community. The abbot imitates Christ in the midst of the apostles. He is a father, but also a teacher of all things good and holy, omnia bona et sancta. In every community there are brothers who take in what is said in chapter and in conferences. There are other brothers who learn more readily from what they observe of the abbot’s life. The abbot, therefore, is to set an example, lest God address to him the terrible reproaches of Psalm 49:

But thus, to the sinner, God speaks: How is it that thou canst repeat my commandments by rote, and boast of my covenant with thee, and thou, all the while, hast no love for the amendment of thy ways, casting every warning of mine to the winds? Swift thou art to welcome the thief who crosses thy path, to throw in thy lot with the adulterers. Malice wells up from thy lips, and thy tongue is a ready engine of deceit; thou wilt sit there in conclave, speaking evil of thy brother, traducing thy own mother’s son. Such were thy ways, and should I make no sign? Should I let thee think I am such as thou? Here is thy reproof; here is thy indictment made plain to thee. Think well on this, you that forget God, or his hand will fall suddenly, and there will be no delivering you. He honours me truly, who offers me a sacrifice of praise; live aright, and you shall see the saving power of God. (Psalm 49:16–23)

God sometimes allows even abbots to be dogged by infirmity. Saint Bernard and Saint Aelred come to mind and, in recent times, Blessed Abbot Marmion and Dom Gabriel Sortais. How can an abbot who, for reasons of health, is sometimes obliged to forego participation in the full observance give the example that Saint Benedict requires? I have often been obliged to ponder this question. It seems to me that, even in infirmity and weakness, an abbot can teach by his example, if he accepts these things humbly and submits to what God permits to befall him. Infirmities, be they chronic and incurable or occasional and easily cured, are a school of humility. Given that humility is the foundation of Benedictine life, the abbot or any other monk brought low by infirmity can grow in holiness and, at the same time, give a good example, provided that he accept all that comes to him, saying, “I adore and I submit,” not in a gloomy, fatalistic way, but as an expression of abandonment to Divine Providence. This may well be an abbot’s most precious teaching: the example of humble abandonment to Divine Providence.

This being said, the abbot, like every monk is bound to invest his best energies in being obedient to the horarium and in following the observance, even if this means that he must start afresh every day. A good principle is that, with the blessing of obedience, one ought always to do just a little more than what one thinks what can do. The extra effort can sometimes be an occasion of grace for oneself and for others. In Christ, the Ideal of the Monk, Abbot Marmion writes with what I think is an autobiographical reference:

Let us accept illness, if sent to us by God, or what is sometimes more painful, a state of habitual ill-health, an infirmity that never leaves us; adversities, spiritual aridity; to accept all these things can become very mortifying for nature. If we do so with loving submission, without ever relaxing in the service we owe to God, although Heaven seems to be cold and deaf to us, our soul will open more and more to the divine action. For, according to the saying of St. Paul, “all things work together unto good” to those whom God calls to share His glory. (Christ, the Ideal of the Monk, Chapter 9)

I often refer to a letter that Dom Prosper Guéranger, the abbot of Solesmes addressed to Dom Maurus Wolter, the young prior of Beuron in May 1863. Dom Guéranger had, at this time, a quarter of a century of experience as founding abbot of Solesmes. He had learned, on his own, how to foster unity of purpose and of means in a community of men from a variety of backgrounds, many of them clerics, and each one having, and sometimes clinging to, his own idea of what monastic life ought to be. Dom Guéranger governed with gentleness, with love, and with an astonishing breadth of view. Among the aphorisms he sent to Dom Maurus Wolter are these, which I have taken to heart and try to follow:

• Take care of your health; you need it, and it doesn’t belong to you.

• Making use of every means, foster a holy liberty of spirit among your monks, and do everything to make them love their state of life more than anything else in the world.

• Make yourself loved always and in all things. Be a mother rather than a father to your sons.

• Imitate the patience of God, and don’t demand of spring the fruits of autumn.

• Adapt yourself to everyone, and don’t try to adapt others to yourself, because God created us all different, and you are really the servant of all, like Our Lord Jesus Christ.

• Take scrupulous care of the health of each one, and don’t wait for a serious infirmity before giving a dispensation.

• Establish the observance gradually, and don’t be afraid to take a step backwards when you see that you have gone too far.