When anyone receiveth the name of abbot (II:2)

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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?”

For Saint Benedict, a man must be what he is called. A man is not merely called by a certain name as a convenient way of getting his attention or of referring to him; he is also called forth to become what the name signifies. The abbot corresponds to what he is called by teaching in both deed and word. Saint Benedict insists on the primacy of good example.

Many years ago, I was obliged to come to terms with the apparent conflict between the obligation to set a good example and the hard reality of infirmity, ill health, and all sorts of other human limitations. The abbot is bound to  “set forth the divine precepts by the example of his deeds.” Various infirmities and limitations may make it impossible for him to keep the whole observance in the way he would want. What then? Let the abbot at least give the example of humility in weakness, of good cheer in infirmity, of patience with his own limitations, and of submission to all that God wills or permits. This is the most precious teaching that an abbot can impart to his sons.

Some years ago, Our Lord taught me to say this prayer:

My Jesus, only as Thou willest,
when Thou willest,
and in the way Thou willest.
To Thee be all glory and thanksgiving,
Who rulest all things mightily and sweetly,
and Who fillest the earth with Thy manifold mercies.
Amen.

God allows certain infirmities and limitations in order to humble a man and to keep him in a state of lowliness and poverty of spirit. The man who takes giant strides in the monastic observance, who never falters, never stumbles, and is never obliged to stop and rest along the way, can easily begin to think that he is superior to his brothers. Then, he is but a step away from judging and condemning his brothers or, at least, from murmuring against them in his heart. The abbot must, before all else, be an example of unwavering trust in the goodness of God, even when he experiences the humiliations of his own weakness seven times a day. God permits this in order to make him compassionate towards the weakest and most tempted of his sons.

I remember as a very young man barely out of adolescence visiting a certain abbey and remarking that the abbot was often absent from choir. In my stupidity and priggishness, I wondered why this so and how it could be so. Now, after the passing of so many years, I understand why this was so and how it could be so.

This being noted, the abbot must, all the same, “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.” An abbot too is a man who falls and rises, falls and rises, falls and rises. In doing this, that is, always beginning afresh with confidence in the grace of Christ, an abbot gives his sons the most important teaching of all: an example of participation by patience in the Passion of Christ.

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