Certain brethren of good repute and holy life (XXI)

CHAPTER XXI. Of the Deans of the Monastery
26 Feb. 28 June. 28 Oct.
Should the community be large, let there be chosen from it certain brethren of good repute and holy life, and appointed Deans. Let them carefully direct their deaneries in all things according to the commandments of God and the will of their Abbot. And let such men be chosen Deans as the Abbot may safely trust to share his burdens: let them not be chosen according to order, but for the merit of their lives and for their wisdom and learning. And should any one of them, being puffed up with pride, be found worthy of blame, and after being thrice corrected, refuse to amend, let him be deposed, and one who is worthy be put in his place. And we order the same to be done with regard to the Prior.

The key phrase in Chapter XXI is, or so it seems to me, this one: Qui decani tales eligantur in quibus securus abbas partiat onera sua, “And let such be chosen as deans upon whom the abbot may safely lay a share of his burdens.” Saint Benedict says two things here: first that the abbot will have burdens. There is no escaping this even in the most observant, economically secure, and well-ordered monasteries. And second, that the abbot is not expected to carry his burdens alone. Quite the contrary! Saint Benedict counsels the abbot to lay a share of his burdens on the shoulders of such men as merit his trust.

The first point suggests that the abbot who tries to bear all the burdens of his office alone will, at some point along the way, find himself crushed beneath them, and quite possibly physically and mentally exhausted. The abbot who tries to shoulder his burdens in solitary splendour suffers seriously from the delusions of pride, which, in an extreme form becomes a kind of hierarchical megalomania. It is a terrible thing when an abbot trusts no one, refuses to seek counsel, and thinks that there is something like heroic virtue in trudging along under the weight of burdens too heavy to bear. This sort of comportment may come from a need to appear heroic, to show that one possesses superior wisdom and uncommon strength, and from a need to win adulation and sympathy.

An abbot is as weak as the weakest of his sons. Only the humble know how to bear weakness peacefully, and for them it becomes an occasion of grace. Read the Pastoral Prayer of Saint Aelred of Rievaulx if you would get a sense of what I mean.

The second point is that, while the abbot alone receives the grace of state to govern his monastery, part of that grace of state is the wisdom to recognise when a burden is too heavy for him to bear alone and when it behooves him to lay a portion of his burden on the shoulders of others who, thereby, participate in his paternity. With the abbot’s grace of state comes sufficient light to choose the men best suited and equipped to help him.

Certain traits of character and certain vices would disqualify brothers from this privileged role. If a monk does not enjoy a good reputation among his brethren, his appointment to any office in the monastery risks giving rise to murmuring and to suspicions concerning the abbot’s right judgment. If, through his own fault, the man in question is not observant, he will become more of a liability than a help to the abbot. If he becomes puffed up with pride, he is altogether unsuited for any responsibility or office. The abbot will have to find some merciful and effective means to deflate his pride and bring him down to the level of the poor, the weak, and the broken, for such as these attract the grace of God which, like a stream of clear water, descends from the mountain heights into the lowest part of the valleys.

There is much in the Office and Holy Mass of this feast of the Sacred Heart that speaks to an abbot. Mihi omnium sanctorum minimo data est gratia haec, says the Apostle. “To me, the least of all who have been set apart, is given this grace” (Ephesians 3:8). So long as the abbot and his close collaborators number themselves among the very littlest of souls, they will never want for sufficient grace to carry out their duties and bear their burdens. The Heart of Jesus is irresistibly attracted to the little, the broken, and the weak. Does not Our Lord say to the Apostle and to all who lament their own peculiar sting of the flesh, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for power is made perfect in infirmity” (2 Corinthians 12:9)? And for this reason, Our Lord says in the 4th antiphon of Lauds, “Come to me, all you that labour and are burdened; I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28); and in the 5th antiphon, “My son, give me thy heart: and let thy eyes keep my ways” (Proverbs 23:26).

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