Learned in the Law of God, (LXIV:2)

CHAPTER LXIV. Of the Appointment of the Abbot
21 Apr. 21 Aug. 21 Dec.

Let him that hath been appointed Abbot always bear in mind what a burden he hath received, and to Whom he will have to give an account of his stewardship; and let him know that it beseemeth him more to profit his brethren than to preside over them. He must, therefore, be learned in the Law of God, that he may know whence to bring forth new things and old: he must be chaste, sober, merciful, ever preferring mercy to justice, that he himself may obtain mercy. Let him hate sin, and love the brethren. And even in his corrections, let him act with prudence, and not go too far, lest while he seeketh too eagerly to scrape off the rust, the vessel be broken. Let him keep his own frailty ever before his eyes, and remember that the bruised reed must not be broken. And by this we do not mean that he should suffer vices to grow up; but that prudently and with charity he should cut them off, in the way he shall see best for each, as we have already said; and let him study rather to be loved than feared. Let him not be violent nor over anxious, not exacting nor obstinate, not jealous nor prone to suspicion, or else he will never be at rest. In all his commands, whether concerning spiritual or temporal matters, let him be prudent and considerate. In the works which he imposeth, let him be discreet and moderate, bearing in mind the discretion of holy Jacob, when he said “If I cause my flocks to be overdriven, they will all perish in one day.” Taking, then, the testimonies, borne by these and the like words, to discretion, the mother of virtues, let him so temper all things, that the strong may have something to strive after, and the weak nothing at which to take alarm. And, especially, let him observe this present Rule in all things; so that, having faithfully fulfilled his stewardship, he may hear from the Lord what that good servant heard, who gave wheat to his fellow-servants in due season: “Amen, I say unto you, over all his goods shall he place him.”

Blessed Abbot Marmion chose his abbatial motto from this chapter of the Holy Rule: Magis prodesse quam praesse, “It is greater to be useful than to be in charge.” I suspect that Blessed Marmion had the whole second part of Chapter LXIV in mind. The abbot can never hold himself excused from carrying out the task entrusted to him, that is, the care of the souls of his monks. He will be held accountable before God for what he has done and for what he has failed to do. The prospect of being held accountable before God is terrifying but, even for the abbot, there will be mercy and, I hope, greater mercy in proportion to the greater burden placed upon him. The abbot must never waver in practicing the 72nd instrument of good works: “And never to despair of God’s mercy.”

What does Saint Benedict require of the abbot?  First, he is to be “learned in the Law of God, that he may know whence to bring forth new things and old.” The abbot need not be a scholar. Dom Guéranger said, “When I get to heaven, God will not ask me whether I have written books, but whether I have taken care of the souls he has entrusted to me.” In a letter to Dom Delatte, the great man who was the third abbot of Solesmes, Abbess Cécile Bruyère chided him for being too demanding. Abbot Delatte was of a rare intellectual stature. He was strong, energetic, and focused. Madame Bruyère warned him against leaving behind the brethren who, having only “little legs,” were unable to take great strides in following him. The abbess of Sainte–Cécile wrote:

You are not aware of your own strength, your influence, others’ need of you; if you were, you would make more allowance for those who form the greater part of the human race: the weak and unsteady, who have more need of a doctor or a father than a professor of logic . . . Mon Père Abbé, you would be more at home among the angels, good or bad, because of your ways of thinking; your habits belong more to them than to humankind. Except for those who have enough courage and affection to follow you, the others leave you along the path because of their little legs. There is only one thing to do: it is to take them in your great arms.

It is a terrible thing when an abbot, assuming that all his sons are able to keep up with him, turns around and sees the greater part of the community lagging behind in the distance. The abbot must so pace himself, and set the pace of the community, “that the strong may have something to strive after, and the weak nothing at which to take alarm.”

When Saint Benedict says that the abbot is to be “learned in the Law of God,” he does not mean that the abbot must be capable of writing lofty theological essays or of holding his own in academic disputes. He means that the abbot must be humble enough for the pure light that shines from the pages of the Missal, and the Antiphonal, and the Psalter to penetrate his soul in the ordinary round of the monastic life. The abbot will, of course, look for reflections of that same light in the writings of the Fathers and of the saints, but always with a view to feeding the sheep entrusted to his care.

Abbot Guéranger said:

The spirit of the Holy Rule is that the abbot should always have a word ready on his lips and should always be ready to give his children a light on everything. He isn’t asked for eloquence or brilliance, but a simple fatherly word. For that purpose acquire the habit of gathering everywhere like a bee — be it in the Divine Office, in what you read, in your thoughts, and even in conversations — in such a way that your spirit, always vigilant, renews and enriches itself ceaselessly. But, in fact, the real preparation is above all union with God and the true spirit of prayer; for then your intelligence will profit doubly. Our Lord Himself will renew you, will refresh you, blessing your reading, your work, giving fruitfulness to your mind which will never be empty — any more than your heart is — for those who require from you their spiritual nourishment.