Cum aliquis suscipit nomen abbatis (II:3)

CHAPTER II. What kind of man the Abbot ought to be
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?”

For Saint Benedict, the name of abbot is received. Ergo, cum aliquis suscipit nomen abbatis. . . . The name of abbot signifies a gift of grace descendens a Patre luminum, “coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17). The name of abbot is also given by the monastic family to the one in whom the brethren recognise the grace of fatherhood and elect to exercise this grace. It may happen in the case of a new monastery that a grace of fatherhood in the founding abbot is recognised as such by the Bishop and that the Bishop, acting with his apostolic authority, confirms what he recognises and, by an official appointment, gives the community its first abbot.

The grace given to the abbot is not a form of magical power. It is neither indefectible nor infallible. The abbot remains a sInful man, a fragile earthen vessel according to the word of the Apostle:

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency may be of the power of God, and not of us. (2 Corinthians 4:7)

The abbot is bound to exercise his authority in a profound humility. How will he practice this humility? First of all, the abbot is bound to live in total dependence on Our Lord Jesus Christ, the source of his life without whom he can do nothing good. The abbot must apply to himself what Our Lord said to the Apostles on the night before He suffered:

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 abbot is called to practice humility in two ways. First, he must be a man of adoration, a man who goes to Our Lord for everything, with everything, and with nothing. He must present himself before Our Lord with empty hands and with faith, especially when he is obliged to take a decision or to intercede for one or another of his sons. Tomorrow is the feast of Saint Aelred of Rievaulx. His “Pastoral Prayer” remains for me a model of intercession:

Thou knowest my heart, Lord;
Thou knowest my will
is that whatever Thou hast given Thy servant
should be devoted wholly to their service,
and spent for them in its entirety;
and I myself, moreover, would be freely spent for them.

So may it be, O Lord, so may it be.
My powers of perception, and of speech,
my work time and my leisure,
my doing and my thinking,
the times when things go well with me,
the times when they go ill,
my life, my death,
my good health and my weakness,
each single thing that makes me what I am,
the fact that I exist, and think, and judge,
let all be used, let all be spent for those
for whom Thou deignedst to be spent Thyself.

Teach me Thy servant, therefore, Lord,
teach me, I pray Thee, by Thy Holy Spirit,
how to devote myself to them, and how
to spend myself on their behalf.
Give me, by Thine unutterable grace, the power
to bear with their shortcomings patiently,
to share their griefs in loving sympathy,
and to afford them help according to their needs.
Taught by Thy Spirit, may I learn
to comfort the sorrowful, confirm the weak, and raise the fallen;
to be myself one with them in their weakness,
one with them when they burn at causes of offence,
one in all things with them, all things to all of them,
that I may gain them all.

Give me the power to speak the truth straightforwardly,
and yet acceptably;
so that they all may be built up in faith, and hope, and love,
in charity and lowliness, in patience and obedience,
in spiritual fervor and submissiveness of mind.

And, since Thou hast appointed this blind guide to lead them,
this untaught man to teach, this ignorant one to rule them,
for their sakes, Lord, if not for mine,
teach him whom Thou hast made to be their teacher,
lead him whom Thou hast bidden to lead them,
rule him who is their ruler.

Teach me, therefore, sweet Lord,
how to restrain the restless, comfort the discouraged,
and support the weak.
Teach me to suit myself to everyone
according to his nature, character, and disposition,
according to his power of understanding, or his lack of it,
as time and place require, in each case,
as Thou wouldst have me do.
And, since the weakness of my flesh
—or it may be my lack of courage and my heart’s corruption—
prevents my edifying them by labours of watching and fasting,
I beg Thy bounteous mercy that they may be edified
by my humility and charity, my patience and my pity.
May my words and teaching build them up,
and may they always be assisted by my prayers.

There is, I think, not an abbot in history who has not, at certain hours, faltered under the burden of his office, for an abbot bears on his own shoulders the weight of all that his sons carry. If there is an abbot who has never been tempted to flight, I should like to meet him and ask what his secret is. When an abbot is tempted to flight—even as husbands and fathers are sometimes tempted to run away from their families and homes—he must kneel down and pray Psalm 61.

Shall not my soul be subject to God?
for from him is my salvation.
For he is my God and my saviour:
he is my protector, I shall be moved no more.
How long do you rush in upon a man? you all kill,
as if you were thrusting down a leaning wall, and a tottering fence.
But they have thought to cast away my price;
I ran in thirst: they blessed with their mouth, but cursed with their heart.
But be thou, O my soul, subject to God: for from him is my patience.
For he is my God and my saviour:
he is my helper, I shall not be moved. (Psalm 61:2-7)

The man who falls prostrate on the ground in the hour of temptation is more secure than the man who is standing. The prayer of the prostrate man is a participation in the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemani and, as such, will always obtain from the Father the grace needed to remain faithful. “My Father, if this chalice may not pass away, but I must drink it, thy will be done” (Matthew 26:42). There is a sense in which every abbot recognises in his own life the reality of what Our Lord said to Peter:

Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren. (Luke 22:31-32)