CHAPTER LXIV. Of the Appointment of the Abbot
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.”
Saint Benedict lists six vices that may tempt the abbot; if left unchecked these vices will be the abbot’s undoing and may well lead to the ruin of the community. The old Italian proverb says, Il pesce puzza dalla testa. (The fish begins to stink from the head.) What are the six vices against which the abbot must be on guard? Saint Benedict says, Non sit turbulentus et anxius, non sit nimius et obstinatus, non sit zelotypus et nimis suspiciosus, quia numquam requiescit. “Let him not be given to stormy outbursts, nor gripped by anxiety, nor full of himself, nor stubborn, nor jealous and overly suspicious, or else he will never be at rest.”
The first abbatial vice is fits of wrath. An abbot given to stormy outbursts and violent displays of temper causes the whole community to walk on eggshells. Such an abbot generates a climate of fear, causing the brethren to withdraw and disengage lest they provoke his wrath. Whence come stormy outbursts? More often than not from a wounded pride. Saint Symeon tells us that acrimony feeds the serpent that a man hides in his breast:
A person who suffers bitterly when slighted or insulted should recognize from this that he still harbors the ancient serpent in his breast. If he quietly endures the insult or responds with great humility, he weakens the serpent and lessens its hold. But if he replies acrimoniously or brazenly, he gives it strength to pour its venom into his heart and to feed mercilessly on his guts. In this way the serpent becomes increasingly powerful; it destroys his soul’s strength and his attempts to set himself right, compelling him to live for sin and to be completely dead to righteousness. (St. Symeon the New Theologian, Practical and Theological Texts, no.31)
The virtue opposed to such a vice is meekness. The sayings of the Desert Fathers are full of stories that illustrate meekness. The fruits of meekness are joy and tranquility. Abba Dorotheus of Gaza said:
People usually get annoyed either because they are in a bad mood, or they are nurturing unpleasant thoughts about another. However, the main reason for our annoyance is that we don’t reproach ourselves: this incurs spiritual disturbance and loss of inner peace. The true and genuine path toward a calm disposition is continual self-reproach. Even if a person had accomplished many good deeds yet doesn’t hold fast to the path of self-reproach, he will never cease being annoyed and insulting others, thereby losing the fruits of his good labor. In contrast, what joy and tranquility that person acquires who reproaches himself! Wherever he goes and whatever unpleasantness happens, or whatever insults he hears; he has convinced himself beforehand that he deserves all types of sorrows. That’s why when something unpleasant does happen, he doesn’t get annoyed. What more sorrowless condition can there be?
Abba Dorotheus, whose Instructions focus principally on humility and meekness, also said:
Endeavor in every way to reproach yourself, and fulfill the commandment sensibly: the commandment to consider yourself as nothing. And believe that everything that happens to us, even to the very least thing happens according to the Providence of God; and then you will bear without disturbance everything that comes upon you. Believe that reproaches and dishonors are medicines which heal the pride of your soul, and pray for those who make you meek as the true physicians of your soul, be convinced that he who hates dishonor hates humility, and he that flees those who offend him is fleeing meekness. Do not desire to know the shortcomings of your neighbor, and do not accept suspicions against him which are instilled in you by the enemy; and even if they should arise in you, because of our sinfulness, then strive to turn them into good thoughts. Give thanks for everything and acquire goodness and holy love.
The second abbatial vice is to give oneself over the grip of anxiety. An abbot may well have many reasons to be anxious ranging from relatively minor things to things of enormous consequence. An abbot may, for example, fall into a state of anxiety over fundraising, or finances, or the disrepair of parts of the monastery. He may fall into a state of anxiety over the health of his monks, over the temptations suffered by one, and over the unhappiness that he detects in another. Anxiety is a terrible thing in an abbot because it is highly contagious, more contagious than the Corona Virus. An anxious abbot makes for an anxious community. The virtue opposed to anxiety is trust in Divine Providence. An abbot must make countless acts of trust in Divine Providence in the course of the day and sometimes even in the hours of the night. An abbot ought to memorise Matthew 6:27-34 or, at least, keep it always near at hand:
Can any one of you, for all his anxiety, add a cubit’s growth to his height? And why should you be anxious over clothing? See how the wild lilies grow; they do not toil or spin; and yet I tell you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. If God, then, so clothes the grasses of the field, which to-day live and will feed the oven to-morrow, will he not be much more ready to clothe you, men of little faith? Do not fret, then, asking, What are we to eat? or What are we to drink? or How shall we find clothing? It is for the heathen to busy themselves over such things; you have a Father in heaven who knows that you need them all. Make it your first care to find the kingdom of God, and his approval, and all these things shall be yours without the asking. Do not fret, then, over to-morrow; leave to-morrow to fret over its own needs; for to-day, to-day’s troubles are enough. (Matthew 6:27-34)
The third abbatial vice is to be full of oneself. Saint Bernard describes what it means to be full of oneself:
Pride in the mind is like a thick heavy beam in the eye, whose excessive size is due not to health but to vanity, to swelling rather than to strength. It so darkens the mental vision as to hide the truth. If then it has taken hold of your mind, you will be unable to see yourself as you really are, or to appreciate either your actual or possible condition, but you will fancy that you are or will become just what you would like to be. (Saint Bernard, The Twelve Degrees of Humility and Pride, Chapter IV)
The abbot who is full of himself cannot stop nurturing secret thoughts such as these: “I know more than Father Winibald. I know better than Father Quentin. I alone see things rightly. I am the only one who can get a job done correctly. I am extremely virtuous for living among such imperfect slouches and for day after day putting up with the ignorance, and miseries, and foolishness of this lot. If I am their abbot, it must be because God saw clearly that I alone am capable of measuring up to His expectations.” An abbot who is full of himself leaves no room for the brethren to develop their potentialities. His very presence is suffocating. If such an abbot fails to repent, little by little his community will create a vacuum around him. Monks will begin to go their separate ways, while living under the same roof. The virtue opposed to being full of oneself is humility. An abbot needs to go up and down the Twelve Steps of Humility in Chapter VII of the Holy Rule until he knows them by heart to the point of making them his spontaneous point of reference. Would that we monks knew the Twelve Steps of Humility in the way that folks in Alcoholics Anonymous know the Twelve Steps of their recovery program! It was for this reason that I wrote the Benedictine Litany of Humility, and I wrote it first of all for myself.
The fourth abbatial vice is stubbornness, otherwise called pigheadedness. A pigheaded abbot suffers, at bottom, from a terrible personal insecurity. He cannot bear to broaden his horizons or look beyond what he has always thought, always said, and always done. Pigheadedness is yet another manifestation of pride. The deans of the monastery and other officials despair of working with such an abbot. He causes them to lose heart and to resign themselves to a stultifying mediocrity. The virtue opposed to stubbornness is, once again, humility, but a humility that obliges one to let go even of what one deems to be a perfectly justifiable position. Saint Isaac the Syrian says this:
A man who is truly humble is not troubled when he is wronged and he says nothing to justify himself against the injustice, but he accepts slander as truth; he does not attempt to persuade men that he is calumniated, but he begs forgiveness. (Saint Isaac the Syrian, The Ascetical Homilies)
The fifth abbatial vice is jealousy, and this Saint Benedict links to the sixth abbatial vice, which is being overly suspicious. Most men suffer, at least now and again, from mild passing episodes of paranoia. Jealousy is an emotion reaction related to fear that something one has will be taken away by another. An abbot may crave attention and approval; if he sees another attracting attention and garnering approval, he may feel threatened. It is the old story of King Saul and David:
But when David returned from slaying the Philistine, the women who came out from every part of Israel to meet Saul, singing and dancing merrily with tambour and cymbal, matched their music with the refrain, By Saul’s hand a thousand, by David’s ten thousand fell. And at this Saul was much displeased; it was no song to win his favour. What, he said, ten thousand for David, and but a thousand for me? What lies now between him and the kingship? So ever after, Saul eyed him askance. Next day, the evil mood had come upon Saul, divinely sent, and a frenzy took him, there in his house; David was playing, as he ever did, upon the harp, and Saul, who had a lance in his hand, threw it at him, thinking to pin David to the wall. Twice David must needs flee from his presence, thus threatened. Saul, then, began to fear David, as the heir to that divine favour he had lost; to remove him from his person, he gave him command of a thousand warriors, so that he must take the field at the head of his men. David’s skill never failed him in his enterprises, and the Lord was ever at his side; and Saul, seeing how well he prospered, began to be afraid of him. (1 Kings 18:6-15)
Saint Benedict says that the jealous and overly suspicious abbot will never be at peace. He, like King Saul tormented by the achievements of David, will be unable to rest. The virtue opposed to jealousy and to being overly suspicious is, again, humility. A humble abbot says with Saint Paul, “Only, by God’s grace, I am what I am, and the grace he has shewn me has not been without fruit” (1 Corinthians 15:10). Being secure in who he is and content with the grace given him by God, a humble abbot readily praises his monks for their achievements. He thanks them for their contributions to the life of the community. He governs by means of a prudent subsidiarity, and so encourages his monks to develop their gifts and use them ut in omnibus glorificetur Deus, “in such wise that God may be glorified in all things” (Chapter LVII). The humble man, be he the abbot or the last novice, will be at rest in himself and will radiate tranquility and happiness around him. In my own struggles against the six abbatial vices, I have found solace and strength in praying Psalm 61, which Monsignor Knox renders this way:
No rest has my soul but in God’s hands; to him I look for deliverance.
I have no other stronghold, no other deliverer but him;
safe in his protection, I fear no deadly fall.
Still one man my enemies single out for their onslaught,
not gaping hedge or ruinous wall more ripe for overthrow;
from my safe fastness they would fain dislodge me,
ready liars that speak me fair, but ever with a curse in their hearts.
Yet even now, my soul, leave thyself in God’s hands; all my trust is in him.
He is my stronghold and my deliverer, my protector, that makes me stand unmoved.
God is all my defence and all my boast;
my rock-fastness, my refuge is in God. (Psalm 61:2-8)