Discretion, the mother of virtues (LXIV:5)

CHAPTER LXIV. Of the Appointment of the Abbot
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.

This final portion of Chapter LXIV treats of the virtues indispensable to the abbot’s good government. In all his commands, the abbot is to be: providus et consideratus, that is, foresightful and cautious. Providus comes from provideo, which means to foresee. The word providence is also derived from provideo. The abbot must be a man of foresight, thinking not only about his immediate commands, but also about their effects in the future. He must, at all times, have the future of the monastery in mind. Consideratus contains the word sider, meaning star or constellation as in the Advent Vespers hymn, Conditor alme siderum, “Loving Creator of the stars.” Some argue that consideratus refers to the art of studying the stars of the heavens in order to chart one’s course. This is what the Magi did; they were led by a star to find the Child and His Mother. Vidimus enim stellam ejus in oriente, et venimus adorare eum. “We have seen his star in the east, and are come to adore him” (Matthew 2:2). In the context of Chapter LXIV, the abbot who is consideratus observes well what is happening around him; he reflects on the consequences of his decisions; and then, having prayed, he acts, trusting that God will bless his efforts to do what is right.

It is the duty of the abbot to enjoin upon his monks both spiritual and temporal works—sive secundum Deum sive secundum saeculum. Discernat et temperet. “Let him distinguish and blend.” The abbot must know who and what in the monastery is best suited to whom and to what. The image is that of a refiner of precious metals who first identifies the raw materials he has at hand and then sets about melding them in order to produce a metal suitable for whatever thing he wants to fashion: a cup, a tool, or a sword, for example. It is no easy task for an abbot to distinguish and blend the strengths and weaknesses of his monks. When an abbot discovers that two or more  brethren work well together, it benefits the whole community.

Saint Benedict refers then to the beautiful story of Jacob’s reconciliation with Esau. He does this not to call our attention to what happened between the two brothers but rather to illustrate the discretion of holy Jacob who would not even weary his cattle. After Esau finally accepted Jacob’s lavish gifts of reconciliation, Esau asked Jacob if they might go on together.

And when Esau asked, What of those companies I met on my way? Jacob answered, A gift, my lord, to secure me thy good will. I have abundance, said he; keep what is thine. But Jacob said, No, I entreat thee; do me the favour to accept this present of mine; to gain audience with thee is like gaining audience with God himself. Assure me of thy favour by receiving the offering I have brought thee, God’s gift to me, who has given me all I have. So at last Esau consented, overcome by his brother’s persuasions; then he said, Let us travel on together, so that I can be the companion of thy journey. But Jacob answered, My lord, bethink thee that I have young children with me; that I have ewes here in lamb, and cows in calf, so that I may lose a whole herd if I overdrive them. Pass on, my lord, in advance of thy servant; I will follow slowly, at whatever pace suits these children of mine, and meet thee again, my lord, in Seir. Pray then, said Esau, take some of my followers to escort thee on thy journey. No need for that, answered Jacob; enough for me, my lord, that I should have thy good will. So that day, Esau went back to Seir the way he had come. (Genesis 33:8-14)

The abbot is to imitate the gentleness and discretion of Jacob who, having young children with him, and “ewes in lamb and cows in calf,” would not drive them harshly, lest he lose any one of them. The words of Jacob must guide the abbot: I will follow slowly, at whatever pace suits these children of mine. An abbot may be criticised for not cracking the whip and for being slow to get things moving, but if he is taking a slower pace, it may well be out of fatherly concern for those brethren who are too weak to keep up with the march.

Saint Benedict calls discretion the mother of the virtues. Discretion (διάκρισις) is the art of doing things with right measure. One man’s right measure may be too little or too much for another. Saint Benedict, recognising this, leaves many things to the discretion of the abbot. Among these are: the distribution of the Psalter over one week (Chapter XVIII); the gravity of offenses and the measure of punishment (Chapter XXIV); the principles of administration of the cellarer (Chapter XXXI); the distribution of commodities (Chapter XXXIII); the measure of food and drink (Chapters XXXIX and XL); the duration of satisfactory penances (Chapter XLIV); the adjustment of the times of work and reading (Chapter XLVIII); the Lenten practices undertaken by the brethren (Chapter IXL); participation in the choir Office for brethren working at a distance (Chapter L); the taking of a meal outside the monastery (Chapter LI); the reception of letters, gifts, and keepsakes (Chapter LIV); the details of clothes, shoes, and bedding (Chapter LV); the sharing of his table with some of the brethren (LVI); the development of crafts and industries (Chapter LVII); the ministry and rank of priests (Chapter LX); the reception and rank of monks coming from elsewhere (Chapter LXI); the choice of monks for Holy Orders (Chapter LXII); the promotion or demotion of monks in the order of the community (Chapter LXIII); the appointment of a prior and the whole ordering of the monastery (Chapter LXV); permissions to leave the enclosure (Chapter LXVII); when and what things are hard or impossible for a brother (Chapter LXVIII); and, finally, authorisation to administer chastisement (Chapter LXX).

The principles of discretion, accommodation to weakness, and adaptation that prevail from the first to the last page of the Holy Rule are characteristic of Benedictine life and account for its longevity, survival, and rebirth in so great a diversity of cultures and times. There are certain legalistic and hair-splitting temperaments that are uncomfortable with the wide discretion authorised by Saint Benedict; such men would prefer that things be laid down immutably in black and white. They are suspicious of the breadth and adaptibility of the Rule and, in particular, fear that so many things should be left to the abbot’s discretion. It remains that the abbot is, as our Declarations say clearly, “charged with the entire administration of the monastery in both the spiritual and the temporal orders, observing the norms of common law and respecting the rights of the diocesan Bishop” (Art. 13).

The Holy Rule, while pointing to the way of the Cross, the way of humility and obedience in imitation of the suffering Christ, fosters an approach to the ascetical life that is broad without being antinomian, flexible without being amorphous, spacious rather than confining, and generous rather than pinched. “We have, therefore,” says Saint Benedict, “to establish a school of the Lord’s service, in the setting forth of which we hope to order nothing that is harsh or rigorous” (Prologue). And then, almost in the same breath, the holy patriarch adds, “But if anything be somewhat strictly laid down, according to the dictates of sound reason, for the amendment of vices or the preservation of charity, do not therefore fly in dismay from the way of salvation, whose beginning cannot but be narrow and difficult” (Prologue).

Saint Benedict concludes Chapter LXIV with a great overarching principle: “Let [the abbot] so temper all things, that the strong may have something to strive after, and the weak nothing at which to take alarm.” This principle obliges the abbot to know his monks, to be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of each one, and to take these strengths and weaknesses into account “in all things.” At the same time it obliges the abbot to live in dependence on divine grace, to seek the will of God for each brother and for the whole community together. The abbot, more than anyone else in the monastery, must rely on the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. It is asking much of one man. And for this very reason, the abbot will at all times keep in mind the words of Our Lord Himself to Saint Paul: “My grace is enough for thee; my strength finds its full scope in thy weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).