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.

Yesterday, with Chapter XX, we completed Saint Benedict’s liturgical directory. Today we begin the third section of the Holy Rule, which may be linked to Chapters II and III, because it pertains to the government of the monastery. The third section of the Holy Rule treats of life in the monastery and so, in some way, corresponds to the life of the Church that Saint Luke describes in the Acts of the Apostles.

And they were persevering in the doctrine of the apostles, and in the communication of the breaking of bread, and in prayers. And fear came upon every soul: many wonders also and signs were done by the apostles in Jerusalem, and there was great fear in all. And all they that believed, were together, and had all things common. Their possessions and goods they sold, and divided them to all, according as every one had need. And continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they took their meat with gladness and simplicity of heart; praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord increased daily together such as should be saved. (Acts 2:42-47)

And the multitude of believers had but one heart and one soul: neither did any one say that aught of the things which he possessed, was his own; but all things were common unto them. (Acts 4:32)

The Holy Rule presents the monastic life as (1) a participation in the Passion, Death, and Burial of Christ (Chapters V, VI, and VII on obedience, silence, and humility); (2) a participation in the glorious priesthood of the risen and ascended Christ, who stands before the Father, beyond the veil, in the heavenly Holy of Holies (Chapters VIII—XX on the Opus Dei); (3) the continuation through history of the life of the Church described in the Acts of the Apostles (Chapters XXI—LXXII).

In treating of the deans of the monastery, Saint Benedict says that they are to be brethren of good repute and of a holy manner of life, sanctae conversationis. The abbot ought not appoint as dean a brother who has the reputation of being harsh, or touchy, or stingy, or sharp-tongued, or lazy, or a procrastinator. If he is harsh, the brethren will fear him. If he is touchy, the brethren will walk on eggs around him. If he is stingy, the brethren will circumvent his authority rather than ask anything of him. If he is sharp-tongued, the brethren will avoid engaging with him. If he is lazy, the brethren will learn not to rely on him. If he is a procrastinator, the brethren will expect that nothing will be finished in a timely manner, and so be tempted to take matters in their own hands.

The deans must be monks sanctae conversationis, of a holy manner of life, that is men who trust in Divine Providence; men of peace; men quick to humble themselves and to ask pardon; men who do not hold grudges; men who seek first the kingdom of God, and his justice, trusting that all other things shall be provided in God’s time; men not consumed by worry, nor given to anxiety, nor prone to suspicion, nor quick to judge. Such monks will not cut short their times of lectio divina and of adoration; men of discretion, capable of keeping a secret, not given to gossip, nor imprudent in conversation. They will not allow their zeal for the Divine Office to grow tepid. Monks sanctae conversationis (of a holy manner of life) will practice Chapters LXXI (mutual obedience), LXXII (good zeal), and LXXIII (devotion to the Holy Rule) to the letter. Saint Benedict sums up the qualifications of the deans by saying that they are to be chosen according to their worthiness of life and the wisdom of their doctrine. Life and teaching go hand in hand. Men such as these can be trusted with a share in the abbot’s authority.

Why deans at all? Saint Benedict says that the deans are men in quibus securus abbas partiat onera sua, “with whom the abbot may safely trust to share his burdens.” For Saint Benedict, it is a given that the abbot will be charged with heavy burdens. He will, at certain hours, feel the weight of his responsibility; it may even become crushing. The abbot, like any other man in authority, will suffer from his own infirmities, fear his own inadequacies, and be daunted by the enormity of his responsibility for souls, first of all for his own soul, and then for all the souls in his care. I knew an abbot who used to say that he could deal easily with material challenges — he was a great demolisher and builder in his day — but that dealing with difficult brothers sucked the energy out of him and left him utterly weary. The wise abbot will not try to shoulder his burdens alone; if he succeeds in doing so, he will become self-sufficient and inflated with pride; and if he fails, he will be dejected and risk falling into despondency.

I have charged certain brothers with particular areas of responsibility. I am grateful for the obedience, and experience, and ingenuity of brothers in charge. Without having formally appointed deans as such, I do share the burdens of my paternity with the senior brethren. I will often tell them what things are weighing heavily upon me. I ask their counsel, and trust their wisdom. The paradigm of the institution of deans is found in Sacred Scripture, and first of all in the book of Numbers:

And the Lord said to Moses: Gather unto me seventy men of the ancients of Israel, whom thou knowest to be ancients and masters of the people: and thou shalt bring them to the door of the tabernacle of the covenant, and shalt make them stand there with thee, That I may come down and speak with thee: and I will take of thy spirit, and will give to them, that they may bear with thee the burden of the people, and thou mayest not be burthened alone. (Numbers 11:16–17)

Before holding a meeting with the ancients to discuss the affairs of the people, Moses would summon them to the door of the tabernacle of the covenant. There, they stood with Moses and waited upon God. The service of the elders begins in silence at the door of the tabernacle of the covenant. How different is this model from the “Americanist” approach to what it has become fashionable to call “leadership.” It is an error with far-reaching consequences for religious to adopt the trendy secular models of goal–setting, mission statements, planning, and strategy. The ancients, standing in silence at the door of the tabernacle of the covenant, are witnesses of the gracious condescension of God who speaks to Moses “face to face, as a man is wont to speak to his friend” (Exodus 33:11). The spirit, that is the capital grace given to Moses, is shared among the elders. Having received a participation in Moses’ capital grace, the elders can begin to bear with him the burden of the people, lest Moses falter beneath the weight of his charge,

Saint Benedict’s deans are also like the seven deacons of the primitive Church:

Then the twelve calling together the multitude of the disciples, said: It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word. (Acts 6:2–4)

The abbot, as father, priest, and shepherd, must give himself “continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4); the deans, being akin to the deacons described in the Acts of the Apostles, assist the abbot in material and organisational service of the monastery. Apart from deans set over groups of monks, there can be deans charged with particular concerns of the community’s life such as divine worship, education, hospitality, land management, food services, and health care. As our monastery continues to grow, it will be more and more necessary that responsibilities be shared among us. Each brother will develop not only the talents given him by God, but also a willingness to do cheerfully, diligently, and generously whatever task is given him. “Bear ye one another’s burdens; and so you shall fulfil the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).