So, Who’s In Charge Here? – Benedict’s Idea of the Servant-Leader


Preferring Nothing Whatever to Christ

So, Who’s In Charge Here? Benedict’s Idea of the Servant-Leader

The figure of the abbot or superior in St Benedict’s Rule is one which has its foundations in that other rule which we have mentioned – the Rule of the Master – but it is, at the same time, a radically different figure.  There is no hint of the tyrant in Benedict’s leader, no playing monks off one against the other.  While he certainly, by dint of his title and his offices, presides over a community – and must do, to exercise the authority which is given him – he also seems to preside from the centre of the community.  This, as should be evident, creates a wholly new dynamic around leadership and service.  And it has much to teach us in our own age, and not just church leaders – people who aspire to leadership in any context can find formational support in Benedict’s leader.

While two chapters in the Rule – chapters 2 (The Qualities of the Abbot) and 64 (The Election of An Abbot) – are devoted exclusively to the figure of the one who presides over the community, the person of the abbot walks back and forth throughout the entire body of the Rule.  We are left in no doubt that this leader cannot avoid but be part of his community’s life – he is knit into the very fabric of its day to day existence, is caught up by it and in it, and yet must remain the one who guides and steers.  He is, therefore, in the true sense of the Latin term, one who governs – the gubernator, or helmsman, who has the overall responsibility for keeping the ship on its course, steering with utmost attention and a sense of where he must go and where he must guide.  Of course, we’re left in no doubt when Benedict discusses the abbot that there really is only one helmsman – Christ, the Lord!  But the person who lives the role of abbot in the monastery is reminded, as indeed we all are, at the very beginning of chapter 2 that he holds the place of Christ in the monastery.  This, then, is no light burden or insignificant office.

What is leadership as abbot in a community of monastics?  We should remind ourselves always, of course, that, even though Benedict did not foresee it, the abbess in a monastery of women lives with the same burden of office and is Christ also in the midst of those sisters, whom she serves as such and in whose midst she presides.  So, even though we speak here of “abbot”, the monastic leader today is appropriate in their own monastery.

One of the most moving and personal reflections on what it is to bear this office is given us by one of the great Cistercian fathers, Aelred of Rievaulx (1110 – 1167).  He has left to us an extraordinary prayer, the Pastoral Prayer, a meditation on the office of leadership and service in the monastery, and how he experiences its demands.  Again, tweaking the language a little, any committed Christian leader can pray this prayer from their heart when taking up an office.  Aelred, above all, as is so common in Cistercian tradition and spiritual theology, clings to the person of Jesus, knowing that without him his leadership will be vain and empty.  He  begins the prayer by crying out to this Jesus, whom he loves, as the prayer will continually remind us:

“O Good Shepherd Jesus!  Good shepherd, merciful shepherd, loving shepherd, to you a shepherd now cries, a poor and pitiable shepherd.  Though without strength, though without skill or experience, though without anything at all to offer, he is nevertheless the shepherd of your sheep, such as he is.  To you, I say, O good shepherd, he cries, this no-good shepherd.  To you he cries, worried about himself, worried about his sheep”

Aelred of Rievaulx, Pastoral Prayer

This is a man who is aware of his own shortcomings and yet, despite these, God has seen fit to call him to this service.  Aelred is aware that he needs, for this office and service, a special outpouring of the Spirit into his heart, so that, in the midst of the usual business of his own monastic life, he may be what God asks him to be, and what his brothers need him to be:

“Let your good and sweet Spirit descend into my heart and prepare in it a dwelling place for himself, cleansing it from all defilement of flesh and spirit and pouring into it an increase of faith, hope and love, and a disposition of compunction, loving tenderness, and kindness.  Let him quench the fire of my cravings with his blessed dew and by his power snuff out my lustful urges and carnal desires.  As I labour, keep vigil, and fast, let him bestow upon me the fervour and discernment to love and praise you, to pray to you and meditate on you, the dedication and capability to have all my thoughts and deeds be in harmony with you, and perseverance in all these things until the very end of my life”.

Aelred of Rievaulx, Pastoral Prayer

Aelred shames us by his honesty!  He isn’t afraid to ask for what he needs, and he knows he comes to this office short on some fronts.  As is obvious however, Aelred also touches on a number of requirements, we might even say virtues and criteria, which the new abbot should have if he is to serve well.  Benedict does the same, and somewhat more fully, as he describes the qualities which an abbot should have (or perhaps, seek to attain).  The most salient in Chapter 2 includes these:

  • The abbot is believed to hold the place of Christ in the monastery
  • He is never to teach, decree or command anything that would deviate from the Lord’s instructions 
  • He is the one who will bear the blame whenever the father of the household finds that the sheep have yielded no profit 
  • He should point out all that is good and holy more by example than by words 
  • He should avoid all favouritism 
  • He should correct by various means 
  • He should accommodate and adapt himself to each one’s character and intelligence
  • On Judgement Day he will have to submit a reckoning to the Lord for their souls and indeed for his own as well

This is a hardly an easily attained set of criteria!  In the first place, it lets us know just what kind of office that of leadership in a monastery is.  And who would not be daunted if they were told that, being superior, you hold the place of Christ in the monastery!  This pivotal statement reminds us that for Benedict Christ stands at the centre of all, is the Rock and energy of the community.  With Christ present the community and the monastery become something set quite apart from the usual secular institutions – there is a consecration which cannot be ignored because of Christ’s very presence and his work in the midst of his brethren.  The abbot’s task is to make Christ truly present in a number of ways and by how he lives and teaches – and this is vital.  The admonition which Benedict makes – that he teaches both by words and more so by example – is a truly evangelical principal.  It mirrors Christ himself, and his disciples – they are distinguished by the fact that they teach by words and deeds.  In addition to this there is an even more revealing rule which is present here but unspoken – the superior’s outward actions must reveal his interior will, and his interior will should be evident in his exterior behaviour.  This calls for integrity on the leader’s part, and sincerity, and a marriage of all aspects of his personality.  Thus we are looking at a person who, it is to be presumed, has attained a certain personal maturity, one who is at home with themselves.

Of course, the abbot should be well-versed in the divine law, that’s to say principally, Sacred Scripture.  Here the one who would take the place of Christ will, first and foremost, find Christ, the beloved of the Father.  In this sense, even though all monastics strive for that conformity with Christ which means that we are growing fully in our own personhood, the superior is called to a special keenness for Christ’s discerning of and living out the Father’s will.  As we will see below, in Chapter 64, the overriding virtue which the abbot must attain is that of discernment.  Discernment is always about how we come to make a good decision and begin to live it out, but for the follower of Christ it has a more demanding character – discernment is always about coming to know the Father’s will and bringing my own will into harmony with that.  This is, above all, Christ’s great example to us in the completeness of his life, death and resurrection – he does all in accordance with the will of his Father.  This, of course, touches upon the notion of the freedom which we enjoy as children of God – it is, above all, the exercise of freedom which allows us to live out, joyfully, the Father’s will for us.

For the very same reason, Benedict admonishes against favoritism on the part of the superior.  You meet all sorts of people in a monastery, just as you do in life outside a monastery.  God calls us to the monastery because this is where our vocation salvation-path lies marked out, and we have been blessed enough to be able to hear the invitation which he makes in his call and graced enough to answer it.  So, the abbot, being a shepherd to all these monastics who are striving for sanctity but haven’t got there yet, is asked to see in all of them an equal dignity – the Father calls them together as his children, and each one of them enjoys the very same dignity and worth in the Father’s eyes and love.  This is, of course, the only description which we have of the Father’s relationship with Christ – Beloved Son!  And it is precisely how he relates to us and wants us to relate to him – our great goal in life is to be able to feel completely that we are his beloved sons, his beloved daughters.  Then we have attained full conformity with Christ.  And it is this that the superior must keep before his mind – before his own prejudices, or opinions, or hasty conclusions paint a picture of this monk or that, of one being better than another who is worse, the Father loves all before him as his children and desires that the one who takes Christ’s place in the monastery must do the same.

That said, monastic life is not a “one size fits all” sort of garment!  Each one has different needs and each one must receive the help – or, at times, correction – which is appropriate to their needs.  Again, we come to both discernment and a great need on the superior’s part to be aware of the needs around him, even anticipating them.  While we all enjoy an equal dignity, we do not lose the delightfulness of our individuality!

One of the toughest tasks a superior must carry out is correction.  The Rule, in fact, provides for two types of correction – one light, the other more severe (two Latin words in the text distinguish this in this regard: correctio and correptio).  The Rule also speaks from time to time about disciplining “according to the Rule”.  However, there is no disciplinary code contained in the Rule itself.  It may have been that St Benedict intended either to add a disciplinary part or that the disciplinary code belonging to another Rule could have provided a working reference point.  But we simply do not know!  This, then, makes the superior’s task somewhat more difficult – he must decide, if it is needed, what punishment should be appropriate.  Fortunately, today, we don’t turn to punishments with any great haste!  This said, not all behaviour in a monastery is appropriate and so, from time to time, it has to be pointed out to an erring monastic that he or she is crossing boundaries and should think about their behaviour and its consequences.  Monastic life and the life in a monastery is a delicate and fragile thing – oftentimes it is a delicately maintained equilibrium, because it deals in slowness, in silence, in heightened respect, one would hope, for the other, for place, for prayer, for God-awareness.  This makes the monastery life a very collaborative affair – everyone must take responsibility for the good harmony of the house and community.  No one can step away from that and plough their own furrow, as it were.  Part of the abbot’s role is to be sensitive to this balance, this monastic ecosystem, and facilitate a common stewardship which benefits all, strong and weak.

The other side of correction, of course, is that we must learn how to accept it.  This is often as difficult as learning how to give it!  It’s so easy to accept with a smile and a bow of the head, while in my heart I am already planning the moment when I’ll correct in return!  This lack of humility, this lack of truly accepting in love (was the correction offered in love and for the encouragement of my brother or sister, and would I take it myself?) is a constant invitation to conversion.  Others often see in me things which I ignore in myself; and again, how often does the action or behaviour of someone simply point to a similar pattern in my own life which invites address? 

Later in the Rule at Chapter 64, Benedict gives a few more reflections on the type of qualities that a community should look for in their abbot when they come to elect him.  It would appear that this was part of a later addition to the Rule, an expansion by Benedict as the result perhaps of reflection or practical application.  In any case, it considerably fleshes out the material which we have already seen – and we shouldn’t forget that many chapters in between have spoken about the superior and his responsibilities in concrete and day to day matters.  All of this helps to reinforce for us the great consideration which St Benedict gives to the person of the superior and what it is to hold and exercise this service.  And so, he adds here, among other things:

  • The one chosen must exhibit goodness of life and wisdom in teaching 
  • He is to be set as a worthy steward over God’s household (the house of God – Domus Dei)
  • He must be chaste, temperate and merciful 
  • He must hate faults but love the brothers 
  • He is to distrust his own frailty 
  • Let him strive to be loved rather than to be feared 
  • He must not be excitable, anxious, extreme, obstinate, jealous or over suspicious.  Such a man is never at rest 
  • He must be discerning and moderate (since) discretion is the mother of all virtues

Now Benedict is more particular in some of the qualities that he wants to see made manifest in a candidate for leadership.  In many ways, one could say that the superior must be a person who has allowed their experience – of whatever way of life and circumstance – to have shaped them.  This openness to the formative aspect of our experience is critical.  We are fleshy people, incarnational.  We live and move and breathe in the concrete, not in the abstract.  And, no matter what we think about ourselves and what others say to us, we are not perfect!  So, the filtering system which is our everyday life is key to our becoming more and more grounded, especially in our own awareness of our frailty and our need for reconciliation at all levels in our lives.  How else could we explain “goodness of life”, or more precisely “by the merit of his life”?  Such a characteristic doesn’t fall out of the sky!  Our lives are shaped by series of falling and getting back up (and more often than not, being helped back up!), and these hard knocks – as well as the graces and joys – fill us out as persons, both in how we relate to ourselves personally and how we relate to others.  Wisdom – sapientia, that wonderful term which evokes all those earthy books in the Old Testament which make theology a matter of daily grind – is much more than knowledge and the pursuit of the acquisition of facts.  In the world of the spiritual life it implies a living relationship with Holy Wisdom, through whom everything came to be, Jesus Christ.  So, now we are talking about someone who lives from a deep interior place, a place of encounter with Christ.

Chastity is not often encountered in the Rule (it is, of course, one of the tools for good works, RB 4:64), and is not one of Benedict’s vows (it is certainly to be thought of in the general scheme of the vow which is conversatio morum, the conversion of life).  The monks are to love one another with the pure love of brothers, the caritas which is truly the mark of the Gospel and is expressed in chaste friendship.  But that the superior be noted for “chastity”?  One would presume that he does in fact try to live in a way which sees him, or her, continually striving for that sexual integrity and growing toward wholeness which is part of our call to become ourselves, accepting ourselves, integrating ourselves, with the continual help of grace to overcome those moments when we are simply weak and our sexual inclinations and thoughts are too strong.  Perhaps St Benedict had Cassian in mind here, since, for Cassian, chastity often came to represent the short term goal of this life, “”purity of heart”.  That the superior should be a person who is striving to live with this purity of heart always before their minds and lives gives us a fuller expectation around chastity.  Chastity is not simply sexual continence or celibacy – it has overtones which suggest a life which has a clear moral compass, has a structure for how to behave, and that will always be the Gospel, and Gospel-based.

The old rule, which comes after all from Christ, holds good for us all – we love the sinner and hate the sin, and never make the sin an excuse for hating the sinner.  The bottom line here is a simple one – it’s all I ask for myself!  Again and again we remind ourselves, and are reminded when we celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation, that God is a God who loves us, and because of this love, stands ready to cast our sins to the bottom of the sea.  And again, we must always remind ourselves that St Benedict establishes with his Rule a “school of the Lord’s service” in which he wishes “to amend faults and safeguard love”.  The Cistercians transformed this phrase by recognising that they had been (and are) called to a “school of love”.  This school is one in which we learn love and how to love because love is already being lived there!  The monastery is already a school founded on love and brought into existence by love, and it is God’s love, made real in the lives of the brethren, which sustains it.  Thus, love trumps all!

It’s wonderful that Benedict, inciting all those attitudes which make a person restless, sees that the one who leads and serves must himself be a person who is at rest in the Lord.  This peace of heart and tranquillity of heart is not just something which transforms the individual – it is transformative in community!  Just for a moment we recall that, since Christ has the first place in the community and the Abbot holds the place of Christ in the monatery, Christ is the one who invites us to take up his yoke, learn from him, and experience with him rest.  It’s one of the great goals of the monastic life – of any life!!  To find real tranquillity, the undivided heart which is not concerned with tomorrow, or the worries of the world, but only with the richness of God’s presence now.

Above all, the leader is one who has the virtue of discernment, the mother of all virtues.  Seeking God’s will, in one’s own life and in the midst of a community’s life, is never easy, and often requires a real dying to one’s own plans and projects.  This element of collaborative leadership is important – a community elects an abbot who will unlock the community’s potential for life, not impose his own model on the timid.  But discernment is also about the identification of real needs in a community, and finding ways to meet those needs.  That can be a stressful and demanding task, since a community may not want to engage with change.  But it’s probably true to say that each community gets the superior which it deserves, and that in itself depends upon discernment and insight, grace and dialogue.

Stepping back for a moment from the Rule, and simply considering some of the aspects and criteria outlined above (and this is by no means a taxative list of the qualities and gifts which a superior is asked to display and discover!)  it’s interesting to ask ourselves how we see these perennial goods mapped onto our own leaders.  Having done that we might ask how we measure up ourselves – in my own circumstance, work, duties and offices, in the services I have to render for others, how many of these commendable traits can I find in myself, and how might I acquire those which I do not yet possess?    

By way of re-conceptualization on this subject of leader-servant, the writer, teacher and speaker Parker J. Palmer, identifies five different “monsters” which leaders must become aware of in themselves (Let Your Life Speak, 85 and following) if they are to make that transition to being a good leader, one who is intensely aware of the interplay between inner shadow and light:

  1. Insecurity about identity and worth.  Good leaders know that identity does not depend upon the role we play or the power it gives us over others.  It depends only on the simple fact that we are children of God, valued in and for ourselves.  When a leader is grounded in this knowledge what happens in the contexts in which they work can be life-giving for all concerned.
  2. The belief that the universe is a battleground, hostile to human interests.  We talk about tactics and strategies, allies and enemies, wins and losses, “do or die”.  If we fail to be fiercely competitive, the imagery suggests, we will surely lose.  The good leader recognises that the structure of reality is not that of a battle, and reality is not out to get anybody.  The spiritual truth that harmony is more fundamental than warfare in the nature of reality itself can transform this shadow.
  3. The shadow of “functional atheism”, the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us.  This leads to the conviction that if anything good is going to happen in a situation we are the ones who are going to make it happen!  This is challenged by the gift that we receive which recognises that we need not carry the whole burden ourselves, but, on the contrary, are called to share our work with others, thus liberating them as well.  Our communities ask us to do only what we are able to do.  It’s good to bear in mind here two ancient rules of law: no one can give what he has not got (nemo dat quod non habet) and no one is held to the impossible (nemo potest ad impossibile obligari)
  4. A powerful shadow which oppresses many of us is fear.  This sometimes hides behind rigidity of rules and regulations, thus exercising an extreme means of control over as many circumstances as possible in an attempt to eliminate any moment of descent into chaos or lack of order and control.  However, such extreme control also often eliminates creativity and spontaneity and the natural vibrancy of the human person when situations invite growth and input.  A good leader facilitates that sort of cooperation which is life giving, rather than death dealing.
  5. The final shadow is the shadow of death itself and the desire of some to deny it.  In all institutions a time comes when truth dictates that we recognise the death of some projects, tools and programmes.  Only by doing this can we recognise truly the present reality of our institution and work for continued growth or development, or even indeed, if that is the course to be taken, the final death.  This is a painful but necessary gift to acquire, but one rooted in a clear sighted view of the present moment.  Death is a reality which cannot be sidelined and often, in community terms, leads to real renewal and rejuvenation.  Leaders who facilitate this sort of transition have acquired a wisdom which is marked by humility and courage.  It also sheds light on an intermediary death of sorts – failure.  The fear of failing, and of being seen to fail, frequently alters the way in which leadership is lived, and leads often to a false presentation of self and one’s goals.  While failure can be difficult to stomach, if it takes place within a community which can see failure as a bridge toward another moment of development, then the perceived failure can be out into a new and positive context.  No one sets out to fail, but the capacity to accept it when it comes is a necessary part of true servant-leadership which is built on truthful living, or humility. Because it allows for a greater share in responsible leadership and discernment, failure can be converted by the well-attuned community.  Here, we battle against one of the most insidious characteristics of our age: everything is geared towards success, and people who are focused solely on that will become cut throat to achieve it, almost at all costs.  Inevitably this leads to a type of ambitious competition which puts no real value on the other person because it is always pitching self into the limelight. 

One of the fascinating aspects of Parker’s reflections on this type of growth in leadership – conversion, one might almost say – is that it must be complemented by what he calls the “inner work of community”.  If we are serious about the dynamic of the Rule of St Benedict we know that there is no possibility of leadership working unless it is situated within the context of a concrete community and responding to the daily exigencies which make themselves apparent in a community’s life.  After all, the Rule is conceived as an evangelical tool for those who are called to live in community – and that includes the abbot himself!  Much of what Parker says can be found reflected already in the charismatic person of Benedict’s superior, really, the one who is gifted by the Spirit to lead a body of people brought into being by the Spirit (and in this sense, a true expression of Church).  If we were to return to our title question – who is in charge – there should never, then, be any doubt.  God!  However, he is a God who trusts, and perhaps this marks the most joyfilled aspect of Christian leadership – it is God who invites to this office and service.

-Part of our ‘Holy Rule of St Benedict’ series-

Other posts…

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