Daily Meditations on the Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter 3

To be read: January 16, May 16, September 16

Whenever weighty matters are to be transacted in the monastery, let the Abbot call together the whole community, and make known the matter which is to be considered. 2Having heard the brother’s views, let him consider the matter himself and do what he thinks best. 3It is for this reason, however, we said that all should be called for counsel, because the Lord often reveals to the youngest member what is best. 4The brothers, however, should give their advice with humble submission, and let them not presume stubbornly to defend their own views, 5for the decision is rather the Abbot’s to make, so that in what he considers best all obey him. 6But just as it is proper for the disciples to obey their master, so also it is becoming for the master to settle all things with prudence and justice. 7Therefore, let all follow the Rule as their guide in everything, and let no one rashly depart from it. 8Let no one in the monastery follow the desires of his own heart, 9and let no one dare to dispute insolently with his Abbot, either inside or outside the monastery. 10If any one dare to do so, let him be placed under the correction of the Rule. 11Moreover, the Abbot himself must do everything in the fear of the Lord and out of reverence for the Rule, knowing that, beyond a doubt, he will have to give an account to God, the most just Judge, for all his rulings. 12If, however, matters of less importance, having to do with the welfare of the monastery, are under consideration, let the Abbot use the counsel of the seniors only, 13as it is written: “Do all things with counsel, and you shall not need to repent when you are done”(Sir 32:24)

Over the course of my 36+ years of priesthood, I have heard the ministry variously described as herding cats, or corralling butterflies.  And there is a certain level of truth to that.  It is why the priesthood is called a “holy order”—it is the clergy’s role to bring order to the life of the community.  There is a need for order in the life of the community of the Church, and it is the job of the clergy to govern the people of God under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  This chapter in the Rule of St. Benedict reflects this need for order and governance in the community of believers, and the crucial role that the Holy Spirit plays in that governance.

The Church as a whole has lost her bearings because we have allowed worldly models of government to take precedence in Church affairs.  The Church is not a democracy (government by the people), nor is it an autocracy (government by one person with absolute power), nor any other manmade model.  None of these forms of government work because they are not the government instituted by God.  Benedict calls for the Body to return to the New Testament model presented in Acts 15.  This a Holy Spirit driven decision-making model.  “Whenever weighty matters are to be transacted in the monastery, let the Abbot call together the whole community…”  The goal of such a gathering is to seek the mind of Christ.  This is not a democratic process, seeking the will of the majority; this is a theocratic process, a communal seeking of the mind of Christ.  Benedict says that the reason for calling all together for counsel is, “because the Lord often reveals to the youngest member what is best.”  This type of government requires careful listening and humility among the leadership.  There is a need to listen to what each person is hearing from the Lord.  And it just might be the youngest member who is hearing most clearly at any one time.

This type of government requires an honest give and take within the community, a level of trust that must be built up over time.  These governmental gatherings are not an occasion for airing opinion, but for humbly seeking the mind of Christ, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, that the community may understand and do the will of God.  “The brothers…should give their advice with humble submission, and let them not presume stubbornly to defend their own views…”  And ultimately, when a decision must be made, the one appointed by God as Father of the family and entrusted with the care of the flock, must speak for the community declaring the resolution of the matter: “the decision is…the Abbot’s to make”.  And he must  “settle all things with prudence and justice.”  Benedict goes on to say that these decisions are of and for the Body.  No one is to “follow the desires of his own heart…[nor] dare to dispute insolently with his Abbot.”  The fellowship of the community is the fellowship of the Body of Christ.  And even as our Lord repeatedly said throughout the Gospel of John (5:30; 6:38; 8:28; etc.), “I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.”  And with His last prayers to the Father in the Garden, Jesus prayed, “Not my will, but Thine be done” (Luke 22:42).  This is the model and the attitude we need bring to decisions in the Church and in our personal lives.  

Every decision we make affects not only ourselves but the Body of Christ.  Seeking the counsel of the elders, and our brothers and sisters in Christ, is wise.  “Where there is no guidance, a people falls; but in an abundance of counselors there is safety” (Prov. 11:14).  Whether it is a large decision (e.g. moving to a new home) or a smaller one (e.g. a special gift for the parish, getting a dog for the family, etc.), praying through that decision with members of the family of God will be of advantage to you.  Benedict notes that there are less important decisions that need to be made from time to time.  Rather than gather the whole community together for those decisions, a select group of elders should be consulted.  Regardless of the size of the concern, the Body is to be consulted, that the Mind of Christ may be made manifest.  And Benedict leaves us with this encouraging word:  “Do all things with counsel, and you shall not need to repent when you are done” (Sir 32:24). 

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