To be read: April 22, August 23, December 23
Too often it happens indeed, that grave scandals arise in monasteries out of the appointment of the Prior. 2There are some who are puffed up with the wicked spirit of pride and think of themselves as second Abbots. They set up a despotic rule, foster scandals, and excite quarrels in the community, 3and especially in those places where the same Bishop or the same Abbots appoints both the Abbot and Prior. 4It can easily be seen how foolish this is, because from the very beginning of his appointment, a basis for pride is furnished to him, 5when his thoughts suggest to him that now he is exempt from the authority of the Abbot, 6because “You have been appointed by those who appointed the Abbot.” 7This can foster envy, discord, slander, quarrels, jealousy, and all forms of disorder. 8If the Abbot and the Prior are at variance with each other, it must follow that their souls are endangered by this discord 9and that those who are under them, as long as they take sides in the disputes, go to their ruin. 10The responsibility for this evil rests on the heads of those who were the authors of such disorders. 11Therefore, for the preservation of peace and charity, it is best that the government of the monastery should rest with the Abbot; 12and if it can be done, let the affairs of the monastery (as we have explained before) be attended to by deans, as the Abbot directs, 13so that, no one may become proud, if the responsibility of the office is shared by many. 14But if the local situation requires it, or the community reasonably and with humility make the request, and the Abbot shall deem it advisable, 15then let the Abbot himself appoint as Prior whomever he should choose, with the advice of God-fearing brothers. 16But let the Prior reverently do what his Abbot assigns him, doing nothing against the will or the direction of the Abbot; 17for the higher he is placed above others, the more careful he should be to obey the precepts of the Rule. 18If the Prior is found disorderly, or blinded by conceit, or shows contempt for the Holy Rule, he must be admonished up to four times. 19If he does not amend, he is to be punished under the regular discipline of the Rule. 20But if he does not amend even then, let him be deposed from the office of prior and another who is worthy be appointed in his place. 21But if even after that he is not a quiet and submissive brother, let him be expelled from the monastery. 22Yet, let the Abbot reflect that he must give an account to God for all his judgments, lest the flames of envy or jealousy should sear his soul.
It would be nice to believe that monasteries and the Church in general are immune to “grave scandals”, “despotic rule”, “envy, discord,…jealousy, and all forms of disorder”, as well as “quarrels in the community”. SIGH. Sadly, that is not the case, as Benedict notes in the opening verses of this chapter. Once again, issues have apparently arisen in the monastic communities under Benedict’s leadership that require a response. Something negative apparently happened in the past that Benedict needed to deal with in his latter years and he gives instruction here on how to address similar situations in the future. It appears that St. Benedict had some negative experiences with troublesome priors. By the wording in this chapter, it is obvious that his preference would be to abolish the office altogether. Yet he does not quite do that. Rather, he offers the abbots of sister monasteries and his own successors the freedom to make an independent judgment within their communities. Undoubtedly it is this type of flexibility that has enabled the Rule to be such an effective Christian guide for so many centuries. He does not try to fashion a one-size-fits-all model which will be forced on all of his communities.
But what does this say to those of us living in the secular realm? This chapter is a prescription for maintaining order, obedience, and how to seek the Mind of Christ as a community of believers. Benedict says that “If the Abbot and the Prior are at variance with each other, it must follow that their souls are endangered by this discord and that those who are under them, as long as they take sides in the disputes, go to their ruin. The responsibility for this evil rests on the heads of those who were the authors of such disorders. Therefore, for the preservation of peace and charity, it is best that the government of the monastery should rest with the Abbot.” Order begins at the top. If there is discord in the leadership of the community, that must be dealt with quickly for the souls of the leaders “are endangered by this discord”. Repentance and reconciliation are needed for the good of the community. If the discord is allowed to take root, it is inevitable that members of the community will “take sides in the disputes” with the end result that they will “go to their ruin”. And so, “for the preservation of peace and charity”, there needs to be obedience to the Godly leadership of the man chosen and appointed by God to be the father of the community.
If the community sees the need for a prior, Benedict directs that “the Abbot himself appoint as Prior whomever he should choose, with the advice of God-fearing brothers.” This is ultimately the abbot’s decision to make, but again Benedict advises that he do so “with the advice of God-fearing brothers.” It is once again a clarion call that all things done in the community be done so with seeking the Mind of Christ. For those of us in the secular realm, we would do well to follow Benedict’s advice to seek Godly counsel when making decisions. As the author of Proverbs observes, “Where there is no guidance, a people falls; but in an abundance of counselors there is safety” (Prov. 11:14); and “by wise guidance you can wage your war, and in abundance of counselors there is victory” (Prov. 24:6).