The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Two, How to be a Good Abbot

The second chapter of The Rule of Saint Benedict covers “What Kind of Man the Abbot ought to be” (pg. 16). The abbot is in charge of the monastery and all the people who live in it. As The Rule is both a guide on how to be a good holy monk as well as how to actually run a monastery effectively, finding an abbot who knows what he is doing is extremely important. After all, without a competent leader, a community can and often will fall into chaos. (And this applies not only to monasteries but any other community of people as well!) Saint Benedict was an abbot himself, so while his opinion on what makes a good abbot might be a bit biased, he does know what he’s talking about. He is considered the founder of Western Christian monasticism for a reason!

 

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A carving of Saint Benedict of Nursia | Source: Wikipedia

 

Saint Benedict’s guide on being an abbot is partially practical instructions and partially fearmongering. The chapter starts off with Saint Benedict reminding the reader that the abbot should always remember his place. He is supposed to “hold the place of Christ in the monastery” so he should “correspond to his name of superior by his deeds” (pg. 16). This means that the abbot should never “teach, or ordain, or command anything contrary to the law of the LORD” (pg. 16). The abbot is his flock’s primary example on how to act so he should behave accordingly. If he doesn’t, he will face the consequences in the afterlife. There God will judge him based on “his own teaching and…the obedience of his disciples” (pg. 16).

But what happens if an abbot tries his best, is holy and good, and his monks still misbehave? Well, all is not lost. God will certainly take the abbot’s effort into consideration. As long as the abbot “bestowed all pastoral diligence” and “employed all his care” into fixing his “corrupt” monks then he will be “absolved” (pg. 16). His monks, however, will not be. They will receive “the punishment of death” (pg. 17). Instead of getting into Heaven like their abbot will, they will not. This is a great example of the practicalness of The Rule. Saint Benedict acknowledges that even if an abbot is holy and good that does not mean his monks will follow his example. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

What if your monks aren’t necessarily bad, but just sort of stubborn? What can you do to prevent your monks from receiving eternal damnation? What can you do to encourage them to be good? Well, Saint Benedict recommends “a two-fold teaching” (pg. 17). He should tell “the intelligent among his disciples” and show “the hard-hearted and the simple-minded” how to act properly. In short, an abbot’s actions speak louder than his words. If he doesn’t practice what he preaches then he is a hypocrite. And no one is going to listen to a hypocrite, especially God. This hypocrisy also runs the risk of sowing discord among his monks.

 

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Abbot addressing monk | BL Royal 10 E IV, f. 249 | Source: Picryl.com

 

Hypocrisy isn’t the only way tensions may arise as a direct result of an abbot’s behavior. Saint Benedict stresses that it is extremely important to treat everyone in the monastery equally. An abbot shouldn’t “let…one be loved more than another” (pg. 17). Not even if a monk is “of noble birth” while another monk was “formerly a slave” (pg. 17). Everyone needs to be valued at the same amount. After all, “we are all one in Christ” (pg. 17). That being said, there is a minor exception to this particular rule: The only time the abbot can show some favoritism is if the monk is “found to excel in good works or in obedience” (pg. 17).

How should an abbot act if a monk isn’t excelling in good works or in obedience? Well, it depends on the circumstance. If a monk with a “good disposition and understanding” does something wrong an abbot “for the first or second time, correct only with words” (pg. 18). But if the monk is “froward and hard of heart, and proud, or disobedient” the abbot must be much harsher in his punishment. Saint Benedict recommends “chastis[ing] with bodily stripes at the very first offense” (pg. 18). Saint Benedict argues that ‘”The fool is not corrected with words” (pg. 18), so why bother talking to them about what they did wrong?

To prevent his monks from misbehaving in the first place, an abbot needs to show “the rigor of a master” as well as “the loving affection of a father” (pg. 18). He should “rebuke the undisciplined and restless” and “exhort the obedient, mild, and patient to advance in virtue” (pg. 18). To put it simply, an abbot needs to reward good behavior and punish bad ones. That also means that he shouldn’t turn a blind eye when monks do act up. Instead of ignoring misdeeds, “as soon as they appear, let him strive with all his might to root them out” (pg. 18).

 

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Abbot blessing monks | BL Royal 10 E IV, f. 224v | Source: Picryl.com

 

When running his monastery and disciplining the monks an abbot “ought always to remember what he is” (pg. 18). He is in charge of his flock, thus he must “[adapt] himself to many dispositions” (pg. 18). What works with one monk punishment wise might not work with another one:

“Let him so accommodate and suit himself to the character and intelligence of each, winning some by kindness, others by reproof, others by persuasion, that he may not only suffer no loss in the flock committed to him, but may even rejoice in their virtuous increase.” (pg. 18)

Saint Benedict ends this chapter by going into further detail with what he said in the beginning. An abbot shouldn’t concentrate too much on “fleeting, earthly, and perishable things” (pg. 18). He is in charge of and responsible for his monks’ souls, thus he should act like it. By saving these souls, “he will be himself cured of his own defects” (pg. 19).

 

Main Source:

The Rule of Saint Benedict, With Explanatory Notes. Ichthus Publications.

(I bought my copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict on Amazon. You can find the book I’m reading here.)