The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Three, How to Make a Good Decision in a Monastery

I think we all have a story where a superior made a decision without consulting everyone else in the organization, whether the organization is school, work, or politics. Sometimes these decisions work out well for everyone. Sometimes they don’t. And sometimes they spin everything into chaos because the superior has no idea how things practically work on the ground level. Unfortunately, superiors making ill-advised choices isn’t a modern phenomenon. This was also a problem during Saint Benedict’s time and it was a concern of his. It was so much of a concern that he wrote an entire chapter of The Rule dedicated to how abbots should make decisions! (Granted, it is a short chapter but it is a chapter none-the-less!)

 

BL Royal MS 10 e iv f222r
BL Royal MS 10 E IV f222r | Source: The British Library

 

So how should important decisions be made in a monastic setting? Like most matters, it depends. If the matter isn’t super important the abbot should “take counsel with the Seniors only” (pg. 20). But if it’s really important the abbot must “call together the whole community” (pg. 19) so he can hear everyone’s opinion. This includes the younger members of the monastery. Saint Benedict reminds his reader that “it is often to the younger that the LORD revealeth what is best” (pg. 19). I’m not sure how young is young for Saint Benedict, but anyone who has been around children knows that kids lack a filter. Thus they can be extremely honest. Sometimes painfully so.

When giving his counsel, a monk must be humble. He is to “give their advice with all subjection and humility” (pg. 19). After all, this is a monastery and not a debate team. A monk shouldn’t “stubbornly…defend their own opinion” (pg. 19).

After everyone has spoken, it’s time for the abbot to reflect on what he’s heard “and then do what he shall judge most expedient” (pg. 19). This way the abbot will know how his decision will affect everyone in the community. What works for some monks might make another monk’s life much more difficult than it has to be. It’s extremely important for the abbot to make an educated decision. Otherwise, the monastery can be thrown into chaos.

So what happens if the abbot does make a choice some monks don’t like? Well, Saint Benedict basically tells his reader to suck it up. Monks are to “submit to whatever [the abbot] shall judge to be best” (pg. 19). This means not arguing with the abbot, doing what you want anyway, or “presume insolently to contend with his Abbot, either within or without the monastery” (pg. 19). If a monk does these things then Saint Benedict encourages that he be punished “to the discipline appointed by the Rule” (pg. 19). At the end of the day, the abbot has to face God with “an account of all his judgments” (pg. 19). Hopefully, the abbot is making his choices based on that and not earthly matters.

Even with all these steps needed to make a choice, there is one thing Saint Benedict is firm on: no matter the decision, an abbot must ‘”Do all things with counsel, and thou shalt not afterwards repent it” (pg. 20).

 

Main Source:

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

(I bought my copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict on Amazon. A link to that is here.)