As set down for reading on the 21st April, 21st August, and 21st December
Once appointed, the abbot should always be mindful of what a burden he has undertaken, and to whom “he will render an account of his stewardship,” [Luke 16:2] and know that he should benefit the brothers rather than preside over them. Therefore it is fitting that he be learned in divine law, so that he knows how “to be a source of the old and the new,” [Matt 13:52] and that he be chaste, sober, merciful, and should always “put mercy above justice,” [James 2:13] in order that the same may happen to him.
Let him hate vices but love the brothers. In rebuke, he should act wisely and never excessively, lest he break the vessel by rubbing too hard to remove the rust. Let him also be wary of his own weakness and remember that “a bent reed is not to be broken.” [Isa 42:3] By this we do not mean that he should allow vices to be nurtured, but that he should cut them off wisely and lovingly, as he thinks best for each individual, as we already said. And he should strive to be more loved than feared. He should not be agitated or anxious, nor excessive and stubborn, nor jealous and overly suspicious, because he will never rest.
In his own commands he should think carefully and with foresight, and whether assigning godly or worldly work is in question, he should be discreet and moderate, in keeping in mind the discretion of the holy Jacob, who said, “If I work my flocks too hard by driving them on, they will all die in one day.” [Gen 33:13] Drawing on this and other examples of discretion, the mother of virtues, he should be moderate in all things, so that the strong have something to desire and the weak nothing to shrink from.
In particular, he should adhere to this Rule in all matters, so that when he has served well he may hear from the Lord what the good servant, who distributed the harvest to his fellow servants in due time, heard: “Amen, I say to you, he has set him over all his property.” [Matt 24:47]
Having listed all the things a potential abbot shouldn’t be in the first part of Chapter 64, St Benedict goes on to list the qualities, responsibilities and duties that a good abbot should possess and engender within himself. It is a sudden change, and rather than seeing a checklist that must be met, these qualities form the basis of a theory – or perhaps even theology – of authority and leadership within a community. Anyone called to leadership would do well to meditate on what St Benedict believes to constitute a good leader, on how authority should be exercised, and how leadership within a monastic community is almost akin to parenting. There is much wisdom to be distilled here, wisdom that is as applicable to contemporary life and society as to the nascent monastic community for which St Benedict was writing.
Of particular interest, perhaps, is the last paragraph of Chapter 64, and the limits it places on legitimate authority and leadership:
In ancient civilizations, the law was the lawgiver’s law. Subjects had no rights, only responsibilities. The lawgiver could change the law on a whim or a fancy. In the Roman empire, the paterfamilias, the Roman father, could do no wrong in his own home. No court of law would try him; no one would convict him. He himself according to the principles of Roman jurisprudence was judge and jury, king and lawgiver. In a climate and culture such as this, the chapter on the abbot… and this paragraph in particular, are extremely revolutionary. This section issues a clear warning: authority has limits; authority is not a law unto itself; authority is responsible to the persons under it for their welfare and their growth; authority itself is under the law. It is a theology such as this that makes people free and keeps people free because the knee we bow to government must really be bowed only to God. (p 276)
Joan Chittister, The Rule of St Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2010). ISBN: 978-0-8245-2594-1.