Balancing the Budget

As is usual at this time of year – in the lead up to the annual Federal Budget that is handed down by the Commonwealth Treasurer in May each year – there has been much speculation about just what government expenditure will be subject to cuts (or ‘efficiency dividends’) because of the alleged “Budget Emergency”. As usual there are many and varied options being floated around, some as mere speculation, others as a means of ‘softening the blow’, and yet in the discussion about returning to a balanced budget (which argument is usually, and in this case, completely spurious) there appears to be discussion and speculation about only one side of the ledger.

By which I mean there are two sides to the ledger of a budget, government or otherwise: expenditure AND revenue.

Where is the discussion, the speculation, the ‘leaks’ about proposals to increase the quantum of revenue to assist in the balancing of the budget? Where is the ‘softening up’ for potential increases in tax levels – personal income, corporate and others – to ensure that the burden of a balanced budget doesn’t fall mainly on those who are least able to afford it? Where is the rhetoric about reductions in government revenue (as opposed to increases in government expenditure)?

Of course, focussing on attempts to increase the revenue side of the government ledger wouldn’t prove to be politically savvy, and indeed in the present context is impossible because of the current Government’s public rhetoric whilst in Opposition. Nevertheless, the conversation about increasing revenue – including the possibility of increasing tax revenue from those who can most afford it – needs to take place if the current Government is going to insist on returning the Federal Budget to balance or surplus (although the latter thought just defies logic at the best of time – but that’s for another time). Failure to have that conversation means that ongoing dialogue about the state of the nation’s finances can only ever be partial, and, more alarmingly, that those who are least able to cope will be the ones who will be disadvantaged.


Reading the Rule of St Benedict: Chapter 66, vv 1-8

As set down for reading on the 24th April, 24th August, and 24th December

A wise old man, one who knows how to take a message and reply to it and whose age does not permit him to be idle, should be placed at the door of the monastery. This porter will need to have a cell next to the door, so those arriving will always find someone there from whom they can get an answer. As soon as someone knocks or a poor person calls out, he should reply “Thanks be to God” or “Bless me” and he should give his reply quickly with loving warmth and all the gentleness of the fear of God. If the porter needs help, he should accept a younger brother for the purpose.

If possible, the monastery should be set up so that all necessities – that is, water, a mill, a garden – are inside the monastic compound and various crafts can be practised there, so there is no need for monks to roam outside, which is not at all beneficial for their souls.

We want this Rule to be read out rather often in the community, so no brother can excuse himself on grounds of ignorance.


Of all the questions to be asked about the over fifteen-hundred-year-old Rule of Benedict, and there are many in the twenty-first century, one of the most pointed must surely be why one of the great spiritual documents of the Western world would have in it a chapter on how to answer the door. And on of the answers might be that answering the door is one of the archactivities of Benedictine life. The way we answer doors is the way we deal with the world. Benedict wants the porter to be available, “not roaming around,” so that the caller is not left waiting; responsible and “able to take a message,” so that the community is properly informed; full of welcome; prompt in responding to people “with the warmth of love (the fear of God)”; and actually grateful for the presence of the guest. When the person knocks – whenever the person knocks – the porter is to say, “Thanks be to God” or “Bless me,” to indicate the gift the guest is to the community. The porter is to be warm and welcome at all times, not just when it feels convenient. In the Rule of Benedict, there is no such thing as coming out of time to the monastery. Come in the middle of lunch; come in the middle of prayer; come and bother us with your blessings at any time. There is always someone waiting for you.

The chapter on the porter of the monastery is the chapter on how to receive the Christ in the other always. It is Benedict’s theology of surprise.

(This reflection drawn from Joan Chittister, The Rule of St Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2010), p 283-284. ISBN: 978-0-8245-2594-1).

Reading the Rule of St Benedict: Chapter 65, vv 11-22

As set down for reading on the 23rd April, 23rd August, and 23rd December

Therefore, we see it as expedient, for the preservation of peace and love, that an appointment in his monastery be dependent on the abbot’s decision, and if possible, all matters of the monastery’s well-being should be managed by deans, as we said before, as the abbot arranges, so that when supervision is entrusted to many, no one will grow proud. But if the situation demands it or the community asks, reasonably and with humility, and the abbot judges it expedient, whoever the abbot chooses, in consultation with God-fearing brothers, he will himself appoint as his prior.

This prior will do everything assigned him by his abbot with reverence, doing nothing contrary to the abbot’s will and direction, because the more he is set above the others, the more carefully should he observe the teachings of the Rule. If the prior is found to be full of faults or, misled by arrogance, becomes proud, or is shown to scorn the holy Rule, he should be given up to four verbal warnings. If he does not make amends, the correction of the discipline of the Rule should be applied to him. If even then he does not improve, then he should be demoted from the office of prior and another, worthy brother put in his place. But if thereafter he is not quiet and obedient in the community, he should be expelled from the monastery. Yet the abbot should be mindful that he will render an account to God for all his judgements, lest the flames of envy and jealousy chance to sear his soul.


The problems dealt with in this chapter are the problems of loyalty, honesty, humility, and role and their effect on a group. The prior…in a Benedictine monastery is equivalent to the first assistant of any organization. They act as vicars, representatives, of the abbot…but they do not have specific role description or authority of their won. Most local constitutions of Benedictine communities to this day, in fact, say simply that the…prior is appointed by the…abbot to “do whatever the abbot bids them to do.” The point is that every community has one, single ultimate authority, the abbot…, and that any other arrangement or assumption is not only incorrect, it is dangerous to the unity and formation of the community.

Underlying the theological and organizational considerations, however, is the dark warning that the temptation to use a position, any position – vice principal, vice president, assistant, department director – to wrest authority away from the center or to promote our own careers by undermining the legitimate leader in order to make ourselves look good, is a sin against community. It uses a group for personal gain instead of for the good of the group. It is the story of a Rasputin or a Lucretia Borgia. It is a grasp at power for its own sake. It corrodes what we say we support. It eats like acid at anything in us that we say is real. It is cheap popularity and expensive advancement because, eventually, it will destroy what we say we value, the very community for which we are responsible.

(This reflection drawn from Joan Chittister, The Rule of St Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2010), p 280-281. ISBN: 978-0-8245-2594-1).

Answers Needed Now!

The current Federal Government needs to respond to the death to Reza Berati whilst in immigration detention within an Australian-funded centre on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea – and they need to do so immediately. The report has, according to media reports, been sitting on the desk of the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection for weeks now, and yet there has been no comment, no explanation, no prosecution of those responsible.

This is simply not good enough. I demand better from the current Government of my nation – or they might not be the Government come the next election.

And yet, no doubt, there’ll be those Australians out there who will say something along the lines of the following… (taken from a conversation held elsewhere with a supporter of the current Government’s policy)

And my opinion is I will never support a policy that results in hundreds of people dying at sea, criminals exploiting vulnerable people or humanitarian visa applicants being displaced by the relatively wealthy few that can pay those criminals.


I am proud to support a Government that has saved lives by shutting down criminals who couldn’t care less about human life. I am astonished that anyone can support criminals with no regard for the fate of those that fill their hip pocket to displace those that cannot…

To which I respond…

The language surrounding asylum seekers (i.e. the term ‘illegal’ to refer to persons rather than behaviour; the turning of a humanitarian issue into one of national security and “border protection”; the terminology of ‘war’) appears to be geared to one purpose only: the generation of fear so that something can be fought against in the harshest possible way – with the side of politics that proposes the harshest treatment of people in need of protection garnering the support of a particular element within Australian society that is less than admirable.

To claim that asylum seekers should respect our “orderly and fair asylum seeker policy” shows a radical misunderstanding of the nature of the problem. When it comes to fleeing persecution – real or perceived – there is no order – people simply go, and then those countries that are signatories to the UN Convention are supposed to provide them with the appropriate level of protection. (From my perspective the moral duty would easily and effortlessly trounce any legal obligation a country might have).

Instead, Australia seems to want to classify asylum seekers (whose status has not been determined) as criminals, and therefore as a problem to be solved, rather than people in need, who need care and protection.

The use of simplistic solutions to “stop the boats” doesn’t give any credence to our obligations – moral or legal – and is specifically designed to play upon manufactured fear in order to garner political support.

If any government – of whatever political persuasion – wants to be seen as taking a humanitarian response to those in need of asylum, then they could achieve this by simply acting in a human way, dealing with the causes of people fleeing their countries of origin (via diplomacy and foreign aid), providing a greater humanitarian intake (both for permanent and temporary resettlement) and helping to fund and operate centres for refugee assessment in other parts of the region that are geared to attending to the status of the individuals therein rather than punitive treatment of those same individuals.

Reading the Rule of St Benedict: Chapter 65, vv 1-10

As set down for reading on the 22nd April, 22nd August, and 22nd December

It very often happens that grave scandals arise in monasteries from the appointment of a prior, since some are puffed up with a wicked spirits of pride and, thinking themselves second abbots and assuming a right to tyranny, they nurture scandals and create conflicts in the community, especially in those places where the prior is also appointed by the same bishops or the same abbots who appoint the abbot. It is easy to see how absurd this is, because at the very start of his appointment the occasion for pride is given to him when it is suggested to him by his thoughts that he has been released from the authority of his abbot, since he was appointed by the same men as the abbot. This gives rise to jealousies, quarrels, slanders, rivalries, dissensions, and disorders, so that when the abbot and the prior disagree with each other, by necessity they also endanger souls with their dissension and those who are under them, when they take sides, go to ruin. The evil of this danger is on the heads of those who were the authors of such disorder.


In any group – a political system, an athletic team, a social organization, even a monastery – authority is one thing, leadership is often another. Authority comes from being given or elected to a position. Leadership comes from vision and charism in concert. It is often the case that the two realities – authority and leadership – do not reside in the same person. Then the stage is set for tension.

If the legally deputed authority is insecure or bullying, uncertain or authoritarian. weak or controlling, the group is bound either to resist or to defect. Authority figures without the vision to identify their own weaknesses, who then appoint people to provide for those needs in the group, risk the loss of the only authority they have – which is clearly only a legal one.

One the other hand, charismatic figures in a group, people who deal well with other people and have a clear vision of the future, who use those gifts to undermine the legal authority of the group, run the risk of dividing it and, eventually, of destroying it completely.

It is up to leadership figures to cooperate with authority, to uphold the unity of the group, to remember that there can be only one authority in a community at a time and no second-in-command, no department chair, not even any idea agent, is ever it.

Then the community, united in the tenuous search for the will of God together, can come to see that there are seldom instances in life when there is only one way to do anything. Then we learn that everything we do and every way we set out to do it together has something to teach us all.

(This reflection drawn from Joan Chittister, The Rule of St Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2010), p 278-279. ISBN: 978-0-8245-2594-1).

A Pattern Is Emerging

There are reports circulating that the current Federal Government will abolish the National Water Commission in May’s Federal Budget.

If this comes to pass it would represent another development in what is becoming a pattern: first the abolishment of the Federal Department of Climate Change (and the removal of a responsible minister from the Cabinet); then the abolishing of the Climate Change Authority; then the winding up to the Clean Energy Finance Corporation; the desire to reverse the imposition of a price on carbon emissions (and the transition to an emissions trading scheme that was attached to it); and now the winding up of the National Water Commission.

Can anyone say ‘anti-environment’ with me?

Reading the Rule of St Benedict: Chapter 64, vv 7-22

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.

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