Chapter 2: What Kind of Person the Abbess & Abbot Ought to Be

January 9, 2010

From the Rule of St Benedict:

An Abbess or Abbot who is worthy to be over a monastery 
should always remember what she is called, 
and live up to the name of Superior. 
For she is believed to hold the place of Christ in the monastery, 
being called by a name of His, 
which is taken from the words of the Apostle: 
“You have received a Spirit of adoption …, 
by virtue of which we cry, ‘Abba — Father'” (Rom. 8:15)!

Therefore the Abbess ought not to teach or ordain or command 
anything which is against the Lord’s precepts; 
on the contrary, 
her commands and her teaching 
should be a leaven of divine justice 
kneaded into the minds of her disciples.’


I am often struck by this section of the Rule … a very good section not only for religious superiors but anyone in a position of responsibility, management or spiritual leadership and companionship.

I remember reading once that Blessed Ildefonso Schuster gave a copy of this section of the Rule to Benito Mussolini!

This story comes to mind too … A woman and her child approached Gandhi one day. She asked him to tell her son to stop eating sugar. He looked at her and said “come back in 6 months”. Six months later, she came back and he brought the boy into his office and said sternly “do not eat sugar”. With that he kindly dismissed the woman and her son. She stopped at the door and turned to him. She asked him why she had to wait six months for those words. He replied that he’d had to give up sugar himself before he could tell anyone else to do so.

Some thoughts from an excellent Blog, Anchors and Masts:

‘A note of caution I’ve heard about President Obama and our expectations of him is this: we must remember he is not the Messiah.

(I admire the painter enormously, Alex Grey, the subject matter I find chilling, for legal reasons:


And indeed he’s not. But it made me think of part of the Rule of Saint Benedict. Chapter Two of the Rule sets out What Kind of Person the Abbot/Abbess Should Be. Chapter Three is On Summoning the Brethren to Council.  (You can read a full translation of these two chapters in this text.)

Re-reading these chapters, a couple of things occur to me:

  1. The sophistication with which the Rule simultaneously encourages and restrains the Superior of the monastery
  2. How well these two chapters fit with modern business teaching on management style

In the place of Christ

The Superior stands in the place of Christ in the monastery. He must “fulfil his actions in the name of one who is called greater”. She “…should not teach or ordain or command anything that lies outside the Lord’s commands, far from it; but her commands and her teaching should mingle like the leaven of divine justice…”.

This immediately gives grave responsibility tempered with great comfort: to act in the place of Christ for a community would seem an impossible burden were it not for the example of exquisite leadership his life gives us.

And remember that the Rule was written in a time when rulers were often absolute and feared. Joan Chittister has this to say:

The social revolution of the Rule starts in this paragraph on authority. This will be a different kind of life than the sixth-century Roman ever saw. The head of the monastery will not be a chief or a queen or a feudal lord. The superior of a monastery of Benedictines will be a Christ figure, simple, unassuming, immersed in God, loving of the marginal, doer of the Gospel, beacon to the strong.

Walking the talk

Chapter Two goes on to explain how the Superior “…must show forth all good and holy things by his words and even more by his deeds.”

And “…she should show herself equally loving to all, and maintain discipline impartially according to the merits of each.”

Well any of us with experience of being in authority, perhaps as a manager, a teacher or a parent, knows how challenging these sections of the Rule can be! And any of us on the receiving end of a manager, teacher or parent who does NOT act like this knows how frustrating it can be…

A very modern manager

Next, we hear that the Superior must use different techniques to lead different personalities:

…one, indeed, to be encouraged, another to be rebuked, another persuaded, each according to his nature and intelligence. Thus he must adapt and fit himself to all…

I just did an Amazon search for books on management. There were 204,211. I doubt many have under 200 pages. Chapter Two of the Rule covers four pages and seems to me to have everything a manager or leader must know to deal with people fairly and effectively.

(The only thing that might not fit our modern sensibilities is a small section suggesting corporal punishment for “…the shameless, the thick-skinned, the proud or disobedient.” Tempting, but perhaps not…)


Chapter Three is no less revolutionary for its times. The superior is explicitly instructed to take counsel with the community when decisions must be made.

For “less important matters”, the Superior “…should take counsel only with the senior monks…”. But for the big, important decisions, the whole community must be assembled to consider the matter. Why? Because the youngest, most junior monk may have the grace and imagination to see the best solution.

Chittister again:

Benedict knows that there is a spark of the divine in all of us. The function of an abbot or prioress, of leaders and spouses everywhere, is not so much to know the Truth as to be able to espy it and to recognise it in the other when they hear it. Calling the community for counsel is Benedict’s contribution to the theology of the Holy Spirit.

And what a huge gift and relief for the Superior, who does not have to come up with all the ideas! The actual decision-making is his (“…the decision should, however, depend mainly on the Abbot’s judgement, and all should be joined in obedience to what he considers the soundest course.”) but the wisdom arises collectively from the community, like prayer, and the smoke of incense (psalm 141).

Communal responsibility

Responsibility is enjoined upon the whole community, not just the superior. The monks must behave like grown-ups:

…the brethren must give their counsel submissively and humbly and not presume stubbornly to defend their opinions.” “…no-one is to presume to argue rudely with the Abbot, or to argue at all outside the monastery.”

Perhaps this all comes back to the tension between the individual and the communal. A monastic community is there to support the individuals in it as they seek God. But the community will outlast the individuals in it, whether monk or superior.

(A sober note here: as the number of people in monastic life falls, some monasteries will close. But I believe there’s a sense in which generations of prayer and monastic life leave an indelible mark, quite separate from the buildings that housed them.)

I think these chapters echo the note struck so forcibly in Obama’s inaugural address: that of individual and collective responsibility.

And I realise I was wrong in describing them as modern. They are ageless.’

The picture above is of the exceptional Abbot Nokter Wolf, Abbot Primate of all Benedictines. His address on the Occasion of the Audience with the Holy Father on 20thSeptember 2008, at Castelgandolfo

Holy Father,

Every four years we, the Benedictine Abbots, come to Rome to celebrate our International Congress. We reflect on the impact of Saint Benedict’s spiritual patrimony on the world of today, we discuss our common project, that is,Sant’Anselmo as a monastic and academic entity. We have also invited representatives of the ‘Communio Internationalis Benedictinarum’, of the Orthodox Churches and of the Anglican Benedictines. Today, we have come to Castelgandolfo to greet you, to listen to your words and to receive your blessing. We come to you with the greatest sense of esteem and gratitude.

 One of your great desires is the rebirth of a Christian Europe on the basis of Saint Benedict’s principles. We hope that our monasteries may be spritiual and cultural centres which will strongly influence their surroundings. Many people, both young and grown-up, come to our monasteries and join us in prayer and in the liturgy. The welcoming of guests in our monasteries and retreat houses, or the welcoming of students in our schools is our contribution towards the Church’s witness and a deepening of the Faith.

 This is true not only in Europe but all over the world. 150.000 young people are being educated in our schools. To help this work, we have established a network among those responsible in order more effectively to develop our Benedictine profile.

Already for centuries Benedictine monasteries have been growing outside of Europe, as you will have noticed in Brazil. Today, in an era of globalisation, Saint Benedict’s message is spreading throuhghout the world. Every year more than four new foundations are made, in Eastern Europe and as far away as Kazakhstan. Shortly, there will be a new foundation in Cuba. The official Church in China has sent a group of young priests to Sankt Ottilien to be formed as Benedictines with a view to starting a community in this country so dear to your heart.

 We have no reason to be dissatisfied. In some parts of the world, such as Asia and Africa, there are many vocations, and even in Europe they are not lacking. But some communities have been waiting for years for new members and do not know what the future holds. For this reason some houses will be forced to close. Where there are no children and there is no faith the seed-ground for vocations does not exist.

 Sant’Anselmo with its Pontifical Athenaeum and Pontifical College plays a particular role. In the last century, Sant’Anselmo was the unifying centre of formation, of contact and of common life for the many monastic observances and nations. At this time of globalisation Sant’Anselmo has become even more important in furthering the unity of the Confederation. For this reason we are grateful to you for having finally clarified the issue of the ownwership of Sant’Anselmo, by granting us officially the free use of the property. With the Pontifical Liturgical Institute we make a special contribution to the Universal Church.

 In recent years there has been a growing interest among many laypeople anxious to conduct their lives in accordance with the spirit of the Rule of Saint Benedict. Always attached to a specific monastic community, they try to witness in the world that, only be being rooted in God can they develop the fulness of a truly human life. We have already celebrated one World Congress of Oblates where experiences were shared on an international level and new courage and zeal built up. At present we are preparing the second such Congress.

 I should not like to conclude without mentioning our sisters, that is our Benedictine nuns and sisters. They bear witness in a special way in the heart of the Church to the contemplative element and to service of the poor. Their number is double that of the monks but they live a more hidden life than the monks. Together we try to carry on the precious patrimony of Our Holy Father Saint Benedict, the Patron of Europe, but who in the future, like Abraham, may come to be called ‘the Father of many peoples’.

 Holy Father, once again we thank you for this generous meeting and humbly ask your paternal blessing.

 +Notker Wolf OSB

Abbot Primate


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