Sunday, September 09, 2007

Chapter 2: What Kind of Person the Abbess Ought to Be Jan. 9 - May 10 - Sept. 9

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

Jan. 9 - May 10 - Sept. 9

An Abbess 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.

Some thoughts:

At first glance, this bit doesn't seem to have much to say to us who are not in the monastery, does it?

Abbess/Abbot are derived from the Hebrew "abba", the word Jesus used when talking about the Father. It's also a word He taught His disciples to use as in "Our Father in Heaven." I've been told that a good translation of "abba" is "daddy". I note that Benedict also refers to Jesus as Abba: "Being called by a name that is His."

"Believed to hold the place of Christ in the monastery" To me this says that true head of the monastery is our Lord Jesus Christ and the Abbess/Abbot is merely filling in. But what a responsibility to be as Christ to a bunch of All Too Human people! What is it that the Abbess/Abbot is to do? Everything must be in line with the Gospels.

But still, how does this passage apply to those of us not in a monastery? I'd welcome your thoughts.

As I was trying to answer this for myself, it occurred to me that in my novice promises, I said I would obey my Bishop, priest (primarily Rector) and spiritual director. The role of the abbess/abbot is assist me to create the place within me where I hear the Holy Spirit' voice quite clearly and will be moved to instant obedience to that voice of God.

Then I thought about all the other people in my life who might also be such agents of the Holy Spirit. Fellow parishioners, family members, friends, Internet acquaintances, etc. Anyone of these might be used by the Holy Spirit to say something to me to which I need to pay attention. Maybe I won't like it, maybe it will hurt me, but maybe I still need to hear and learn.

That is what I take from today's reading. How does the reading sound to you?

Commentary by Sr Joan Chittister

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.

Once you begin to understand that, you begin to understand the whole new type of authority that the Rule models for a world gone wild with power. You begin to understand that it is not the laws of the mighty that will govern this group. It is the law of God that will preempt all other considerations.

Like Christ, this leader does not lead with brute force. This leader understands the leavening process. This leader, called appropriately abbot or abbess or prioress, is a spiritual parent, a catalyst for the spiritual and psychological growth of the individual monastic, not a border guard or a warden. This leader is not a parent who terrorizes a child into submission; this leader believes in the best and gives people the opportunities to make the mistakes that lead to growth.

The prioress and abbot provide an environment that confronts the monastic with the presence of God, that shows them the Way. After that it is up to the monastic to let the practices of the community and the rhythm of the prayer life work their way until the piercing good of God rises in them like yeast in bread.

"If you meet the Buddha on the road," the Zen master teaches the disciple, "kill him." Don't let any human being become the measure of your life, the Zen implies. Eliminate whatever you would be tempted to idolize, no matter how worthy the object. The role of the spiritual leader, in other words, is not to make martinets out of people; it is to lead them to spiritual adulthood where they themselves make the kind of choices that give life depth and quality. Like the teacher of Zen, Benedict does not make the superior of the monastery the ultimate norm of life. Pleasing the abbot is not what monastic life is all about. Becoming what the abbess or prioress thinks you should be is not the goal of monasticism. Following the leader is not the end for which we're made; finding God is. Benedict makes the superior of his monasteries a lover of people, a leader who can persuade a person to the heights, show them the mountain and let them go.

In our own culture, becoming someone important, climbing the corporate and ecclesiastical ladder has so often meant pleasing the person at the top rather than doing what conscience demands or the situation requires. That kind of leadership is for its own sake. It makes the guru, rather than the gospel, the norm of life. That kind of obedience puts the business before the soul. That kind of authority is not monastic and it is not spiritual. That kind of authority so often leads to the satisfaction of the system more than to the development of the person and the coming of the reign of God. That kind of authority breeds Watergate and My Lai in the face of a tradition that holds up for public emulation Joan of Arc and Thomas More whose obedience was always to a much higher law than the institutions of the country.

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