Sunday, March 30, 2008

Pray For Abbot

“What every man looks for in life is his own salvation and the salvation of the men he lives with. By salvation I mean first of all the full discovery of who he himself really is. Then I mean something of the fulfillment of his own God-given powers, in the love of others and of God.”[1]

There is no shame in admitting that we need guidance in this discovery and in navigating the often turbulent and treacherous waters of life. So much is changing so fast that stability of any sort seems like a fantasy any more. No sooner than the ink is dry on the latest self improvement book another is on the market promising even greater levels of fulfillment and personal prosperity.

The printing presses keep rolling not because people who think they are leaders are writing what they think. The presses keep rolling because people are buying what other people think. People, searching for the missing ingredients in their lives, turn to life coaches, spiritual directors, and mountains of books by modern authors – all of them saying “I’ve got the answer and can supply what you are looking for.”

In choosing the life he lived, and in setting forth what we know as the Rule of St. Benedict, Benedict set examples in place that have not changed in value over the course of fifteen hundred years. Nor will they change because they are so deeply rooted in the practical practice of Scripture. His life and his Rule establish an indelible set of footprints in the shifting sands of life without respect to the times or age in which one finds himself.

This, in my own search for salvation and its inherent stability, is the kind of leadership that I need. It is leadership with a paper trail that leads back to the foundations of antiquity. It doesn’t vacillate or pat its foot in time with modern rhymes or rhythms. It will be as valid and offer as much hope in the 22nd century as it was and did in the 6th when Benedict lived and wrote.

Chapter 2 of the Rule of St. Benedict discusses the qualities of the Abbot who is understood, in the likeness and image of Christ, to be the father of the family that he leads by a two-fold teaching – by his word and personal example. “He wrote only briefly about the cenobites, but he praised them because they waged their spiritual warfare ‘under a rule and an abbot.’ So now he looks at this question of authority, both how we are going to live under authority and also how we are going to exercise it. This is one of the most carefully devised chapters in the Rule (supplemented by Chapter 64), and it gives a wonderful portrait of the abbot, the man who is the model and example, both in his attitudes and in his actions, of how any of us should handle authority.”[2]

Grave. I think this is the one word that best describes the level of responsibility laid onto the shoulders of the one called Abbot. The opening words to this chapter begin with gravity. “To be worthy of the task of governing a monastery, the abbot must always remember what his title signifies and act as a superior should.”[3] The next thirty nine verses of the chapter are filled with gravity. All forty verses paint a self portrait of Benedict as he stood in the position of leadership. They show what he expects of others who follow in his footsteps by wearing the title of Abbot. This is no small, light task.

The first time I saw Abbot Cletus I really felt intimidated. There was, after all, a day in the history of monasticism that this man’s word could have my food rations cut, have me whipped, or have me excommunicated for refusing to amend my ways. Those were different times, harsher times, that often required harsh measures. Now here I was knocking at the gate hoping to be accepted as an Oblate at the monastery and the last thing I wanted to do was to say or do anything that would be out of place.

In my infantile beginnings I saw the Abbot in a disciplinary role. That understanding broadened a lot over the year of my candidacy. During that year I studied the Rule more. I visited the monastery on retreats. I corresponded several times with the Oblate Director who is also the Prior of the monastery. I also met regularly with other Oblates and a Benedictine priest who directs us locally. I began to see the Abbot as a father rather than as a disciplinarian.

I was making my way out of the monastery church and respectfully greeted and shook his hand. He looked me in the eyes and asked how the retreat was. After a brief exchange of words he then said to me, “Pray for Abbot.” I do pray for Father Abbot. His is not an easy calling. He is looking for his own salvation and the salvation of others just as I am, just as many others are, but he is accountable for and will answer for so much more.

[1] Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island, xv
[2] Esther de Waal, A Life Giving Way, p. 24
[3] RB 2:1