F. Eamon Fitzgerald, OCSO General Abbot

Ongoing Formation of the Superior

meresetDomsGiven the assembly that we are, composed mainly of superiors of the Order come together to discuss the salvation of their own souls and of those committed to them (C. 77.1) I thought it might be helpful to share some thoughts on the ongoing formation of the superior.

The monastic way of monk and abbot

The abbot is a monk and does not cease to be such when he takes on the ministry of abbot.  He walks the same path - that of being transformed through the monastic life so that the grace of baptism comes to fruition in him as a child of God, one who is truly like Christ.  It is the journey from fear of God to love of God without fear which is marked out in Chapter 7 of the Rule.  It is to become a truly loving person whose characteristics are described in Chapter 72 of the Rule.  The abbot like the monks is to strive to reach the kingdom of God through faith, perseverance in good works and under the guidance of the Gospel.  The abbot is to fear God and keep the Rule (RB 3).  

This fear of God is a fundamental disposition in the Rule that St. Benedict requires of all the monks but it should be particularly evident in those who hold a responsible position in the community (abbot, cellarer, infirmarian, porter).  It is a sense of God, a reverence for God and an acknowledgment of his existence. It is the rock on which virtue is based in the Rule.  It is the motivating force in how we respond to other people and to tasks we have to do.  It is faith in the reality of God, his existence, his concern for us and the fact that we are answerable to him.  This applies in particular to the abbot.  God is over all, sees all and is the one to whom we are answerable.  We are creatures and he is our Creator.   He is the one who sent his Son into the world to redeem it and we are called to imitate the Son in living in the accord with the will of the Father and in this way to become truly his children, not slaves but sons and daughters.  It is towards his Kingdom that we travel in this life and the journey does not make any sense if we forget that.  It is this disposition in faith that determines our relationships with others and with things.  It is an attitude of reverence for God, of honouring others, and a respect for all that he has made.  This is then the ground for ongoing formation for the abbot as for the monk.

Formation to what?  Some models

The monk is on the way and so is the abbot; the formation is ongoing but at the same time Benedict does give us some examples of the kind of person he would consider holy and a good model.   When he talks about the cellarer he looks for someone with the following qualities: good judgment, mature of character, sober, not self-important, not turbulent, someone who is a father to all, compassionate who has respect for people and for things, who does not sadden others but is humble,  gentle, and kind in speech.  The qualities of the abbot run in a similar vein. I mention some: he should be of profit to the brothers rather than just preside over them; needs to know the divine law be chaste, temperate and merciful; shows forethought and consideration, is discerning and moderate.  These lists are rather impressive in the human qualities they mention and the level of maturity they witness to.  Such persons would rate rather highly on most contemporary personality assessments.  This should not come as a surprise because they rest on living out the imitation of Christ as described in the degrees of humility.  The qualities are the fruit of lives lived in an evangelical spirit of imitation of Jesus in putting the Father’s will first in his life and the giving of himself in the service of others.  It is a life modelled on the one who was truly human and truly divine.  Appreciation of this mystery of the kenosis of Christ which gives us life is the energy that makes possible the life that Benedict proposes to his monks in the Rule.  It is a life that is founded on a relationship (“Christ loved me and gave himself for me”) and that is lived in the knowledge that one is loved.  The abbot lives out this life as the other monks do by following the Rule, the pattern of prayer and reading, of meals and rest, and of work.  And it is his work (his ministry) that distinguishes him from the other monks, his work being his particular service to the community which Benedict recognises as a difficult task.  The abbot’s service of the life of the community is described in  the following images: father, teacher, shepherd, doctor and steward.  He exercises a ministry of care to the community, a care that nourishes the life of the community, so that they can become people shaped and guided by the Spirit and live a life of love that leads to eternal life.  The conclusion I draw from the above is that, for the abbot as for the monk, ongoing formation takes place through the living of the life of the community with all that this involves and the important difference in the case of the abbot is the ministry he has in the community and to the community. 

The abbot’s service: challenges

The abbot’s service is one that has its own stresses and strains as Benedict readily admits and also its own hazards some of which he mentions.  Particular challenges are mentioned as follows:

Avoiding personal preferences for any reason (except virtue) in his way of relating to the brothers because all are one in Christ.  In an age of dialogue and community votes the danger might be to cultivate like-minded people and those who side with one’s point of view. 

Adapting to the temperament and character of others rather than expecting them to adapt to him.  This can prove quite a challenge. 

- Putting the welfare of souls before material considerations.  In a time such as ours, with the economic crisis, when there is much adaptation of buildings, remodelling and such activities going on in monasteries it is very easy for an abbot to get taken up with such projects with the best will in the world and for the good of the community.  But this can lead to other tensions and make life difficult for brothers.  It tends to be felt more in monasteries of nuns than of monks from what I have seen, perhaps because nuns are more used to contact with the abbess than are monks with the abbot?  

- Remembering that he is called to care for sick souls not just healthy ones.  To work with the people he has rather than ones he would like to have is a challenge not only for abbots.   The danger of avoidance here is real – avoiding those who are more tiresome and trying and staying with the stimulating and supportive. 

- Realising that he is not always the best person in every situation to help someone and being free enough and trusting enough to use others as the need arises.  He needs to recognise his limitations.

- Knowing how to heal his own wounds he can heal those of others.  How does one go about healing one’s own wounds?  Will come back to that. 

- Being of profit to the brothers and not just presiding over them.  The danger of liking the glory rather than the work.  We can get caught up with our status and begin to see ourselves as important – become image conscious.  A good deal of this can depend on the particular place the monastery has in a given society and desire to fulfil people’s expectations. 

- Obviously too pride is a more serious hazard which can easily slip into one’s style, either initially, when in our innocence we are sure we know what the community needs, or later, when we get some experience and because of that feel we have all the answers. 

- Benedict specifically warns against jealousy (in relation to the Prior) and being out of touch with one’s own weakness – seeing the faults of others and not seeing one’s own. 

And so Benedict talks about the need to watch over one’s own soul and the Constitutions (33.3) talk about renewing oneself with the Scriptures and the writings of the Fathers.  So while Benedict sees the monastery and life lived within the monastery as able to provide a way that leads to growth in holiness and humanity and even talks of it as a straight path to the Creator, he also recognises that human frailty is very much in evidence and that there are many pitfalls along the way.  Michael Casey spoke somewhere of the monastic way as the art of wobbleology – rather than heading on the tracks straight to one’s goal it was a matter of going from side to side up the road that led to the kingdom. 

The abbot’s service: some helps

For us today it is much less evident that all we require in the way of aids to our transformation in Christ is available within the enclosure of the monastery, whether on the material level or on the spiritual. I want to return here to the question of the need for the abbot to watch over his own soul, to be conscious of his own wounds and to know how to heal them.

- Some of the most important influences on our lives are happenings over which we have no control: who our parents were; the choice of brothers and sisters if we had them; my social background and so on and the kind of person I am as a result.   These are given realities that we have to accept and live with as best we can for better and for worse – none of us came from perfect families.  And so we have basic stances to life and particular temperaments, gifts and limitations.  Out of these and out of other life experiences and choices we make over time we are who we are.   Coming to accept oneself and one’s own history is a big factor in human maturation and wisdom.  But for the Christian and the monk it is also an act of faith in God’s providence in one’s life.  We used to speak in the past of our predominant fault (long ago!).  Today we might talk about personality styles and defects that we never seem to be able to get rid of.  Paul spoke of a thorn in the flesh.  Some wounds we have can be healed, thankfully through grace and with the help of others; others we have not only to live with but according to St. Paul rejoice in.  Such a disposition is the work of God in us.  It is important then for one who exercises the ministry of abbot to be aware of his own weakness, so that it does not get in the way of his service of others. The Sacrament of Reconciliation, spiritual guidance and prayer are ways that can lead to healing or living more peacefully with who we are.  The important thing is that we are able to be truthful with ourselves before God.  Being truthful with another can be a great help in doing this. 

- Just as there are no perfect families so there are no perfect monasteries or a perfect monastic formation though clearly enough some monasteries are much richer in human and material resources than others.  So at times it may be difficult for an abbot to find someone who can help him at this level within the monastery.  This can mean seeking help from someone outside at the professional or the spiritual level.  This can be something that is necessary at a particular time or it may be something regular on a long-term basis.  It may be a course that one does at a particular time, or a sabbatical or it may be a pastoral meeting of superiors.  Some may find their way by having hermit days or the like.  The important thing is that whatever we use is not just an escape but actually helps us to be freer in our service of God and of the brethren and more profitable to them and that it enables us to live our monastic ascesis with renewed zeal.

- Abbots because of their ministry have much more exposure to people - the brethren as well as outside contacts – than most others in community and this can be both a service to others and a real school of ongoing formation for oneself.  The document from the Holy See on the service of authority and obedience of some years ago remarks: “It will be the responsibility of persons in authority to keep a high level of openness to being formed as well as the ability to learn from life.  In particular, this is important to do regarding the freedom of letting oneself be formed by others and for each one to feel a responsibility for the growth of others.”  We learn about ourselves in our relationships with other people and sometimes that learning can mean making mistakes, saying we are sorry, being humiliated as well as experiencing real fraternity or friendship.  This is where the much used phrase “affective maturity” becomes evident. We can learn much from the way others relate to us and treat us as well as from the manner in which we respond or react as the case may be.  Keeping a high level of openness is not easy but it is a path of humility and of life. 

- This might be the moment to say something about a particular challenge for many today.  And here a quotation from the document I mentioned above says it well: “Persons in authority can also become discouraged and disillusioned.  In the face of the resistance of some members of the community and of certain questions that seem insoluble, he or she can be tempted to cave in and to consider every effort for improving the situation useless.  What we see here is the danger of becoming managers of the routine, resigned to mediocrity, restrained from intervening, no longer having the courage to point out the purposes of authentic consecrated life and running the risk of losing the love of one’s first fervour and the desire to witness to it.” The way to deal with this, the document continues, is by recalling that the service of authority is an act of love of the Lord Jesus, and so the need of being patient in suffering and persevering in prayer and to continue to contribute. 

Some desiderata for the ongoing formation/conversion of the abbot:

- Believing in one’s calling and responding to God’s call by freely and willingly using the means that our life provides – leading the life of the community - liturgy, lectio, work, fraternal life.

- Openness of heart with oneself and before God – being transparent with another about all that is going on in oneself.

- Serving others as abbot as best one can, and knowing that one’s service as abbot will end some day!

- Knowing that we won’t get our ongoing formation all right but accepting in faith and trust that there is a Providence who has it all in hand and whose paths and purposes will be realised despite us, to our delight and for his glory!