This feeling for, and respect of, persons is generally one of Benedict’s distinctive traits in comparison to the Master, but it is particularly interesting that he makes it a special duty of the abbot. In this way he replies to one of the chief criticisms addressed in our days to authority as it seems to have been exercised traditionally in the religious life. Superiors are much reproached for having ignored the graces and personal needs of their subjects, who are sacrificed to collective interests and to an inhuman concept of obedience. These complaints seem motivated in large part by an aspiration for a new statute concerning the religious superior, who would henceforth be placed ‘in the center of the community and in no way above it’.
We scarcely need to say that this new image of authority is alien to our rules and the efforts made recently to find it in primitive Pachomianism have turned out to be quite vain. But if the abbot of the monastic tradition is decidedly above the community, this fact, which can in no way be changed, does not prevent an extreme sensibility on the part of the legislator – as we see in Benedict – to the needs and weaknesses of individuals, a sensibility which he seeks in every way to communicate to the abbot. In this way the Benedictine Rule offers a permanent remedy to what seems to be one of the chief causes of the present uneasiness. (72)
In this third chapter of his The Rule of Saint Benedict. A Doctrinal and Spiritual Commentary, Father De Vogüé continues to develop a theme that he has touched on previously, namely the importance of spiritual paternity in the Rule of Saint Benedict and the priority of the master-disciple model of community over and against that of a community of brothers.
Unlike the Augustinian or Basilian rules, both Benedict and the Master give priority to the abbot.
‘What sort of man should the abbot be?’ This is the first question which our authors pose. Nothing takes precedence over the abbot in their description of cenobitism, which they have just located on the map of the monastic world. The primordial place which they thus recognize in the abbatial office contrasts with the last place which Augustine assigns it in his directory for a superior. What came first in the Augustinian Rule was the union of hearts and the community of goods, of which our rules say nothing at the outset. The two perspectives are thus clearly distinct: on one side, Augustine’s communion, and on the other, the Master’s and Benedict’s school. And this school, as is right, has nothing more important than its teacher, the abbot. (66)
What is interesting, however, is that De Vogüé also identifies the Pachomian tradition with this emphasis on spiritual paternity (against scholars who have argued otherwise) and thus speaks of a common Egyptian tradition, whether eremitical or coenobitical, that has influenced both the Rule of Saint Benedict and that of the Master.
Central to both the Master and Saint Benedict is the question of the identity of the abbot and what it means to see him as the representative of Christ in the monastery. This concept was widely accepted in the Church of their day and
The Master therefore is not innovating in making the abbot the vicar of Christ in the monastery and the homologue of the bishop. His chief originality lies in explicating and systematizing thoughts which had remained till then more latent than formulated, more lived than reflected upon. The concept of ‘teacher’, the successor of the apostles, helps him thus integrate the abbatial office into the Christian hierarchy, alongside the episcopate. …
The abbot therefore is the successor of the apostles as ‘teacher’ (doctor), and the representative of Christ as abbas. … Christ’s scola should have as its doctor who holds the place of the one and only Master. (70)
While Saint Benedict sees the abbot in substantially the same terms as the Master does, he gives a more personal interpretation to the question ‘How should the abbot behave?’ and it is here that we see his development of the sensitivity that the abbot should have and his respect for the diversity of his subjects. Moreover, while the Master had only made a veiled allusion to the Rule,
With Benedict it appears as the supreme norm which should absolutely dominate every consultation of the monks and every decision of the superior. Doubtless this recourse to the Rule is related to the difficulties of the moment which we have just glimpsed, namely, that the law should both sustain the authority of the leader, and contain it. But the reminder has a permanent significance. At all times and especially in periods of universal decline, the community and the abbot have no better safeguard than a religious respect for an untouchable rule. An abbot is nothing without a rule. (73)
I’m aware that there are issues emerging in this reading that could be engaged and perhaps contested, or at least clarified, or that in any case raise interesting questions (e.g. what about abbesses?!) but I’m leaving them floating around at the back of head for the time being (in the hope that I may read some other perspectives too) and may or may not come back to them at some point…