HITHERTO the Benedictine institute has been considered externally in its birth and growth. We must now look at its organization, as seen in the Rule as it is interpreted today by the living body of monks.
The keystone of Saint Benedict's monastery is the Abbot, and the descriptions of his office and duties in the, Rule have justly been recognized as masterpieces of spiritual wisdom. The Abbot stands in the place of Christ. The monks are his, that he may lead them to God. He is their shepherd, as Christ is of all men. It is from him that God, the Master of the estate, will demand an account of the souls he has had under his hand. Every fault of theirs will at the last judgment be charged to him, and upon him will lie the burden of the proof before he can be absolved from having caused their ruin. On the other hand, the obedience of the monks must be absolute. They have renounced their own wills; that is why they have come into the monastery. They can rely on their Abbot as upon their divine Lord, and it is their security that the Abbot's will is for them God's will, with no possibility of doubt. This gives to their obedience its value and its joy.
Needless to say, Saint Benedict's teaching on obedience is as practical and as valuable today as it ever was, and the monk's obedience is as absolute. It gives to Benedictine life, as it gives to all religious life, a firmness and a sanctity which is the source of all its strength. At the same time, there have always been, and are still, some characteristics of abbatial government which are not found in every religious organization.
In the first place, the very name "Abbot," (Father) suggests a relationship. It suggests that the Abbot cannot exist apart from, or act without a thought for, his monks. He is not merely one in a hierarchy of rulers. He is Abbot only of, and because of, his monks. His power of command and their vow of obedience are complementary and coincident, and both exist only for the good of the monks' souls, not for the more efficient working towards any other end, however good.
The Abbot is not a Colonel who acts under the orders of a General, nor a representative who acts as intermediary between the monastery and the world, nor a Monarch who has for the time being so much material with which to work. The Abbot may not exploit his monks. He may not even regard them as so much manpower to dispose of for the good of the Church.
Moreover (though this applies in a measure to every religious superior), the Abbot is in a real sense the servant of his monks. He is to lead them to God, not in his way or at his pace, but in the way God wishes for each. He must, in Saint Benedict's own words, realize what a hard task is his, to wait upon the different characters of his monks.
Nothing in the Rule is more striking than Saint Benedict's insistence that sheep may be killed by over-driving, the vessel broken if scoured too fiercely. "Be not overzealous," he says to the Abbot; and he warns him that the standard he sets should be below that which the strongest of his monks will desire.
The impression gained from reading the Rule is that the Abbot was to be an influence actually, and not virtually, operating upon the lives of his monks throughout the ordinary day's routine.
But we need not think that a monastery has fallen from Benedict's ideal if the monks are not perpetually receiving commands and directions from the Abbot. The spirit is always the same. The principle of obedience still stands. The implicit will of the Abbot is expressed in the Rule and customs of the house.
The danger exists, if not in large affairs in small, that the Abbot, in his capacity of administrator, landlord and prelate, may forget that the welfare, spiritual and temporal, of the individual monk is within his responsibility, and that the care of him in the last resort, cannot be delegated to any subordinate official. It is the government of souls that the Abbot has undertaken. All else is subordinated to this. (This fact is repeated four times in the Rule.)
All who have written on the Rule in recent years have laid stress on the wide, in fact supreme, powers given by Saint Benedict to the Abbot. But it may be worth while to point out that Saint Benedict, in all matters that are not purely spiritual, points the way, not indeed towards a religious democracy, but towards a degree of cooperation between Abbot and monks that can have found few analogies in the decaying civic and political life of his time.
The third chapter of the Rule, which follows immediately after the chapter defining the office of Abbot, deals directly with the calling in of the monks to give counsel to the Abbot. This has to be done whenever anything of moment is to be decided. Yet it is clear from the words of the Rule that the Abbot is to come for help and for advice in order that he himself may then decide what is to be done. He is not merely or primarily asking his monks for permission to act in a certain way.
When lesser matters are in question the seniors only are to be consulted; but when it is a question of considerable importance, counsel must be taken of all. Furthermore, the monks themselves are to choose their Abbot -- a command that shows no small faith in human nature when we consider the period of history at which it was given.
In this matter of counsel, as in so much besides, Saint Benedict's statesmanlike wisdom and trust in human nature are apparent under the seeming simplicity of the Rule. Few, even among gifted and holy men, are capable of combining initiative and receptivity in the ideal proportions. Most legislators in things temporal and spiritual have spent time in devising checks and obligations to safeguard rulers from interference, and subjects from the consequences of human weakness. Saint Benedict prefers to legislate in broad lines which point to the ideal and leave it possible for the ideal to he realized, while he warns against the failings that may occur in practice.
The Rule knows of no confederation of monks beyond the individual abbey. The Rule itself, "the Holy Rule," not the legislator or his own community, was to be the only norm of monastic life. Here too, Benedictines throughout the centuries have made no essential change.
For the purpose of maintaining religious discipline, groups of monasteries have from time to time been formed into congregations with common statutes and an Abbot-President who has certain powers of visitation and definition. In some cases the bond between the houses composing them is strict; in other cases, very light. But in no case is there any legal connection between congregations, and there is no superior with jurisdiction over all the monks of the world.
Benedictines remain at the present day unique among the greater institutes of regulars in the Church on this point. There is no Benedictine "order" in the sense that the Dominicans and Jesuits are an order, with provinces, provincials and general. The individual abbeys are autonomous. All have traditions, and often works and religious practices, to a greater or less degree their own, not shared by other monasteries of the same nationality or in the same congregation. Yet perhaps no more impressive proof that modern Benedictine monasticism is a true development of the original can be found than the undoubted similarity of ideals and spirit that unites all Benedictines throughout the world.