In my first journal entry I talked about what I see as the problems with churches today around the issues of commitment, accountability, and authority. In my second one I compared the Baptist church with the Benedictine monasteries and found some surprising similarities. Yesterday I talked about how I deal with commitment, accountability and authority in my life in the church. Today I’d like to talk about what I’ve learned about commitment, accountability, and authority from my experience here.
The monastic life is a lifelong commitment. As I mentioned previously, the commitment is made over at least a four year period, so it is not entered into lightly by the prospective monk or the community. When the novice monk takes his final solemn vows, he signs papers making his commitment. Just before that he signs his will. Part of the decline in the number of monks in the U.S. is the result of the decline in our ability to make lifelong commitments. About the only lifelong commitments people are willing to make anymore are to their sports teams.
Perhaps the secret is the focus of the commitment. My theory is that commitments work best when they are made to something that is bigger than the humans involved. It may be that we call certain social arrangements “institutions” to remind us that they are bigger than us. We talk about the institution of marriage and maybe we should remember that a marriage is bigger than the two people involved. I think the monks commit to more than just the people involved in the monastery. They commit to a life with God, lived in community, mediated by the Rule of Benedict. Obviously God is bigger than any of them, but I think the fact that the rule has been around so long and has worked successfully for fifteen hundred years gives the monks something that has passed beyond human hands to commit to. I wonder how often in our churches we commit only to a pastor or a set of friends that are all human and limited. Maybe the only way to live out a commitment to a group of people is to actually be committed to something bigger than them and bigger than our petty concerns.
I saw an interesting act of accountability at lunch today. The one junior monk, Brother Boniface, had to leave campus for some reason. Before he left, he came and asked Father Charles for a blessing. It was a brief action, but loaded with meaning. First, it was a way for Brother Boniface to communicate that he was leaving, so that at least one other monk knew about it. Second, he requested a blessing, not permission. By granting the blessing, Father Charles was not so much exercising authority as he was showing that the community wanted the best for Brother Boniface. Now I’m sure that this is just a routine ceremonial moment, and I don’t know if only junior monks are required to do this, but still there was lots of neat stuff in just a little action. Wouldn’t it be interesting to frame accountability as a way to communicate about where we are and as a way to share a blessing. We worry about judgment, which is often just a reflection of our own internal judgment, when we think about being accountable, but perhaps it is actually a grace.
Finally there is authority within the monastic community. There is a clear chain of command, with the Abbot at the top of the hierarchy. Seniority is based on how long the monk has been in the community, not based on age, education, or ordination. Nevertheless, there is marked difference in the use of authority here, perhaps best summed up by another conversation from lunch today. One monk was discussing the difference between his mother telling him what to do as a child and the monks telling him what to do and he said, “the difference is that here they listen.”
It’s a powerful word, “listen,” and is the first word in the rule of Benedict. There comes a point when the abbot must make a decision that binds the community, but there is always a great deal of listening that goes on first. The rule requires that decisions be discussed and that even the youngest brother’s opinions should be considered, as “the Lord often reveals what is better to the younger.” The rule of Benedict emphasizes humility and obedience, not just within the hierarchy, but in all directions. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find a better leader anywhere than the ideal abbot described in the second rule.
Our society glorifies power and authority and people may spend their entire lives seeking to attain it. But Benedictine spirituality teaches that the cardinal value is humility. It is power wielded by the humble that is true authority and that provides leadership worth following. A few years ago I read an article in Harvard Business Review about companies that had the best growth over a sustained period of time. What the article said is that companies led by individuals with two qualities were most successful: they needed a strong sense of what they wanted to accomplish and they needed to be humble and willing to learn from others. Benedict knew that fifteen hundred years ago.
I am convinced that if Benedict was teaching at a university today, I’m sure he would not be teaching theology, but more likely teaching in the department of psychology; he was a human relations genius. When you look at how the rule of Benedict sets up a community where commitment, accountability, and authority are so well balanced, one can only stand in awe at the divine inspiration that must have been the source of such deep insight into the human character.