When Monks Go Bad: “Second Abbots” and the Rule of St Benedict

This isn’t about some unfortunate battle at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It is rather about the most dangerous person in any Benedictine Monastery. Who can this be? The young novice? The cellarer? The abbot? As Andrew Marr reminds us in a conference paper delivered at the 2006 Colloquium on Religion and Violence, if we turn to Chapter 65 of the Rule of St Benedict, we see Benedict’s harshest language deployed against the prior, the second-in-command at the monastery. As Esther de Waal has noticed about this chapter, “It is fairly bristling with tension.” It also has much to teach us about living in community.

The danger presented by the prior is that he might consider himself a “second Abbot,” and then, by usurping power, “foster scandals and cause dissensions in the community.” Benedict has already spoken of scandalorum when instructing the abbot to say the Lord’s Prayer at the end of the Morning and Evening Office, “on account of the thorns of quarreling [scandalorum] which are apt to spring up” (RB 13). These scandals are evidently akin to very bitter quarrels and dissension. They also refer us back to the biblical skandalon, or “stumbling block.” Indeed, if the Abbot and Prior “are at variance,” this will prove to be a “stumbling block” so that their “souls cannot but be endangered by this dissension; and those who are under them, currying favor with one side or the other, go to ruin.” What is going on to cause this destructive dissension is that mimetic rivalry has been introduced into the monastery.

What does this mean? We can look at the sixteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. At Caesarea Phillippi, Jesus “began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised” (Mt 16:21). Peter then infamously rebukes him, and Jesus replies, “Get behind me, Satan, you are a skandalon to me” (Mt 16:23). René Girard interprets this frightful encounter:

The first time Jesus predicts his violent death (Matthew 16:21-23), his resignation appalls Peter, who tries to instill some worldly ambition in his master: Instead of imitating Jesus, Peter wants Jesus to imitate him. If two friends imitate each other’s desire, they both desire the same object. And if they cannot share this object, they will compete for it, each becoming simultaneously a model and an obstacle to the other. The competing desires intensify as model and obstacle reinforce each other, and an escalation of mimetic rivalry follows; admiration gives way to indignation, jealousy, envy, hatred, and, at last, violence and vengeance.

And, so, mimetic rivalry brings, as Benedict predicts, “envy, quarrels, detraction, rivalry, dissensions and disorders” into the monastery. Mimetic rivalry between the abbot and the prior, second-in-command, would be impossible to contain, for those under them must find “favor with one side or the other” and become entangled in the violence, finally going to “ruin.” Benedict also predicts that the mimetic rivalry is more likely to result “in those places where the Prior is constituted by the same Bishop or the same Abbots who constitute the Abbot himself.” From such a place, the prior and abbot can begin to desire the same object and become rivals. Both the Bible (Cain and Abel, for instance) and human legends (think Romulus and Remus) are full of stories of the conflict between brothers, who, after all, do proceed from the same source.

Benedict is so cautious about the perilous position of the prior that he even wishes that such a person would not even exist. He suggests that, “if possible,” “all the affairs of the monastery … be administered by deans according to the Abbot’s directions.” Deans, Benedict had earlier instructed, should be men of “good repute and holy life,” so that “the Abbot may with confidence share his burdens among them” (RB 21). But the very best things about deans, Benedict claims, is that “with the duties being shared by several, no one person will become proud.” We see here, as Marr says, “Benedict makes it clear that his preference for deans is driven by his conviction that a person’s moral disposition is likely to be affected by that person’s position in the monastery.”

But only a large monastery could have multiple deans. And Benedict is clear that authority should ultimately be invested in one person, the abbot. If the abbot is away on business, there really does need to be one deputy to take charge. So we might be stuck with the prior. Furthermore, there happen to be other sources for rivalry in the monastery. Even though the prior may need to be admonished four times, the cellarer might himself become so prideful that he needs to be corrected three times (RB 21). Another source of rivalry is the priesthood. A priest can place himself above the other monks and end up as a competitor to the abbot. Benedict, not a priest himself, reminds the monastic priest to “beware of self-exaltation or pride” and “not presume to do anything except what is commanded by the Abbot, knowing that he is so much the more subject to the discipline of the Rule” (RB 62). Benedict even says that “permission shall not be granted too readily” to a priest who want to be received into a monastery, chillingly quoting the words of Jesus to his betrayer, “Friend, why have you come?” (Mt 26:50) (RB 60).

The problem is not just the prior. But, as Gil Bailie writes (and as might already have been guessed), “mimetic desire is always kindled in those who social situations most closely approximate that of the one whom they envy.” It is not coincidence that Jezebel writes “the elders and the nobles who lived with Naboth in his city” to get Naboth killed (1 Kgs 21:8). Or that Saul and David become bitter rivals because their social situations made the crown graspable only to both. As it was for Abner and Joab and another high position. A novice can cause disruption, but, unlike the prior, cannot imagine himself to be a “second abbot.” And even if the prior himself is not tainted with pride, he can be drawn into conspiracies. So the prior is more likely to become a problem. And, as we have seen, when he does become a problem, it is likely to be very nasty.

This discussion of mimetic rivalry, especially Bailie’s quote, might make it clear why the abbot has such an exalted role in a Benedict monastery. Abbots aren’t automatically perfect – there have been many cases of abusive abbots. The abbot himself, we see, can fall victim to the desire to imitate others to obtain what they possess. At the end of the very harsh chapter on the prior, Benedict writes that the Abbot, for his part, “should bear in mind that he will have to render an account to God for all his judgments, lest the flame of envy or jealousy be kindled in his soul” (my emphasis). The abbot, Marr says, has such a high position so that there can be no imaginable competition between himself and others: “Nobody competes with the abbot and the abbot does not need to establish his power by competing with his monastics and beating them into submission.” This means that the abbot, freed from jealousy, can actually take care of the weak and vulnerable.

But even the abbot does not have the highest place in the monastery. In fact, the abbot must not be at the center of the community. An abbot “holds the place of Christ in the community” (RB 2). The monastery is not held together simply by the esteem of monks for the abbot’s personal qualities, however great they might be; the other monks do not see him as a rival because they do not wish to compete with the Christ whom he represents. The monastery is also not held together by the abbot’s own genius or personal immunity to rivalry; he must trust that “Christ has prepared a place for the abbot and the abbot need only take that place.” That place, not of his making, always has Satan behind it.

Even if we have never set foot in a Benedictine monastery, where, in our own communities, do we find something like this “place of Christ,” a point of stability amidst “envy, quarrels, detraction, rivalry, dissensions and disorders”?

Remember, too, to pray for Todd and his retreat, since he is in a Benedictine monastery. I’m pretty sure that he won’t begin to consider himself a “second Abbot.”

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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