I met Abigail Sines years ago through the East-West Center, where I’ve served as a Senior Journalism Fellow for various projects over the years. At one point, she was on staff at the Center to keep journalism fellows from around the world on track in a series of seminars and dialogues — a role she orchestrated with the arts of hospitality, compassion, wit and a general love of meeting people from diverse backgrounds.
In short, Abigail is the kind of person we all want to strive to be in this era of rapidly growing diversity. If you’re puzzled by that line, simply step back and read yesterday’s Conversation With Barbara Brown Taylor, author of “An Altar in the World.”
When Abigail left the East-West Center to pursue her own advanced studies, she didn’t head to Asia. She’s now in Belfast and her story for us today isn’t about what we can learn from Asian spirituality — although she knows a fair amount about that.
Rather, she calls this short memoir, “Care of Souls.” And she draws here from the wisdom of … Well, I’ll let Abigail tell her own story —
CARE OF SOULS
By Abigail Sines
No, not Chairman Mao’s little red book. The one I’m referring to hails from a different time and place all together, though it too has inspired a zealous following. The little red book I submit for your consideration is the Rule of Benedict.
Benedict lived circa 480–547 CE in Italy and after religious schooling sought to withdraw to a life of solitude. Had he been successful in that endeavor we may never have heard of him. Alas, solitude proved evasive. His reputation as a holy person attracted attention and disciples. Based on the Rule’s emphasis on life in community, it seems that Benedict must not have resented the intrusions too much. In his “little rule for beginners” he has left an extraordinary legacy of communal living: Thousands around the world have taken religious vows under the order of St. Benedict and live lives of prayer and service. Indeed, the Benedictines form one of the largest branches of Catholic religious life in the world.
I am not Catholic. I have taken no religious vows and I have never had much interest at all in contemplative spirituality. I’m just a graduate student. It would never have occurred to me to pick up the Rule of Benedict, except that it came up as required reading in one of my courses at the small, evangelical Bible college that I attend.
I stared at that particular title on our list, wondering: What’s that all about? What am I going to get out of that?
The Rule is, of course, full of all the ordinary details that you might expect to find in a document that regulates a religious community: the daily schedule, the pattern of worship and guidelines for discipline. Page after page of how many Psalms to sing on what day! (I got a little lost during that bit.) Discipline that involved prostrating yourself on the floor until given permission to rise. (That seemed a bit barbaric.)
But taking a step back from the details, surveying the whole, I was intrigued by the figure of the abbot, the community’s leader, and the attitude toward authority. Make no mistake, Benedict ran a tight ship and obedience was one of the core commitments of monks, who were to “carry out the superior’s order as promptly as if the command came from God himself” (Chapter 5, verse 4). On first reading I was tempted to view the abbot as something of a tyrant, imbued with absolute authority on account of his position. I thought: What a recipe for abuse!
Further reading and reflection gave me a more sympathetic view of the abbot as I considered the gravity of his responsibility and the charge given him. I saw in the abbot a wise caretaker, not a tyrant. I saw principles of leadership that could well find application outside the walls of a monastery, principles that seemed remarkably “modern.” I daresay there are department heads, office managers, company presidents, and bank CEOs out there who could do worse than spare a few minutes reflecting on the pattern of accountability-focused leadership sketched out in Benedict’s Rule.
The theme that comes through loud and clear through the Rule is that the abbot’s position of authority is about accountability and not a power trip. The abbot “has undertaken the care of souls for whom he must give an account” (2:34) and “his goal must be profit for the monks, not pre-eminence for himself” (64:8). Good leaders, in any kind of situation, view the care, development, and growth of their employees/subordinates/supporters as a primary function of their leadership. It is not a matter of securing a power base. Rather it is investing in a “power source” so to speak.
Ultimately, leadership should be “more by example than by words” (2:12).
The Rule reflects a profound sensibility in motivating and accommodating different kinds of people within the community. The abbot, in disciplining must “…vary with circumstances, threatening and coaxing by turns, stern as a taskmaster, devoted and tender as only a father can be” (2:23), as the situation or the person in need of discipline warrants. Leaders are flexible and perceptive; they have the discernment to act in ways appropriate to the situation. More than that, effective leaders know their followers and can relate to them as individuals. Consider that according to the Rule the abbot “must accommodate and adapt himself to each one’s character and intelligence” (2:32) and “so arrange everything that the strong have something to yearn for and the weak nothing to run from” (64:19). This is the kind of caring leadership that attracts followers and the kind of environment that incubates future healthy leaders and world-changers.
The goal was balance — not the creation of workaholics. It was counterproductive for anyone to be “overworked.” That would disrupt the calm and serenity of the community and would get in the way of showing hospitality to guests. Benedict writes regarding the organization of the kitchen service, “Let those who are not strong have help so that they may serve without distress, and let everyone receive help as the size of the community or local conditions warrant” (35:3–4) and notes that the brother entrusted with minding the stores should be “given helpers, that with their assistance he may calmly perform the duties of his office” (31:17).
In contemporary mindset we are all too quick to sever work from the rest of “life.” For Benedictines, work is a part of life and our spiritual journey. How different would workplaces be if bosses viewed their roles not just as efficiency monitors but as spiritual caretakers too?
All the references to “caring,” “accommodating” and “adapting” gave me pause to think about the matter of gender and leadership. Those words don’t sound like the typical language of men in leadership. Yet, a man governing religious communities of men wrote this text. There is no mistaking that abbot is described as a father, but he is a tender one. What I see in Benedict’s little Rule is a style, leadership focused on accountability, appropriate for both men and women.
I never expected to take much away from the Rule of Benedict, let alone such profound snippets of wisdom on leadership, which only reminds me that I probably miss out on a great deal of life because I’m walking along with the eyes of my soul tightly shut.
I owe thanks to the brothers of Holy Cross Monastery in Rostrevor, Northern Ireland. Their hospitality to me as a retreatant took the Rule from the pages of my little red book and gave it flesh and blood and breath.
Piqued your curiosity about this Benedict character? Read the Rule for yourself and see what he whispers to you across the expanse of 1500 years.
CARE TO READ MORE?
An earlier series on what we can learn from monastic voices:
Poet Judith Valente wrote a three-part series for ReadTheSpirit, called “Building A Monastery of the Heart.” Judith’s series also explores what we can learn from the spiritual insights of poetry.
The Rule of St. Benedict in English, Edited by Timothy Fry O.S.B., Liturgical Press (June 1982)
RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict, Edited by: Timothy Fry O.S.B., Liturgical Press (1981): For the truly devout, this is the definitive edition, in Latin and English with notes!
Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict, by Esther de Waal, Liturgical Press (April 2001)
Living With Contradiction: An Introduction to Benedictine Spirituality, by Esther de Waal, Morehouse Publishing (April 1998)
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