Starting on October 2nd, I’ll be doing a Jesuit retreat on the Rule of Augustine (which I’ve written about here: “Up to our necks in Augustine”).
Each day, I’ll read 1 of the 8 chapters of the Rule of Augustine.
Today’s reading is from Chapter VII on “Governance and Obedience” from the Rule of Augustine[1. Full text here], one of the “mother rules” of western monasticism. [2. From “A History of Monastic Spirituality” by Luc Brésard of the abbey of Citeaux.] With this set of rules, Augustine aimed to “to found a community of love oriented towards contemplation.” [3. More from “A History of Monastic Spirituality”]
As usual, read as much of the text as you want, slowly and meditatively, observing your own reactions with a broad, open awareness. I offer some commentary and resources in the footnotes for when you want to come back for more context or a deeper understanding.
Augustine’s Rule, Chapter VII
1. The superior should be obeyed as a father with the respect due him so as not to offend God in his person, and, even more so, the priest who bears responsibility for you all.
Commentary: Here Augustine, who struggled with governance and obedience in the creation of his first monastic communities in North Africa in the late fourth century, introduces the character of the fatherly superior. Obedience is not primary to Augustine monastic life, but a secondary aspect that arises whenever people live together. At the same time Augustine makes clear the distinction between the superior and the priest or spiritual teacher. ‘His object in writing it was merely to quiet troubles incident to the nomination of a new superior, and meanwhile he took occasion to expatiate upon some of the virtues and practices essential to the religious life.’ Link. ‘The basis of monastic life is not obedience, as Pachomius or Basil maintain, but love as a form of life in communion with brothers. Thus obedience becomes one of the realities of the common life, a mutual support. What he does say is to the point: “Obey the prior as a father”. It is short, but compact. The community must have a head, a father, and one must obey him as one does in a family. Obedience is something important, but secondary; the common life is the essential mark of Augustine’s monasticism.’ Link.
2. But it shall pertain chiefly to the superior to see that these precepts are all observed and, if any point has been neglected, to take care that the transgression is not carelessly overlooked but is punished and corrected. In doing so, he must refer whatever exceeds the limit and power of his office, to the priest who enjoys greater authority among you.
Commentary: The limit of the superior’s authority is made clear. Is this an example of separating municipal authority from spiritual authority? Vinay Gupta introduces this idea in a video interview with Alan Chapman
3. The superior, for his part, must not think himself fortunate in his exercise of authority but in his role as one serving you in love. In your eyes he shall hold the first place among you by the dignity of his office, but in fear before God he shall be as the least among you. He must show himself as an example of good works toward all. Let him admonish the unruly, cheer the fainthearted, support the weak, and be patient toward all (1 Thes 5:14). Let him uphold discipline while instilling fear. And though both are necessary, he should strive to be loved by you rather than feared, ever mindful that he must give an account of you to God.
Commentary: In politics, the public expects elected officials to model good behavior and offer up their personal lives for public scrutiny. The community’s superior can be an example to all. Yet in a post-modern, secular community that holds égalité to be an end in itself, what would the equivalent of this loving fatherly governing figure be? Could the superior be an elected person, or board of advisers? Perhaps the spirit of the community’s agreements for living together could be that of a loving father?
4. It is by being more obedient, therefore, that you show mercy not only toward yourselves but also toward the superior whose higher rank among you exposes him all the more to greater peril.
Commentary: Just as we respect the exposure or personal risk that a respected elected official takes, we can regard a community’s superior with compassion and understanding.