Faith in the Benedictine Abbot

by a Benedictine Monk

“An abbot who is worthy to rule a monastery should always remember what he is called and realize in his actions the name of a superior. For he is believed to be the representative of Christ in the monastery.” - Rule of St. Benedict ch. II

Seeing Christ in the Abbot

St. Benedict, when describing the abbot in a monastery, lifts his monks to a supernatural level. The superior is “believed to be the representative of Christ.” Accepting this simple phrase, the monk is obliged to make an act of faith every day for the rest of his religious life. His superior must be seen as Christ commanding him in all of his activities. The monk is told to see Christ and he sees a man that makes mistakes, has human defects, and goes to confession like all the others in the community. He sees a man, but believes that Christ is in this superior.

It is this mixture of the human and the divine that makes faith sometimes very difficult and at the same time meritorious. When we physically see something, we know it is true, and therefore faith is not necessary. The virtue of faith is to believe something to be true that we do not see. The Most Holy Trinity can only be known on earth by faith. To try and see “the hidden God” in the soul of our superior is above the capacity our human nature and that is why we need the “eyeglasses” of faith.

Faith is that theological virtue infused into our soul on the day of our baptism. Depending on the use we make of this gift, it remains sterile or it bears fruit. If we want our soul to bear fruit we must use the “talents” that God has confided to us by making acts of faith. We make an act of faith in the presence of Our Lord at the moment of consecration at mass. We see the appearance of bread and wine and we believe, through the light of faith, that it is the body and blood of Our Lord. Our Lord’s desire to be with us is so strong that He has accepted to be humiliated in many ways that we cannot understand. Dwelling in the tabernacle, the Host is often profaned by sacrilege, insulted by the wicked, despised by the indifferent, and simply ignored by the vast majority of mankind, and yet He still chooses to dwell with us. In order to be with those that love Him, he willfully undergoes all of this reproach. This great mystery is above our comprehension and tests our faith

The Trial of St. John

St. John the Apostle must have been tried in his faith in a similar way. He saw the miracles and heard the beautiful doctrine preached by Our Lord. He believed that Jesus was the divine Messiah and yet at the foot of the cross he saw a man in agony, nailed to the wood. He saw Our Lord suffer and die. “He is God, but He is dead; He is dead, but He is God.” He could not understand how this could be and his faith was shaken to its very foundation by this terrible storm. A few days later, before an empty tomb, he was once again able to fully believe. “He was dead, He is God and He now lives. I do not understand, but I do believe.” In like manner the monk can be confronted with a similar dilemma. “My superior is a man like all others, but at the same time he takes the place of Christ in my life. He is not perfect, he does make mistakes, but he manifests God’s will for my soul. I do not understand, but I believe.”

What about the soul of the superior? He knows that he has been invested with the authority that comes from God, but he can see himself making many mistakes and even committing sins. He is not perfect and yet he is called to govern others, representing Christ in their lives. He too is obliged to make an act of faith in the presence of God concerning his authority. Perhaps his act of faith is even more demanding for him than for his monks because he knows his frailty better than they do.

Respecting Authority

Everyone in this life is in a position of either commanding or obeying: parents and children, employers and employees, abbots and monks, all the way to the pope and the faithful of the Catholic Church. Each one in a position of authority has received this grace from on high and yet he remains a poor sinner. He is confided with a divine mission and yet he remains human. In the same way that the Blessed Sacrament can be profaned, outraged, and despised, the presence of God in the superior can be mocked as well, either by the inferior or by the superior himself. God nevertheless wishes to dwell with us in the person of our superiors. Parents just as easily as popes can neglect their duties, but both remain invested with the authority that God has bestowed upon them. Parents as well as popes need our most instant prayers in order that they live their faith profoundly and govern us as Christ, “[f]or he is believed to be the representative of Christ in the monastery.”