Sunday, 13 July 2008

St Benedict learns some hard lessons in leadership....St Benedict Part III

St Benedict leads his first community

St Gregory tells us that having conquered the temptations of pleasure, St Benedict was now ready to teach others (50 is a good age for an leader he argues!), however, St Benedict's first cenobitic venture was frankly a disaster! A group of monks from a nearby monastery entreat him to become their abbot:

"Not far from the place where he remained there was a monastery, the Abbot whereof was dead: whereupon the whole Convent came unto the venerable man Benedict, entreating him very earnestly that he would vouchsafe to take upon him the charge and government of their Abbey: long time he denied them, saying that their manners were divers from his, and therefore that they should never agree together: yet at length, overcome with their entreaty, he gave his consent.

Having now taken upon him the charge of the Abbey, he took order that regular life should be observed, so that none of them could, as before they used, through unlawful acts decline from the path of holy conversation, either on the one side or on the other."

Change is hard

The honeymoon period, however, did not last long:

"Which the monks perceiving, they fell into a great rage, accusing themselves that ever they desired him to be their Abbot, seeing their crooked conditions could not endure his virtuous kind of government. And therefore when they saw that under him they could not live in unlawful sort, and were loath to leave their former conversation, and found it hard to be enforced with old minds to meditate and think upon new things: and because the life of virtuous men is always grievous to those that be of wicked conditions."

One of the few really excellent managements texts on leadership, called Leadership on the Line by Heifetz and Linksy, warns that true leadership almost invariably invokes assassination attempts, either literal (and they do point to the obvious example of Our Lord) or metaphorical (ie public attacks, smear jobs, etc), as entrenched interests are stirred up (unfortunately they find no guaranteed solutions, but advise providing the enemy with as little ammunition as possible, taking care over the pace of change, and doing your best to build coalitions of supporters along the way).

In St Benedict's case, the assassination attempt was quite literal:

"Some of them began to devise, how they might rid him out of the way: and therefore, taking counsel together, they agreed to poison his wine. Which being done, and the glass wherein that wine was, according to the custom, offered to the Abbot to bless, he, putting forth his hand, made the sign of the cross, and straightway the glass, that was holden far off, brake in pieces, as though the sign of the cross had been a stone thrown against it: upon which accident the man of God by and by perceived that the glass had in it the drink of death, which could not endure the sign of life."

When the going gets tough....

So what do you do in this situation - stay and fight, or walk out the door?

While St Benedict's monks' reaction were a tad extreme, and their behaviour clear at the extreme end of the scale of corruption, rebellions in monastic communities and disputes over leadership, just as in any other institution, are surprisingly common!

St Bernard was apparently initially too tough, and had to be told to loosen up; Dom Gueranger famously left his fledgling community of Solesmes for a few days for a business trip to Paris, only to discover that he had been deposed in absentia; and Dom David Knowles spent most of his life as an Oxford Don after a movement to return Downside to a more strictly contemplative orientation was voted down in the 1920s. More recently, Le Barroux's Brazilian foundation dramatically rejected Abbot Gerard Calvet's decision to reconcile with Rome (even calling the police to remove him when he visited to explain his decision), and stayed aligned with the SSPX after 1988.

Reasons for cutting your losses

In any case, St Benedict chose to walk:

"And therefore rising up, with a mild countenance and quiet mind, he called the monks together, and spake thus unto them: "Almighty God have mercy upon you, and forgive you: why have you used me in this manner? Did not I tell you before hand, that our manner of living could never agree together? Go your ways, and seek ye out some other father suitable to your own conditions, for I intend not now to stay any longer amongst you." When he had thus discharged himself, he returned back to the wilderness which so much he loved, and dwelt alone with himself, in the sight of his Creator, who beholdeth the hearts of all men. "

St Gregory then spends quite a bit of time justifying the decision, providing several rationales for it:

"PETER. I understand not very well what you mean, when you say that he dwelt with himself.

GREGORY. If the holy man had longer, contrary to his own mind, continued his government over those monks, who had all conspired against him, and were far unlike to him in life and conversation: perhaps he should have diminished his own devotion, and somewhat withdrawn the eyes of his soul from the light of contemplation; and being wearied daily with correcting of their faults, he should have had the less care of himself, and so haply it might have fallen out, that he should both have lost himself, and yet not found them.

For so often as by infectious motion we are carried too far from ourselves, we remain the same men that we were before, and yet be not with ourselves as we were before: because we are wandering about other men's affairs, little considering and looking into the state of our own soul. ...

In mine opinion, Peter, evil men may with good conscience be tolerated in that community, where there be some good that may be holpen, and reap commodity. But where there be none good at all, that receive spiritual profit, often times all labour is lost, that is bestowed in bringing of such to good order, especially if other occasions be offered of doing God presently better service elsewhere. For whose good, then, should the holy man have expected, seeing them all to persecute him with one consent? and (that which is not to be passed over with silence) those that be perfect carry always this mind, that when they perceive their labour to be fruitless in one place, to remove straight to another, where more good may be done."

Knowing when to cut your losses is important!

The next part of this series can be found here.

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