‘Lord’, asks Peter, ‘do you mean this parable for us, or for everyone?’ And the Lord asks in return, ‘Who then is the faithful and wise steward…?’ (Lk 12:41-42).
Once about 33 years ago two young monks were walking along a Highland track, not far from Loch Ness. One of them was he who is the centre of today’s liturgy, the one to be blessed, the other was today’s celebrant. And they were talking about the future. And they concluded that neither of them was cut out for or would ever be considered for serious responsibility in the monastery. Neither of them, putting it bluntly, would ever be abbot.
Nonetheless, here we are come to this day and this liturgy.
‘Lord, do you mean this parable for us or for everyone?’ – Peter as usual baffled.‘Who then is the faithful and wise steward..?’ – the Lord as usual refusing straight answers.
Fr. Anselm has in fact been bearing serious responsibility in and for monasteries for a long time. He has been a local superior at St Mary’s, Petersham, for some 20 years. He has been Visitor of the English Province of the Subiaco Congregation for 8 years, with oversight of more than a dozen communities on three continents, and was recently chosen again for this position. And now he has been elected as Abbot of his monastery of Pluscarden by the brethren. He has been confirmed in office by the Abbot President of our Congregation. And today, when the Benedictine liturgy remembers Bl. Abbot Columba Marmion, he is blessed as successor to the medieval Priors of Pluscarden and as third Abbot of the community which first reoccupied these buildings in 1948.
‘Who, then, is the faithful and wise steward whom his master will set over his household?’
An abbot, when he is blessed, does not receive the sacrament of ordination. He is, in any case, already a priest. But the blessing of an abbot (or abbess) is what the Church calls a sacramental. Since his election in August Fr. Anselm has been abbot-elect, now he fully becomes abbot – father, shepherd, teacher – of this community. Henceforth, ‘he is believed to be the representative of Christ in the monastery’, as St. Benedict says (RB 2:2). The powerful love of the Church’s blessing overshadows him, his own heart opens to receive it, and he is graced for his mission. It is the grace of pastoral charity proper to an abbot which he receives, the gift of spiritual fatherhood, the grace of a new likeness to Christ. And so the master sets him over the monastic household. ‘Lord, do you mean this parable for us, or for everyone?’ For everyone, surely. All of us, every one of us, surely, rejoices. Every one of us shares in the Church’s ‘sincere and humble love’ (72:10) for our new abbot. And we will pray with the saints for the coming of the Holy Spirit on his chosen one.
‘Taking the texts of the biblical readings as the starting-point’, says the Ceremonial, ‘the bishop briefly addresses the people, the monks and the abbot-elect on the office and duties of an abbot.’
So, it’s time for the brief address
‘Who, then, is the faithful and wise steward..?’ Steward, oikonómos in Greek, dispensator in Latin. This is the image the liturgy offers of the abbot. And what is this steward, this dispenser, meant to do? ‘Give them their allowance of food at the proper time’. So the role of an abbot is to feed. He’s at the service of stomachs. This might set our imaginations alight. Suddenly we see the abbot surrounded by the clamour of the hungry. ‘The young lions roar for their prey,’ says a Psalm, ‘and ask their food from God’ (Ps 103:21). The baby birds open their beaks and croak, ‘young ravens that call upon him’ (Ps 146:9). ‘All of these look to you to give them their food in due season’ (Ps 103: 27). The poor stretch out their empty hands. Great caverns, deep black holes, bottomless pits open up around him. What is this hole, this stomach the abbot is appointed to fill? It’s longing. It’s desire. In the Prologue of St Benedict’s Rule, the Lord puts a question to the would-be monk: ‘Who is the man who wants life, and yearns to see good days?’ A monk is a man of desire. Desires, of course, can be for many things: for piece and quiet, for a whole new universe, and so on. But by vowing chastity, poverty, obedience, the monk disowns the desire for sex and wealth and doing his own thing, the ‘lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life’ (1 Jn 2:16), those desires that so easily take control of our lives. He doesn’t disown them because he despises them, but because he wants more. He wants what lies behind and beyond them, what they evoke. ‘Who is the man who wants life and yearns to see good days?’ This man wants what all of us most deeply want: ‘true and everlasting life’. He wants ultimate pleasure, possession and power. He wants to be loved and possessed and overpowered by the Lord and his Spirit. He wants to desire what the Our Father teaches us to desire: the hallowing of the name, the coming of the kingdom, the doing of the will, the bread of life, forgiveness, deliverance from evil. He wants the deepest possible communion with God’s creation, with his fellow human beings and with the Lord. He’s a loneliness in search of fellowship. He’s a young lion roaring for his prey, a young raven crying out. He wants to live at the level of his deepest desires. That’s why he sings the Psalms of David, because they’re replete with these human desires and cries. It’s why he prays, ‘The eyes of all creatures look to you and you give them their food in due time’ (Ps 144:13). He wants to be those eyes. ‘You open wide your hand, grant the desires of all who live’ (Ps 144:15-16). He wants to see that hand. He wants to be filled with the knowledge of God as the waters swell the sea. And so he’s like a great empty stomach. He carries the hungers of us all. Such is the call of the monk.
‘Lord, do you mean this parable – this parable of monastic life – for us, or for everyone?’ And the Lord looks round and asks in turn, ‘Who, then, is the faithful and wise steward, the dispenser, who will give them their food in due season?’
In his classic, Christ the Ideal of the Monk, Bl. Columba Marmion treats in ch. 1 of the human search for God, in ch. 2 of the following of Christ, and then in ch. 3 of the abbot, ‘Christ’s representative’. The sequence suggests the same thought. The abbot is the servant of his brethren’s seeking and following and longing. There’s paradox upon paradox here. All ‘the measure of food’ the abbot must give: his own love of Christ, his presence to his brethren, his affection and concern for them, his adapting to their many temperaments, his corrections, his blessing, his patience and silence, his learning in the divine law and his drawing forth of things new and old, the teaching he gives and asks others to give, the bread of God’s word – all of this is food of a special kind. It is God’s food. In the end, it’s simply Christ. And the more we know Christ, the more we feel the need to know him, the more we desire him. The more we’re filled, the emptier in a sense we become. This food widens the stomach. It enlarges the heart. It makes the cry of the lion and the raven ever louder, the psalmody in the heart ever more resonant. We become hungrier and hungrier, poorer and poorer, ravenous for holiness, hungry for the bread which is Christ. And the monastery becomes more and more a place where all of us recognise and relearn what it is, who it is, we most desire. ‘It is your face, O Lord, that I seek. Hide not your face’ (Ps 26:8-9). Open wide your hand! Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy. The “success” of an abbot’s feeding can be gauged by the depth of his brethren’s longing for true and everlasting life, by the truth of their cry for the mercy of God.
At the end of his chapter 3, Blessed Marmion pictures the abbot presiding at Conventual Mass surrounded by his brethren. It’s the apogee, he proposes, of his ministry. In a moment, Fr. Anselm will be blessed, and his first act as blessed abbot will be to concelebrate the Eucharist. And perhaps in an abbot’s life there’s no more eloquent and touching moment than when he gives holy Communion. Each of the brethren comes before him, each young or old lion or raven in turn. He lifts the host before him, says Corpus Christi, and places in the open mouth or outstretched hand the bread of life, the food of love. ‘Who, then, is the faithful and wise steward…who will give them their portion of food at the proper time?’May each of the brethren welcome the bread their new abbot brings as they welcome the Body of Christ. May all of us – friends, oblates, the local church, our fellow monastic communities – welcome the bread this abbot, this steward will bring. This ‘parable’ is for everyone.
Strange mission, then, that of the abbot: it’s being indispensable and irrelevant all at once, it brings a new solitude and a deeper communion, a death and a resurrection, an emptiness and fullness, a new entry into the Paschal mystery. But, dear Fr Anselm, rest assured: you have been chosen by your brethren, recognised by your Congregation and blessed by the Church. Today you are in Marmion’s words, ‘missus, that is, established by the Church over a portion of Christ’s flock.’ The Lord is with you. And as you feed, you will be fed, and your own charity, your own desire be enlarged.
+Hugh Gilbert, O. S. B., Bishop of Aberdeen
Pluscarden Abbey, 3 October 2011