April 22, August 22, December 22

Too often in the past, the appointment of a prior has been the source of serious contention in monasteries. Some priors, puffed up by the evil spirit of pride and thinking of themselves as second abbots, usurp tyrannical power and foster contention and discord in their communities. This occurs especially in monasteries where the same bishop and the same abbots appoint both abbot and prior. It is easy to see what an absurd arrangement this is, because from the very first moment of their appointment as prior they are given grounds for pride, as their thoughts suggest to them that they are exempt from their abbot’s authority. “After all, you were made prior by the same people who made the abbot.”

This is an open invitation to envy, quarrels, slander, rivalry, factions and disorders of every kind, with the result that, while abbot and prior pursue conflicting policies, their own souls are inevitably endangered by this discord; and at the same time the monks under them take sides and so go to their ruin. The responsibility of this evil and dangerous situation rest on the heads of those who initiated such a state of confusion.    

The prideful make themselves a stranger to divinity, not because of any decision by God to reject them, but simply because pride is a manifestation of the ego not consistent with the divine life. Divinity is eternal and other-focused, while ego is temporal, and pride is all about an egocentric focus on a narrow agenda.  

What Divinity does do is love the temporal of us from deep within our eternal being in God. As we experience this in the context of our meditation, our relationships, and the events of life, a wounded ego is healed and humbled. As we grow in this humble life, grace can then move and have its being more and more in the whole of us.

Often, the prideful are caught in a cycle of attempting to generate by force their own affirmation of being. The humble simply experience this affirmation as divine gift.

Benedict has observed a particular structure of communal life that can encourage the tyrant in the proud. He has seen monastic communities that have a community leader decided for them by people who are outside the community. When the representative of that leader in the community (the prior) is decided by these same ‘outside’ people, then that representative may have some difficulty in understanding and keeping to their role; they think of themselves as a ‘second abbot’. As they work in their new role, their humble lack is exposed.

This can happen to the best of us. As we take on new ways of doing things, ways that we are not yet familiar with, ambiguities and inner tensions can be exposed in us – mostly (it seems) through unreal expectations of ourselves and an attachment to what others think of us. All of this can expose to us and others where we are in the humble life.

And it can happen in the ordinary of life: someone points out our absent-mindedness when it comes to washing up; the way we coast at work; our lack of empathy in relationship. All these things and more can ‘offend’ our pride and expose the way we hide it from ourselves.

This first part of chapter 65 mentions thinking and the effect that prideful thinking can have on the ways we are with others. The Desert Fathers and Mothers ask us to grow in the observation of our thoughts. Our thoughts are often the manifestation of deeper motivations (or passions) that shape what we do and the way in which we do them. Observing thoughts can lead to an emerging awareness of these motivations. As we become aware of them, we can then name them. This naming helps grace to heal the deep of us, integrating consciousness with our deeper being in Being. This is part of our growth in love.

One day there was a festival at the Cells, and the brethren were eating in church. Now there was there a brother who said to the servant, ‘I do not eat anything cooked, but only with salt.’ He who was serving said in a loud voice to another brother before everyone, ‘Brother so-and-so eats nothing cooked, bring him some salt.’ Then one of the old men got up and said to him, ‘It would have been better for you to eat meat in your cell than to hear this said about you in front of everyone.’[1]   

This Desert Father was well experienced in the subtle workings of pride. The question here is what were the motivations that influenced both brother and servant as they spoke? In any event, what was said may have allowed pride to manifest during a communal event.   

Ideally observation of thoughts comes before we allow thoughts and motivations to affect what we say and what we do. The proud tyrant, however, is caught up in reacting with their thoughts and motivations to people and situations. We all do this. We say things without thinking, or at least without being aware of our thinking. This happens as our friends, our children, our partners ‘push our buttons’ – the inner tyrant can rise and react.

Meditation, in effect, depowers the tyrant as we discover that we are not our thoughts. The tyrant needs us to believe that we are our thoughts, to be identified with them. In this reactive state there is no space for a growing awareness of what motivates us, and the tyrant can then go about their business. As communities of people meditate together, the inner tyrant can find itself more and more exposed to the graceful truth that exists when people are committed to the loving growth of each other.

For this purpose we toil and struggle, for our hope is in the living God who is the Saviour of the whole human race, but particularly of all believers. Proclaim and teach this. Do not neglect the spiritual gift within you, which was given to you through prophecy with the laying on of hands by the elders. These things should be your care and your occupation, so that your progress may be clear to all. (1 Timothy 4:10-11, 14-15, RNJB)

[1] A story from the Desert Mothers and Fathers