To be worthy of the task of governing a monastery, the prioress or abbot must always remember what the title signifies and act accordingly. They are believed to hold the place of Christ in the monastery. Therefore, a prioress or abbot must never teach or decree or command anything that would deviate from God’s instructions. On the contrary, everything they teach and command should, like the leaven of divine justice, permeate the minds of the community.
What does it means to hold the place of Christ? It is not a place from which the leader boasts, from which the leader draws attention to themselves. The contemplative stance is all about attention moving into silence, so the contemplative leader is one who has their consciousness soaked in this silence. Silence, alive and loving, is the home of divine justice.
A contemplative leader knows in their bones that life begins and ends with the ongoing decision of abandonment to grace. A meditation practice is this decision’s centre.
The more we practice meditation the more we come to know in our own thoughtless experience that God’s justice is mercy; that God’s life is a love we are made for, not one that we make.
The abandonment to the gift of God’s life with us is the task of all of us. This is what inner conversion is: the changing of our minds into Christ by grace. Christians can become, each uniquely, Christians – ‘little Christs’. The leader is walking this road of conversion, one step ahead and one step behind, calling all the community to walk with them.
A leader in grace is patient and is growing in patience. Their leadership has at its heart the space required for the conversion of all community members. Their touch is light, their presence significant, and their firmness is full of real compassion: one that cannot repress mercy.
This leader is hands on and hands off at the same time. They allow room for others to grow in responsibility – to themselves, the community, and all humanity. An anxious and rigid leader cannot do this; they end up filling the space with their own control. A community has a life of its own that is created by all its members. A contemplative leader does not attempt change via manipulation and exploitation.
Community is about waking up to the possibilities that follow from being less reactive and more present to relationship and example. Like the community leader, the community follows in the way of Christ: tend to your own example and accept the challenge of relationship. Jesus was led by relationships, and by his Father in relationships. This is our challenge.
Relationship means being open to another point of view. It follows that others will do things differently and not to our timetable. However, community and humanity cannot grow if there is no opportunity for unique expression. With this opportunity comes growth in a respect for the whole life of others – even if what they do or what they might ask of us makes no immediate sense. Sense comes as we negotiate, as we give and take together. And at times we defer to the deeper wisdom that leadership has; then we grow in something that we did not know of.
And so community is also the chance to mature in self-leadership. This could be called the development of our ‘inner abbot’. This ‘inner abbot’ is the permeation of our mind with Christ, the Christ-self, the ‘Christ in me as me’. This permeation happens as we live that death to the wants of boasting, control, and survival in isolation.
Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with a heart of mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if someone happens to have a complaint against anyone else. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also forgive others. And to all these virtues add love, which is the perfect bond. Let the peace of Christ be in control in your heart (for you were in fact called as one body to this peace), and be thankful. (Col 3:12-15, NET).