The younger monastics, then, must respect their elders, and the elders must love their juniors. When they address one another, no one should be allowed to do so simply by name: rather, the elders call the younger “sister” or “brother” and the younger members call their elders nonna or nonnus, which are translated as “venerable one”. But the abbot and prioress, because we believe that they hold the place of Christ, are to be called “abbot” or “prioress” not for any claim of their own, but out of honour and love for Christ. They for their part, must reflect on this and in their behaviour show themselves worthy of such honour.
Whenever members meet, the junior asks the elder for a blessing. When older members come by, the younger ones rise and offer them a seat and do not presume to sit down unless the older bids them. In this way, they do what the words of scripture say: “They should each try to be the first to show respect for the other” (Rom. 12:10).
In the oratory and at table, the young are kept in rank and under discipline. Outside or anywhere else, they should be supervised and controlled until they are old enough to be responsible.
In this chapter, Benedict ensures that the practice of mutual respect and love between the old and the young is a part of everyday communal life. This practice is beyond like and dislike; it is a practice not dependent on how we might feel, nor on what might have been done or not done. Consistent practice gives time for grace to work, until what we practice is expressed from the heart. The young then respect, the old then love. This is not so much ‘fake it till you make it’, more ‘practice till you become it’. In this becoming we become ourselves. This is what the human and spiritual life is, we participate in our own graced becoming until we become, on earth, something of what God sees us as.
The example of this chapter shows us that we need a consistent practice to follow for transformation to occur. However, practice loses its power when its purpose is forgotten. When this happens, the practice can become a kind of lip service. Today, demands such as ‘respect your elders’, or ‘respect must be earnt’ reveal that generations both old and young can lose touch with the transformative power of everyday and ordinary acts. It is the role of spiritual leadership to ‘hold the place of Christ’, to remind us of the purpose and power of everyday, ordinary practice – by example and then (if necessary) by word. In the rule, if the Christ within and among us is forgotten, community leadership is there to humbly and creatively remind and correct.
What might help the young revere their elders? In the venerable there has been an integration of life stages. They are at peace, themselves here and now. The divine life shines in them; they are alive with what the young long for. In a culture with a fixation on youth as a life stage, the rule reminds us that being young is not limited to age. A young heart in an older body is a fruit of both community and meditation.
What might assist elders to revere the young? The venerable are aware that the journey of life is a never-ending growth into love and lovability. The young, on this journey, so full of potential and energy, with their own insight and adventure, are fondly loved by the venerable. And in this interaction of elders and the young it can be revealed that, sometimes, being an elder is not limited to a certain age.
Any rank in the rule is shaped by humility, a humility fashioned by the chance date of entry and the commitment to a live-long conversion into love. Both date and the growing fruits of this commitment to conversion move each member along. However, rather than moving up a bottom-to-top hierarchy with the community leader at the top, Benedict would have us moving (with growing humility) into the centre of a horizontal hierarchy. The community leader holds the place of Christ at the centre and community leadership discerns the shape of humble rank. In this way, all have the necessary chance and support to grow into the life of Christ at the centre of community and themselves.
Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. (1 John 4:11-13, NRSV)