Loved rather than feared

Sister Judith Sutera | June 15, 2017

When last week’s column appeared, I noted that the sisters at the Mount were deep into the process of electing a new leader. That Saturday afternoon, Sister Esther Fangman was chosen as the 12th prioress of the monastery.

Some have asked why she is called prioress and not abbess. In a men’s monastery, the leader is an abbot and the prior is the second in command. It is merely a technical difference in the language because, when Benedictine women first came to the United States, their monasteries did not have the same legal status in Church law as women’s abbeys in Europe. There is no actual difference in the role and responsibilities. The word “prior” comes from a Latin word that means “comes before,” so the prioress stands at the head of her monastery and leads her sisters.

Last week, I mentioned some of the images St. Benedict uses in describing what a good leader does. When we are electing a new prioress, we often remark jokingly that Jesus is the only human who would be able to do all that we expect from a leader, and He’s not on the ballot. But isn’t each of us expected to be as much like Jesus as we possibly can?

St. Benedict says that the superior “takes the place of Christ in the monastery.” That doesn’t mean that everything he or she does is going to be perfect. What it does mean is that the leader, and anyone who would call themselves a Christian, should be trying as hard as they can to listen to what Christ might be trying to say and do through them. When others look at them, they should see the wisdom and love of Christ shining through them. When others hear them, they should find wisdom and want to do as they do.

As I mentioned last week, the ideal leader is a servant leader, one who wants to do what others need done for them. But it does not mean being passive and letting everyone else tell you what to do. The true leader listens to others and listens to God trying to draw each of us to a more perfect life.

Benedict knows that sometimes people can disappoint. Raising children, for example, is not a matter of giving them perfect freedom to do whatever they tell you they want to do to be happy. Neither is it successful to push them so hard and punish them so frequently that they despair or rebel. St. Benedict uses a wonderful image for this: “by rubbing too hard to remove the rust, she may break the vessel.”

The wise person will heed this advice in any interaction with a co-worker, spouse, child or other person when some form of criticism or correction is warranted. In fact, one might also apply it to criticism of one’s own behavior and mistakes. Many people are crushed more by their own despair than by the actual evil they feel they have done. The more perfect we think we have to be, the more violent we can become inside ourselves and thus hinder our forward progress. Just as Benedict says the superior should strive to be loved rather than feared, this is good advice in any relationship, including our relationship with ourselves.

St. Benedict advises, “Let them so temper all things that the strong have something to strive after and the weak may not fall back in dismay.” Don’t be afraid to confront the imperfect parts of yourself, promising to improve and correct. But don’t forget that God loves you and doesn’t expect perfection, just the polishing needed for a better shine.