Chapter 63: rank in the monastery


The brothers will rank in order, depending upon the date of their entrance, the merit of their lives or the order of the abbot.

Where does power lie?

You don’t have to look far in the archives of my five years of blogging to learn I am egalitarian. I wrote my dissertation on establishing non-hierarchical communities of faith based on the principles of ensemble theatre practice. What egalitarian communities look like depends on the reasons why you want equality and what equality means. I have also written a lot about the term ‘equality’ and I have challenged the popular contemporary definition or understanding of this term. This could confuse many (it confuses me sometimes!)

I want to focus a little more on how non-hierarchical structures are created and how they work.

St Benedict is an orderly man; you can feel that throughout his Rule. It is very popular to be cynical and against order in society. This is expressed in semi-anarchist movements such as the Occupy Movement and Anonymous. I’m not totally against such movements, indeed I agree with the sentiment at the heart of them. My challenge to them, if I were to be so bold, would be to what end? How do such philosophies create a safe, secure society which encourages the well-being and stability to life for it’s people? Power is always present in any social dynamic and to deny that is dangerous; it’s not necessarily just about who holds the power but really about how it is held.

In most societies and groupings power forces people into a hierarchy: those with more are seen as over and above those that do not.

Egalitarians seek to change that thinking, some by taking power from those that have and give them to those that don’t. This, however, only flips the hierarchy and those that didn’t now do and those that did now don’t… the oppressed become the oppressors and so the cycle begins. You can see this in many ‘equality movements’. In order to re-address the balance of power those that have held power, e.g. men, are denied dignity and are shamed into handing power over to the oppressed, e.g. women, until the balance is found. This is a dangerous way of doing things as it is violent in nature. There is a temptation to unconsciously communicate a “this is what it feels like’ message in the re-addressing of power.

Peace and reconciliation is about taking the sting out of power. Power-sharing is a narrow and treacherous path to walk. Power is a dangerous weapon to carry and must be handled with great care. We must see it as the one true ring of Middle Earth that requires a fellowship to carry it safely in order to destroy it. Power must be shared before it takes root in one person and oppresses them and then those around it.

I have been reflecting a lot recently on reconciliation and how it can be discovered. For me it is about discovering the joy and power of collaboration. The journey to collaboration must pass through the difficult destination of ‘ego-death’. This, for me, is at the heart of the healing humanity needs, both individually and collectively. It is why the cross is the central point of our salvation. The cross is the singular sign of ‘ego-death’. There can be no healing, no reconciliation, no healthy relationships without the complete annihilation of our egos and God has walked it ahead of us.

This is the challenge that Jeremy Corbyn has to enter into if his vision for a ‘new politics’ is to be achieved. I’m not totally sure he’s up to the task but I’m willing to try and, in his wake, see many others follow through. I am, personally, excited about what he has begun but trying to lead a people so adversed to the painful walk of ‘ego-death’ will be nearly impossible. The reason I have reservations is that he has yet given a good enough reason to people as to why they should go through this painful procedure. With any healing, the patient must understand the risks of not having it as well as to having it.

My wife has recently had an assessment for a lung transplant. This procedure is dangerous with many risks involved. It is overwhelmingly scary to consider all the pain, the cost and the turmoil it could bring upon us. I found myself asking,

Why would we want to do that?

Well, the alternative of not doing anything is guaranteed to be worse (for me at least because Sarah will get to be with Jesus sooner!) The transplant seen in this way is the necessary healing.

I know that our society is crying out for equality and this healing from hierarchy but I fear the obvious path towards it will not solve the problem but by-pass the most needed part of the process: ‘ego-death’. I have spoken many times of distress of the process that brought about same-sex marriage. I have spoken of my deep concern for the way in which people try to achieve gender equality. I have written too much on how broken our processes are for achieving real change in a situation and it all revolves around the lack of ego-death, or rather it is focussed too much on ‘others’ dying to their ego whilst I remain unchanged, unchallenged.

St Benedict’s Rule looks at arbitrary measurements of seniority: whoever’s been here the longest is valued the most. This is not about age but is based on an understanding that the person who has lived the central principles of humility and obedience will have transformed the most. It is the monks who have been engaged in the killing of their egos that are given the power because they know the dangers of it better than any.

I had the privilege of listening to Jean Vanier being interviewed at the New Parish Conference in Birmingham this weekend. He was asked,

If you were given a magic wand that could stop the church doing one thing and make the Church do something more, what would you take away and what would you make happen?

Immediately he responded,

I would get rid of the magic wand!

That is what St Benedict is proposing; putting men like Jean Vanier who has been slaying his ego for the most amount of time being given responsibility for the power. It is these people who understand the danger who should be entrusted with the job of walking the painful journey to destroy the sting of power.


Leaders of the local parish should be judged not by their qualifications but by their maturity of faith. At the centre of every neighbourhood should be the person who has slain their ego the most. The one who has been committed to humility and obedience for extended period of times. It is the one who has walked that journey down the narrow and treacherous path of inner reconciliation that should guide others into the same terrain.

This is where the monastic charism is so important in parish ministry. At the heart of all monastic calls is the commitment to humility and obedience that leads to ‘ego-death’. This is why the New Monastic Movement resonates with exile language so much because they inhabit the terrain of wilderness and have learnt to thrive in that post death world.

I often write a prayer that directs my reflections back to God. This time I want to use a liturgical response from Common Prayer’s Evening Prayer on Thursday.
May our minds be like that of Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
Did not regard equality with God
As something to be exploited,
But emptied himself,
Taking the form of a slave,
Being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
He humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death,
Even death on a cross.
Therefore, God also highly exalted him
And gave him the name that is above every name,
So that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
In heaven and on earth and under the earth,
And every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
To the glory of God the Father. Amen.

Come, Lord Jesus.