Tuesday, April 6, 2010

St Benedict's Rule: Taking Counsel

Whenever anything of importance is to be done in the monastery, let the Abbot assemble the whole community and himself declare the matter to be treated. And having received the advice of the brethren, let him weigh it within himself, and then do what he shall judge to be most expedient. Moreover, we have said that all are to be called to counsel because it is often to the younger that the Lord reveals what is better.

Counsel is a kind of inquiry, according to St Thomas Aquinas. It's properly held among several, to determine what to do in a doubtful matter. When the decision about what to do is necessary and universal, then one person alone can decide. It's in areas where there is discretion that asking the advice of others is a good idea (you always see this in Star Trek).

Aquinas says that counsel is analytic, not synthetic. It doesn't inquire into things that are fixed -- ie that iron is metal, or that adultery is wrong. Rather, it inquires as to what is to be done now given the end in mind.

beginning, that is to say, from that which is in the future, and continuing until it arrives at that which is to be done at once
He also says that counsel is appropriate in doubtful situations because where there are several things to be considered:

Now we must take note that in contingent particular cases, in order that anything be known for certain, it is necessary to take several conditions or circumstances into consideration, which it is not easy for one to consider, but are considered by several with greater certainty, since what one takes note of, escapes the notice of another;
So counsel is particularly suited to things that are not absolutely necessary (those things admit of no doubt) but of things which are particular to our situation. The aim is to avoid the kind of chaos and family disunity of action which comes from deciding things arbitrarily (without reflection) either in a harsh, single-minded way or in a chancy, impulsive way.

Given all that, in what way does St Benedict say counsel should be handled?

He gives guidelines:

  1. All the brethren should offer their opinion with humility
  2. No one should "pertinaciously" maintain his own opinion or insist on having his own way
  3. They should defer to the final judgment of the Abbot (father)
  4. But at the same time, it is "incumbent on him to administer all things wisely and justly", so he has a strong motive for listening carefully and respecting their opinions, even those of the youngest, as mentioned above.

For matters of less importance to the running of the whole monastery, the Abbot should take counsel only with the seniors (I suppose this is comparable to the husband and wife discussing things together rather than bringing their children in on every possible decision).

Can this apply to the family situation? (keep in mind that Benedict modelled his Rule on the way a family runs, but of course, men at a monastery by adult consent are different in some respects from young children born into a family).

Well, certainly it reminds me somewhat of the family councils recommended by both Catholic and secular psychologists. I used to think these were somewhat modernistic -- and certainly sometimes you will hear advice which would seem to imply the family is a democracy -- which it is in one way, given that all are of equal human dignity, but it's not a hierarchy-less democracy, at least.

Gregory Popcak suggests this order of procedure for family meetings:

  1. Open with prayer
  2. Express gratitude (focus on good things)
  3. Raise any concerns (not targeted at individuals so much as general trends)
  4. Discuss any questions (about what seems unclear)
  5. Close with prayer
  6. Have a family fun meal, snacktime or social time (to provide refreshment and end on a positive, relaxed note)
If you are in doubt about how this simplifies things, I suppose the answer would relate back to what Aquinas said about the "end" or purpose of taking counsel. It's to resolve matters that in themselves have a certain complexity, according to general principles or "values".

Being the sort of person who doesn't get much out of procedural lists until I've already pondered the underlying reasons for the actions, I find this helpful. It suggests that if you are just starting family councils, especially with younger kids, in addition to Benedict's ground rules of respect and Popcak's (or someone else's) schedule, you might want to implant a few core principles that would guide the approach. For example, if you have a family motto like the von Trapp's "Seek ye first the kingdom of God," or the Ignatian "All for the greater glory of God" that might make a good examen -- is the proposed action in tune with this family principle? It also might be a good idea to give family members a day or two to come up with their own things to bring up at the family meeting (the children could give them to the parents to read if it worked better that way, or pool all the ideas in a general list that was posted on the fridge or handed out to family members).

Of course, some families might do far better free-wheeling and there's also the informal gatherings many homeschool moms do where they bring up plans or scheduled activities or thoughts before homeschool starts and get informal opinions from whoever happens to be around. That's generally how we do things, or sometimes I discuss something with my husband either before or after I get the kids' opinions.