Monday, December 07, 2015

Possession, pomposity and power

The question of how we relate to authority is something that the modern generation are finding difficult to understand. I read with interest Fr Anthony's post on Christian anarchy. One might think that, as a Benedictine, I should be firmly in favour of hierarchy after all, Benedictines owe due obedience to the Abbot, don't they?

Well, that's not strictly true. A community requires an Abbot for its organization and direction, but the monastic vows are made to the community itself. The Abbot is a first among equals, recognizing his responsibility with the greatest gravity, remembering that he stands in the place of Christ as shepherd and that he has the cure of every soul in the community for which he will be made to give an account. The other monks recognize this and seek actively to help the Abbot, giving him the utmost respect for the burden that he bears. Monks are to be obedient to one another: the juniors deferring to the experience of the elders and the elders recognizing that they were once juniors and respecting that accordingly. There is a very definite sense of equality in a monastery run according to The Rule. The authority is in the Rule itself as an instrument of God's supremacy and the revelation of the Holy Ghost, the Abbot becomes just the mouthpiece of how the Rule is to be implemented. The authority is that of respect and love, not of power and coercion. All have agreed to be bound by the Rule, and all must continue in that agreement for the good of the community.

I think to myself that this is how community should be. We should all defer to each other for the common good of the community, not in obedience to an arbitrary power. While one could argue that the presence of the Abbot prevents the community from being anarchic in the literal sense, I might argue that the lack of the Abbot having any power of his own to lead the community ensures that it is not a person, but the Rule that is the governor. Yet, the Rule itself is not the supreme authority as it is deduced from the very words and principles laid down by Christ Himself.

The true idea of anarchy is that there is no leader existing over and above anyone else but rather a guiding principle that keeps the community together. The point is that no-one possesses any arbitrary power over anyone else just by being that person. Of course, monasteries are on the wane and monasticism is, itself, going through a period of "reinvention". Whether any good can come out of "reinvention" is yet to be seen. "Reinvention" may be another Nazareth; it might be another Chorazin.

What we have in the West, as Fr. Anthony points out, is the desire for power which tends to corrupt. Much of the source of this power is money. Certainly, it appears that the President of the United States is open actually only to those who can afford the running costs of the campaign, despite the theoretical possibility that any citizen could be president. In the U.K., the cost of funding the campaign is met by the richest parties. While the public are free to vote, and it is the responsibility of the public to research their vote carefully, the propaganda that accompanies the voting is designed to bias.

The fact of the matter is that the ruling powers of this world circle around St Benedict's bugbear of possession. The fact that we believe that we own anything colours our experience of living. If we embrace the idea that actually we own nothing, not even our own selves, then we do indeed find a greater freedom as we find ourselves free from the coercion of those who control possession. If we truly believe God to be the creator of all things, this must include us.

The essence of pomposity is the notion of empty or groundless power. The Church has often been accused of pomposity when a man dressed in fine, obsolete robes and a silly hat makes some moral declaration against the prevailing culture. Of course, this very much depends on what the prelate says. A good bishop will be so versed in the moral law of God and a reader of the age around him that he will be able to cut through the power of material things to the word of God in humility and love. The lie that we are being fed is that we need to possess in order to have power. Sadly, this is something we are buying into daily and it is fiendishly difficult to leave this behind.

True pomposity lies in the belief of the reality of possession. Possession of a crown, mitre, certificate, collar, piece of paper with the Queen's face on, or good looks is ultimately useless. These do not help us find out who we are supposed to be. Only God gives us any existence beyond us being creatures in creation. Without God, power can only be arbitrary and illusory.

The fact is that, as the Rich Young Man who could not give up all that he had and sell it for the poor shows, we are often possessed by our possessions. I look at what I have and I just cannot think how I would begin to just give up possessing what I claim to possess. To give things up recklessly would be to endanger my family, and I can't do that. Why? Because my family possess me too and need what I have to continue. No wonder Our Lord says that with Man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible! Yet it is their possession of me that gives me a greater sense of who I am.

If we wish to find true freedom, then we need a false anarchy in which there is no man-made leader, but only God. This anarchy would free us from the pomposity of possession and allow us not to rely on things to give us an identity we already possess in God. We will have this the more sincerely we pray "Thy Kingdom come".

1 comment:

Fr Anthony said...

You might find the Institutes of the Oratory of St Philip Neri of interest -

His notion of authority is novel, as in the Rule of St Benedict, being of one heart and mind with the community.