Saturday, July 11, 2009

Benedict's Business Manager

Chapter 31: What Kind of Man the Cellarer of the Monastery Should Be

As cellarer of the monastery
let there be chosen from the community
one who is wise, of mature character, sober,
not a great eater, not haughty, not excitable,
not offensive, not slow, not wasteful,
but a God-fearing man
who may be like a father to the whole community. 

In St. Benedict’s day, there were no business schools, thus, no Harvard MBA’s working on Wall Street, or CPA’s coming in every year to perform audits in accordance with Generally Accepted Accounting Principles.  Yet, even for monasteries, the need existed for people who could help the institution to prosper and thereby gain some small measure of financial stability in very uncertain times.  So, as part of his Rule, and lacking the resources of a modern business school, Benedict devoted one chapter of his Rule to the qualities necessary for the man entrusted with the business affairs of the monastery.

In reading these over in Chapter 31 of the Rule, it’s striking how different they are from those demanded of modern MBA students.  There’s no demand for courses in financial and statistical analysis tools, no marketing studies, no demand to study current laws on taxation or business law. He doesn’t even say that the candidate for the cellarer should have any kind of innate business sense or be able to drive a hard bargain.  Benedict doesn’t focus on any of the financial or managerial abilities or background that we require of a business manager today.  There’s none of that. 

“… one who is wise, of mature character, sober . . .”

So what does Benedict want?  He tells us right up front – he wants his cellarer to be a man of character, specifically, he must be “wise, and of mature character.”

In my experience, wisdom is not an easy thing to define.  As in the oft quoted Supreme Court decision on pornography, “I don’t know how to define it, but I know it when I see it.”  What could Benedict have in mind when he calls for wisdom?  I think it’s helpful to turn to Scripture, a source Benedict would almost subconsciously have had in mind, for the answer.   There we find wisdom often associated with virtue.  For example, consider this from chapter 7 of the Book of Wisdom: 

24 For wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things.

25 For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her.

26 For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness.

27 Though she is but one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself, she renews all things; in every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets;

28 for God loves nothing so much as the man who lives with wisdom.

29 For she is more beautiful than the sun, and excels every constellation of the stars. Compared with the light she is found to be superior,

30 for it is succeeded by the night, but against wisdom evil does not prevail.

                                                                                    Wisdom 7:24-30 RSV

It might not be going too far to say that Benedict wants a man who is pure, one of such virtue that he “lives with wisdom,” so much so, that we sense that he is, in turn, loved by God (v28).  As I’ve pointed out at other times, this is a very different standard than prevails in the world today.  Many people would probably say that Benedict was being hopelessly idealistic, even for his own time, and even if this may have worked in the 6th century, in our world such a man would eaten alive by the tough minded managers who run corporations today.  He would never succeed.  You simply can’t use “religious” standards in today’s workplace, it would never work.

However, if you look a the record many of these “tough minded” managers in the news over the last 5 years or so have not done so well following modern precepts.  One thinks of General Motors, Merrill Lynch, Lehmann Brothers, Madoff, and on and on and on.  Companies and managers that have failed so spectacularly, and hurt so many people in the process, are the very ones where Bendict’s “idealistic model” is most foreign.  Compare this record to the record of Benedict’s own monastery, Monte Casino, which has survived despite invasions, bombings, so much else for over 1,500 years.

Yes, in Benedict’s time, there were no Harvard MBAs or CPA’s performing annual audits, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all.

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