Ampleforth Abbey

25 February 2018

Stewardship: the cellarer of the monastery

Obsculta!Fr Wulstan Peterburs OSB reflects on Chapter 31 of the Rule of St Benedict, conerning the qualifications of the monastery cellarer. Fr Wulstan has previously served as Head of Christian Theology and as a Housemaster in Ampleforth College. He is currently Procurator. 

The role of the cellarer in monasteries today is the contemporary equivalent of that described by St Benedict in chapter 31 of his Rule, ‘The Qualifications of the Monastery Cellarer’, who, as the Constitutions of the English Benedictine Congregation note, ‘shall administer the temporal goods of the monastery’. At Ampleforth, this amounts to the ‘procurator’, as the cellarer is known, leading a team that has responsibility across the Community’s various works for human resources, finance, general services, the estate, development, information & communications technology, health and safety and various trading operations.

Whilst the content of the modern procurator’s work differs from what St Benedict living in the sixth century would have imagined, the notion of stewardship enshrined in the Rule – St Benedict says that the cellarer ‘will regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar, aware that nothing is to be neglected’ – is, indeed, a theme current in modern times, and chimes well with our concerns for the environment, as well as with the common sense approach of making sure that we look after what we have properly, whilst keeping a careful eye on expenditure. Moreover, the way in which St Benedict speaks of the ‘qualifications’ of the cellarer, rather than providing a job description or a list of tasks that must be completed, indicates his concern for the way in which things are to be done, and the character of the cellarer himself.

So, for example, the cellarer is to be ‘God-fearing, and like a father to the whole community’. Thus, his way of conducting himself and his business is integral to his spiritual life. As St Benedict notes, ‘Let him keep watch over his own soul, ever mindful of the saying of the Apostle: he who serves well secures a good standing for himself’, and ‘above all, let him be humble. If goods are not available to meet a request, he will offer a kind word in reply, for it is written: a kind word is better than the best gift.’

This emphasis on the way in which business should be transacted and the character of those conducting it is important to us at Ampleforth, and again is a concern which is reflected in various sectors of the business community, as well as in charities and not for profit organisations, in the discussion of values and the elaboration of what are often termed engagement strategies. At Ampleforth, we feel strongly that the experience of living and working at Ampleforth is, and should be, characterised by the presence of the monastic community, the values of which should influence all that goes on. This has led to an articulation of six Benedictine core values and to an on-going discussion as to how they should be reflected in daily life and work.

Underlying our work on values is the fact that for more than 1500 years the Rule of St Benedict has inspired both monastic and lay people to live lives of faith and virtue in pursuit of all that is good and true. Although written in the first instance for monks, the Rule provides a vision of life and a set of values which, in principle, are open to all people: if the values of the Rule are truly ‘values’, truly good for people, then they do not apply simply to monks or to Christians, but express ways of behaving that enhance human life for everyone.

In particular, St Benedict stressed the importance of the person and the quality of the relationships of people living and working together. He respected the individual’s freedom, but at the same time noted that there might need to be a little strictness to ‘amend faults and safeguard love’. In his humane approach, he directed that the Abbot should ‘arrange everything that the strong have something to yearn for and the weak nothing to run from’, and that ‘in all things God should be glorified’.

In the light of this, the following statement of Benedictine core values has been elaborated, these values now becoming part of the appraisal process for all staff, so that we should be accountable to each other for both the effective performance of our roles and the manner in which we perform them, with the intention that the Benedictine character of Ampleforth’s various works should be more clearly realised and seen.

‘Listen carefully, my child, to the Master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from a father who loves you; welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice.’ (RSB Prologue 1)

The first word of the Rule is ‘Listen’ ('obsculta'), and what St Benedict asks of his readers is a careful listening to other people and their needs: it means taking them seriously. Religious believers understand this as an expression of their faith, the counterpart to their careful listening to God in prayer.

‘All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.’ (RSB 53:1)

We should be noted for our warmth, acceptance and joy in welcoming others.

‘They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other, supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behaviour.’ (RSB 72:4-5)

If we really listen to other people, then we are treating them with respect. The consequence of this is that we should be patient with them and seek to understand their situation and what they are saying, regardless of background, intelligence or professional skill.

‘If he teaches his disciples that something is not to be done, then neither must he do it.’ (RSB 2:13)

We should speak the truth and act accordingly.

‘He will regard all utensils and goods as the sacred vessels of the altar, aware that nothing is to be neglected.’ (RSB 31:10)

At Ampleforth, as well as valuing the beauty of our environment, we should appreciate and care properly for all the things that we need and use to do our jobs.

‘All things are to be done in moderation.’ (RSB 48: 9)

The monastic life is meant to be a balanced one and is sometimes characterised by the expression, ‘Prayer and Work’. But more than this, the Benedictine notion of balance also involves using our resources wisely and avoiding over-indulgence in all areas of life, as we seek to establish a proper work-life balance.