Much of what is behind this directive comes from long-standing traditions of the Christian faith and very common practices of the 12th century, which are beyond the scope of our discussion and my meaning here. What is worth noting and is very relevant to anyone living today, is that Albert is not reflecting a political or sociological ideology of the time, but is gathering the Order around a reflection of Christ and that first generation of disciples who followed him, who walked in the physical footsteps of Jesus, swearing and following in obedience to the Master, who as we will discover more throughout the Rule, has himself sworn and committed his life to bringing the salvation of others, to reconciling them with the Love of the Father, to healing, to teaching, to sacrificing and showing the perfect Love of God. The prior is the one who has been called to stand in the very feet of Christ as shepherd and caretaker of God’s children.
Within the Order, each house elects a prior from among its members. This is something that, except for a few rare conditions, is simply not possible, nor practical for those living outside the Order. Would we expect for families to elect a single prior to whom everyone else, including the spouse, pledges obedience? Would we ask a group of priests sharing a rectory to swear obedience to one among them when they live under the Bishop? Should a group of college roommates give their life in obedience to someone whom they may have just met? Or should a newly wed couple elect one or the other to be prior?
Here, we are reminded of a natural order to things. God has already elected parents as the prior of the household, as He elected Christ, by his birth and nature as the Son of God, to be that first prior and head of His church. And here also is something interesting that I should draw your attention to, and which was not a grammatical error: the parents, father and mother, are the prior of the household. Through marriage they are singular and brought together as one, and it is only as one, in unison and communion, that they have been elected and act properly as the prior. It is not one, even if by consent--as if our own word could undermine God’s order of things--who takes the place of Christ and prior, demanding obedience of the other. But mother and father together (except in the sad cases when one has died or the marriage has been separated by divorce) step into the role of the prior.
We are also reminded then that it is in Christ that husband and wife are united; it is the body of Christ and in His communion that they have been brought together; and it is by acting like and in Christ that husband and wife become one. The life in allegiance to Christ and position as prior strengthens their bond and union in marriage, along with all of the aspects of love that mother and father share.
In other places outside of the Order, it may in fact be very difficult, impossible and even harmful to recognize a prior. If you are living alone, or in a house of roommates with others who do not share your desire for this Way of Life, you do not have a prior and should not try to fill the role of prior. In this case, Christ alone is your prior, as was long the tradition of the desert hermits--our obedience must always be given to someone other than to ourselves, and all of the other benefits that our soul garners from humble reverence, reliance upon and our relationship with the prior come from these relationships to another person. To put it into other words, our spirit needs someone that is above us in authority and to whom we are held responsible and accountable. We need the benefits of this humble relationship and the virtue of dependance that comes from relying on another. It is not just any other person whom we can rely on for these things, but we must take care and be observant in who this other is--that is the task and attention that is needed in recognizing the prior whom God has elected before us.
For those who may become zealous and may be already making connections between a prior over a house in the Order and a boss at work, I should also caution here against placing a boss or supervisor as a prior. While there are benefits to maintaining a certain obedience to all who have been given authority over us, (these will be addressed in much more detail later) making a promise of obedience is only meant for, and protects us when everyone involved has professed a similar promise and lives according to a similar Way of Life. To promise obedience, or to simply at try to live according to such a promise while working for a boss who is quick to take advantage and abuse others, or for a middle manager who may joyfully steal credit for his subordinates’ work, is not the intention or desire for such holy obedience. These superiors should never be mistaken as priors, because they do not stand in the place of Christ, however this does not mean that they may not stand in the place of some of the traits and responsibilities of a prior. The difference being that in the Order, the Prior stands alone in responsibility for all aspects of the brothers’ and sisters’ lives, while outside of the Order, these many things may be separated. Our boss may be like a prior over our job and career; our teachers a prior over our learning; our priest, spiritual director and confessor over matters of the spirit, coaches may act as priors over their team and so on and so forth.
There is one final point that is worth mentioning here. I have written that we are to recognize the prior and not elect because if there is a prior of our house, they have already been elected by our Father and our task is merely to recognize who this prior is, and most certainly, each of us has someone who God has properly stood before us to be this tangible and living Christ, for a few it may be Christ himself. What we glean will be different, but by looking and being attentive, we can see those in our life who have been set before us, to whom we can be safely and appropriately obedient to; who will lead is in the day-to-day things of following Christ; who will teach us to pray; help us to heal when he are sick; treat our wounds; push us a little further in our struggles; help us in service to others; and bring us into a greater and more perfect love of Christ.
Recognize the prior, and those who at times may be filling the place of a prior, promising to them obedience of a life that is in allegiance to Christ.