Good Monk, Bad Monk

Who, apart from Benedictines, is interested in what St Benedict has to say in the first chapter of his Rule about the different kinds of monks? True, it may provide a little ammunition for those who want to criticize an individual, or even a whole community, but rarely is it seen for what it is, an introduction to monastic living with all its pitfalls. In sketching the characters of good and bad monks, Benedict is setting before us a thumbnail of the whole monastic enterprise.

Yesterday he stressed what to look for in the good monk: obedience to rule and abbot, and a life lived in community or, if truly experienced in the ways of the Spirit, a hermit life, but one still grounded in that obedience to rule and abbot. In other words, the good monk is always under obedience — to a rule that is imperfect, to an individual who is flawed, but both seen by the monk as vehicles of grace. Contrast that with what we read today about the sarabaites and gyrovagues. They are not necessarily bad men, as we might understand the term, but they are choosey about their allegiance, assuming that they know best, keen to try their own experiments in monastic living without first submitting to years of regular discipline. They are fundamentally unstable, always pushing on to find the perfect community, the perfect way of life, and in danger of settling for what is merely comfortable or convenient.

I think RB 1 has something to say to all of us who are sincere in our search for God. I am glad that I had many years as a nun in a big community with a long tradition behind it before I came here. I think it has given our community a certain sureness of touch, a fundamentally humble, questing approach, enabling us to be orthodox in faith and practice but also innovative. That is not, however, something we can take for granted. What Benedict does not say in this chapter is at least as important as what he does. The obedience to rule and abbot that he singles out as the monk’s safeguard is something he will elaborate upon at some length. Ultimately, the monk is responsible for setting a guard about his heart and mind. He wakes every morning to hear the voice of the Lord commanding him and lives by faith, following the guidance of the gospel, but that is a choice he must make anew every morning. Mercifully, we have a vow of conversion to help us.


13 thoughts on “Good Monk, Bad Monk”

  1. To wake each morning to hear the voice of the Lord and to try and live by faith, following the guidance of the gospel. Now that really is a life-long challenge to all of us.

  2. The vow of conversion is something we all have to take, as conversion is an ongoing process. So is setting a guard about our minds and hearts (and tongue!). As laypeople, we attempt to live out our faith IN this world, though not to take on the values OF this world. Like the monk, we are imperfect laypeople striving to imitate Christ one day at a time. Were it not for the gift of divine grace, we’d be lost attempting this on our own.

    • No, we all have to be converted: we don’t all have to take the vow of conversion. There is a difference, and it isn’t merely juridical. That doesn’t mean that the monk or nun has any ‘advantage’ over the person who doesn’t take that vow — far from it — but the vow of conversion that Benedictines make contains within it the promise of single chastity and what, in other Orders, is usually called a vow of poverty. For us, that is the complete renunciation of private ownership. Sorry if that sounds a bit pedantic, but there is sometimes a tendency to blur the distinction between monastic and ‘ordinary’ life which can make it very hard for candidates to monastic life to understand how radical is the renunciation they must make.

      • Harold and I are well aware of the differences between the lives of ordered religious and lay folk. Our last parish was served by ordered Carmelites, and we were involved with a nearby Augustinian monastery. I wasn’t comparing forms of, rather the importance of ongoing conversion in lay life. Our Sunday mass prayers here in our city include prayers for vocations, including to your way of life. To say yours is a “radical way of life” is an understatement, and I believe those reading your blog join us in offering our gratitude to you and yours. We are all the richer for your “poverty”!

        • Jean, thank you, that wasn’t the point I was trying to make, but I’ll leave it there as I think misunderstandings will multiply if I make another attempt at explaining! One day I may learn how to be clearer (miracles do happen).

  3. After reading today’s blog, I find myself drawn back into the post about vocations and wondering what is the lay vocation. Also to the video presentation of a day or two ago, when one of the topics discussed was the speed, the reactive rather then responsive nature of the web. And also to yesterday’s dog blog and how many responses it drew from us all. By contrast there are just two comments to today’s post on a reading of RB that has kept me thinking all day.
    I know it will be some long time before I’ve got my thoughts together on this – how the description of the ‘bad monk’ ticks so many of my boxes, on the need, or rather my need, for stability and discipline in the life of faith. By then there will be new blogs and the conversations will have moved on.
    All this is to say that a lack of comments on a day’s blog does not mean a lack of appreciation or thoughtful response. I suppose that, as so often in monastic and lay life, silence can be very positive.

    • “In seeking wisdom, the first step is silence; the second, listening; the third, remembering; the fourth, practicing; the fifth, teaching others.” ~ Solomon Ibn Gabirol

    • We also recall Samuel heard God’s voice in the stillness and quiet, didn’t at first recognize Who was speaking to him. As Sr. C. mentioned in her video, prayer and meditation, lectio divina are part of their daily monastic rhythm. As laypeople, we have to allow ourselves time away from busyness to pray and meditate, not get so caught up in fulfilling commitments that we don’t hear God’s voice – He’s pretty good at letting us know where we can practice our vocation.

  4. Patricia, as a layperson, I consider my vocation to encompass not only my marriage, but the call to ongoing conversion of myself, living the Gospel message and sharing it whenever/wherever possible. In a very practical way, it can be as simple as holding a door open for someone manoeuvering through with walker or baby stroller when I’d rather just get on with my own business, listening to someone complain about something and drawing them to the positive, shutting up when I’d be inclined not to. Praying for others when asked to do so, praying for them even if not asked. I think the lay vocation is to live as the hands and feet of Christ in many little ways throughout the week, not only for that one hour at Mass. We all have God given gifts to share and we are all capable of contributing to the work of building up the Kingdom. I’m sure you and others have other insights into how we can accomplish this, too.

  5. I am interested in the mention of vocations, perhaps as much for omission as commission. I found my way to Whitby, and have been a Tertiary – that is a Member of the Third Order, bound by vows taken over a period of years. The challenge is to live in the world, alongside our sisters, sharing prayer and worship at distinct times of day, and subject to the distractions, temptations and failing-yet-trying-again
    To pray together, separated by a considerable distance, yet united, is enriching..and I wonder how many others might come to explore this as their own vocation.

    • You’re new (and very welcome) here, Lavender, but I think the omission may be more apparent than real — in eight years of blogging the subject of vocation has come up quite often. You’ll find some very thoughtful comments from Associates and Oblates of this community (Benedictines are too ancient to have a Third Order). We are all greatly enriched by our sharing of insights and our gentle (for the most part!) disagreements, so we hope you will continue to share yours.

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