Today we read the second half of RB 58. When describing the ritual of profession, Benedict makes a telling change. The newcomer to monastic life who has hitherto been nameless, just quis veniens, suddenly belongs. He becomes novitius frater, the new brother. All at once he becomes an integral part of the community, joined for ever to the fraterna acies, the fraternal battle-rank. This membership, however, comes at the end of a long and testing process. Today, it takes at least five and a half years for a woman to reach solemn profession, and even then, most would agree it is only another kind of beginning.
Why insist upon this? I think it is worth noting, in a world which expects instant results, that the things of the Spirit cannot be rushed. What we call a vocation is an ongoing call from the Lord as individual as the person to whom it is addressed. It is we ourselves who are called, we ourselves who respond; so that we can say that we are ourselves the vocation. Membership of the community represents a commitment on both sides, not to be lightly undertaken. Some people come to the monastery in search of community. Very often they leave disappointed because they do not find what they seek. Other people do not seem as cherishing as they ought to be! Only a few discover that the person who seeks community must first be prepared to create community, and monastic community can only be created when the members are united in the search for God. In other words, God has to be at the centre of everything. Anything less will not do.
If you read through the second half of RB 58, you will be struck (I hope) by the radical nature of the renunciations the monk or nun must make and the fact that Benedict constantly reminds us that what we call profession of vows takes place in the presence of God and his saints. Our vow chart is placed on the altar. We are dressed in the clothing of the monastery. Whatever we formerly owned or might expect to inherit in the future is gone from us. Even our bodies and wills are no longer at our own disposal. We have become a new creation and it is as a new creation, utterly possessionless, that we are admitted to the monastic community where we will live ‘according to the judgement and decision of another’.
I think it may be this stripping away of everything familiar which many find difficult. We rely on such silly things to give us status: our background, our education, our ability to say we are this or that in such and such an organization. The truth is we are unique, but it is the uniqueness conferred by God that we have to discover and value. Monasteries are good places for doing exactly that.