The Renewal of Monastic Life

If I had time, the feast of SS Dunstan, Aethelwold and Oswald would prompt me to historical reflection. The renewal of monastic life in the tenth century owes much to their vision and hard work and we are fortunate to know enough about each to have some idea of their individual personalities and talents. There is Dunstan, monk of Glastonbury and polymath archbishop of Canterbury, famed as a metal-worker, illuminator and musician; Aethelwold, monk of Glastonbury and bishop of Winchester, stern critic of the secular clergy, champion of the Rule of St Benedict (he is generally credited with the composition of the Regularis Concordia), and rather inclined to be severe to nuns (though the Vita of St Edith shows him bested in argument by her, with one of the most memorable put-downs in history); and Oswald, monk of Fleury, bishop both of Worcester and York, gentler than the other two, who died in the very act of washing the feet of the poor. They continue to be an inspiration to English monks and nuns of our own day.

As it was in the tenth century, so in the twenty-first, monastic life is in need of renewal — and I do mean monastic life, not some of the (very good and enriching) contemporary forms of community life which take their inspiration from monasticism but lack some of its essential elements. My reason for that qualification is simple. It takes time to learn the art of being monastic. Being stripped, little by little, of the self-will that clings so closely; discovering that prayer requires much boring slog through the foothills rather than ecstasy on the heights; that community isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and one can be very lonely in the midst of others; that obedience to a superior and to the brethren can be hard work and even those things one originally found attractive can become a hair-shirt when one is condemned to sit next to someone who sings flat or half a beat before or behind everyone else — it takes time to learn how to deal with all these in a positive way, allowing the Holy Spirit to fashion his worker as he pleases — time and commitment. Living in a community vowed to the same purpose is both encouragement and a useful check on personal idiosyncracies.

So, why do I think monastic life today is in need of renewal? As Dom David Knowles observed long ago, mediocrity, settling for the status quo, has always been the bane of Benedictine life. There are communities which seem to have lost heart and are just hoping that the monastery ‘will see me out’. Equally important, monasticism itself has become institutionalised within the Church. That can, and sometimes does, mean an uneasy relationship between, say, the requirements of canon law and the demands of the Rule, especially for nuns. Why add to the difficulties? I am not suggesting for one moment that we should ditch everything, that those monasteries which are artistic and cultural treasure-houses, should cease to be. Rather, I am suggesting that we need to keep coming back to the age-old question: how do we best live monastic life, how do we best search for God?

Regular readers know that I foresee a monasticism of the future which will be smaller in numbers, and probably different in shape, from that with which we have become familiar, but no less fervent. That, however, is in the future. Our business now is to live good, holy and dedicated lives, as unselfishly as possible. On this fifth day of our novena to the Holy Spirit, let us ask for the gift of wisdom that we may do so.

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10 thoughts on “The Renewal of Monastic Life”

  1. Thanks yet again for a reminder that life, not just monastic life, needs to be renewed in the life of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.

    We need to break down the staleness and monotony that might pervade our spiritual life and seek the Holy Spirit’s inspiration for a renewal that informs and empowers us to imagine how we might be Church, in Communion with each other and inbuilt into the life our our local community.

    Not for us the lofty ideals of Cathedral worship, but the day to day ‘bread of life’ which feeds us and takes us out of Church and into our community to tell the good news of Christ through word and action that brings the Kingdom closer.

    So, as I go to seek the inspiration among people that I know won’t necessarily make me welcome may the Umbrella of the Spirit keep the showers of platitudes away so that my listening and speaking will be the pure Word of God for all that I meet.

    Later:

    I wrote this response earlier as I went out to meet people in community for a coffee morning. And can report that one man, who always sits quietly in contemplation of the world around him, was stirred, having listened to our conversation to speak out. Despite his ragged clothes, matted hair and beard, he spoke well and articulately of our conversation and has accepted an invitation to attend a lunch and BBQ being organised by the local church to commemorate Pentecost. That wasn’t down to me, but to all who accept his quietness and contemplation and don’t reject him. That has something of the Kingdom of God about it.

    The Holy Spirit stirred in him today -and he opened his heart and welcomed it in. Now that’s a renewal worth mentioning.

  2. You are indeed, from my point fog view, living a good, holy dedicated life. I thank you for your witness. Many prayers and blessings.

  3. I admire the selfless dedication of your life to the Lord. You are not afraid to demonstrate the realities of the monastic life. But His love sees you through those times when doubt and frustration with the everyday life occur. We accept your prayers and blessings without realising the sacrifices made on our behalf. Eternal gratitude for your daily devotion to His work.

  4. Your blog reminded me of the influence of David Knowles. As today is the anniversary of Abbot Aelred Sillem’s death, fittingly on the feast of St Dunstan, I have been re-reading his chapter in David Knowles remembered. It’s striking to read that Abbot Chapman’s comment upon Father David’s hope to study the history of medieval English monasticism had been that “the less we know about that, the better”. Father David’s comment at the end of The Religious Orders in England (III) echoes yours: “At the end of this long review of monastic history, with its splendours and its miseries, and with its rhythm of recurring rise and fall, a monk cannot but ask what message for himself and for his brethren the long story may carry. It is the old and simple one; only in fidelity to the Rule can a monk or monastery find security”.
    Abbot Leo, preaching at Abbot Aelred’s funeral in 1994, said that he was constantly trying to get across “that it is fidelity to the daily routine demands of our vocation that we prepare ourselves for the greater challenges that Christ asks of us, and ultimately for the greatest challenge: to lay down out life in loving surrender to God who created us, recreated us in Christ, and calls us to eternal life in heaven. It is an almost unbelievable goal, but the means is daily fidelity out of love.”

    • Thank you, you’re very kind. Hmn, the difficulty I have with recommending books is that I can be a bit too academic for some. Why not start with the Wikepedia articles on them and follow up the reading suggestions in the footnotes?

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