How To Judge A Monastery

The publication yesterday of Pope Francis’s Apostolic Constitution, Vultum Dei Quaerere, will not be of much interest to the Church at large, although it will be of great interest to those it most concerns — contemplative women’s communities, especially those that, like ourselves, are small and of diocesan right. It isn’t my intention to comment on the Constitution itself but simply ‘think aloud’ about one very important underlying question: how to judge a monastic community and its fidelity to its vocation.

For some, a monastery is just a set of buildings where the inhabitants wear funny clothes and spend a lot of time singing psalms. The grander the buildings, the more numerous the inhabitants, the more splendid the music, the more ‘successful’ the community is considered to be. May I beg to differ? The late Dom David Knowles once remarked that a community can keep up a decent performance of the Divine Office in impressively fine buildings long after the heart has gone out of it. I have often found that a chastening thought. It is what we do, not where we live or what we wear, that counts; and even what we do can be done half-heartedly or for the wrong reasons. Despite all our efforts, all our attempts to live  in obedience to the Gospel and the Rule, we can miss the point of being in the monastery in the first place. The only real test to be applied, the only thing by which our fidelity to our vocation can be judged, is the simplest but most difficult of all: holiness. Is the community striving to become holy itself and lead others to holiness, too?

I think we all know when we are in the presence of real holiness, although we could never hope to explain it and most of us would have the good sense not to try to judge it. Holiness can’t be faked or hidden. It just is. And what is more, real holiness is immensely attractive. That doesn’t mean it is not challenging or disturbing. It is often both those things, but it is also endlessly encouraging. In the presence of a holy person we know we are loved by God and that somehow, whatever the difficulties or disappointments on the way, we are buoyed up by that divine love. It is the love of God that the monastic community is meant to mediate to others, and it can only do that insofar as it has itself experienced that love. Hence all those hours of unseen prayer, the small asceticisms of daily life, the quiet perseverance in seeking God.

Those of you who know our community will appreciate we have some concerns over the ‘one size fits all’ approach of Vultum Dei Quaerere, but we must not allow such concerns to get in the way of what we are about. We may be small and insignificant, and we certainly aren’t holy yet, but that is our aim: holiness. Nothing less will do.

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17 thoughts on “How To Judge A Monastery”

  1. I suspect that our judgement of a monastic community might be influenced by our actual experience of them, particularly if they are contemplative, silent or world facing (going into the world in service to others).

    I have the privilege to have two such communities fairly local to me here in Kent. The Carmalite Community at Aylesford, where I go for occasional quiet days and spiritual nourishment and for residentials for our Licensed Lay Ministry scheme. The Friars are outward facing, but life in community and their meetings with the public are something which builds communities. The Prior Provincial actually runs a live Parish in Faversham, so exposure to parish ministry is part of their life and the life of that town.

    I can recall going on Pilgrimages to Aylesford in the past and those experiences alongside many hundreds attending mass in the open remain with me. As do the Rosary Walk, which allows a prayerful contemplative experience during a quiet day or retreat. A Holy Place indeed.

    The other community that I visit (in fact I am going in September) is of Anglican Benedictines an enclosed community at West Malling. They while contemplative, are joined to the world through their prayer life, which is powerful and attending worship with them is an experience of Holiness and the presence of the Holy Spirit is quite palpable.

    They as a community have opened their site to a new Anglican Theological training institution (St Augustine’s) and will also host all licensed ministry training for the Dioceses of Canterbury and Rochester, although in my third year I will be training off site as individual modules are hosted at parishes across the diocese.

    I think that judging monastic communities against some sort of measure of quality isn’t necessarily helpful. All are united in the Religious life and solemn vows, and following a particular Rule. But all are unique in their ‘place’, ‘presence’ and identity, which must reflect, whether inward or outward looking, their role as a signpost of the Kingdom of God among us – if only we were all looking their way, and taking heed of the message or example that they have for our own lives.

    I thank God for such communities, as an expression of his love for us all.

  2. Please forgive me for contradicting you but: Holy Trinity may be small but please don’t say it is insignificant. Your blogs and prayers reach out to a very wide and varied audience. I don’t suppose for a minute I am the only non-Catholic who gets benefit from your words. I often find myself thinking about your posts and asking myself questions about the topics you raise: asking myself what do I really think about them. I don’t think your blog would have this effect if it was written by someone ‘going through the motions’ of religious life rather than living it to the full. I hope you don’t think it’s impertinent for me to make this comment, as I have nothing but the highest respect for you ladies.

  3. Dame Catherine, you may be small but insignificant you are not. Your daily prayer offerings and blogs are visited by many ( as the likes on face book show)- certainly for me they are important. They make my prayer intentions less local and challenge me in my thoughts and actions. I pray God continues to bless your small community and that it grows in the way and direction which he wants.

  4. Although I know little of your order I admire your desire to live by the Rule,to pray for others and share Gods love .Size is immaterial,your community reaches out to many and I pray you will continue.

  5. I have now read VultumDei Quaerere, and in particular Arts.8 para 1 & sqq. I don’t want to be the fool who rushes in etc., but am unable to see the motive behind this (dare I say it?) threat to small but brave and honest communities such as yours, successfully proclaiming Christ’s way to Catholics, non-Catholics and even non-Christians. I do hope this directive is reversible, or that you find a happy solution, and apologies if I have stepped out of line by my remarks.

  6. I am biased, I know, but the work and prayer of HTM is in the very best of Benedictine tradition. Most Monks would die of fright if they had to do a fraction of what you do.I have always held female religious and contemplatives in particular in the highest regard. Your attention to prayer and lectio divina, stability and self-sacrifice is a beacon to us laity.
    Your witness will be backed by hundreds if not thousands of us who can testify to your goal of “knowing God”.

  7. I wondered, as I read the new Constitution, about the possibility of considering numbers prominently in the assessment. Neither large nor small numbers reveal the holiness of the life. You and your monastic community are excellent in another area the new Constitution describes, the judicious use of media for evangelization. My prayers are with you as this new phase unfolds.

  8. Dear Sister, I am praying with you that the Vatican’s new Constitution supports rather than distracts you from the pursuit of holiness. God bless your contemplative ministry.

  9. Thank you for your comments and for the appreciation you’ve expressed for the community. It would not be wise for me to say very much at this stage, but we do need your prayers if we are not to be placed in a difficult position. We know we can count on you — and the Holy Spirit. Thank you.

  10. Over the years I have seen the physical numbers of Monks and Nuns in Benedictine Houses, as recorded in the Benedictine Year Book gradually decline. Yet I know that members of my own parish regularly visit Benedictine Monasteries. Comparatively few are Oblates but I know that most Monasteries have them, but the numbers are not recorded in the Benedictine Year Book. Both the other monasteries that I am connected with provide information but Howton Grove with just two nuns provide far more in the way of thoughtful prayer intentions and challenging blogs.

    I am very grateful for your existence and hope and pray that our comments are testament (and evidence) to the fantastic way you reach out and justify your existence just as you are.

  11. May I echo many of the previous comments – you may be few in number in your physical community but your virtual community is vast and your ministry is hugely appreciated by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. I, for one, would find a large hole in my life of faith without your input and pray that your community will be able to continue without the worry and stress which can arise from uncertainty. You are a great blessing – and as for holiness – if that can be found in diligence prayerfulness and care for others, even if you wouldn’t claim it for yourselves I’m sure there are plenty who would claim it for you.

  12. Thanks to you and your community for sharing your monastic and Benedictine way of life with others so honestly, thoughtfully, lovingly and generously.

    Through the centuries old Benedictine tradition of hospitality you have invited others to also seek God and holiness and to reach out to others with respect and love.

  13. You may be small, but you’re definitely not insignificant. And based on my experience at your monastery, you are indeed on the right path to being holy.

    God Bless!

  14. Small you may be, but insignificant – NEVER!
    Small is beautiful and your work goes far and wide and is greatly, greatly appreciated and valued.
    It is indeed a beacon of light and holiness.

  15. Dear Sister Catherine,
    I echo the comments on your invaluable and holy contribution to life with God and His love for all of us. You are a wonderful, holy and inspiring person. May the Lord empower you and your Sisters for many more years.

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