On Being Monastic

Today’s feast of the Holy Abbots of Cluny seems to have inspired people to tell me what being monastic means. I had been thinking about composing a Letter to a Would-Be Nun for Vocations Sunday, but few readers can be bothered with long posts, so perhaps I can abstract a few details and offer a few thoughts of my own on the subject in the context of today’s feast.

Cluny was Benedictine, and Benedict was very clear about what a monk should be and how he should behave. You will never find him using the word monk when someone falls below the expected standard or acts in a way inconsistent with the ideal: he uses the word brother instead. That tells us something quite important. When we act badly or let others down in some way, our relationship with the community is not broken but we forfeit the right to be thought of as expressing its values. Cluny ’s reputation in the earlier Middle Ages stood high precisely because it was a very disciplined organisation and its monks expressed the monastic ideal in ways that made a profound impact on others.

First of all, there was community, there was an abbot and there was a rule of life (the Rule of St Benedict) which each followed. Now, I may be guilty of partiality here, but I think what we know of Cluniac history (and we know a great deal) suggests that obedience to the Rule and to the abbot gave the community its characteristic qualities. The laus perennis for which it would become famous stemmed from its understanding of the role of liturgical prayer; its scholarship derived from its engagement with the culture of the times and its concern for hospitality; its wealth was the by-product of living simply and chastely. What do I mean when I say that?

For many people monasticism is a bit of a mystery, often a romantic mystery. It’s all about wearing funny clothes and inhabiting grand buildings. The reality tends to be disappointing. It’s really about lifelong single chastity, obedience, prayer and the service of others. The grand buildings, where they exist, are often a headache to the cellarer, who must try to keep the roof on and the rooms heated, Even the Divine Office can become a source of intense suffering to the musical, while the less talented usually discover some other mortification they were not expecting. The point is, the monks of Cluny stuck at being monks despite the difficulties they encountered, either individually or as a community. They persevered; and perseverance is one of those unshowy qualities many people practise in their marriages or ordinary lives but which a monk (or nun) must practise faithfully every day because the life of the community depends on the fidelity of its members The community exists for no other reason than to give glory to God. It does not exist to provide mutual support or upbuilding (though it does); it does not exist to allow individual talents to flourish (though they will); it exists solely for God. I cannot empgasize that enough.

Cluny demonstrated in a remarkable way how existing solely for God could be translated into structures and practices we continue to value today, though the abbey of Cluny itself is now a ruin. Most of us who try to live the monastic life would be the first to confess that we don’t live up to the ideal, but we do try; and sometimes all the love and the striving is in that daily trying. Be encouraged if you, too, are trying.


7 thoughts on “On Being Monastic”

  1. I love reading long posts if they are interesting and well written, as yours invariably are. If you ever do feel inspired to write that letter to a would-be nun, I’d be keen to read it.

  2. I too love your posts, and, as they are so well written a longer one would not be a problem. On the other hand, the letter could be divided into several parts, each covering a different aspect of monastic life.
    For those wanting to see what the Abbey of Cluny looked like, there is a smaller copy at Paray Le Monial, which was only saved from destruction during the French revolution by being used as a grain store.

  3. Is there somewhere in the Rule , where it says something like, it is hard to begin with , however if you continue what seemed difficult at first then comes naturally – do you know where? ( or perhaps it doesn’t say it any where in the rule) , if so then when striving , may , actually be doing, which has got to be encouraging?

    Ditto. L

    • You’re thinking of the Prologue to the Rule, verse 48, where Benedict says there has to be some strictness at the start but goes on in verse 49 to say that our hearts will grow greater and we will run with inexpressible sweetness of love in the way of God’s commandments. Of course the strictness and the sweetness go together throughout life.

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