A Word of Encouragement for Followers of Classical Monasticism

St Benedict
St Benedict

A transferred solemnity always feels a little odd, and the fact that the popular Universalis app fails to mention St Benedict at all has led to one or two people questioning whether we have got our dates muddled here at Howton Grove. No, we haven’t, this really is the day when we celebrate the Transitus or Passing of St Benedict, which was displaced by the fifth Sunday of Lent yesterday. It is a day of solemn joy in the monastery. St Benedict was keen on Lent, but he was also keen on joy. The whole of his Rule can be said to be woven around the theme of Easter, for which Lent is preparation and joy the outcome; so today we rejoice, for what was, what is, and what is yet to come.

That said, I have been thinking about what I would call classical monasticism, living in community under a rule and superior, with both the scope and limitations that a fixed place and circumstances allow. It has come in for a lot of criticism in recent years. Monks and nuns who follow this older way are sometimes treated with a curious kind of disregard, as though the way we live is archaic, no longer valid. Is the only kind of monasticism worth talking about a newer kind, not necessarily bound by vows, often dispersed or specifically rejecting some aspect of the Rule (e.g. lifelong single chastity, renunciation of private ownership) in favour of a more individualistic approach? I think it is time that we who have done our best to persevere in the more classical form speak up, especially the nuns, and encourage one another.

Why do I think that important? There is the obvious reason, that without the handing on of the monastic tradition in its classical form, there is always the risk of its being lost or submerged under the partisan vision of some charismatic founder-figure who cherry-picks what he/she likes/dislikes, to the detriment of the whole. The roots of the word monasticism provide the essential clue. Monks and nuns live alone with God. Prayer and observance are our métier, day in, day out. Our buildings may not be as beautiful, our habits as romantic, as those who choose for themselves, but it is our very renunciation of choice, of self, that is crucial.

Nuns play an especially important role here because we are not clergy and are not usually asked to serve in ways some of our male brethren are. We can live the classical form of monasticism in a purer, less distracted way than many of them can. Of course, where women in the Church are concerned, there is another danger. Despite some useful provisions, Cor Orans has demonstrated the danger of assuming that contemplative is interchangeable with monastic.For Benedictines, the rules about numbers and governance reflect a completely different religious tradition from that with which we are familiar, and it has caused some communities much needless heartache and expense. Even among our friends, who belong to Orders strictly so called, there has been some raising of eyebrows at what is expected or imposed. Women are not inferior men, incapable of making decisions about how to lead their lives.

However, my chief reason for saying that I think classical monasticism needs encouragement is because, as far as I can see, it continues to promote holiness — which is what monasticism is about. It doesn’t matter if a community is old or poor, not making a very good job of livestreaming or whatever the fashion of the day may be, not attracting new recruits or whatever, if it is producing holiness in its members, if it is leading others to holiness, then I’d say it is doing all right. Instead of dismissing such communities, I think we should encourage them — and encourage those who are thinking about how best to serve God to take another look. I like to think St Benedict would agree. He saw the whole world caught up in a beam of light. Isn’t that what monks and nuns should be: light for the world?

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16 thoughts on “A Word of Encouragement for Followers of Classical Monasticism”

  1. Definitely a stable Light for the World, Sr Catherine. And within women’s communities a trust that women can plan their monasticism, plan decide and carry out their prayer contemplation, whilst living in replenishing community. Putting longer barriers on that replenishing of the monastic communities is shot in the foot time. Open but stable, Holy and sensible, challenging but living in the Light.

    I take St Benedictus holy lead, and much prefer the Lentern weeks and prefer Easter overall. My first Easter in my path towards being received into the Church, was at an RC church in Crouch End, London. It was a bright sunny day, there were people every in the bars and restaurants. Inside the church and in the porch, we’re people kneeling, praying, kneeling in humility at the Holy Friday scene before them, us. A kind of reverent hush, a few tears no doubt as the mass went on. These scenes could be called old fashioned too maybe, maybe similar as some will try to say about enclosed Orders, or religious in the community, but that spirit still works among us, giving us all (those who find it and want it) a very real Holy Sprit experience in our long lives, as relevant today, this year as it was in say 1290 AD.

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  2. Dear Sister,
    Could you please expand a bit on “the rules about numbers and governance” for an interested observer from outside the Roman Catholic tradition? Thank you!

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  3. Thank you for the loving, timely corrective nature of this blog. There are a GOOD many out there “playing at” being monastic – I do not refer to those genuinely called to new paths of living a God-ward life in community (or dispersed!!) – and it is lovely to know that you, and others like you, exist and proclaim the God-ness of God by so doing. It isn’t easy, is it?!

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    • I don’t think anyone has difficulty with those exploring new paths, especially if they acknowledge that being inspired by monasticism isn’t the same as living monasticism traditionally understood. We’ve had a few enquirers genuinely confused about why they would not be allowed to do certain things as members of our community because the monasticism from which they’ve taken their ideas is not what I’ve called classical monasticism. It’s difficult to find the words without upsetting somebody!

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  4. You yourself, your Community and the Community of which you know I am an Oblate, are most certainly light for the world, light for me on my journey. I value your example of stability and your prayer-focused lives and your luminous love of God. You encourage me to keep on track towards holiness.

    My views on Cor Orans are best kept to myself!

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  5. Thank you! Your comments today are especially helpful to me, an Oblate.
    The discipline of RB and my devotion to our Lord is a God-send during this pandemic.
    The Benedictine call to Ora et Labora is crucial to my everyday life.
    A year or so ago, the leader of our Chapter suggest that we work on our own personal Rule. While I did some preliminary construction, it was during the early weeks of the pandemic that I buckled down in challenge to myself to form a RB that would be helpful. It is thanks to all of this that my days are full, my prayer life is full, the house is clean and the garden will flower beautifully again this season.
    I praise God for your comments as well as your own commitment to your Abbess and the other sisters with whom you live your life. Blessings and, above all, Peace!

    Reply
    • May I gently suggest that you have a rule of life inspired by the Rule of St Benedict, no doubt, but it is not to be identified with the Rule of St Benedict itself and should not be called by its name? I shall probably write further on this subject to explain what I mean more fully and will welcome your comments.

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      • Thank you for your comment.
        You’ll be relieved to know that my personal rule is indeed not at odds with the RB, but rather a personal daily schedule based entirely on RB.
        Obviously, to have a personal rule that is all made up as I wish places me in a very dangerous category according to St. Benedict!
        I pray this clarifies things and well addresses your concerns.

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    • A rule of life of one’s own maybe, but it won’t be RB, even though inspired by RB. That has an objective character we must respect — one of the points I was trying to make above. I’ve had a number of email responses about this so will probably write further. In the meantime, my usual ‘Be encouraged!’

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  6. Of course Sr Catherine, and thank you for pointing that out. I respect Benedictus Rule entirely. One is warned against creating ones own rules for things.

    In a former life, I would have had a 3 or 6 month personal strategy with headings of; Work, Spirituality and retreats, Home, Finance, and Hobbies.

    Pax.

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