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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