Monastic Life, Contemplative Life, and ‘Cor Orans’

Quietnun reads
The library is always an important part of a Benedictine house.

Yesterday was the feast of St Boniface, apostle of Germany. Inevitably, my thoughts turned to all who had been involved in the Anglo-Saxon Mission, including the nuns, of whom Boniface had a high opinion, especially St Leoba of Wimborne and Tauberbischofsheim. I found myself reflecting on the way in which Rudolph of Fulda’s Vita Leobae, composed in about 837, shows the sea-change that came over Benedictine life for women in the ninth century following the Capitularia of Aachen (817). From there it was a short step to today’s post which may be of use to those who, like me, are puzzling over the kind of life Cor Orans has in mind. It is only a sketch, written from my own understanding and experience of being a Benedictine nun, but I think it could be developed.

Cor Orans and the Contemplative Life for Women
Cor Orans states that it is an Instruction regarding women’s contemplative life. It explicitly addresses those who are cloistered or enclosed, i.e. those canon law calls moniales, nuns. What it fails to do, I think, is to consider the monastic life for women apart from and alongside the contemplative life, although it occasionally refers to monastic life and contemplative life as though they were one and the same. Its preferred term throughout is contemplative. Although that is understandable, given the usage of past times, I would say it is questionable nowadays because of the accretion of essentially non-monastic ideas that have grown up around the word contemplative. To some the distinction will seem unimportant; to others, I hope it will introduce a note of clarity. Equating the monastic and the contemplative life leads to assumptions that I would suggest are not valid, and I foresee  a lot of heartache resulting from the failure to be clear about both.

The whole Church is called to be contemplative
All Christians should be, in some sense, contemplative. It is the vocation of the Church as a whole. The particular way in which individuals live that vocation has been mapped out in the past and led to some unfortunate consequences. For instance, some people have the idea the idea that contemplation is somehow opposed to action, even perhaps superior to it, instead of being, as it really is, intimately connected with, and inseparable from, it. Or we assume that a particular way of praying — contemplative prayer— allows us to designate Benedictines, Carmelites, Poor Clares and so on as, one and all, contemplatives, as though that were a sufficient definition. Doing so tends to ignore the monastic element in our lives, and the very real differences that exist between us. It also downplays the contemplative element in the so-called active orders and in lay life generally, which, once pointed out, can be seen for the absurdity it is.

Being monastic
While not wishing to dispute the claim of Carmelites, Poor Clares or others to be monastic in many ways, I think it would be fair to say that not all are monastic in the same way that Benedictines are. The antiquity of our Rule and the sources on which Benedict relies are evidence of an older, perhaps I should say more primitive, form of monasticism. Likewise, many would argue that Benedictines are not contemplative in the same way Carmelites and Poor Clares are — I have certainly been told that we are not ‘really’ contemplatives. Over the centuries we have all evolved different structures, different ways of being that express our differing understandings of what we are about. The enclosure rules of the Carmelites, for example, have never really sat well with the Benedictines, any more than the severe fasts of the Poor Clares.* Where we place the emphasis — on the monastic or the contemplative element in our lives — thus becomes significant.

What is ‘special’ about the Benedictines?
Benedictines existed before the concept of religious orders and have always prized their independent and self-reliant character — what most people think of as autonomy. Our structures are simple, and in monasteries of nuns our public prayer is less given to the kind of devotions that are nowadays urged upon contemplative women’s communities. More than that, and most importantly, monks or nuns, we have always engaged with the culture of our times. That is not just an extra: it is part of how we are Benedictines. A Benedictine monastery should not only be a place where prayer and the pursuit of holiness are central, it should also be a place of learning, hospitality, welcome, a beacon that draws people to Christ, we might say, rather than a hidden stream. It should have a generous spirit, an appreciation of what is beautiful and true, and a sense of responsibility for others — an awareness of mission or purpose, if you like. The Wimborne nuns had an important part to play in the Anglo-Saxon Mission which they could not have sustained had they been bound by later ideas of enclosure and disengagement from society. I would say that, even today, despite centuries of legislation that have tended to circumscribe the lives of religious women, Benedictine nuns have more in common with Benedictine monks than they do with their Carmelite or Poor Clare peers because, for us, the emphasis is on being monastic rather than contemplative.

The Benedictine vows express this monastic emphasis very clearly. The vow of obedience is common to all traditions, although the way in which Benedictines interpret it may look slightly different to an outsider. We do not take vows of poverty or chastity, as such, but rather the older forms, stabilitas and conversatio morum. These include a commitment to community (stabilitas), a promise of lifelong single chastity and an undertaking to live frugally (conversatio morum), but also encompass much more. The vow of conversatio, in particular, is a vow to live as a monk or nun should live, in every detail. It cannot be reduced to anything less. I think myself that this is often misunderstood. To vow perpetual conversion, a constant turning to the Lord, to live as we should live, is impossible without developing, insofar as one can, familiarity with scripture and the Fathers, and cultivating an intense life of liturgical and private prayer, humility and service. It is the reason Benedictinism has been perpetually able to reinvent itself, so to say, to adapt to different circumstances and changing conditions. Without it, monasticism is mere fancy dress, an illusion. It has no heart. But contemplative prayer is only one element, albeit an important, even necessary, element, in a particular way of living our discipleship. Using the term monastic at once frees the kind of life it denotes from the false notions that have grown up around the use of the word contemplative. It is not esoteric, or reserved for a special few. It is graced ordinariness.

Recapturing the monastic ideal
I think we need to recapture that sense of what it is to be monastic in the Church and to see it as something that concerns us all. There is not, in essence, one kind of monastic life for men and another for women, although monks who are clergy will inevitably have duties that those who are not clergy don’t. In recent centuries the Church has tended to think in rigidly binary categories, male/female, active/contemplative. That in itself has done a great disservice to many active religious, male as well as female, whose service of the Church and of the world stems from their contemplative heart.** In the same way, I would suggest that it is time we looked again at the category contemplative and recognized that it is now an inadequate way of characterising religious women who live lives as diverse as, say, Benedictines and Poor Clares. The paradox of living a solitary life in the midst of community, of being alone with the Alone, is both a spiritual and a human reality. Isn’t it time we recognized it and allowed the monastic life for women to take its rightful place in our thinking and in Church legislation?

*In the seventeenth century, it became quite common for Benedictine nuns to take a vow of perpetual enclosure, but this was a result of tendencies within Counter-Reformation spirituality that were not, in origin, Benedictine. As a research student, I smiled over the fortress-like regulations for enclosure walls set by St Carlo Borromeo and wondered whether they were enforced or remained a figment of the legislator’s imagination.

**Religious brothers have not always been given the respect and attention that is their due.