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who follow this older way are sometimes treated with a curious kind of disregard, as though the way we live is archaic, no longer valid.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?
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 VitaLeobae, 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.
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.
After another sleepless night, I can report a little black humour to mark my emergence from under the chemo cosh. Cor Orans, the document which establishes the norms for implementing the Apostolic Constitution Vultum Dei Quaerere, assures us, with dreadful earnestness, that nuns may now use Social Media ‘with sobriety and discretion.’ Of course I agree with the need for discretion, but having been using Social Media for about ten years — probably longer than many of the clergy and others who felt it necessary to give nuns guidance on the matter — my main reaction is a mixture of despair and irritation. Despair, because yet again the Vatican shows itself to be out of touch with the reality of women’s (i.e. not just nuns’) lives, and in seeking to control is in danger of losing whatever moral authority it still commands; irritation, because with all the world’s problems, to devote time and energy to something that I think most nuns have already thought and prayed about sufficiently to have arrived at a sensible decision regarding its appropriate use, is embarrassing.
It hurts to say I am embarrassed by the Church to which I belong and her heavy-handed approach to facets of modern life that she should be embracing, not condemning or viewing with suspicion. It seems to be only a few years ago that we nuns laughed about being given permission to use fax machines, with due discretion and limitations, naturally, and were tempted to email our response, only the Vatican wasn’t using email at the time!
I do have a serious point to make, and it isn’t a grumble. The text of Cor Orans raises many concerns for us as a small contemplative community*, but I think it raises even bigger ones for women in the Church as a whole. I have never been entirely convinced that there are two differing forms of spirituality, one masculine and the other feminine, with the masculine needing comparatively few rules and the feminine needing very close regulation. If Pope Francis is serious about using the gifts of all the Church’s members, then I genuinely believe that he and all the other senior clergy must take seriously the fact that women are not second-class beings. We can be as intelligent, well-educated, fervent and disciplined as any man. To presume that we are somehow lacking in any of those qualities is deeply insulting. True, some women have not had the educational opportunities given to men; true, there are still parts of the world where cultural constraints mean that women are condemned to secondary roles; but, if we have heeded the gospels of Easter Week, how can we assert that this is divinely ordained?
I became a nun in response to what I believe to be my vocation. I have never wavered in my desire to live that vocation as whole-heartedly and generously as possible but I am dismayed to discover that there is doubt whether I and other nuns can really be trusted with it, online or off. And what is true of nuns in that respect is, I fear, true of all women — though, happily, women who are not nuns may apparently use Social Media without the limitation of ‘sobriety and discretion’. I’m tempted to say, ‘Go for it!’
* See, for example, the concluding paragraphs of Cor Orans, Final Dispositions.