Monastic Prophets

The one thing we all know about prophets is that they tend to be unpopular, especially among their own. Unfortunately, it does not follow that if we are unpopular we are prophets, though many have made that mistake. After the Second Vatican Council, it became common to talk about the ‘prophetic witness’ of monasticism and much of my early monastic life seems to have been spent listening to men in sandals speaking eloquently about the renunciations we undertake, the sacred space of the monastery buildings, and the unique communion we enjoy as members of a monastic community. Even at the time, part of me was registering something not quite right about it all. Dom David Knowles, of happy memory, combined real scholarship and exquisite prose with cheerful acknowledgement of the fact that he inserted a ‘purple page’ among every three or four that he wrote. He knew that words have power to move us, quite independent of the facts or opinions they express. He was, in some ways, a ‘failed’ monastic prophet himself, who had urged a simpler and purer way of life on his own community and been rejected. That rejection, and Dom David’s reaction to it, led to many years of estrangement and, I suspect, a profound loneliness out of which he created something immensely valuable, the prophetic witness he was meant to give, not the one he thought he was to give. I find it helpful to remember that when thinking about monastic prophets in general, but can we go a little deeper? How can monasticism be prophetic?

That mythical being, the average layperson, has a few preconceptions about monasticism. There is the romanticism of the habit, the gothic grandeur of the buildings, and the quaintness of much of the life — monks gliding along endless cloisters, singing beautifully in clouds of incense, and making us grin with their little foibles, their beer and wine-making and the honey from their bees. It is all deliciously other-worldly. When they speak to us of God, we listen, because they are the experts — and we can screen out anything we do not particularly want to hear. The nuns have a slightly harder time of it, because we like them to be hidden (except when we want access or photos on Instagram, of course) and we expect them to be demure and docile and good at listening to us. The problem comes when the monk or nun challenges this cosy view of things and asks some searching questions of the community or of society at large; when, in fact, they do the work of the prophet, seeking to bring us back to our senses and to God. In a way, we expect that of monks, at least of some monks, but of nuns not so much. So, the first problem we face is: are we listening, and are we listening to the right people, the genuine prophets, or only to those who say what we want to hear?

This can get quite complicated when we think about the way in which the Church has become split over ‘traditional’ versus ‘progressive’. We bandy words about and claim that our party is the ‘right’ one, usually because it is more numerous. A couple of years ago, when Pope Francis issued his Apostolic Constitution, Vultum Dei Quaerere, I wrote a short post on how to judge a monastery (see here). I expressed some doubts about using numbers as the sole, or even the main, criterion of authenticity or viability, in more secular terms, success. It seemed to me then, and even more now that Cor Orans has given definite form and scope to the Constitution, that looking only at the numbers is akin to applying the prosperity gospel to monastic life. The more you have, the more God has blessed you. That doesn’t seem very prophetic to me and begs the question, what is it that the Church has a right to demand from those of us who live the monastic life? How can we be prophets for our times?

The answer I gave in my earlier post is still the one I would give today — holiness  is the first and most important witness any of us can give — but I think I would want to expand on that a little. There is a great deal in our lives that is truly counter-cultural, and though I love the habit we wear as a sign of our continuity with the Benedictines of the past, and have no scruples about the pursuit of beauty in our liturgy or our buildings, I regard these things as secondary. It is doing the work of the monk that matters; and the work of the monk is largely prayer, silence, chastity, obedience, community and learning. There are several items there that are definitely not popular. Take the romantic gloss off a lifelong commitment to single chastity and you will find many a monk or nun who has experienced a great loneliness even in the midst of community. Obedience is wonderful, until it breaks your heart; and that commitment to prayer, day in, day out, can lead to many a secret battle with one’s own demons, not to mention Brother X or Sister Y, who are impossible. However, it is learning that I should like to dwell on for a moment.

We are often told that the first monks and nuns eschewed learning, not so the Benedictines. Reading slowly, carefully, consistently, always listening for the voice of the Lord, is characteristic of lectio divina, but it is also characteristic of the scholar’s search for truth and the learned person’s quest for understanding. Many people today seem to have lost interest in truth and understanding because it requires effort and because it may confront us with ideas we’d rather not consider or make us give up positions we have long held or find comfortable. It unsettles us, and most of us do not like being unsettled. Enter the Benedictines! We are not preachers or teachers, but we are men and women of prayer and reflection. We may say little, but that little should always be seasoned with salt. It should come from a full mind as well as a full heart. Benedictines have always engaged with the culture of the times and I believe it is even more important that we do so now, when the whole idea of a specifically Christian culture is under siege from all sides.

When historians of the future look back on the twenty-first century, it may be in the monasteries that they will find the prophetic flame, that witness to the transcendence of God and the importance of holiness that we attempt to articulate in our words and, even more, in our deeds. It will never make us popular, and experience suggests that there will be more failures than successes, but, as they say in Spain, ‘Vale la pena.’ It’s worth the bother, because our salvation, and the salvation of the whole world, is at stake.*

* I am here expressing the orthodox Catholic view that, although our Saviour has redeemed us, we each of us have free will, and free will allows us either to accept or reject the salvation offered us.