On Being Monastic

Today’s feast of the Holy Abbots of Cluny seems to have inspired people to tell me what being monastic means. I had been thinking about composing a Letter to a Would-Be Nun for Vocations Sunday, but few readers can be bothered with long posts, so perhaps I can abstract a few details and offer a few thoughts of my own on the subject in the context of today’s feast.

Cluny was Benedictine, and Benedict was very clear about what a monk should be and how he should behave. You will never find him using the word monk when someone falls below the expected standard or acts in a way inconsistent with the ideal: he uses the word brother instead. That tells us something quite important. When we act badly or let others down in some way, our relationship with the community is not broken but we forfeit the right to be thought of as expressing its values. Cluny ’s reputation in the earlier Middle Ages stood high precisely because it was a very disciplined organisation and its monks expressed the monastic ideal in ways that made a profound impact on others.

First of all, there was community, there was an abbot and there was a rule of life (the Rule of St Benedict) which each followed. Now, I may be guilty of partiality here, but I think what we know of Cluniac history (and we know a great deal) suggests that obedience to the Rule and to the abbot gave the community its characteristic qualities. The laus perennis for which it would become famous stemmed from its understanding of the role of liturgical prayer; its scholarship derived from its engagement with the culture of the times and its concern for hospitality; its wealth was the by-product of living simply and chastely. What do I mean when I say that?

For many people monasticism is a bit of a mystery, often a romantic mystery. It’s all about wearing funny clothes and inhabiting grand buildings. The reality tends to be disappointing. It’s really about lifelong single chastity, obedience, prayer and the service of others. The grand buildings, where they exist, are often a headache to the cellarer, who must try to keep the roof on and the rooms heated, Even the Divine Office can become a source of intense suffering to the musical, while the less talented usually discover some other mortification they were not expecting. The point is, the monks of Cluny stuck at being monks despite the difficulties they encountered, either individually or as a community. They persevered; and perseverance is one of those unshowy qualities many people practise in their marriages or ordinary lives but which a monk (or nun) must practise faithfully every day because the life of the community depends on the fidelity of its members The community exists for no other reason than to give glory to God. It does not exist to provide mutual support or upbuilding (though it does); it does not exist to allow individual talents to flourish (though they will); it exists solely for God. I cannot empgasize that enough.

Cluny demonstrated in a remarkable way how existing solely for God could be translated into structures and practices we continue to value today, though the abbey of Cluny itself is now a ruin. Most of us who try to live the monastic life would be the first to confess that we don’t live up to the ideal, but we do try; and sometimes all the love and the striving is in that daily trying. Be encouraged if you, too, are trying.


The Holy Abbots of Cluny and the Gift of Piety

By one of those celestial co-incidences that are so helpful to the monastic blogger, today we celebrate the holy abbots of Cluny and reach the point in our novena when we pray for the gift of piety. Odo, Maiolus, Odilo, Hugh, and Peter the Venerable exemplify what we used to call ‘love of holy religion’. Their work for the beauty of the liturgy and everything pertaining to it is well-known (though I am not sure how many know that Peter ordered the Koran to be translated into Latin, so that Islam could be studied from its original sources). They were truly pious. Unfortunately, that word has become endowed with less truthful and less desirable attributes. Piety for some has become almost synonymous with hypocrisy. Those of us who recall the exploits of ‘pius Aeneas’ in the pages of Vergil have to struggle with his trickery and hardness of heart. It all adds up to a rather confused picture.

The Church, however, has always been very clear what she means by piety. It is the instinctive love and reverence for God that makes us want to worship him and do his will. It is analogous to the love of a child for a parent or of two spouses for one another. It is not, and cannot be, forced. It is the Holy Spirit working within us, drawing us to prayer and service. It makes us want to be reverent; makes us want to be pleasing to God. It is thus the gift that makes the practice of our religion easy. As we ask for this grace, let us pray the collect of the day, with its echoes of the Rule of St Benedict and its encouragement that we shall attain what we ask:

O God, refuge and surpassing reward
of those who walk blamelessly in your presence,
perfect in us, we beseech you,
the love of holy religion,
that by the example and intercession of the blessed Abbots of Cluny
we may run with dilated hearts along the way of charity.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.