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.

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A Leap of Faith

BRo Duncan PBGV takes a leap in the snowThroughout Europe a Siberian blast is sending us all into a collective shiver. Here in Britain the ‘Beast from the East’ makes our customary preoccupation with the weather a source of much merriment if we’re sitting round a warm fireside, or much misery if waiting cold and numb for a ‘bus or train that is late or never comes. Our attitude is constantly shifting, and it does not take much to turn us from one to the other.

Lent can be a bit like that. There are some mornings when we awake full of fervour and good will, ready to ‘do battle with the dragon black’. At others, we can barely bring ourselves to come out from under the duvet. It is no use exhorting our unenthusiastic selves to ‘stop idling’ or ‘get going’. All that tends to do is to induce feelings of guilt or failure. Instead, we have to trust (which is faith by another name). Lent is not working out quite as we hoped or intended, but provided we don’t put up any deliberate obstacles to grace, it is working out as the Lord intended. Just going on despite our failures and backslidings — what monastics call perseverance — is what counts. We have to make a daily leap of faith, almost without realising what we are doing. It may not be a very large or brave one, but it will be enough to set us on the road to salvation, to Easter joy and bliss. Be encouraged!Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail