Monastic Jargon

Recently I had the somewhat dubious pleasure of hearing myself discussed by members of the medical profession in the jargon of their trade. Unhappily for them, knowing a little Greek and Latin meant that I wasn’t quite as excluded from the conversation as they assumed. Monastic jargon operates on a different principle from medical jargon. Instead of using a vocabulary many find strange or bewildering, it uses common words, but in uncommon ways. Some of the words are shorthand for a whole set of ideals or values that are often subtly different from what people expect. Thus, humility, in a monastic context, is about truthfulness rather than an assumed attitude of servility; obedience is about listening and seeking understanding rather than mechanically performing a task. Nowhere is this clearer, perhaps, than in the language St Benedict uses about prayer.

Prayer is not complicated. It cannot be because it is the very air the monk or nun breathes and accompanies every moment of the day. The minute prescriptions Benedict gives for the perfromance of the liturgy in chapters 8 to 19 are rounded off by a twentieth chapter on prayer remarkable for its simplicity and poetry. St Benedict assumes we can pray; that we want to pray; and directs us to ‘just go in and pray’. We don’t need a book to teach us. All we need is to get down to it. The words St Benedict uses about prayer are correspondingly simple and direct, and he uses verbs more often than nouns, orare rather than oratio.

A similarly robust approach characterises St Benedict’s attitudes to relationships within the community. Chapter 63, On Community Order, gives not only a practical solution to the problem of rank but a warm and humane exposition of the ideal of fraternal relations. For a Benedictine, the words ‘senior’ and ‘junior’ thus carry with them a whole host of references that transform them into an expression of the love that should be at the heart of community life. The special place of the abbot is signified by the vocabulary Benedict uses of him; so again, we have a jargon expressive of an ideal rather than one meant to exclude others from understanding.

There is one further difference we ought to note. Medical jargon, like the jargon of many other trades and professions, is precise: it is meant to mean only one thing, and once one has mastered it, one can be fairly confident of conveying what one intends. Monastic jargon, by contrast, is ever-expanding. As one’s experience grows, so does one’s understanding and appreciation of the richness of the concept a word conveys. One grows in understanding of obedience, humility, fraternal love. One grows, too, in understanding of monastic discipline and its purpose, so that words like ‘excommunication’ take on an ever deeper import. Above all, one learns that speech of any kind is freighted with meaning and significance, so that restraint in speech is the mark of one who desires to be a true disciple of the Lord. In the end, monastic jargon is something of a paradox: a necessary tool, but only in the context of the silence in which most of monastic life is lived.