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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Saints Made for Sinners

Yes, you read that right: saints made for sinners. The feast of All Benedictine Saints is a huge encouragement to those of us who are constantly sliding into sin and failure. We don’t want saints who seem to have led impossibly holy lives from their mother’s womb: the kind who never say an unkind word or do an ungenerous act, who have a natural attraction to prayer and penance and everything we have to struggle with. Nor do we want saints whose lives are incredibly dramatic, full of road-to-Damascus conversions and deeds of holy derring-do. We want saints who are ordinary; who battle with temptation much as we do; who become holy through lives of unspectacular fidelity and goodness. In short, we want saints made of the same material as we are, because we too want to become holy, and if the only model of holiness available to us were the extraordinary one sketched above, we would be spiritual no-hopers.

The fact that we aren’t spiritual no-hopers is largely attributable to all those obscure  saints whose names we’ll never know this side of eternity but who became people the Light shone through. Among them must be thousands of Benedictines — monks, nuns, sisters, oblates and confraters. They show us that we too can become holy, just by being what we are meant to be. There is nothing grand or heroic about being a Benedictine, nothing particularly inspiring. We are spiritual plodders, the ‘poor bloody infantry’ of the Church, serving together under the same banner, standing side by side in the fraterna acies of the community and gradually — oh, how gradually! — learning what it means to follow Christ the Lord. We fight the good fight with what St Benedict called the strong and glorious weapons of obedience and hope, one day, to share everlasting life with all who have loved and served God. Let us ask the prayers of the Benedictine saints we commemorate today, that we too may be granted the grace of perseverance and attain the goal for which we strive.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

On Re-Reading the Prologue to the Rule of St Benedict

Today we begin the second reading of the Rule of St Benedict that occurs during the course of the year. I like the fact that it co-incides with the feast of St Athanasius, about whom I have written extensively in the past (see here or here, for example), because it was his Life of Antony that was to prove so powerful in drawing people to the monastic way of life, and his treatise on the Incarnation of the Word of God that  can be said to inform much of Benedict’s sense of our journeying back to the Father by way of Christ.

One thing that becomes clearer as each year passes is how beautifully Christocentric the Rule is. Today’s passage of the Prologue focuses on the ‘true King, Christ our Lord’ for whom we must fight with ‘the strong and glorious weapons of obedience’. Many people see obedience as a kind of weakness. We all want to be leaders. The idea of listening to another, acting on another’s instructions, is just a teeny bit . . . limp. So, we pick and choose. We will obey in this, but not in that. The vow of obedience may oblige us to obey in all that is not sin, but that still leaves quite a lot of scope for  half-hearted or nominal obedience. (‘O tepidity, I do abhor thee! ‘— Fr Baker) The idea of fighting for Christ with our obedience is an alien notion, because to fight means to risk being wounded, defeated even, and who wants that?

St Antony had to fight the demons who assailed him, and Athanasius leaves us in no doubt what a struggle he had. We have to fight our own demons, and they can be anything from greed to laziness. St Benedict talks of our stripping ourselves of the self-will which encumbers us, weighs us down, holds us back. It can be painful; it makes us vulnerable in ways we never dreamed possible; but it is necessary because it makes us free — free to fight, free to follow. The bright hope of following Christ to glory is held out to us at the very beginning of our monastic life. The tragedy is, we can turn back on the way without necessarily abandoning the cloister. We can refuse to listen, refuse to obey.

Let us pray today for all monks, nuns, oblates and others who find inspiration in the Rule of St Benedict, that the hard labour of obedience may bring us back to the Father, no matter how many siren voices may tempt us astray.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

A Bucket List for a Benedictine

Once upon a time, when we were trying to fundraise for a permanent home, we were advised to read the Mail Online because it covers all the news other online newspapers don’t deign to notice. This includes an almost daily ‘cancer story,’ which often contains a bucket-list of things the cancer sufferer would like to achieve or experience before he or she dies. Personally, I haven’t much time for these. I’m just hoping I’ll have time to tidy my sock drawer, get the accounts in order and burn all the rubbish before I go to meet my Creator.* But it is worth thinking about. What would a Benedictine hope to achieve or experience before dying?

I think first on the list would come the desire to have found, not merely sought, God in prayer, in community, in obedience to the superior. My well-known scepticism about some modern movements that call themselves Benedictine stems from the fact that they seem to short-circuit the process of seeking: they don’t demand that lifelong gift of the entire self that I’d say was essential to the monastic quest for God. Those of us who are Benedictines know that we need the kind of focus and discipline monasticism gives or we’d either give up or make accommodations that, inch by inch, would lead us away from God. We need to stick at this God-seeking of ours. Patience and perseverance in the quest are what matters, and the hope that one day we shall glimpse him of whom our heart has spoken.

Second on my bucket-list would come the desire to have shared the joy and peace of the cloister with others. It is not an easy joy or a facile peace. The crown of thorns that surrounds our motto, pax, has a two-fold nature: it is both the means of attaining what lies within, and a protection for what is attained. There never is, in this life, a moment when the guard can drop or we can say the struggle is at an end, pace St Benedict in RB 7.67. But we are curiously apt to try to keep good things to ourselves, so sharing, learning to be generous, is also a lifelong requirement.

Third I think I would put the desire to have enriched, in however small a degree, the lives of those with whom we may have no direct connection. The scholarship of the Benedictines, the music, the beautiful buildings, the concern for liturgy, they are all part and parcel of the wider vision I think monks and nuns have always had. What we do individually is insignificant; what we do as a community, as a fraterna acies, is much more than we can ever think or dream. Cassian once remarked that anyone who removed even a little dust from the oratory would not go unrewarded. I like to think that those of us who have not ourselves been anything very wonderful but have enabled others to achieve something will not go unrewarded, either.

So, three things in my bucket-list, which is itself very Benedictine (St Benedict’s Rule is full of three-fold patterns); three things for me to aim at personally, three things for the community and our oblates to aim at, too. And if you think they are difficult of achievement, just remember what St Benedict advises: ‘Where our nature is powerless, let us ask the Lord to supply the help of his grace.’ (RB Prologue 47)

*I wouldn’t mind having paid off the bank loan for the house, either; but it’s tidying the sock drawer that weighs on my mind.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Third Degree (of Humility)

The third degree or step of humility is deceptively short and simple:

The third step of humility is, for the love of God, to submit to one’s superior in all obedience, imitating the Lord of whom the apostle says, ‘He became obedient even to death.’
Tertius humilitatis gradus est ut quis pro pro Dei Amore oboedientia se subdat maiori, imitans Dominum, de quo dicat apostolus: Factus oboediens usque ad mortem.  (RB 7. 34)

Does this mean the superior is to obeyed to the letter, no matter how silly or outrageous his demand? No, it is much more difficult than that. Religious superiors are to be obeyed in all that is not sin, and our obedience is to be modelled on that of Christ himself, which means that every gift of mind and heart must be brought to bear in understanding, interpreting and sometimes perhaps even refusing, what is asked. Looked at in this way, mechanical or ‘blind’ obedience can prove to be no obedience at all because it fails in the essential element, which is to listen for the voice of God in what is commanded.

That doesn’t mean obedience is negotiable. We vow it, and we know that one day we shall have to give an account of ourselves to the most just of Judges. The motivation Benedict gives for obedience, here and elsewhere, is significant: love of God. We are not primarily concerned with the smooth running of an organization nor with mortification of our own wills. It is love that prompts us to submit to a superior; love that makes us listen for the voice of God in his commands; and love that makes us weigh whether our compliance should be given instantly and unhesitatingly, or whether we should, at the right time and in the right way, put to our superior the reasons why we think an order may be beyond us or not in the best interests of the community (cf RB 3, 68).

Far from freeing us from personal responsibility, obedience, as conceived of by St Benedict, places on us a very direct and personal responsibility to act maturely and wisely. We are called upon to co-operate with the superior in the service of the community. We are reminded that our obedience unites us with Christ; and just as his obedience led him to suffering and death, so ours may lead us where we would rather not go. We must hold nothing back; and because that is impossible to us by nature, we must pray that it may be given to us by grace.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

How to Be a Good Leader

We usually think about SS Maurus and Placid in terms of discipleship and obedience. In previous years I have commented on the way in which they are presented as near- perfect and the problem that poses for those of us who are imperfect (see here and here). But we live in a world where being a disciple, a follower, isn’t much favoured. We all want to be leaders now. Even applications to join the monastery often read like a pitch to become CEO of a major corporation! I think it is time, therefore, to take the story of Maurus and Placid as told in book II of Gregory’s Dialogues and see what it tells us about leadership rather than discipleship.

Gregory tells us Placid went to fetch water from the lake. Placid fell in but Benedict, being made aware of the situation by God’s grace, sent Maurus to rescue the youngster. Maurus, having received the abbot’s blessing, walked upon the water and rescued Placid. Later, St Benedict attributed the miracle to Maurus’ obedience; Maurus attributed it to St Benedict. It was Placid who settled the matter: ‘When you pulled me out of the water,’ he said,’ I saw over my head Father Abbot’s hood, and I saw that it was he who pulled me from the water.’

The first thing to note is that this is hagiography, not history. It expresses a spiritual truth: the value of obedience in conforming us to Christ. But there is an interesting dynamic at work. Both Maurus and Placid were unhesitatingly obedient to their abbot. Were they simpletons, doing what they were told because they hadn’t the brains or individuality to think for themselves? Was Benedict an overbearing taskmaster whom they feared to disobey, or a charismatic looney of the kind we see in some cults, demanding that his followers do silly or dangerous things? I think the answer is neither. Both Maurus and Placid obeyed Benedict because they trusted him.

Trust tends to get a bad press these days. How many people feel they can trust anyone? Distrust has become our default position. It affects family life; business life; Church life. Leaders may be ‘thrusting’ ‘dynamic’ and all the other buzz words we find bandied around, but are they trustworthy?

The quality which set Benedict apart as a leader was precisely that: trustworthiness. As presented by Gregory in the Dialogues, and even more as we see him in his Rule, Benedict comes across as a true man of God, one who ‘lived as he wrote’; who prayed, worked, served and did not shirk responsibility. He was painfully aware that one day he would have to answer to God for the souls of all those committed to his care, including, in some measure, those who had gone astray. That sense of responsibility affected every decision concerning those over whom he had any authority. It made people trust him, knowing they could rely on him. That is, or should be, true of every religious leader today. I would suggest it should also be true, mutatis mutandis, of every good leader, whatever their sphere.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

All Benedictine Saints

On 13 November we celebrate the feast of All Benedictine Saints (i.e. all those who don’t have a day to themselves, so to say) and host our annual Oblates’ Day at the monastery. There is special joy today because our Canadian oblate, Margaret, will be making her oblation by video conference, in which oblates from other parts of the world will be joining. So why am I sitting at the computer in a distracted frame of mind? It is partly because today’s ‘to do’ list already looks impossible and I am not always optimistic first thing in the morning; it is partly because it is cold and dark and neither is conducive to high spirits; but mainly it is because the thought of holiness is sometimes more daunting than encouraging. Other people become saints; I/we don’t.

Regarding holiness as something ‘other’, attainable only by a special few, is, of course, a snare and delusion. It is also completely unBenedictine. The Rule of St Benedict isn’t meant for supermen or superwomen. It doesn’t prescribe any esoteric practices or extreme ascetical feats. Instead, it asks the monk or nun to live a life of daily fidelity to small things which are actually great things: to living in community under rule and abbot; to prayer, work, service, hospitality; absolute renunciation of personal ownership; an obedience as entire as it is intelligent. In doing so, the Rule shows us a way of living the Gospel that will lead to holiness. The tragedy is that many of us stumble along the way, don’t quite make it, grow weary or give up. That is why Benedictines pray for perseverance; for the grace of daily fidelity. Please pray with and for us.

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Gifted or Great?

Many people mistake giftedness for greatness. The gifts of some are more spectacular than those of others, but they do not make the possessors great. To be gifted is to bear a responsibility; to be great is to have discharged that responsibility well and faithfully. Benedict’s cellarer (business manager) is entrusted with multitudinous responsibilities. ‘He is to have care of everything’ says the Rule (RB 31.3), spelling out the many duties that fall to his lot:

He should take meticulous care of the sick, the young, guests and the poor, knowing for certain that he will have to account for them all on judgement day. All the monastery’s utensils and goods he should regard as if sacred altar vessels. He must let nothing be neglected. (RB 31. 9-11)

He is given a great deal of power, but his greatness will consist in one thing only: the faithful discharge of his office. That is why the qualities Benedict seeks are so profoundly revealing:

a wise person, of mature character, who is abstemious, not greedy, not conceited, nor a trouble-maker, not offensive or lazy or wasteful, but someone who is God-fearing and may be like a father to the whole community. (RB 31.1-2)

In tomorrow’s section of the Rule, we shall find Benedict saying that ‘above all, he should possess humility.’ (RB 31.13)

Clearly, what we have here is a portrait of the ideal steward, one who is obedient to his abbot, doing all things ‘in accordance with the abbot’s instructions’ (RB 31.12), but bringing to his task every gift of heart, mind and soul with which he has been endowed in order to serve God and the community. Benedict knows he will be gifted, but in chapter 31 he asks the person who serves as cellarer to become great, to rise above every natural inclination that may lead him away from his duty or cause him to misuse the power entrusted to him.

I think we can see an analogy here with many different forms of service outside the monastery. It is always tempting to be a little self-seeking, to enjoy one’s progress up the ladder, so to say. Those who have taken the Rule to heart and wish to apply Benedict’s principles to their daily lives are confronted in this chapter with the Gospel ethic, and it may not make comfortable reading. We have been called and chosen to give glory to God by our lives; we have had gifts lavished upon us. How we use those gifts, how we live our lives, is what will make us great — or not.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Listening

We begin the new year by celebrating the oldest Marian feast in the calendar and re-reading the Rule of St Benedict, starting with the Prologue. Just as the Rule begins with the word Obsculta, ‘Listen’, so Mary’s whole life was a constant listening to God in humble obedience to his will. Now that the fireworks and the partying are over, how will you spend 2013? Will you be listening, or will you be doing all the talking? If you want to know the answer, take a look at your new year resolutions (if you’ve made any). If they are mere wishes, things you’d like to happen, but with no serious attempt on your part to make them come about, it could be that you are mainly talking. If, on the other hand, they are serious attempts at improvement, which will require effort and commitment on your part, it could be that you’ve begun listening. Prospere procede!

Note
Last year I wrote about today’s feast as the hinge of the year. I think it’s still valid, see here.

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Doing the Impossible

Doing the impossible comes naturally to Benedictines: we have a whole chapter of the Rule devoted to it, RB 68. Anyone able to fulfil its requirements is undoubtedly guilty of heroic virtue. First, the impossible command must be accepted with perfect gentleness and obedience, not easy when one sees its impossibility (RB 68.1). Only if absolutely clear about the inability to comply can one raise an objection, and even then, one can’t just blurt out the objection, one has to choose an appropriate moment to explain everything calmly and politely to one’s superior (RB 68.3). Any form of argumentativeness is ruled out, and if the superior declines to accept the validity of the objection, tough. We must obey, ‘and, trusting in God’s help, out of love obey.’ (RB 68.5)

I think this short chapter of the Rule which we read today gives the lie to those who think that there is anything ‘moderate’ about RB. We are asked to transcend our normal way of acting, to strive for an obedience which truly reflects the obedience of Christ. Heroic virtue, as I indicated, is never popular. It can be uncomfortable to others, challenging their attitudes and expectations, but note the characteristic note of  humility and love with which Benedict concludes his chapter. That is the key to understanding what it is all about: allowing Christ to act in and through us.

Doing the impossible is not an ascetic feat, an attempt to be superhuman, it is rather an acknowledgement that God can do so much more than we could ever think or dream, and au fond, all that we do is done in love or it is worthless. I think I’d like to be guilty of that, wouldn’t you?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail