Monastic Fundamentals

Monastery Crucifix
Monastery Crucifix

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first thing anyone sees when they come to the monastery is this large and beautiful crucifix facing them as they step through the door. In every room of the monastery they will find another, smaller crucifix. They act as a reminder that this is God’s house, and whether one lives here permanently as we do, or stays only a few hours as a guest, God’s loving gaze is upon us at all times. We live every hour in the presence of God and his angels (cf RB 7.28) and that simple fact is at the heart of everything we say or do (or should be!), both as individuals and as a community. It is, quite literally, fundamental.

Monastic life is a ‘slow living, slow growth’ kind of existence. Unless one is unusually saintly, one can’t become a monk or nun in just a year or two or without the intention of lifelong commitment. The whole of the Rule of St Benedict is concerned with maturation in Christ, of being gradually transformed by the practices of monastic living into someone who reflects the holiness of God (cf RB 73). It takes time to do that, so we have to stick at it, living out the vow of conversatio morum in quiet, unspectacular ways. Perseverance, going on and not giving up, no matter how many mistakes we make or wrong turns we take, that is what matters. Community living, subject to a rule and superior, scrapes away at selfishness and pride, revealing what we are really made of. The faces of old monks and nuns sometimes have a beauty and serenity born of much struggle, and if one is fortunate enough to talk with them, one goes away blessed with a sense of great wisdom expressed in a few lapidary phrases.

Once a year we make an eight day retreat when we take stock of our lives and try to deepen our commitment to what I call monastic fundamentals. This year we have decided to go offline completely; so from 5 to 13 September inclusive, I won’t be blogging and the daily prayer intentions on our Facebook page and Twitter will be automated scheduled posts. If anyone needs to contact us REALLY urgently, we’d ask you to use our mobile number as we are also switching off the house telephone (it has a maddening tendency to ring in the middle of the night!). Please pray for us as we pray for you.

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Mindfulness: the First Step of Humility

Three times every year we re-read RB 7, St Benedict’s sustained treatment of humility, and it never fails to strike me that the first quality he singles out is mindfulness — keeping the fear of God before one’s eyes at all times and never forgetting it; constantly keeping in mind all that God has commanded . . . recollecting that one is always seen by God in heaven . . . always saying in one’s heart, and so on and so forth (RB 7. 10–18). In Benedict’s monastery, there is neither opportunity nor excuse for forgetfulness. God is always and everywhere present, and that is the ground of our humility.

It certainly makes sense to me that constant awareness of God would preclude any pride or vanity, but isn’t it rather a strain to be always thinking of God and godly things, a little forced? I think that may be one reason why the Rule provides a whole way of life in which God is always at the centre. Everything in the monastery, from its layout to its contents, is intended to reinforce this awareness of God, but naturally and without effort. Already in this first degree or step of humility Benedict is looking towards the twelfth, when the monk or nun will ‘begin to observe without struggle, as though naturally and from habit, all those things which earlier he did not observe without dread.’ (RB 7. 68) Tellingly, the motivation he gives for this new way of acting is ‘no longer for fear of hell but for love of Christ and from good habit and delight in virtue.’ (RB7. 69) That is the goal of mindfulness, of humility in all its forms, and it is the work of the Holy Spirit. (RB7. 70)

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Delight in Virtue

Whenever I read what St Benedict has to say about the twelfth step of humility (RB 7. 62-70), a different word or phrase tends to strike me. This morning it was his observation that when we finally come to the perfect love that casts out fear, we do all that we formerly did ‘no longer for fear of hell but for love of Christ and from good habit and delight in virtue (delectatione virtutum)’. I am accustomed to noting that this chapter follows the Rule of the Master quite closely, that Benedict’s ‘good habit’ is not very far from Cassian’s ‘love of the good’ (amore ipsius boni), and that, like Cassian, Benedict introduces reference to the love of Christ (in Cassian it is affectus Christi) to end his chapter on a ‘high’. But it was that ‘delight in virtue’ which hit me today.

‘Delight’ is such a beautiful word, full of warmth and charm. Is that what we associate with virtue? For many of us, acting virtuously has elements of struggling against our inclinations, being good when secretly we would prefer to be bad — or at any rate, slightly less good than we feel we ought to be. Virtue has a brisk, cold bath quality to it: it is good for us and for others, but it is difficult to convince ourselves that it is anything other than a trifle unpleasant. We are glad when we have been virtuous; actually being virtuous is less appealing.

Benedict’s conclusion to his chapter on humility presents us with a real challenge. To find joy, delight, in being humble and in the practices that lead to humility, means a reversal of values. Self has to move from centre-stage; Christ has to become all in all. We shall never attain that kind of freedom by our own efforts; it has to be the work of grace. I think an important part of that is rethinking our vocabulary. All the words that suggest struggle and grim determination tend to focus us on ourselves; those that point to Christ are much lighter, happier, gayer in the old-fashioned meaning of the word. Delight in virtue. That’s not a bad imperative for the day, is it?

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Loss of Enthusiasm

Whether we call it loss of enthusiasm or End of the World Syndrome, we all know what it is: the moment when feelings go flat and the world turns monochrome. We no longer believe, no longer hope, all is is blank and bleak. When this moment comes in the novitiate, then the real work of conversion can begin. We no longer try for perfection by our own efforts but settle for the rather messier, less obvious work of the Holy Spirit in us. (cf RB 7.70) So, too, with life in general. Enthusiasm is a great quality, especially when the inspiration comes from God; but it is not meant to be a permanent state. If, today, you are feeling knee-high to a grasshopper, lacking energy and bored stiff by everything, do not assume that something dreadful has happened to you. You are simply discovering anew what it means to be human. Like it or not, we have to be human to be redeemed; and isn’t that a rather wonderful and inspiring thought?

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True and False Humility

Saturday is a busy day, not one for thinking Deep Thoughts, is it? Unfortunately, today happens to be the one on which we read RB 7. 51 to 54, the so-called Seventh Step of Humility, which confronts us with the difference between true and false humility.

The seventh step of humility is not only to admit openly to being inferior and of less account than anyone else, but also to believe it in one’s inmost heart, humbling oneself and saying with the prophet, ‘I am indeed a worm and not a human being, a byword among men and laughing-stock of the people. I was exalted and have been humbled and brought to confusion;’ (cfr Pss 21[22].7 and 87[88].16) and further, ‘It was good for me that you have humbled me, that I may learn your commandments.’ (Ps 118[119].71, 73)

At first sight, St Benedict seems rather OTT, urging us to go around admitting our inferiority and comparing ourselves with worms. However, if we pay close attention to his opening words, the quotations from the psalms are given a different context, a much more challenging one. It is easy to say, ‘I’m no good’. It lets us off the hook. We can simultaneously excuse ourselves for any shortcoming and at the same time bask in our own abasement. That is false humility. What St Benedict actually says is rather different.

We are asked, first of all, to believe in our own unimportance. That is not quite the same as proclaiming our unworthiness. In fact, it is a much quieter business altogether, which is why most of us don’t like it. True humility doesn’t draw attention to itself. Secondly, we are given a context for our unimportance. Benedict quotes the Passion psalms, to remind us that our humility is grounded in Christ. We need to think about that. To recognize that we are not the centre of the universe yet are made in the image and likeness of God, endowed with a beauty and perfection which is truly God-given, is to see clearly both our infinite worth and our utter dependence upon God. There can be no room for pride in that because it is the vision of truth. In the same way, to realise that our littleness is taken up into Christ’s greatness, that our small disappointments and failures are transformed by the sacrifice of Calvary, is to understand that humility gives us a safe place on which to stand, indeed, the only safe place: in Christ.

This short paragraph of the Rule is a gem, worth mulling over as we go about our Saturday tasks.

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