Occasionally, I am asked questions that I spend my whole life trying to answer. For example, someone recently emailed asking me to explain the monastic vision and how it differs from any other kind of vision. I still haven’t replied, because this blog and what we say on our main website are probably the best answer I can give; but the fact that something is hard or would take a lifetime to articulate fully is no excuse for not trying to say something. Tomorrow, Candlemas or, more formally, the Presentation of the Lord, is the high-point of the Year of Consecrated Life, the World Day of Prayer; so here is an attempt, brief and of necessity incomplete, to try to express one nun’s understanding of what it means to be a Benedictine engaged in the monastic search for God.
My starting-point is the Gospel and the Rule of St Benedict, the one illumining the other. We are engaged on a journey back to God from whom we have strayed. For most people the path marked out will be the ordinary one of marriage/partnership and family life, or the less usual one of singleness. For the monk or nun, however, there is an essential solitariness (cf monos) that goes beyond being single. The only way I can begin to describe it is as an emptiness only God can fill: a stripping away of self-will, of ownership of anything or anyone, a complete and utter dispossession. From most people’s point of view, that is nonsense: it is natural to surround ourselves with people and things, to make a home in the world. I would be the first to agree that there is nothing wrong with that and much that is right, provided we don’t become obsessive about acquiring more and more. But the monk or nun isn’t called to make a home in the world, nor are we called to live lives that make sense in a way others understand. We are simultaneously on the edge of society, like John the Baptist, and at its heart, like Thérèse of Lisieux. What we do (or don’t do), how we spend our time, the great cycle of public and private prayer that determines the shape of our days is, from a worldly perspective, entirely pointless. We may incidentally become great scholars, artists, educators, champagne-makers or what-have-you, but that is not what we are aiming at; it is not the point of our lives.
For a monk or nun there is only one aim: to be conformed as completely as possible to Christ. Many people are able to achieve that through a normal family life; we can’t, and it is because we can’t that we are drawn to monastic life. From the outside, there is much that seems contradictory. We talk about being possessionless, yet monasteries tend to acquire property over time, some of it very expensive property; we stress obedience, yet there are those whose concept of obedience is, shall we say, at best elastic; we are very conscious of failure, both individual and corporate. From the inside, the contradictions are fewer. It is possible to live lives of real austerity in the midst of plenty; to go on, day after day, cheerfully fulfilling tasks for which we feel no attraction; to fall and get up again. Little by little, that constant exposure to scripture and prayer, that daily experience of imperfect human nature under an imperfect superior in an imperfect community, does its work. In old monks and nuns one often sees a beauty and a holiness that, for me at least, convince me it is all worthwhile. The point of being pointless, so to say, can never be expressed in utilitarian terms because, in the end, it is all about love — love given and received, love made visible in Jesus Christ.
On Candlemas Day, please pray for all who are trying to live religious life as well as we can.