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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The Right and Wrong Kinds of Piety

A ‘Kemble cup’ is a Herefordshire expression for a parting drink. Its origin lies in the last hours of St John Kemble, whose feast we keep today. Falsely accused of complicity in the Titus Oates plot, he was apprehended and sentenced to death (at the age of 80). Before his execution he insisted on saying his prayers and finishing a cup of sack, inviting his jailers to join him. Fr Kemble is exactly my kind of saint: not pious as many understand piety, but truly devout because truly human.

In my (limited) experience, Catholics and Evangelicals both have a difficulty with piety. Put simply, we have a tendency to overdo it. Whether it be multiplying statues and devotions, or scripture quotations and Hallelujahs, we surround ourselves with an aura of godliness that doesn’t always bear inspection. We say the words and we do the deeds, but are we being completely honest with God or ourselves? Is the piety true or false? I have always believed in being as honest as one can with God, admitting one’s doubts, fears, anger, whatever is the struggle of the moment. Yes, one would like to live with a serene and untroubled faith — but that wouldn’t be real; and a real faith is what one needs.

So, this morning, a word of encouragement for all those who feel they are somehow substandard Christians because they aren’t quite ‘good enough’; because they go to church reluctantly sometimes, or eat or drink too much, or have messy personal relationships or just don’t quite ‘get it’. Faith is a funny thing. It tends to come and go. Moments of great enthusiasm are often followed by long periods of lassitude and weariness. What matters is perseverance, not piety as that is commonly understood. One of the Desert Fathers was asked the secret of his spiritual life. He replied, ‘I fall down, and I get up. I fall down, and I get up.’ That is the right kind of piety, and one we can all practise.

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The Inner Desert

For many Benedictines the feast of St Antony is bitter-sweet. On the one hand there is the immense pull of the desert, the desire to live ‘alone with the Alone’; on the other, there is the recognition that St Benedict’s ambivalence about hermits is fully justified — especially in our own case. The eremitical vocation is rare and very far from being what many assume it is. Few can live it generously and well. The rest of us have to admit the gulf between what we would like to be and what we actually are. We are inspired by the one but wisely held in check by the reality of the other.

Athanasius’ Life of Antony can be read at many levels. One element often passed over by modern readers are the battles between Antony and the demons. Some smile over this evidence of ancient credulity; others explain it away with reference to psychology; comparatively few make the effort to understand its place in the narrative of the saint’s life or the spiritual life generally.

It is true, I think, that anyone who seriously attempts to pray will, sooner or later, encounter evil. How this manifests itself differs, but one predictable element is the way in which evil tries to draw an individual away from prayer and virtuous living and, ultimately, from God. Again and again, Athanasius insists upon Antony’s constancy and the cheerful serenity with which he met every attack upon him. He persevered in the discipline of the monastic way and eventually attained a freedom and joy that everyone remarked upon. Little by little, he was transformed by grace.

I think there is something here for all of us. There are books and blogs without number which will tell you that prayer is a great adventure and the Christian life a wonderful progression from glory to glory. That is true up to a point, but most of our lives are anything but glorious, and prayer, if we are honest, is often a hard slog. That time on our knees might be better spent doing something more obviously useful, mightn’t it? My own answer would be a resounding ‘no’. I can think of no greater tragedy than to have spent our lives avoiding God by filling our days with activity which allowed him no space.

The image of the desert is important in scripture and in the life of Antony. Most of us can resonate with the sense of bleakness and isolation it conjures up, also perhaps its beauty and variety. We know that the desert is a privileged place of meeting between God and mankind. Few of us will ever live in a real desert, but each of us has an inner desert, somewhere unknown to any but ourselves, where our deepest struggles take place. It is where we await the coming of grace, and, just like Antony, we must persevere if we are to experience grace in all its fullness. For most of us that will be the work not of a single day or year but of a lifetime. That is why we Benedictines make a vow of conversatio morum, promising to live each day as a monk or nun should live, in continual conversion to the Lord.

 

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