It is ironic that I should have had to give this post a title I don’t much like in order to convey its scope to the reader. ‘Spirituality’ is a fashionable word and, as such, it can be made to mean virtually anything from warm, fuzzy feelings about Life and the Universe to a minute dissection of the discernible characteristics of a particular religious tradition. In Christianity we speak of Catholic spirituality, Orthodox spirituality, Protestant spirituality and know roughly what we mean, even if the details are a little blurry because that is what generalisations lead to. We write innumerable books on Carmelite spirituality, Franciscan spirituality, Ignatian spirituality, and so on, and slice our subject into historical periods to get over the inevitable differences of interpretation and emphasis. Thus, a book about Ignatian spirituality in the seventeenth century will have different preoccupations from one about Jesuit spirituality in the twentieth.
I have myself been guilty of writing about monastic spirituality and Benedictine spirituality in alarmingly general terms, as though everyone would understand what I was on about; and I have leaped from the sixth century to the twenty-first without always alerting the reader. I don’t exactly repent in dust and ashes, but I do concede that I should be more precise. So, by ‘spirituality’ I mean religious practice — everything from prayer to the performance of good works — inspired by and shaped by one’s religious belief; and where the Rule of St Benedict is concerned, if the word ‘spirituality’ must be used, I think the only appropriate qualifying adjective is ‘everyday’.
Those of us who try to live according to the Rule in monasteries are sometimes a little nonplussed by the enthusiasm with which the Rule has been taken up by lay people. As our oblates and associates will testify, we never tire of talking about the way in which the Rule can be applied to everyday situations. There are endless opportunities for the practice of humility and self-restraint, hospitality and service of others. Parts of the Rule are themselves drawn from unimpeachably extra-monastic sources. For example, there is a good case for arguing that chapter 4 of the Rule, On the Tools of Good Works, is essentially a baptismal catechesis for lay people, worked over to give it a more monastic application. But then we come to some of the more defining aspects of Benedictinism, which are difficult to replicate in a lay situation. We are coenobites. We live in community under a rule and a superior and renounce all private ownership. As St Benedict says, not even our bodies and wills are our own. Many of the things others think of when they think of monks and nuns — the habit, the ceremonial, the buildings — are actually secondary. It is that day-to-day living with people one would probably never otherwise choose to live with, that subjection to a fallible human being’s judgement and choices, that lifelong commitment to single chastity and personal renunciation that marks the Benedictine. Celebration of the Divine Office and the regular fulfilment of the personal obligation to prayer, work and lectio divina provide the necessary context, but there is no getting away from that very human setting.
Of course, one can find parallels in lay life and I, for one, would want to encourage everyone who wants to try to live according to the Rule of St Benedict in whatever situation they find themselves. The Rule is so sane and always giving us something more for which to strive. There is nothing static about Benedictine spirituality. We are to run along the way of God’s commandments and hasten towards the Kingdom. I must confess to a slight niggle, however. More than one advocate of lay monasticism or the New Monasticism (shades of Cîteaux!) has said to me that monasteries like ours are really only useful as a repository from which the new ventures can draw strength. I am not happy with that. Unless what we are in the monastery is worthwhile as an expression of the Christian vocation, it is meaningless. We do not exist only to be a resource for others. We have come here to seek God, and unless we find Him, albeit, paradoxically, in absence, we have failed in our vocation which is a call from God, addressed to the individual, but lived out in community.
Perhaps it is this that makes it difficult for people to understand that the monastic vocation does ask something different from the normal lay vocation. We have an everyday spirituality in common, but the way in which we live it is necessarily different — not better, not worse, but different. However much we try to adapt the Rule to the circumstances of our time or our situation, there remains that central core to challenge and guide us further. Please pray for those discerning with us at this time.
For those who would prefer to listen to this blog post in mp3 format (with apologies for the recording quality — helicopter overhead):