How To Judge A Monastery

The publication yesterday of Pope Francis’s Apostolic Constitution, Vultum Dei Quaerere, will not be of much interest to the Church at large, although it will be of great interest to those it most concerns — contemplative women’s communities, especially those that, like ourselves, are small and of diocesan right. It isn’t my intention to comment on the Constitution itself but simply ‘think aloud’ about one very important underlying question: how to judge a monastic community and its fidelity to its vocation.

For some, a monastery is just a set of buildings where the inhabitants wear funny clothes and spend a lot of time singing psalms. The grander the buildings, the more numerous the inhabitants, the more splendid the music, the more ‘successful’ the community is considered to be. May I beg to differ? The late Dom David Knowles once remarked that a community can keep up a decent performance of the Divine Office in impressively fine buildings long after the heart has gone out of it. I have often found that a chastening thought. It is what we do, not where we live or what we wear, that counts; and even what we do can be done half-heartedly or for the wrong reasons. Despite all our efforts, all our attempts to live  in obedience to the Gospel and the Rule, we can miss the point of being in the monastery in the first place. The only real test to be applied, the only thing by which our fidelity to our vocation can be judged, is the simplest but most difficult of all: holiness. Is the community striving to become holy itself and lead others to holiness, too?

I think we all know when we are in the presence of real holiness, although we could never hope to explain it and most of us would have the good sense not to try to judge it. Holiness can’t be faked or hidden. It just is. And what is more, real holiness is immensely attractive. That doesn’t mean it is not challenging or disturbing. It is often both those things, but it is also endlessly encouraging. In the presence of a holy person we know we are loved by God and that somehow, whatever the difficulties or disappointments on the way, we are buoyed up by that divine love. It is the love of God that the monastic community is meant to mediate to others, and it can only do that insofar as it has itself experienced that love. Hence all those hours of unseen prayer, the small asceticisms of daily life, the quiet perseverance in seeking God.

Those of you who know our community will appreciate we have some concerns over the ‘one size fits all’ approach of Vultum Dei Quaerere, but we must not allow such concerns to get in the way of what we are about. We may be small and insignificant, and we certainly aren’t holy yet, but that is our aim: holiness. Nothing less will do.

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