When the kings of Spain asked for missionaries to evangelize the inhabitants of their new colonies in Latin America, they excluded monks. They were only interested in those who would preach and shepherd the people; while Spanish monasticism at that time was very strictly enclosed. They were the only monasteries in western monastic history to keep papal enclosure like the Poor Clares. Until the 20th Century, there was no way that a man could seek a life centred on prayer in a monastery within Spanish America. Then, little by little, foundations were made from Europe and the States. Pope John XXIII asked all monasteries in Europe and the States that could do so to duplicate themselves in Latin America; and this led to a number of attempts, some of them successful.
A few years ago, I was staying in a Spanish monastery for a few days. I was climbing the stairs to my monastic cell when I met an old monk coming down.
“I hear you are trying to found a monastery in Peru,” he said, “You won’t succeed”..
“But we have one Peruvian monk in solemn vows!” I countered.
“He’ll leave,” he said abruptly, “I was with a group, trying to found a monastery in South America for thirty years, and it ended in failure. You will see. The whole project will go to pot. They are simply not ready for it.”
“Well, I hope and pray you are wrong,” I said, “I don’t know what ‘being ready for monastic life’ entails. Most Spaniards and English people aren’t ready for it either. Some Peruvians have entered monasteries abroad and have remained as faithfully as anyone else. It is a matter of finding the right people and then treating them correctly when they enter. Monasticism is a normal kind of Christian vocation. It should succeed.”
Looking into recent history, the Spanish monk seemed to be right. There had been an American foundation; but, after many years and much sacrifice, they felt they had to call it a day and return to the States. There had been an English foundation, firstly in Apurimac and afterwards in Lima; and they too had returned to England without leaving behind a Peruvian monastery. The Belgians tried twice, the last time coming to an end only some months ago, when they sent home those in simple vows and decided to be content with a Belgian “monastic presence” without accepting Peruvian recruits. “They (the Peruvians) don’t seem to be able to grasp what monastic life is all about,” is a common comment.
We had the advantage of coming late on the scene. It gave us the chance to benefit from other peoples’ mistakes. Very early on, Fr Paul decided a) not to adapt the monastery to the Peruvian reality. It is usually true that the more foreigners try to adapt to the Peruvian reality, the more foreign they seem to be. Only Peruvians can really adapt to the Peruvian reality. We bring to any attempt at adaptation our own cultural baggage and pre-suppositions about monasticism and the Church which have been formed outside Peru. b) Instead of us adapting, it was decided to have a Peruvian community from the very start. In Benedictine life where living and sharing together is so central, having an English community to which they have to adapt, as well as having to adapt to the monastic way of life, seemed to be adding unnecessary burdens to their lot. The English monks would always have things in common, like jokes and memories, which they could not share with the Peruvians, and there would much going on in the minds of the Peruvians that they simply would not understand or appreciate if they did. This limitation in community living may not be important in religious communities which have a much looser bond between their members and which have work outside the community that can focus their attention. We reached the conclusion that this may have been one of the causes of the failure of other ventures. Fr Paul went and founded the monastery alone, leaving the other two monks to get on with parish work. In this way, we were available if he needed help. C) We decided that is would be a mistake to be too ambitious, and should concentrate all our forces on the development of a monastery, without falling into the temptation – and it is a very big temptation – to attempt all kinds of activities that would be perfectly in order if we were a firmly established house. A monastery can dissipate itself in too many activities for a small, struggling house; and attention can be taken away from the all-important one of formation. Formation of the first monks is the work to which everything else is ordered, and anything that interferes with this must be sacrificed. On the first monks depends the whole project.
Having said all that, the fact that there is no monastic tradition in Latin America means that only people who are well-read and have investigated monasticism or people who have travelled in Europe and have had some experience of monasteries really know what they are letting themselves in for when the apply to join a monastery. Others who visit us and decide they want to be monks often misread the signs and only come to understand very slowly what it is all about. In reality, there are many who are attracted at first but are really completely unsuitable. Quite often, the gringo monks who have the task of discerning vocations feel very inadequate and can doubt their own judgement.
We had a number of years when practically all the people coming to experience monastic life were strange misfits who had tried elsewhere. Its very newness attracted them. They hoped that they would find a niche in this new type of religious life, one that had been denied them in other congregations. I do not know how the monastery survived this procession of wierdos, one after the other. Then it stopped, as though someone had waved a wand; and, little by little, more normal people came to apply. Not as though the majority have persevered. The fact that we have only three Peruvians in solemn vows and a community of only eight tells its own story. However, the two juniors look stable enough, and the two postulants are normal healthy human beings; and there are others, I believe, to come. One Englishman and three Peruvians in solemn vows aren’t many, but it is a real start.
Why do we believe it to be so important to establish a monastery on Peruvian soil? What is so special about a monastery? It could be argued that there are so many orders and congregations in Peru that it is not surprising that there is nobody left to become a monk. Why do we not go where we are really needed? We are more needed in England, surely!
A monk’s vocation is simply to be a full-time Christian. Take that common element which is in every single vocation of whatever kind, married or single, that element which makes it a Christian vocation; and that element is the only professional occupation of a monk. A monastery is a glasshouse where that element is encouraged to grow and mature. A Christian, any Christian, must see Christ in his brethren, in the common life, in the circumstances in which he finds himself. This is built into monastic life. A Christian lives a liturgical life and, by so doing, shares in the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ. The liturgy is a major ingredient of monastic life. A Christian, any Christian, must learn to listen to God who speaks to him through the meditative reading of Scripture and through divine providence. Many people lapse from the practice of the faith because they do not know how to listen to God, so they have no input. They speak to God, but cannot hear God when he speaks to them. They spiritually starve to death. An extended time every day is dedicated to contacting God through Scripture in a practice known by its Latin name, Lectio Divina, and they surrender themselves to God’s providence by keep ing their vows. Any Christian who goes to communion has the Eucharistic presence of Christ in his heart and, if this communion is to have fruition, must seek him there. This is a monastic practice. The active life of every Christian, all things being equal and if the life is a balanced one, ought to bear fruit in contemplation; and the monk is a contemplative. Thus, Pope John Paul Ii said while on pilgrimage to an Orthodox saint’s shrine in Bulgaria, “I am in fact convinced that the monastic experience constitutes the heart of Christian life, so much so that it can it can be proposed as a point of reference for all the baptized.”
This does not mean we are any better than anyone else; and we are not suggesting that everyone should adopt our monastic style. We mean that our vocation is to concentrate on those things that make anyone Christian and to live in an environment which helps us to concentrate on those things. Thus the things that pre-occupy us are the things that are a concern for all, and those who visit us will find much that is relevant for their own vocation, whatever it might be. Hence, monasticism is a “point of reference” that South America needs. Apart from that, there are people who have monastic vocations.. I visited the house of another religious order a little while ago. Two said to me independently of each other and in confidence that they had always been attracted by the monastic life and would have become monks if there had been a monastery a little nearer
Because monasticism is radical and basic it has an ecumenical dimension by its very nature. It lives by what is common to widely different traditions. It came into existence in the East and still is one of the factors that is a point of contact. The Pope John Paul II said in his speech at the shrine of the Bulgarian monastic saint, “A great Western monk and mystic, William of Saint-Thierry, calls your experience, which nourished and enriched the monastic life of the Catholic West, a "light which comes from the East" (cf. Epistula ad fratres de Monte Dei I, Sources Chrétiennes 223, p. 145). With him, many other spiritual men of the West expressed praise-filled recognition of the richness of Eastern monastic spirituality. I am pleased today to join my voice to this chorus of appreciation, and to acknowledge the authenticity of the path of sanctification traced out in the writings and lives of so many of your monks, who have offered eloquent examples of radical discipleship of the Lord Jesus Christ."
Again, monasticism is not a closed system. St Benedict suggests that the monks should learn from any Catholic source how to progress in holiness. The last chapter of his Rule is entitled, “Not all the Practice of Perfection is Foind in this Rule”, and he encourages his disciples to use in their search for God the Scriptures, the Catholic Fathers and the lives and writings of the saints. Thus the English Benedictine Congregation to which my monastery belongs has a long tradition of looking to the Carmelite mystics, St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross. Also traditional is to use “Abandoment to Divine Providence” by the Jesuit, Jean Pierre de Caussade; and, for some of us, there are always the writings of the Orthodox East. The truth is, that, just as people of all Christian vocations can find something in common in monasticism within their own way to God, so monks can find all other vocations helpful in what they have in common with monastic life.
We were invited to found a monastery in Peru because it was felt in many quarters in the Peruvian Church that monasticism is needed in South American Catholicism and that it will remain incomplete until the monasteries are able to add their distinctive witness to that of the other congregations and movements on the continent.
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