In English Benedictine monasteries the year's noviciate is divided into four quarters of three months each. At the end of the first three quarters the novice master reads a written report on the novice to the abbot's council and his progress is discussed. If the novice expresses the wish to persevere and the abbot's council is in agreement, he then formally makes his intention clear to a meeting of the whole resident community, the abbot gives a homily, half to him and half to the community, and then his perseverance is granted. This is Abbot Paul's sermon at the third perseverance. Toward the end of the fourth quarter, the whole community is consulted one by one; and then, if the abbot and council agree, the monks in solemn vows vote on the issue in chapter, using a white bean for "yes" and a black bean for "no". The details of the vote are secret.
Third Perseverance of Br Patrick Lobo
This past weekend we all had some difficulty filling in our census questionnaires. Many of the questions simply didn’t apply to the monastic life and yet we were obliged to answer one way or the other. As the “manager” of this establishment, I am still waiting for all the questionnaires to come in so that I can complete online the larger household questionnaire, in which I have to list all those living with me in this shared accommodation as well as give details of how we manage to do this. Monks are such unusual creatures in the modern world and our way of life considered so extraordinary, that we no longer seem to fit into any acceptable category where modern society is concerned. This, of course, is the same on-going experience we are having with our HLF monitor. She’s at home with monastic ruins but she can’t cope with Belmont, where the monks haven’t been dead and buried for the past five hundred years.
Now, dear Br Patrick, although you’re a born Catholic and deeply imbued with a traditional, parochial spirituality, that is the world in which you lived before coming to the monastery. As a result you are also deeply imbued with the spirit of the modern world and there is much in the monastic life and Benedictine tradition that you find difficult to accept and understand let alone put into practice in your daily life. This is not a criticism but a matter of fact, and it’s something new we are all having to cope with more and more. The gulf between the world and the monastery grows wider every day.
Today you are making your Third Perseverance on the way to First Profession, which we hope will take place on the Feast of St Peter and St Paul. So it’s an opportune moment to mention a few of these difficulties of inculturation to the monastic life. Please don’t think I’m getting at you, but you did live “in the world”, as they say, until your mid-fifties, so it’s hardly surprising that you should be finding certain things rather difficult, and it’s no different for most of us.
Now inculturation means more than getting used to or putting up with things that go against the grain. It is actually taking on a new mind set, rather like the first Christians who were expected by St Paul to have the mind of Christ. This process of acquiring a monastic mind takes time and effort and not a little sacrifice. It’s not surprising, then, that for St Benedict enemy number one of the monk is his own will. But St Benedict also tells us in the Prologue that “what is not possible to us by nature, let us ask the Lord to supply by the help of his grace.” Nothing, dear Br Patrick, can be accomplished or even attempted without prayer and it is prayer, in my experience, that always carries us through and enables us to persevere. St Benedict also warns the beginner, “Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation.”
In order to rise above our own will, the Benedictine way of life offers us, in addition to prayer, “the strong and noble weapons of obedience.” Now obedience, which lies at the very heart of the traditional three religions of the Book, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is also the basic and fundamental vow of the monastic life. What would be the point of stability without obedience? It would simply lead to infidelity. How could you live conversatio morum without obedience? That would lead to pride. Our Christian faith and our monastic vocation both ask of us that phrase from Psalm 94 that we repeat often during Lent, “O that today you would listen to his voice. Harden not your hearts.”
In Chapter 58 and throughout the Holy Rule St Benedict talks a lot about obedience and obeying. It’s something we can’t get away from, so one of the most important aspects of the Novitiate is learning to obey. That means recognising that there is a higher authority than just myself: the Holy Trinity, the Church and her Magisterium, the Abbot and Community. That all sounds rather grand but it’s also a bit vague, isn’t it? You can say a lot of beautifully spiritual and poetic things about the obedience without, in practice, living them. We can suffer from a kind of monastic schizophrenia, saying one thing and doing the opposite. Br Patrick, you mustn’t fall into that trap. Obedience begins with listening and listening depends on silence.
I think it was Fr Illtud who was fond of comparing obedience to good manners and he was right. I have always regarded it as a matter of courtesy to ask permission of the appropriate superior: Novice Master, Prior or Abbot before planning to do something and not just as an afterthought as you’re about to leave the enclosure. It also means doing what you’re told, not like a naughty child but as a responsible adult, when asked to do something by the superior. “Obedience without delay,” St Benedict calls it. Sometimes we can be asked to do something we’re not happy about or disagree with. It’s important to remember on such occasions the words of Jesus, “I did not come to do my own will but the will of Him who sent me,” or the words of the Psalmist, “Here I am, O Lord, I come to do your will.” We believe that the Abbot represents Christ in the monastery and we know that the Abbot shares that authority with his officials. But St Benedict also talks about mutual obedience. This vertical and horizontal obedience form the Cross that we must take up and carry every day of our monastic lives. All this is far removed from the ways of the world, from the mind of the world, but we are here, you Br Patrick are here, to leave behind the ways of the world and put on the Lord Jesus Christ, who “was obedient unto death, death on a cross.”
When you became a novice you were given the English Benedictine habit, a sign that you have been stripped of the old man, of everything that was your own. As you prepare now for profession you must consider whether you are really willing to go the whole way and give up not only your material possessions but also your most cherished possession and that is your own will.
Giving up your will also means giving up your independence, but it’s no different to being married, or having a job and working for someone else, under rules you didn’t write yourself. It’s not easy, least of all today, and even less for a man of your age, but, Br Patrick, I can assure you that it’s worth it. I have never regretted taking up God’s invitation to become a monk and I never stop thanking him for the gift of a monastic vocation. It is the way that God has chosen for each one of us, that we might grow to the full stature of Christ. In granting you your Third Perseverance it is the hope and prayer of the Community that you will persevere and find true happiness and salvation among us as a monk of Belmont.