The Role of Monks in the Church
I have chosen to borrow this page from the website of "Christ in the Desert" monastery in northern New Mexico because, according to our own abbot who visited it, it is a monastery very like our own monastery in Pachacamac on the outskirts of Lima, Peru. Of course, "Christ in the Desert" is bigger, more developed, more mature; but, generally speaking, the observance is roughly the same, more the same than different. We too have no outside observance, and for the same reasons.
O that today you would listen to His voice.—Psalm 94When I am lifted up I shall draw all men to myself.—John 12:32I have loved you with an everlasting love.—Jeremiah 31:3
All men and women are called to holiness, to be holy as God is holy. This is the source and goal of our human dignity. Some are called to serve the world by devoting all their energies to preaching the Gospel and tending the poor and needy. Some are called to bring new life into the world through married love. A few, however, are called in love to follow a road less traveled, to give themselves over to God alone in joyous solitude and silence, in constant prayer and willing penance. Such are the monks of the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, whose “principal duty is to present to the Divine Majesty a service at once humble and noble within the walls of the monastery” (Perfectae Caritatis §§ 7 & 9).
In responding to God’s call to holiness, a contemplative monk fulfills an important role in the Church: he visibly witnesses in his life to the absolute priority of God to any created thing. The contemplative life, then, is the highest form of life that a Christian may live. It is called “the angelic life,” because our contemplation of God will continue in heaven and throughout all eternity. The life of the contemplative monk is already a foretaste of what is to come.
It is for this reason that Christ looks at a man with love and invites him to leave everything he has and to follow Him, to surrender radically to God in His mission for the salvation of mankind. (Mark 10:21). As the monk grows closer to God in love, he both draws God closer to the world and the world closer to God. Thus it comes about that we, too, even though we abstain from exterior activity, exercise nevertheless an apostolate of the very highest order, since we strive to follow Christ in the inmost heart of His saving mission.
Some website visitors read through this vocations section just to learn more about the monastic life at Christ in the Desert. They often wish to support us so that this life can be offered to a world greatly in need of such vocational opportunities, especially for the youth of today. You may do so here and be assured of our gratitude.
Our way of Life at the Monastery
The word monk (from the Greek μοναχός) refers to singleness of heart. A monk is single in several senses: by being celibate; by being single-minded or pure of heart in his dedication to God; and also by a desire for a simple life focused on the ‘one thing necessary’, as Jesus calls it, for eternal life. (Luke 10:42). In modern language a monk lives a life of integrity (wholeness) which he finds in relation to God. Importantly as well, a man desiring to become a monk does not enter an order, but a specific monastery. Thus the way of life or charism of a particular monastery is of greatest importance in the process of discernment.
Our Abbot Philip has declared: “Monastic life, as lived at Christ in the Desert, is relentless.” That mirrors the fact that we must be relentless in our search for God every day. When men come to join our community, sometimes they are in for a rude awakening because our life is so very active. One person called it a daily marathon — and it is. Contemplative life does not mean sitting around and thinking about God all day long or even being on our knees and praying to God all day long. Rather, contemplative life for us is the challenge of remembering God in all that we do, say and are during the whole day — while we go about the normal things that monks do. Those normal things are common prayer, common work, common meals, meetings, private prayer, Scripture reading — and of course, some sleep!
The first thing that will strike any visitor to our monastery is that we pray constantly. Christ in the Desert is only one of a handful of monasteries of men in the Americas that still faithfully prays the full psalmody every week as we were instructed to by St. Benedict. (RSB 18:23). Beginning in the early morning, well before sunrise, the monk’s day of prayer begins, when all of nature is silent and the monk is free to meet the living God. Because we gather in our Abbey Church eight times a day to chant the Psalms and celebrate Mass, it is only natural that the monk is molded by this rhythm and his whole life becomes a prayer taken up into that of Christ and the Church far beyond the limits of his understanding. He thus stands before God with and on behalf of all people.
Secondly, at least four hours of the monk’s every weekday is spent in labor. As the Rule says: “The Brothers should have specified periods for manual labor as well as for prayerful reading … when they live by the work of their hands … then they are truly monks,” (RSB 48). The Monastery of Christ in the Desert has no employees; all of its day to day work is done by the monastic community. The work engaged in by the monks any day might include cooking for the community, working in the vegetable gardens and on the grounds, painting cells, building walls, cleaning the guesthouse, working in the leather or tailor shops, clearing brush or making rosaries.
Thirdly, no guest leaves the Monastery of Christ in the Desert without noting the peace of the place and the joy of the community. The life of a faithful contemplative monk is joyfully lived in silence, prayer, work and contemplation while holding the deep needs of the world in his heart. The monk has the joy and support of living in the company of like-minded men, men who believe in prayer, who delight in serving their brothers and giving a witness to God’s love for mankind in the presence of our loving God.
My words are addressed to you especially, whoever you may be, whatever your circumstances, who turn from the pursuit of your own self-will and ask to enlist under Christ…”
The great mysteries of our faith, such as the Incarnation and the Trinity, are realities of profound beauty for the believer. A vocation, on the other hand, is not so mysterious. When speaking about a life of celibacy, Our Lord simply concludes: “He who is able to choose this, let him choose it.” (Matt. 19:12). A vocation is primarily a matter of choice — both ours and God’s. While God has called all Christians to holiness, He invites those who can accept a life of poverty, chastity and obedience to choose that life. Since it is an article of faith that none of us can undertake any good thing without the illumination and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, (Council of Orange, 529 A.D. Canon 7; John 15:15), we can know with assurance that any wholesome desire to live the monastic life is a gift of God.
|novice class on the Rule of St Benedict|
So if at some level you feel drawn to the monastic life, there are three simple and practical things that you can do to determine that such a prompting is from God.
The first is to avail yourself of grace. Participate in the sacraments fully, attending daily Mass if you are able, and going to Confession frequently. Develop your prayer life. Thank God for His great kindness and the many gifts He has given you. Pray that He may help you to be as generous with your life as the Father was in giving His Son to us. And if you are really bold, ask God to bless you with a religious vocation.
|the sign of peace|
Secondly, and in line with prayer, acknowledge God as a Father who truly loves you and wishes to shower you with graces. Since you are God’s child, humbly ask Him to make His will known to you. Be assured He will answer you, as He will do anything that we ask in Christ’s name. (John 14:14). The way God often speaks affirmatively to us is by granting us the fruits of the Holy Spirit in our lives: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22).
Thirdly, when Our Lord called His first disciples He told them to “come and see” how he lived. So get to know monastic life. Read the Rule of St. Benedict (especially the Prologue and Chapter 58). Read the lives of saintly men and women whose lives may inspire you. Do not be afraid to reach out to the Vocation Director of the monastery and discuss with him your sense of your vocation. He will be able to encourage you and help you think over carefully what is involved. And a natural thing to do is to come and see how monks live. Arrange to spend some time at the monastery, experiencing the rhythm of prayer and work of the monks.
A Prayer of Discernment
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I actually am doing so. For I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you, and I hope that I have the desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadows of death. I will not fear, for you will not leave me to face the perils alone. Amen
Stages of Formation
After the community comes to know a prospective candidate, he can be invited to live with us for a time in the cloister. Once in the monastery he will participate fully in the life of the community. This stage is referred to as the Observership, and it usually lasts for a month or two depending on each individual. Next comes Postulancy, which is a period of one year. Postulants wear a simple black tunic (cassock) and leather belt, and attend classes with the novices and participate fully in the work and prayer of the monastery.
If the Abbot and his Council determine the postulant is ready, the postulant may petition the community for entry to the novitiate. The Novice receives a new monastic name along with the black tunic, belt and short hooded scapular. During this period of formation he will study the Psalms, chant, liturgy, monastic history and the Rule of Saint Benedict.
During initial formation (Observership, Postulancy and Novitiate) the brothers live in the Old Cells and St. Antony’s Novitiate, both of which are north of the main dormitory cloister of the monastery proper. St. Antony’s has its own chapel where the brothers in initial formation do Lectio Divina (sacred reading) together in common, as well as a gym. In addition to weekly classes, on Sundays and Solemnities the brothers in formation go on hikes together, play volleyball or, in summertime, swim in the Chama River.
At the end of the one year of novitiate, when the Chapter — that is the monks in solemn vows — approves his petition, he may make Simple Vows for one year. At the time of his Simple Profession he is clothed with a black tunic and the long scapular of the professed monks. Classes for the simply professed cover a wide range of topics, including monastic and Church history, liturgy, patristics, philosophy and theology — allowing the monk to focus on a particular field of interest. Simple Vows are renewed each year, normally lasting for a period of three years.
The next stage in a monk’s life begins with his Solemn Profession. This commitment is for life. A Benedictine monk takes the vows of Obedience, Stability, and Conversion of Life. (RSB 58). It is at this point that the monk is given a long black choir robe, known as the Cuculla or Cowl, and assumes the responsibility of a chapter member, those who meet with the Abbot and vote on important matters in the monastery.
God has blessed our monastery with many wonderful vocations. It is perhaps because of our humble way of life and great fidelity to monastic tradition that we have attracted so many vocations. Currently we have six postulants, ten novices and six brothers preparing for Solemn Vows, and during the last 25 years we have made three monastic foundations (two in Mexico and one in Texas) and have helped revive four other contemplative monasteries.
Test the spirits to see if they are from God.
A vocation involves three parties: God who calls, the person who is called, and the Church which, guided by the Holy Spirit, determines whether the call is genuine. In this case, the Church is represented by the Abbot and Community. The testing of a vocation is an interplay of human and divine freedoms and, of necessity, takes some time.
There are, however, some objective criteria which are essential for a genuine vocation to our monastic life. A candidate must be male, single, Roman Catholic, and have received the Sacrament of Confirmation. He must be free from all binding obligations to his family and should not be in debt. In addition to this he should have lived a good, moral, Catholic life for a number of years and, normally, have shown that he is capable of earning his own living. Our life is joyful and rewarding, but it is also demanding, and therefore a candidate needs robust mental and physical health and an ability to live with others in community. Usually he will be between 20 and 35 years of age. He will need the intellectual ability to gain spiritual benefit from two hours of spiritual reading (Lectio Divina) a day and to be able to participate fully in the Mass and Office. Count Montalembert, in his Monks of the West (1872), said that to be a good monk one needs the characteristics of simplicity, generosity and a sense of humor. That still holds true today.
If you are interested in a vigorous monastic life with much prayer and emphasis on seeking God, if you are drawn to common prayer with brothers who are seeking God, if you can accept obedience and humility, then perhaps this is the community for you. If you would like information about joining the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, please contact our Novicemaster.
Just to prove that monks have been doing this for a long time, here is a video about Coptic monasteries:
This video gives you a taste of our monastery in Pachacamac