"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

Saturday 7 March 2009

The Essence of Monasticism

At different times different views have been expressed as to the purpose of monastic life. One view is that monasteries exist in order to celebrate the liturgy as fully and as well as possible. St Benedict wrote that “nothing is to be put before the Work of God (RB 43), and he was writing there about the Divine Office. This has been interpreted to mean that the very purpose of the Benedictine life is the celebration of the liturgy. Such was the teaching of Dom Paul Delatte of Solesmes whose commentary on the Rule was used in my monastery when I was a novice. Another view, and this goes back as far as the Desert Fathers, is that a monastery exists to help the monk become a contemplative, either in community or to prepare him for a life of solitude. As Cassian wrote, “The purpose of the monk and his highest perfection consists in perfect prayer”; and he held up before the eyes of monks the ideal of continuous, uninterrupted prayer which has been the goal of monks ever since, especially in the East. Yet another view is that the monk’s life is dedicated to the practice of the Christian virtues, especially faith, hope and charity, with the support of a fraternal Christian community: a monastery is simply a community context which allows the monk to grow in virtue, and thus arrive at perfect love. Each of these views has been expressed by monks and, therefore, is based on real experience of what it is to be a monk. Nevertheless, a deeper look will make it clear that they are all only partially true. They complement each other, but need something more basic to give them unity.

Another approach is to ask what Carthusian monks have in common with monastic missionaries, schoolmasters and especially parish priests whose life-style hardly differs from their secular priest neighbours. The enormous variety of observances and of tasks undertaken by monks is, in itself, one of the characteristics of the monastic movement down the ages. Practises which were considered to be unmonastic and to be avoided at all costs in one context became normal monastic practice in another, So the question inevitably arises: what holds the monastic movement together, or even, is monasticism a single movement within the Church at all?

Nowadays, members of religious orders and congregations talk about their “charisma”, by which they mean the way they have been guided by the Spirit to serve the Church. Thus, Salesians serve the Church by teaching; the Dominicans are the Order of Preachers and their first task is to seek and contemplate the Truth, and then to let this contemplation bear fruit in philosophy and theology which, in turn, informs their preaching, teaching and other apostolates; the Jesuit’s role is to be a contemplative in action, seeing God’s presence in every aspect of life and obeying his providence, especially in obedience to their superiors, ready to serve the Church in any way that is necessary; and Mother Teresa often reminded her sisters who work among the poor that they are not social workers, but contemplatives in the streets, who adore the same Christ in the poor and destitute as they worship every morning in the Blessed Sacrament. The question arises: What is the charisma of monks and nuns? What unites monks and nuns with their different observances and distinguishes them from friars, clerks regular, secular priests and those who live other types of consecrated life?

The trouble is that, although there is a monastic style that is easily recognisable, monks and nuns cannot point to a particular work that is uniquely or characteristically theirs, nor can they provide a reason for being a monk which is different from that for being a Christian. The most fundamental motives for being a Christian are identical with those for being a monk and the most basic obligations remain the same both for monks and laypeople. There does not seem to be anything distinctive about monastic life, except for the fact, perhaps, that our charisma or place in the Church is disclosed .in the very fact that the monastic order has no particular job to do.

Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP, in a talk to the Benedictine Abbots’ Congress in 2000, and later published as ‘The Throne of God’ in I Call You My Friends, puts this point strongly:

The most obvious fact about monks is that you do not do anything in particular. You farm but you are not farmers. You teach, but you are not schoolteachers. You may even run hospitals, or mission stations, but you are not primarily doctors or missionaries. . . . You do not do anything in particular. Monks are usually very busy people but the business is not the point and purpose of your lives. Cardinal Hume once wrote that ‘we do not see ourselves as having any particular mission or function in the Church. We do not set out to change the course of history. We are just there almost by accident from a human point of view. And, happily, we go on ‘just being there’. It is this absence of explicit purpose that discloses God as the secret, hidden purpose of your lives. . . . The point of the Christian life is just to be with God. Jesus says to the disciples: ‘Abide in my love’ (John 15:10) Monks are called to abide in his love. (Ibid., pp. 101-2)

St Chrysostom is particularly emphatic that the basic Christian obligations are the same for everyone::

"You greatly delude yourself and err, if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk; since the difference between them is in that whether one is married or not, while in everything else they have the same responsibilities... because all must rise to the same height; and what has turned the world upside down is that we think only the monk must live rigorously, while the rest are allowed to live a life of indolence". Referring to the observance of particular commandments in the Gospels, he says: "Whoever is angry with his brother without cause, regardless of whether he is a layman or a monk, opposes God in the same way. And whoever looks at a woman lustfully, regardless of his status, commits the same sin". In general, he observes that in giving His commandments Christ does not make distinction between people: "A man is not defined by whether he is a layman or a monk, but by the way he thinks"

Does this mean that monasticism is only a matter of celibacy, cowls, Gregorian chant and gothic cloisters, of style without substance? Dom Garcia Columbas of Monserrat quotes Gabriel Braso, who used to be Abbot President of the Benedictine Congregation of Subiaco, and who ended a retreat he gave to a number of Cistercian and Benedictine abbots with these words:

A monk is not called by God to a monastery to live a particular kind of religious life. Neither is he called to centre his life on liturgical prayer or contemplation, nor to practise the Christian virtues within the context of fraternal community life. No, none of these would justify the gift of his whole life. If God has given us the charisma of the monastic life, it is so that, “Persevering in the monastery until death, let us share by patience in the sufferings of Christ and so become worthy to accompany him in his kingdom” (Rule, Prol. 50). To put it more simply, God has brought us to the monastery because in his loving design he has called us to participate in the Paschal Mystery in all its profundity.

Participating in the Paschal Mystery through sharing by patience in the sufferings of Christ in order to share in his resurrection is the path taken by all Christians, whether they are monks or not. No marriage is Christian that lacks this as an ingredient. A Salesian would be a mere teacher without it; a Dominican would never be able to contemplate the Truth; a Jesuit would become a dreamer in action; the sisters of Mother Teresa mere social workers. The way of death and resurrection is universal, the only Christian way; but a monk makes it his whole reason for living. As an expert on the monasticism of Mount Athos wrote recently,

With the development of monasticism in the Church there appeared a new way of life, which however did not proclaim a new morality. The Church does not have one set of rules for the laity and another for monks, nor does it divide the faithful into classes according to their obligations before God. The Christian life is the same for everyone. All Christians have in common that “their name and being is from Christ”. This means that the Christian must ground his life and conduct in Christ, something that is hard to achieve in the world.
What is difficult in the world is approached with dedication in the monastic life. In his spiritual life the monk simply tries to do what every Christian should try to do: to live according to God’s commandments. The fundamental principles of monasticism are not different from those of the lives of all the faithful.

Christ addressed every Christian when he said, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” It was to ordinary Christians that he said, “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;” and he was not only talking to monks who, at that time, had not yet been invented, when he said, ”Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

Every Christian is challenged by God to take this journey from the egoism of sin in which he or some other created person or thing is the centre of his universe, through conversion into a kingdom in which God reigns, to move, like St Martha, from distraction and a mind concerned with many different things to contemplation and the ‘one thing necessary’; by conversion fulfilling his baptism, and by contemplation taking hold of him whom he receives in Holy Communion with a pure heart. The obstacle that prevents this process taking place is self-will, and, in both East and West, the central task of the monk and nun, without which there is no authentic monasticism, is to fight self-will in all its manifestations. This is not to renounce the use of our wills. On the contrary, this fight needs all the will-power we can muster. Nor does it lead to a diminishing of our sense of personal responsibility because only by living our monastic life responsibly will we reach our objective. Self-will is a will that places itself outside God’s plan for us, a will that is at the service of our false self which is a god in its own universe and refuses to allow God to be God in the decisions it makes. This self-will is an amalgam of self-sufficiency, pride, lack of faith, deviant desires and sin. It forms a rocklike obstacle between the Christ whom we receive in communion and who resides in our deepest self, which monastic tradition calls the “heart”, and our mind which can think and direct us to act as though Christ were absent and irrelevant. The antidote is humble obedience by striving to see and obey God in all people and in every circumstance, including our silent times and in our superiors. By so doing, our minds can, little by little, become one with our hearts, and Christ’s Eucharistic presence can flood our whole being. This is to become pure of heart, to love God with our whole being, to die and rise with Christ, to pray without ceasing, to be a contemplative and a source of peace for others. It is the way of the Beatitudes, the path destined for all Christians and not just some with a particular vocation. However, fulfilling this task defines the whole monastic vocation, whether he lives within a community or lives alone as a hermit or parish priest, and it is the way he serves the Church. His vocation is to prophetically protect the integrity of the Gospel by a way of life that takes all the demands of the Gospel into account. He becomes, in Pope John Paul’s phrase, a “point of reference” for those with other vocations who, nevertheless, have to tred the same path.

Thus all other Christians will find something very central to their own vocations in the life of a monastery, and it can be a good place for them, should they wish to, to re-order their priorities in the light of the kingdom of heaven, The purpose of a monastic community is no different from that of a parochial community: both exist for no other reason than to be the body of Christ. The difference between them is, quite simply, that the members of a monastery have no other obligation than to be members of Christ’s body, wh
seemingly conflicting roles and obligations that a Christian life in the “world” offers to them.

Pope John Paul II said when he visited the monastery of Rila en Bulgaria:

As Saint Basil the Great teaches (cf. Regulae Fusius Tractatae VIII, PG 31, 933-941), Christian life is above all apotaghé, "renunciation" of sin, of worldliness, of idols, in order to hold fast to the one true God and Lord, Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Thes 1:9-10). In monasticism, this renunciation becomes radical: it is the renunciation of home, family, profession (cf. Lk 18:28-29); the renunciation, therefore, of earthly goods in the unending quest for those that are eternal (cf. Col 3:1-2); the renunciation of philautía, as Saint Maximus Confessor calls it (cf. Capita de Charitate II, 8; III, 8; III, 57 and passim, PG 90, 960-1080), that is, selfish love, in order to gain knowledge of the infinite love of God and to become capable of loving the brethren. Monastic mysticism is above all a path of renunciation in order to be able to hold ever faster to the Lord Jesus and to be transfigured by the power of the Holy Spirit.

He went on to say:
Monks and nuns, in obedience to the Lord’s call, undertake the journey which, starting with self-denial, leads to perfect charity, by virtue of which they experience the very sentiments of Christ (cf. Phil 2:5): they become meek and humble of heart (cf. Mt 11:29), they share in God’s love for all creatures, and they love — as Isaac the Syrian says — the very enemies of truth (cf. Sermones Ascetici, Collatio Prima, LXXXI).
Again he says:
Having been enabled to see the world through God’s eyes, and become ever more configured to Christ, religious men and women move towards the ultimate end for which man was created: divinization, sharing in the life of the Trinity. Grace makes this possible only to those who — through prayer, tears of compunction and charity — open themselves to the Holy Spirit, as we are reminded by another great monk of these beloved Slav lands, Seraphim of Sarov (cf. Colloquio con Motovilov III, in P. Evdokimov, Serafim di Sarov, Uomo dello Spirito, Bose 1996, pp. 67-81).
That which is the task of all is the monk’s sole occupation; so, for him or her, there are no excuses. In seeking the “one thing necessary”, the monk or nun reminds the rest of the Church what Christianity is about. It is not necessary for him to be known personally: it is enough that people know that he exists.. For this reason , John Paul II said, “I am in fact convinced that the monastic experience constitutes the heart of Christian life, so much so that it can be proposed as a point of reference for all the baptized.” On another occasion he wrote "In the East, monasticism was not seen merely as a separate condition, proper to a precise category of Christians, but rather as a reference point for all the baptized, according to the gifts offered to each by the Lord; it was presented as a symbolic synthesis of Christianity."
Aidan Nichols OP, in his paper A Catholic View of Orthodoxy, gave as one characteristic of that Communion that it is a monastic Church. Of monasticism’s relationship with the Church as a whole – what modern congregations call its charisma – he echoes Pope John Paul II and Abbot Braso:
A Church without a flourishing monasticism, without the lived 'martyrdom' of an asceticism inspired by the Paschal Mystery of the Lord's Cross and Resurrection, could hardly be a Church according to the mind of the Christ of the Gospels, for monasticism, of all Christian life ways, is the one which most clearly and publicly leaves all things behind for the sake of the Kingdom
Thus, while monks may engage in all kinds of occupations to earn a living or to serve the Church, their true vocation is, quite simply, to seek God through death and resurrection, While, as with everyone else, God’s will for them is shown by the tasks allotted to them by divine providence, they are not to be identified as monks by their occupations but by the degree to which they respond to God’s call. As Fr Timothy pointed out, some may do agriculture but they are not farmers but monks, who seek God by the sweat of their brow during the time that is allotted to them in the day for farming. They may teach or administrate or do pastoral work, according to the circumstances and the decisions of their superiors, or they may clean the cloister, milk the cows or cook for the community; but anything they do, however different the demands made on them or the commitment required of them, these activities are only as monastic as their quest for God is real. Monks and monasteries are not defined by their occupations, but by the way they participate in the Paschal Mystery as described above, by the extent to which they pass through death to life, through conversion to contemplation. :
It is one of the paradoxes of the Christian faith that the more our will is in synergy with the Holy Spirit who is the mutual Love of the Father and the Son, the more we are united to Christ in heaven; and the more we are united to Christ in heaven, the more tangible is Christ’s presence on earth. Hence our unity among ourselves as participants in the life of the Blessed Trinity is the means by which the world will know that Jesus was sent by the Father (Jn 17, 20-23). This humble obedience is receptive to God’s love, and the monastery becomes a place in which God is present in a very special way, a place where the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit can be almost tasted.
If humble obedience to the will of God is the cross that all Christians have to bear as they follow in Christ’s footsteps, then a monastery of whatever observance is a place where people gather together for no other reason than to do the will of God on earth as it is done in heaven. In the monastic life, obedience is not one obligation among others, but the most fundamental attitude of the monk or nun which allows God to be God in their lives, because it is only through obedience that they can listen to him: it is an openness to his will without which it would be impossible to truly participate in the Paschal Mystery. It is this obedience which makes room for God and makes a monastery a sacred place, an outpost of heaven on earth, and for which the monks are said to live an angelical life. Obedience to his superior is only a part of it: it means openness to one’s fellow monks, openness to God in each situation as it comes, seeking in everything and in all the presence and will of God; and, finally, a constant openness to God in reading and in prayer
Thus, the monastic missionaries, schoolmasters and parish priests have this in common with the Carthusian monks: their vocation is not defined by the work they do but by their participation in the Paschal Mystery. And the difference in vocation between the parish priest of an English Benedictine parish and his secular priest neighbours is also clear, though it may not be visible most of the time. The vocation of the secular priest is to assist the bishop in the pastoral care of the diocese, and the process by which he dies and rises with Christ takes place in that context. On the other hand, the vocation of an English Benedictine parish priest is to die and rise with Christ within the context of his monastic community which exists for that purpose. He is a Benedictine parish priest simply because his monastery is responsible for that parish and he has been sent by the abbot. He is there because he is practising that obedience by which he shares in the Paschal Mystery.
Sometimes in an English Benedictine monk’s life it may seem that his priesthood is the dominant factor in his vocation and his monasticism is secondary and has to fit in; while, at other periods of his life, the monastic life is the primary factor and priesthood is in second place. However, if all these phases of his life are an expression of that humble obedience by which he cuts through the rock of his own self-love to find the presence of Christ on the other side of it, then each phase is wholly monastic, and his life is wholly coherent. He only interrupts the flow of his monastic life by self-will, and this can happen as much in the monastery as outside.
This may appear rather abstract, far from the concrete concerns of life in a busy parish, but it isn’t really. In practical terms, the monk has to cultivate a certain detachment from his work, at least in so far as he must be prepared to leave it for the sake of obedience, because he may be asked by his abbot to do something completely different tomorrow, or he may receive an interior call of grace which is recognised as such by his abbot and which calls him to a more silent, cloistered kind of life. Of course, the call may be in the other direction. Blessed Ptolemy and his community of hermits were happily living their eremitical life on Monte Oliveto when cholera broke out in nearby Sienna. They promptly left their hermitages and died nursing the victims. The supreme law for the monk is always the Gospel.
Nevertheless, there is a bias in monasticism towards living in a context in which the monk can concentrate on the one thing necessary to the exclusion of all other distractions, avoiding activities which, although worthy in themselves, can threaten the authenticity of the monastic vocation by becoming more important in his mind than dying and rising with Christ. Thus, at the centre of the monastic movement are the monasteries which keep a strict enclosure, guarding both an exterior and, more importantly, an interior silence, and their monks are all the stronger for being focused on the one thing necessary. They do for the other monasteries engaged in the apostolate what the movement as a whole does for the rest of the Church: they remind us of our roots and of our charismata; and they remind the rest of the Church and bear witness to the world that, in the words of Blessed Raphael, “God alone is sufficient” for human happiness and fulfilment.

Moreover, it is only in the monastic community that the coenobitic monk can render that distinctive service to the Church of forming with his fellow monks an icon of God’s presence. There is an iconic dimension to the whole Christian life, a whiff of divine revelation, a glimpse of heaven, a touch of theophany. God manifests his presence on earth where his will “is done on earth as it is in heaven”, He manifests his presence in the liturgy in which there is synergy between the Holy Spirit and the Church. He manifests himself in the Eucharist where the wills of those who participate are taken up and united to that of Christ by the Holy Spirit and offered to the Father. It is through this obedience that we participate in the life of the Blessed Trinity, which is what the kingdom of heaven is all about. If this is true in any Christian life, what can be said about a community life that has no purpose of its own beyond being obedient to God? Let us read from Fr Timothy Radcliffe’s talk again:

Still there is a trust that in the monasteries we may glimpse the mystery of God, and discover some hint of the transcendent. ….
I wish to claim that your monasteries disclose God not
because of what you do or say, but perhaps because
the monastic life has, at its centre, a space, a void in which God may show Himself. I wish to suggest that the rule of St Benedict offers a sort of hollow centre to your lives, in which God may live and be glimpsed. The glory of God always shows itself in an empty space. When the Israelites came out of the desert, God came with them seated in the space between the wings of the cherubim, above the seat of mercy. . . . [The cross] is a throne of glory which is also a void, an absence, as a man dies crying out for the God who seems to have deserted him. The ultimate throne of glory is an empty tomb, where there is no body. (Ibid., p. 100)
I will suggest three aspects of the monastic life which open … a space for God. First of all, your lives are for no particular purpose. they lead nowhere, and finally . . . they are lives of humility.

Monks and nuns are not super-Christians, clutching to themselves some secret connection with God called contemplation that the great unwashed outside the monastery cannot enjoy. We have all, monks and non-monks, been washed in the blood of the Lamb and cleansed by the waters of Baptism, and all who go to Communion receive Christ, whole and entire, the sanctity of all saints, and everything that is necessary for all who receive him to become great saints themselves. St Anthony, Father of monks, was told by God that there was someone in Alexandria more advanced in the Christian life than he was; and God showed him a married man.
Monks do not contrast themselves with other people, because our vocation is to relentlessly pursue those goals that are common to every Christian life. Hence every Christian will find in monastic life something central to his or her own vocation, especially the seeking of the “one thing necessary”. In a community that is really seeking God, he will also find a peace that comes from harmony brought about by Christ’s presence. If there is any group with which the monk wishes to identify himself, it is with sinners A monk of Mount Athos was asked what monks do all day. He answered that there is joy in heaven over the repentance of one sinner; but on Mount Athos, there are many thousand.
The difference between living the monastic life and living as a Christian in the world has been illustrated in two ways. Firstly, it is like a greenhouse plant where all its needs to grow are provided in the exact proportions needed in comparison with a plant living in the wild which has to fend for itself: but they are the same species of plant. Another illustration is a comparison between two people who have to swim across a river on a cold and windy day. One takes his clothes off, in spite of the cold and the wind, and swims fairly easily across. The other remains in his clothes on to keep warm, but he finds it more difficult to cross the river because his clothes weigh him down. However, it is the same river; it is the Paschal Mystery of death and resurrection; and both become saints in the end.
Finally, we can now observe that the people who proposed participation in the liturgy, and those who advocated contemplation and those who held that practicing Christian virtues as the main function of a monastery, were all correct, as long as it is recognised that they are three necessary and complementary ways of participating in the Paschal Mystery. To celebrate the liturgy without practising the Christian virtues would be to separate liturgy from life and to render null and void our participation in Christ’s sacrifice of obedience to his Father’s will. To separate liturgy from contemplation would be to limit the effects of communion and to stunt the monk’s growth. To separate practising Christian virtue and contemplation from the liturgy would separate our Christian activity and experience from the Paschal Mystery celebrated in the liturgy.
St Paul described his vocation as saying a ‘Yes’ to God in everything. Just as the life of Jesus “was not ‘Yes and ‘No’” to his Father” but a whole-hearted obedience, so the Christian life is a simple ‘Yes’ to God, and for this reason “we say ‘Amen’ to the glory of God” (2nd Cor. 1, 20) All monastic life is designed to help the monk make his life a simple and whole-hearted ‘Yes’ to God in union with Christ so that we can say ‘Amen’ without hypocrisy at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer together with all other members of the Church.. In this way, our obedience becomes one with the obedience of Christ, and we come to share in the very life of the Blessed Trinity, entering it through the death and resurrection of Christ which is our way to the Father.

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