Clothing Conference 28th June 2009
We all know that today is really the feast of St Irenaeus, a native of Smyrna, whose bishop, Polycarp, he had heard preach when a young man. Now Polycarp had been a disciple of St John the Apostle. So Irenaeus is one of those key links with the apostolic age. He studied in Rome, became a priest at Lyons and eventually bishop of that see for twenty three years until his death in the year 200. His most famous writing is the Treatise “Against the Heresies.” In it he wrote, “For the glory of God is a human being fully alive, and the life of humanity consists in the vision of God.” That short sentence describes in a nutshell what the Christian faith and the Christian life are all about. It is also the best description I know of the monastic life and vocation.
I have often thought it would be a good idea to write, I mean for someone else to write, a catechism of the monastic life in question and answer from. Of what does the call to the monastic life consist? What does it take to be a monk? What is the goal and how is this achieved? In addition to St Benedict, you could throw in bits of Cassian and Basil, and other fathers of the Church, such as Cyprian, Jerome and Bede. You could bring it up to date with Anselm and Aelred, with Augustine Baker and John Chapman. There’s so much to read, so much to learn and so much to assimilate and put into practice. That’s why silence, reading and study are so essential to the formation and on-going life of a monk and why you, Stanislaus and Jonathan, will spend so much time over the next year reading the monastic fathers. Chose one of them to be your special adoptive father, get to know his words and thoughts really well and stick close to him throughout your monastic life. He will be your patron, your godfather, and you will be a real son to him.
But to return to Irenaeus: “the glory of God is a man fully alive and the life of man consists in the vision of God.” God has called you to the monastic life, specifically to be monks of Belmont, in order to share his glory with you, in order that you might become fully alive. That is the purpose, the goal and the meaning of the monastic life. The vows, the prayer, the work, the reading and the study, the community life, with all its sacrifices, joys and sorrows, should lead you under the guidance of the Gospel, living as you do under a Rule and an abbot, to just one thing and that is to become truly and fully alive, real, human. I am convinced that this is what the monastic life is all about: becoming whole again, putting together all the pieces of the jigsaw. As we come to know God more and more, as we come to experience his love and forgiveness, his patience and understanding, so the chaos and muddle that each one of us is under the influence of original and actual sin, begin to come together, make sense and function under the all-seeing eye of God.
St Benedict invites us to remember that God is always present, even when we feel his absence most. He is here in our midst and he is here deep inside each one of us. And he sees everything. He alone knows my inmost thoughts, desires and needs and he is far more aware of my weaknesses, failures and sins, not to mention my good points, than I am. But in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, God has taken us to himself, the good and the bad, the lot, and his one desire is that we should live, that we should become fully alive, that we should live in him as he already lives in us. For us simply to recognise the divine life within us is to become fully alive, truly sons of the Father in the divine Son and through the Holy Spirit. Irenaeus continues, ”Thus if the revelation of God in this world gives life to every living thing, how much more will the revelation of the Father by the Word give life to those who see God.”
The monastic life should be that lifting of the veil which gradually allows us to see God in all things, in all people, in every situation and, ultimately, in himself. No matter how “active” our life at Belmont turns out to be at times, our one desire and ultimate goal remains unchanged: simply to see God. The contemplative life lies and remains at the heart of a monastic vocation. In the long course of monastic history, Christian monks and nuns have accomplished great things in the missionary activity of the Church as well as in the world of science, art, music, literature, architecture, farming and education. All that is good and to be recognised and celebrated, but what value would all those good works have were they not the fruit of prayer and contemplation, the fruit of faith? And how would they have been accomplished without the grace of perseverance and fidelity to the traditional monastic vows of obedience, conversation morum and stability?
I’ll end with just a word of advice. I remember on the night before going up to university my father said to me, “Now be good and remember what your mother and I have taught you, but if you can’t be good, then at least be careful.” He was certainly right about remembering those Christian virtues I had been taught at home. I realise now how important they are. But my advice to you is this, “Stanislaus and Jonathan, be good, keep to the Rule and the Constitutions, but if you can’t be good, at least be humble.”
It is a great pleasure to clothe you both in the habit of our Congregation. I pray that you may live in such a way as to die in it one day. May you come to find God, know him and love him in the monastic life. Amen.