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The Monastic Vocation
by a Benedictine Monk
(This account of the translation of a lecture given by Dom Gerard, Prior of the Monastery of Sainte-Madeleine a Bedoin, before an audience of nine hundred in the hall of the Mutualite in Paris on November 24, 1977. With thanks to ‘Oriens’, magazine of the Ecclesia Dei Society, Australia.)e monastic calling is the t
I thank you for coming in such numbers this evening.
You are here because we have launched an appeal: our little monastery in mid-foundation needs practical help. You will read on your invitations that this lecture is entitled:
”Facing the Crisis in the Church and a Foundering Civilisation: A Benedictine Monk Bear Witness”. His very modest witness seeks to identify the deep meaning of monastic life in the modern world. I shall divide my argument into three parts: first I shall show how monastic life is contemplative, secondly I shall emphasise its apostolic value, and, to finish, I shall say a few words
about the little monastery in which you are kind enough to take an interest.
Recently an agnostic, faced with our foundering civilisation in thrall to liberalism (“to every man his own religion”, and so “to every man his own morality”:- you can see just how far that can go!) and to materialism (a two-dimensional universe without after-life or a beyond) remarked: “You monks, you are the most useful members of society”. We retorted: “How can you say that if you believe neither in God, prayer nor heaven?” He replied: “Because we are witnessing a haemorrhage of values, a continuing evolution where everything is questioned, a real collective
suicide. Now amidst the general rout you monks are witnesses to the permanence of values. And make no mistake the day you cease to be uncompromising you will interest us no longer”.
Dear friends, shall we search together this evening for the secret of an institution which even agnostics regard as an immovable rock in the midst of this rush to the abyss?
Monastic Life is Contemplative
Let us being with an anecdote. Some time ago a celebrated guru from India was asked to visit Paris. They extolled to him the benefits of technological civilisation, they showed him Christianity in the light of its good works, social and charitable. Then he asked the following question: “Works, is that all? But the most excellent work is contemplation. Where are your contemplatives”?
Was there not a stinging reproach in that question? The story is not finished: our guru was introduced to a literary circle in which he heard the spirituality of the Hindu mystics extolled. Then he pulled himself up and remarked dryly: “You in the West have mystics superior to ours. They are called Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Jean-Marie Vianey”.
The first incident shows that for many, religion has become a social phenomenon, where activity is what counts. The Second shows that ignorance of our own mystical patrimony
extends to looking abroad for what we have at home. And that raised the question of the place made for contemplative life in the present-day Church and the contemporary world. Well, let us say at once and boldly: “A very great place must be made for contemplative life”. Because it is not the very work of man. God is its beginning and end. God by His very perfection gives rise to the contemplative life. God infinitely merits that creatures surrender themselves, consecrate themselves entirely, forever and exclusively to contemplate, praise and adore Him. That is the truth, that is order, that is normality. Because God, as you know, is infinite in His perfections. He is the Lord, the Absolute Good, sovereignly desirable.
A religion which is not contemplative is unworthy of God.
So because he interests himself in God above all, the monk not only points to God, not only testifies to Him, he bear witness to the excellence of God. The God whom the majority of men forget – it is He whom the monk makes the centre of his life. The only thing that interests him, the only interesting thing in the world for him, is God. A monk is thus simply someone who has been ravished by the thought – by more than the thought of God; the monk has been caught up by the very sweetness of God, by the goodness of God, by the beauty of God. So he reaches out to seize hold immediately, in this present life, of what others lose sight of and end by encountering, sometimes too late, at the moment of death, on the threshold of eternity.
This journey of the monastic life, this radical attitude before the All of God, is profoundly logical. I am certain that every baptised person, even if a little dazed by life, by work, by other activities, recognised, in the depths of his being, that interior logic. And I shall suggest a striking example: the story of the conversion of Charles de Foucauld. While still an agnostic, he agreed, at the repeated request of his aunt Mme. Moitessier, to meet the Abbe Huvelin. Begged to make his confession: “But I don’t believe in God, Father”! “Kneel down”. Touched by grace, the freethinker became a penitent and confessed the faults of a sinful life. Then he got up with an attraction to the consecrated life, and was to declare later on: “As soon as I believed that there was a God, I realized that I could do no other than live for Him alone”.
Such is the logic of the saints! Because all questions, in the end, are contained in one: “Will God be adored, loved, served as He deserves and as the first commandment of the Decalogue requires”? On the reply to this question depend the happiness of souls and the survival of civilisations. Now monastic life is precisely the total consecration of human existence to the solemn service of God. And in the civilisation that may rightly be described as apostate, which seeks to build a world without God, this solemn service is a kind of shout, a shout like that of St. Michael’s “Quis ut Deus”? (Who is like to God?). A monk’s life is no more than a witness rendered to the transcendence of God. God is all, and because He is all, He deserves to be given all. The monk thus witnesses to the relative character, the insufficiency of the goods of this world. God alone is infinite Good. St. Teresa of Avila has recorded a splendid saying which came to her mind. “God alone is greater that the soul”. And so He alone is capable of satisfying it. Dear friend, to say that monastic life is essentially contemplative is to define the monk as a “man of prayer.”
One day, some ten years ago in our monastery in the High Pyrenees, a group of pilgrims were being received. They were shown the church. It was about five o’clock and twilight on a winter afternoon. After a moment one of the visitors approached the choir. He thought he saw there, against a pillar, a statue that interested him. He went up to the immobile form, leaned down, and, embarrassed, immediately withdrew. The reason for his discomfiture was that the “statue” was a monk praying – a still form in the shadows unaware that there were people around. The story became known, and we realised yet again the radiance, the mysterious influence, which prayer exercises on men – on all men. It is this which is immediately tangible in a monastery.
Therefore a monk is orientated towards his principal activity. At an hour when everything around him is shifting, he remains immobile at his post of prayer. It was St. Francis de Sales who said: “The world was created for prayer”. And the first impression of anyone making a retreat with us is precisely the atmosphere created by the hymns, psalms, silent prayer which bathe our existence.
Conventual Mass at Le Barroux
(once at Bedoin)
Let us say a few words now about the famous liturgical prayer which makes up the pattern of our days. Seven times during the day, once at night. As you know, the figure seven signifies perfection plenitude. Let us recall that this prayer was settled in the earliest ages of the Church, at a period in which there was a sense of the sacred. In fact it was necessary for the earliest monks to practice, as it were, for eternal life, to give to God that proof of the love of uninterrupted prayer which makes their life a beginning of heaven. Hence the figure seven.
Another characteristic: While modern man since the sixteenth century seems to have shown a tendency to close the shutters and withdraw to a distant room to pray, man of old praised God through the whole of creation; and our whole liturgical office, made up of what are called the Canonical Hours, consists in adoring God and praising Him “according to the place of the sun in the sky.”
It is this which gives our prayer that noble, spacious character worthy of God. The sun is, after all, the most beautiful image of God, of the god Who is called Sun of Justice. Like the sun, God spreads His benefits and is never poorer for sending out His radiance.
This is the order of our Offices, first, at 6.30 a.m. there is Lauds, which is the dawn prayer singing of the victory of light over darkness. Then, a short time afterwards (about 7.30 a.m.), comes Prime, with its reference to the first rays of the sun: “Jam lucis orto sidere”. Then, before the Conventual Mass, Terce, followed by Sext, which we sing when the sun is at its zenith: “Splendore mane instruis et ignibus meridiem” – in the heat of the noonday sun. In the afternoon there is None, which marks the setting sun and the vanishing of earthly things in face of the Immutable God: “Immotus in te permanens”. Then Vespers, the prayer of evening, and finally Compline at sunset: “Te lucis ante terminum.” We shall speak in a moment of the night psalmody.
These liturgical Offices are made up mainly of the Psalms of David which Jesus sang in the synagogue with Mary and Joseph when he was a child. He gave them their true meaning. The psalms speak of Christ, and it is Christ who speaks through the psalms. We do no more than lend our voices to Holy Church singing, in unison with her Divine Bridegroom, the new canticle of the New covenant. Do you know that these psalms are poems of wonderful beauty? They correspond to all the sentiments of the soul, all the aspirations, all the needs of the spiritual life: adoration, thanksgiving, praise, awareness of our poverty, penitence, supplication of divine aid and the outpourings of a tender, filial piety. The tenderness is palpable in certain psalms as is also love of the law, of the will of God, and a rapt confidence in Providence. Such are our psalms. And Christians have been singing-them since the Church first came into existence.
The liturgical Offices also express something very particular which I shall call the spirit of gratuitousness. You have noticed how modern living is marked by the sign of the useful, the profitable faced with a manufactured object, the first question posed is “What is it for”? or “How much does it cost”? But the most noble activities of man are those which are, by contrast ‘gratuitous’. The Louvre is full of things which are not used for anything. They are nevertheless guarded by alarm signals and a powerful security network, which indicates that man values them above all else. Their ‘uselessness’ is all their glory.
Well, these thing are only a pale image on that libation of love poured out for the honour of God. Contemplative life is thus entirely ‘gratuitous’, in the sense that it is not a means to anything beyond itself. I would even say that it is perfectly useless, if I were not afraid of giving scandal. So ask these young monks, these apprentices to contemplative life in our monastery “Why do you pray”?, and they will answer, with perhaps a touch of malice. “We don’t pray for anything”! Understand, we do not pray for anything, we pray to someone. For this reason monastic prayer consists primarily of adoration, admiration and praise.
Dom Marmion said: “A monk’s life is one endless ‘Gloria Patri’”, that conclusion to the psalms at which the monks bow gravely while singing “Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto”. A perpetual “Gloria Patri” that suffices, because we are made for it. The creature is fulfilled in acknowledgement of the infinite goodness of God. Dom Gueranger defined the Church as the society of divine praise. He wanted his monks to be “living alleluias”. Why? Because God in Himself is above all praise. So the Benedictine spirit expresses itself in a free outpouring of love, in thanksgiving enraptured by the splendour of God. “We give Thee thanks for Thy great glory”, as we sing in the “Gloria.” Andre Charlier, a man to whom we owe much, used to say: “It matters more than anything to preserve the
gratuitousness of love”. I thing that this gratuitous character of love is best expressed precisely in prayer which is first of all praise; because in praise the soul forgets itself and total forgetfulness of self is most difficult and most rare. And already one glimpses the apostolic role of contemplative life, of which we shall be speaking in a moment, because, anticipating eternity, monastic life is a proclamation of the Kingdom where perfectly pure and disinterested love will finally triumph.
I would not wish to end this brief account of contemplative prayer without telling you something about the night Office which, with us, begins at two in the morning (or two thirty, according to the feast day). Our Father Abbot founder, Dom Romain Banquet, used to say: “Night with its darkness, its silence, its pure and secret charm from on high, invites the soul and draws it to interior, luminous sanctifying ascents”.
Do you know, dear friends, that the night rising is a very ancient custom? It belongs to the beginnings of monastic life. When the first monks, those whom we call the Fathers of the Desert – Paul the Hermit, Anthony, Pacomius began the great monastic adventure, they instituted the night psalmody. Besides, we have a very exalted example: it is Our Saviour, who gave us the first example of night prayer. St. Luke reports that Our Saviour spent nights of prayer – “erat permecians in onetione Dei, “He spent the night in prayer to God”. In the Acts of the Apostles there is a delightful scene. Paul and Silas are in prison loaded with chains, and they rise in the middle of the night to sing their psalms in front of their guards, who come to listen to them with curiosity.
Holy Church thus instituted the Office known as Matins, and that so that the night should not escape the universal praise of creatures. It too must resound with our singing. And then, you see, by praying night and day the monk sends out a message to his contemporaries, a message to which they are in general very responsive: this message tells them of eternity, the heavenly country which we do not see and towards which we go. Certainly, I shall not hide from you that it is a difficult observance and consequently one which is endowed with a penitential character – and hence a work of reparation. Think, then, of the sins committed atnight: that black tide of lust which breaks on the world, the crimes of every kind calling for punishment. The monk must station himself as an intercessory and pray at thattime for his brothers. Think too of those dying in hospital, of the sleepless for whom the night is never-ending, of the misery, the nightly anguish of which we can have noi Iron Curtain who are imprisoned and tortured.
You all know the story, as charming now as ever, told by Joinville. One night at sea a storm broke over the returning Crusaders. Among the passengers there was panic, but King St. Louis cried out: “Don’t be afraid, they are praying for us” And the tempest sub-sided.
At on time France, and indeed all Europe, were literally covered with great abbeys, monasteries and monastic “ranges. Archaeologists find remains of such foundations below the soil every twenty-five kilometres. France was as if held in a chaplet, a network of prayer. Think of those thousands of hands raised to heaven, of those monks and nuns who watched over the temporal cities, who pleased, who called for the reign of God on earth (which is what we too ask). What an immense grace what a lightning-conductor for civilisation! It made the grandeur of the Middle Ages, it makes possible those extraordinary works which are called cathedrals, crusades, order of chivalry, monastic schools, works of mercy, hospices and those monuments of intellectual wisdom which are the writings of a St.Bonaventure and a St. Thomas Aquinas. Think above all of the yearnings for sanctity, of those princesses who went to bury their beauty and youth in the cloisters, of those knights who renounced the honours or the glory of arms to embrace the cross of Jesus Christ, of men and women who set out for heaven.
It reminded men that there is another world, the world of God. The sacred penetrated human institutions. It shaped the piety of Christians, because our West, however sick it is, however decadent because unfaithful to its vocation, has nevertheless received a seal, an impression that has marked it forever: it was the first monks sent out by the Benedictine Pope St. Gregory the Great who completed the evangelisation of Europe. He sent them to England, to the Friesians in Germany, to Spain and as far as Scandinavia. St. Maurus, the first disciple of our Father St. Benedict, had already planted the Benedictine monastic life among the Gauls. These missionary monks were sent not at first to preach, because at the beginning that was impossible, but to live their monastic life among the pagans. They founded monasteries, they lived the Rule of St. Benedict, they taught men how to work. It is good when a man works well, when he does a beautiful piece of work. They taught men to read in a beautiful book which the pagans did not know, the book of Holy Scripture. And, above all they taught them how to pray, thanks to the liturgical river which flows throughout the year and which is the best school of prayer.
In this way, Western Christianity was moulded by the first Benedictine monks. And something of it remains, something not always found on other continents where Anglo-Saxon Protestantism has placed its mark, where temporal success is considered a blessing from God, where luck evidently has its place. With us, it is not the same pattern. In our West, sick as it is (it is perhaps stricken to death), despite our degradation, our surrenders, there is a sense of God, a spiritual quest. Why? Because it is in our blood. It was instilled into us in our cradle. Our civilisation was signed by the Benedictines in the early centuries. They laid stress on the gratuitousness of divine service on disinterested love. And I believe it is this which will save the world.
Apostolic Value of the Contemplative Life
To grasp what it is which makes fruitful the vocation whose gratuitous character we have been emphasising, it will be enough to state a universal principle.
. It is quite simple. If one explains to a child, he understands at once. For example: the more the spirit of the disciple is in tune with the master, the better he
propagates his doctrine. It is obvious.
This is what Christ Jesus expressed when He chose to begin His human existence with thirty years of hidden life, silent life, apart from the world, unknown to man, entirelyabsorbed in a secret dialogue with God the Father. Thirty years of for three years of
! That is the model set before us by Jesus Christ Who is the apostle
. He began His work of salvation
with thirty years of hidden life, in the apparent inactivity of prayer and humility. What a lesson for us! It shows in what high esteem we should hold the interior life,silence, solitude – things so undervalued by the world: the example of Jesus Christ is enough to save the honour of contemplatives.
From all this we can already draw a certain conclusion: the salvation of the world is dependent of the prayer of a few souls in love with God. And now, to demonstrate the apostolic character of the contemplative life, that life of prayer and sacrifice hidden in God, we shall, with your permission, invoke the exemplary character of the life of St. Theresa of the Child Jesus. As you know, St. Theresa
died aged twenty four, without ever leaving her Carmel. Yet at her beatification Pope St. Pius X called her “the greatest saint of modern times”, and Pius XI proclaimed her patron of the missions of the universal church, by the same title as St. Francis Xavier. So we now ask a question: how can contemplative life be missionary?
Two anecdotes will make us understand St. Theresa at the end of her brief life, continued heroically to observe the Carmelite rule. Her sisters recount that shed was sometimes so crushed by the illness which was to carry her away that, returning from Matins, she would climb the stairs very
slowly, leaning her hand on the wall to catch her breath. A sister noticed this. As it was then the hour of the Great silence, she waited until the next day and then said to her “Sister Theresa, why do you not ask for a dispensation from Matins? Why do you go on walking like that? You are exhausted”. And she replied: “I am walking for the missionaries”! That is the Communion of saints in all its
That is why Pius XI, who has been called the Pope of the Missions, declared one day that he would prefer to see a monastery of contemplatives founded in a mission country than to learn of the conversion of 30,000 pagans. And it was the same Pius XI who wrote for the Carthusians, who are
pure contemplatives, the famous bull Umbratilem, from which I shall quote for you the following passage:
The second incident took place before Theresa’s entry into Carmel and decided her apostolic vocation in favour of the salvation of souls. We read her account in the . It is the well known Pranzini affair. There was at the time a criminal called Pranzini, a man responsible for several murders, who had been captured and sentenced to death. He was to be guillotined on August 31, 1887. Now the chaplain who visited him in prison had never succeeded in making him regret his crimes. Pranzini received him with arrogance and sent him away without showing a shadow of
repentance. The young Theresa heard talk about the notorious criminal, she was moved by compassion (as she herself said) and she asked God for a sign of his conversion. The day after his execution, she, opened the newspaper with, she admitted, unusual haste. And she read the account of his last moments. Pranzini had mounted the scaffold without confession, without absolution. The
chaplain behind him was holding a crucifix in his hand when suddenly the condemned man turned and kissed three times the crucifix which the priest offered him. St. Theresa of the Child Jesus herself recounts the miracle in her history. Let us hear her:
That was in 1887 when Theresa was fifteen years old. The following year she entered Carmel.
St. Theresa of the Child Jesus had a very bold doctrine of the apostolic role of prayer. She drew it from the theology of the Mystical Body in St. Paul. She explains in that out of love for the Church she would have liked to take on every role – to be missionary, martyr, doctor, priest, warrior, hospital worker – but she could not, since one cannot do everything: Because of the state of her health, she was not even able to answer the appeal of the Saigon Carmel for a reinforcement of French sisters. Nevertheless, in her autobiography she left a testimony to the illuminating grace which made her understand that if she could not take on all vocations, she could embrace them all. Reading St. Paul, she had grasped that in a body there are several members, but the central organ which drives the blood through the arteries, bring life to each member, is the heart. St. Theresa exclaimed them, in a tone of triumph “I have found my vocation in the heart of the Church, my mother. I shall be love, and because I shall be love, I shall be everything”. From then on she practiced the perfection of charity. She said: “One can’ save the world while picking up a pin which has fallen to the ground”. She was a worthy daughter of St. John of the Cross, that great Doctor of the Church, who wrote in his spiritual Canticle:
“The smallest part of pure love IS more precious in the eyes of God, and more profitable to the Church in its apparent inactivity, than all other works taken together”.
You see, dear friends, that the contemplative monk may also become a soldier of the Church Militant and a saviour of souls.
Our Monastery at Bedoin
And now, as I promised you, a few words on our little monastery at Bedoin, for which I am asking your generous support. It was founded in 1970 by a Father and a Brother. The Father, who is speaking to you this evening, came from an abbey in the High Pyrenees, where he had made his profession some twenty years earlier. That abbey was then in decline. He could not reconcile himself to having his whole existence unfold in a sense contrary to the Rule which he had embraced with solemn vows. The vows of religion are chains of love which bind you in the depths of the conscience. So he asked his Father Abbot’s blessing and resolved to leave, and to continue to live according to the Holy Rule in the strict observance and customs of the Order.
At the end of a year of solitary existence a very small place of worship offered itself. It was an ancient romanesque chapel. Five days after he had carried in his few belongings, a young man came to him asking to be initiated into the monastic life. He received the reply one should always give a postulant: “It is not possible, it is beyond your strength”. Moreover I had an excellent excuse: “By myself, how do you expect me to form you in theBenedictine life? There must be a Father Abbot, a Master of Novices, older monks”. Then I sent him away – it is our way of welcoming postulants. He came back three months later saying: “If you don’t accept me, I shall go and live my monastic life alone in the woods”. “No, don’t do that, it is dangerous”! And so he stayed. I tried to teach him what
I had been taught: the Holy Rule, the Holy Liturgy. He wasour first novice. Today he is a priest.
Then, some months later, another young man arrived: he was the son of a working man. I said to him, “You want to be a monk?” “Yes, but I have no education; I am self taught. Myfather humped grain sacks. I do have the technical certificate”. “You don’t know Latin”? “No”, “What is it that interests you in our life”? “Prayer”. “But you don’t understand any of it since we sing the psalms in Latin”. “I don’t understand, but it helps me to pray”. He had put hisfinger on that incantatory value of our splendid Catholic liturgy with its sacred language and Gregorian chant. What a magnificent instrument of prayer! We received the young man. He was made to do half an hour of Latin a day. Now he is able to translate the Psalter at sight.
Some time later a third came, then a fourth. But the whole Office was already being sung, the great solemn office, all the Hours were sung. Oh, it was no concert! It was not as beautiful as at Solesmes. It was not beautiful. It was grand. Because these young men felt themselves to be repositories of a grand tradition and they wanted to be worthy of it. One of them confided to me that without the
splendour of the liturgical life, he would not have persevered.
Now they are fifteen, if one includes postulants. And I will admit that what encourages me is their youth (they are between twenty and twenty-five years of age) and their love of the monastic tradition. The ‘progressive’ Benedictines have chosen evolution. And so they empty their monasteries. It is understandable. For our young men want the solid, the traditional, they love demanding forms, true contemplative life, and not “adaptations”. You see, when I ask them – and it is a question I always ask – “Why have you come? What is the reason for your action”?, they reply: “I have come for prayer, for union with God”.
God, prayer, and let us add, the life of brethren. In the end they come to know that marvellous Benedictine balance where prayer, study, and manual labour alternate, making possible a true harmony. It is a challenge to nature, you know, to make men live together all their lives. It would not be possible if there were not first the grace of thegood God and then the miracle which is the Rule of St.Benedict.
Yet please, believe that their wish to imitate the monks of old who for centuries – for fourteen centuries – embrace a life of gravity and recollection does not take away fromthem their simplicity and gaiety. You should see them on their Monday morning walk as, after good talk and laughter, they come down from Ventoux saying their rosary and singing their “Gloria Patri” so that it resounds on the evening air before they plunge again into the life of silence: “What can be sweeter to us dearest brethren, than this voice of our Lord inviting us? Behold in His loving mercy the Lord showeth us the way of life” (Prologue to the Rule).
That is what will continue, thanks to you, if your are generous if you allow us, by your gifts by your aims to raise towards the sky of Provence stone walls like those of the beautiful peasant houses, so humble, so noble in their simplicity. Like those churches, those little romanesque monasteries of Provence blend perfectly into the countryside. We desire this for the glory of God and also to help our brothers in the world, to enable them to stay from time to time in the haven of peace which is a
Sometimes a man may meet God there for the first time.There are conversions. They are matters of which one shouldnot speak. But we are among Christians. We know it is grace which does these things. It is not us. And I shall tell you that these conversions are made by the radiance of liturgical prayer. It is the choir of monks in unison dayand night which has led certain Protestants to become
Catholics, and certain souls who had left the Church or abandoned sacramental practice to return to the good Lord.And that shows to what point Tradition, our holy liturgical Tradition, is a bearer of graces. How good to realise that souls come to know themselves, are touched, come to the truth at such moments. That too deserves to continue, don’t you agree?
For it is a whole little world that gravitates round the monastery. It is sometimes even funny to see and officer alongside a student, sometimes a vagabond, priest, seminarian, boy scout. All go to make up that good Christianity which comes to us, which makes with us a single thing round the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. At the same time it all evidently constitutes a bastion, a taking root, a guiding mark in the raging sea in which Holy Church finds herself battered by the tempest of revolutionary modernism. Well, there will be islets which will continue Tradition.
A great cardinal came to see us (he was not entirely in agreement with us), and he told us: “Continue, your are witnesses, you are guiding marks and later on it will be known what exactly the great Catholic liturgy was”. The name of the cardinal was Charles Journet.
And so, my dear friends, nothing remains for me except to ask for the support of your generosity. In this way you will be taking up again the medieval tradition by which it was once the whole Christian people which built the monasteries. Every man brought his stone, and each monastery built was a window pierced in the sky!
I shall conclude this talk, with your permission, by expressing two wishes. The first concerns you. It is that your generosity towards us may rebound first upon you in graces of personal sanctification, so that we may all walk shoulder to shoulder in the Communion of Saints; then that it may rebound on your families, your sick and your dead. The second concerns us: I ardently desire that the young monks whose charge I have accepted may live a holy life behind the walls that you will have helped raise towards the sky; that they may live there to their last breath in the daily labour of conversion, faithful to their vocation of adoring God and saving souls.
This article was taken from the November 1995 issue of “Christian Order”. Published by Fr. Paul Crane, S.J. from 53, Penerley Road, Catford, London SE6 2LH. The annual subscription to “Christian Order” is $20.00.
Copyright (c) 1996 EWTN
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Monasticism in the 21st Century: A Viable Alternative or a Forgotten Ideal?
A brother went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my prayer rule, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”
This is what monasticism is: a longing for God that knows no limits. It is the beginning of the Age to come, of the Kingdom of Heaven still here on earth. The Church calls monasticism the Angelic Life. According to holy tradition, in the 4th century an angel appeared to St. Pachomius, the first of the monks struggling out in the Egyptian desert to establish a monastic community, and gave him a bronze tablet inscribed with a Rule for his monks to follow. From apostolic times to the present day thousands, hundreds of thousands, probably millions of people have left everything they had and scorned everything that this world has to offer in order to follow Christ and to live the Gospels more fully.
At times this impulse has been stronger, at times weaker, and the Holy Fathers speak of monasticism as a barometer of spiritual life in the Church. When monastic life flourishes, the faithful are really striving spiritually, and conversely, when few people find inspiration in the monastic ideal, monasteries diminish and are ignored, spiritual life amongst the faithful is on the decline. At the end of the 4th century, when persecution of Christians ceased and the Church knew peace for the first time, but the zeal of converts hadn’t cooled and many Christians desired to give everything to Christ, monasticism even became a mass movement.
One of the travel writers of the period, St. Palladius, tells of his visit to “Oxyrhynchus, one of the cities of the Thebaid (in Egypt). It is impossible to do justice to the marvels which we saw there. For the city is so full of monasteries that the very walls resound with the voices of monks. Other monasteries encircle it outside… The temples and capitols of the city were bursting with monks; every quarter of the city was inhabited by them… The monks were almost in the majority over the secular inhabitants… and there is no hour of day or night when they do not offer acts of worship to God… What can one say of the piety of the… people, who when they saw us strangers.. approached us as if we were angels? How can one convey an adequate idea of the throngs of monks and nuns past counting? However, as far as we could ascertain from the holy bishop of that place, we would say that he had under his jurisdiction 10,000 monks and 20,000 nuns. It is beyond my power to describe their hospitality and their love for us. In fact each of us had our cloaks torn apart by people pulling us to make us go and stay with them.”
Closer to our own time, in Russia in 1907, towards the end of the spiritual revival of the 19th century and before the Revolution there were 24,000 monks and 66,000 nuns, about 90,000 monastics, living in 970 monasteries. On the bleak side, the countryside of France, where my monastery is, is peppered by empty monasteries in ruins, remnants of the Age of Faith, as historians call the Middle Ages. They are testimonies to the spiritual barrenness of France, where more people believe in astrology than in Christ, and people spit at me on the streets because they think I’m a Moslem. It would never occur to them that a woman wearing black might be a nun. The scene at the airport here in Ottawa when I arrived was nothing like the scene in Oxyrhynchus when St. Palladius walked through the gates, and you could probably travel clear across Canada or America and not see a single monastery nor meet a single monk or nun.
But is monasticism completely a lost cause today? True, to modern eyes, the monk is increasingly a figure of yesterday, someone silly and eccentric. People think of roly-poly Friar Tuck from Robin Hood or of the sinister, murderous monks in the novel “The Name of the Rose”. The word “nun” brings to mind Mother Theresa or silly movies about nice but rather dumb women wearing strange, uncomfortable clothes. Even in someone with a more Orthodox frame of mind the word “monastic” applied to our times calls up the image of St. John of Shanghai, of Fr. Seraphim Rose, or the New Martyr the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, and we wonder what can these saints possibly have in common with us? Is anything from their lives and experiences at all relevant or applicable, and how can we, Orthodox Christians of the 21 century, even dare to aspire to imitate them?
The Sayings of the Desert Fathers and the lives of the founders of monasticism abound with dire warnings that monasticism, especially the strict asceticism of past centuries, will be just about impossible in the latter days. Once, when “the Holy Fathers were making predictions about the last generation, they said, “What have we ourselves done?” One of them, the great Abba Ischyrion replied, “We ourselves have fulfilled the commandments of God.” The others replied, “And those who come after us, what will they do?” He said, “They will struggle to achieve half our works.” They said, “And to those that come after them, what will happen?” He said, “The men of that generation will not accomplish any works at all and temptation will come upon them; and those who will persevere in that day will be greater than either us or our fathers”. Reading St. Ignaty Brianchaninov’s instructions for contemporary monastics, first published a little over a century ago and known in English as “The Arena” can be downright depressing. “We are extremely weak,” he says, “while the temptations that surround us have increased enormously… Spiritual activity is quite unknown to us. We are completely engrossed in bodily activity and that with the purpose of appearing pious and holy in the eyes of the world and to get its reward. We have abandoned the hard and narrow way of salvation… we monks are diminished more than any nation, and we are humbled in all the earth today for our sins….” At the end of the Arena, St. Ignaty uses the image of beggars eating the scraps left over from a sumptuous banquet to describe the monks of the latter days, where the Lord says to them, “Brothers, in making my arrangements for the banquet, I did not have you in view. So I have not given you a proper dinner, and I am not giving you the gifts which have all been given away according to a previously made calculation which only I can understand.” If someone today so much as even dares think of monasticism everything around him, both worldly and Orthodox, of the Church seems to say, “Forget it! Don’t even try! It’s absolutely useless!”
In spite of the hardships and the off-putting advice of even the most authoritative Orthodox sources, many people still do choose to leave everything and everyone behind, to take up the cross of monastic struggles and to follow our Saviour. I don’t think that it’s too optimistic to speak of a sort of revival of monasticism in our times. In the 20 years that I’ve been struggling to be a monastic my monastery has doubled in size. Every week we get letters and phone-calls from women and girls that want to come, to enter or to learn more about our life. They are clearly searching for a deeper, more intense spiritual life and some form of dedication. Our monasteries in the Holy Land are growing and flourishing. Since the years of Perestroika in Russia hundreds, if not thousands of monasteries have been opened. When I travel there, on the street every few feet of the way someone comes up to ask where I’m from, what monastery, for prayers, for a word of advice or consolation. They weep at the very sight of a nun and press lists of names into my hands, and their last kopecks and rubles. A very serious writer noted in surprise that in Russia more tourists visit monasteries than exhibits, museums or zoos.
What is it that continues to draw people to this way of life that is essentially a mystery, something that even the holiest monks speak of with awe and trembling? Above all, monasticism is the way of repentance. Not of the sort of repentance when we stop to sigh and feel sorry about the bad things we’ve done and then quickly move on to the next item on our list of things to do, or mumble a list of sins at confession so that we can go to Communion, but the sort that means a complete turn-about, a conversion, a profound change of lifestyle. This is the repentance of the Prodigal Son of the Gospels, who comes to realize that his entire way of life has been very wrong, and who leaves it all behind to go home to his father to ask forgiveness. The service of monastic tonsure begins with a stichera paraphrasing this parable: “Make haste to open unto me Thy fatherly embrace, for as the Prodigal I have wasted my life. In the unfailing wealth of Thy mercy, O Saviour, reject not my heart in its poverty. For with compunction I cry to Thee, O Lord: Father, I have sinned against heaven and before Thee.” It is this longing for our Heavenly Father’s embrace, for His forgiveness, and for a home with Him that still makes people turn their backs on everything and trudge along this rocky road.
The first step along this road is renunciation of the world, leaving it behind. This does not mean simply quitting school or your job, closing your bank account, moving to a monastery, putting on black and saying your prayers. According to the Holy Fathers the term “world” means the sum total of all our passions, attachments, opinions, petty likes and dislikes; everything that distances us from God and prevents us from discerning His Will. “No one can draw nigh to God save the man who has separated himself from the world. But I call separation not the departure of the body, but departure from the world’s affairs”, says St. Isaac the Syrian, one of the greatest monastic fathers of all time. “…No one who has communion with the world can have communion with God, and no one who has concern for the world can have concern for God”, he continues.” If you truly love God”, begins St. John of the Ladder, another monastic guide, “and long to reach the Kingdom that is to come, if you are pained by your failings and are mindful of punishment and of the eternal judgment, if you are truly afraid to die, then it will not be possible to have an attachment, or anxiety, or concern for money, possessions, for family relationships, for worldly glory, for love and brotherhood, indeed, for anything of earth… Stripped of all thought of these, caring nothing about them, one will turn freely to Christ…”
At this point the most common question is “how do I know?” How do I know that I’m called to the particular form of renunciation of the world that monasticism represents? All of us have to leave the world in the sense of struggling to overcome our passions in one way or another; there’s no question about that. But how can a person be sure that the Lord means for him to do it by embracing the monastic life? How can we discern the will of God in this case? It’s very true that there’s no specific “monastic type” or particular character trait that defines someone as a candidate. My monastery has all sorts of people: fat, thin, old, young, outgoing, very shy, well-educated, high-school drop-outs, of the sweetest disposition, and some can be downright nasty at times. They did all sorts of things: one was a magazine editor, another a seamstress, someone was a semi-professional ball player, another sister has a PHD in philosophy, one of the youngest sisters came to us practically off the streets. Some of them had happy childhoods, others hated their parents, some of them were extremely successful at what they did, others hated their jobs. But all of them at some point in time became convinced of the necessity of dropping everything and starting along the road home to their Heavenly Father.
People often talk of vocations and callings, assuming that there has to be some sort of mystical experience to convince you to become a monastic. It’s true that a lot of monastics can look back to a particular event that was the turning point in their lives. 9 times out of 10 there’s nothing really otherworldly about it. If you hear voices or see angels probably the last place where you belong is a monastery! One of our sisters made her decision during an akathist before a miracle-working Icon of the Mother of God. All of her friends had gone dancing that night, but she chose to attend this akathist, and in the middle of it, it dawned on her that she was having a really good time; much better than she would have had dancing, and that it would make sense to do this full-time, as it were. Another sister was moved by the example of 2 nuns she met at the Synod Cathedral in NY. They were there to collect money for the Holy Land. Someone from the parish attacked them for no reason, accusing them of taking food from the kitchen without permission. Most of us would have tried to reason and explain the mistake, but one of the nuns, in a beautiful example of monastic humility, simply made a prostration and begged forgiveness. The fact that there really are still people today who try to do what the Gospels teach was a real revelation, and within a year this girl was a novice. Someone else was moved by a passage from St. John Cassian. One of our older nuns made her decision when her parish priest asked her if she knew anyone that might consider entering being a nun. This was soon after World War II, and this person had assumed that there were no longer any monasteries left, that monasticism wasn’t even a possibility. And when the priest asked, everything fell into place for her.
Even if there is such a moment, the choice and the decision to follow a monastic path is almost always a period of real struggle, of doubts, fears and temptations. A lot of the monastics I know, when the thought first came to them, wanted nothing to do with it and were quite shocked by the idea. The Holy Fathers emphasize that there is nothing that the evil one hates as much as monasticism and he will do everything possible to turn someone away from this path. If one is at all spiritually alert you can practically see and hear him at work at this point. I’ve known people to get incredible job offers, receive huge amounts of money, marriage proposals from tall, dark, handsome and rich men. An older nun I knew had her husband, missing for 20 years, turn up on her doorstep the day before she left. Another one had her son threaten to shoot himself, someone else’s mother starved herself for 6 weeks. If you speak to monastics you truly will find that fact is stranger than fiction! In spite of the trials, there’s a growing conviction that there is nothing else that you can do, that no matter what, the monastic life is the only viable alternative. And this nags at you until there’s just no other way out.
Once a monk escapes from the world he begins to try to finally think clearly and to concentrate on the things that will determine his eternal fate. He begins to really understand and to feel that we, wretched sinners, really are perishing, that we desperately need a Redeemer and Someone to heal our souls, and that in Him alone is life, that everything besides is empty and senseless. He begins to really feel and experience this, not just to say the words. Only when a person stops listening to the noise and clatter of the world, turns his eyes away from its wild, psychedelic colors, and when he gets over the hangover that the world leaves you with does he begin to see himself clearly and to discern the meaning and aim of life on this earth and to struggle against his enemy, the evil one. St. John of the Ladder tells us, “All who enter upon the good fight, the monastic life, which is tough and painful, but also easy, must realize that they must leap into the fire, if they…expect the heavenly fire to dwell within them…let everyone test himself, and then eat the bread of the monastic life with its bitter herbs.. .and drink the cup of it with its tears… Yes, it’s true. The monastic life is not “fun”. Most of us, especially those that had to go through a severe trial to leave the world, experience a “honeymoon” period, when you finally take the plunge, make the break with the world and get to a monastery. It’s such a relief to have all that behind you and to have finally started out on the way. Everything and everyone seems wonderful, you’re full of zeal, and you can practically see the grace, it’s so abundant. For some monastics this stage can go on for years. But sooner or later reality strikes and you see that everything that’s been written about the hardships of monastic life is not just fancy words or symbolic phrases or allegory. It’s not the physical side that’s hard. With some effort and discipline anyone can learn to get up early and to stand through long church services, to make prostrations and to work and work hard at jobs that you don’t necessarily like. A lot of people in the world have a much more difficult life in that sense. It’s the encounter with yourself and who you really are and the struggle to change that, that is the slow but painful, day by day, minute by minute work of the monk. The work is done largely through our contacts and conflicts with other people. St. John of the Ladder is very blunt about this: “…Derided, mocked, jeered, you must accept the denial of your will. You must patiently endure opposition, suffer neglect without complaint, put up with violent arrogance. You must be ready for injustice, and not grieve when you are slandered; you must not be angered by contempt and you must show humility when you have been condemned.” For most of us the most difficult element in all this is giving up your own will. In one of the most quoted monastic sayings Abba Dorotheus, another great teacher of the monastic life says: “I know of no fall that happens to a monk that does not come from trusting his own will and his own judgment… Do you know someone who has fallen? Be sure that he directed himself… nothing is more grievous… nothing is more pernicious.”
When I was a young novice I would get really annoyed at the writings of the Holy Fathers and the constant repetition that in the latter days monks will not be able to perform any podvigs, or great ascetic feats, but will work out their salvation through patience and long-suffering. “How boring!” I would think, “Surely if we set our minds and spirits to it, we can do it, too? How come all we’re allowed is to sit around and be patient?” The secret here is that this is truly a great mercy of the Lord. Today we are not only unchristian in our approach to life, in our thoughts, words and actions, we are outright anti- Christian. Were the Lord to grant us the grace and give us the strength to perform even just 1/10 of the ascetic feats of previous times, we would not only not profit, but the resulting pride and vain-glory would lead us straight to perdition. This is especially true in monasticism, where, for the inexperienced, the intense work on one’s self is very easy to confuse with the self-analysis that so many self-help/’feel-good-about-yourself” guides teach today.
Take, for example, the concept of “moods”. This is not an Orthodox concept; we do not have moods, we are inflicted by passions and we strive to acquire virtues. “Being in a bad mood” can never excuse your behavior in a monastery. This can be very hard for a novice to accept. Likewise, we do not have any “rights”; we have obligations and obediences, and we owe it to the Lord Himself to fulfill them, but no one owes us anything. Similarly, we cannot expect to be “happy” and “fulfilled”; we come to a monastery to weep for our sins. Today just about everything is “boring”. We’ve tried everything, we’re stubborn and very self-assured. To cure the boredom, some people decide to try monasticism. Young people especially want nothing more than to make an impression, cause a sensation. What could be more sensational than to suddenly have all your friends see you 30 pounds thinner, draped in black, clutching a prayer rope, expounding spiritual wisdom? Worst of all, in our times people are prouder than ever before. We take pride in our imaginary virtues, we even take pride in our sins. And most of all, we are proud of our minds. We see ourselves as great thinkers, understanding psychologists, brilliant philosophers, who of course can understand all the finer, most profound monastic truths much more deeply than those that came before us. The notions of humility, obedience, self-condemnation, meekness and renunciation of one’s will used to “go without saying” for Orthodox Christians, but today they have to be learned. One of the Russian new martyrs, Vladyka Varnava Beliaev, wrote that it takes 30 years for someone to start being a monk. That was said 80 years ago; today it probably takes 40 or 50!
So why bother? Is it really worth it? I remember Metropolitan Philaret, paraphrasing St. John of the Ladder, saying, “If everyone knew how hard it was in monasteries, no one would ever go. But if they knew the joys and rewards of monastic life, they would all come running. And it’s true, the rewards and the blessings really are there. One of the Optina Elders, St. Barsanuphius, taught, “True blessedness can only be acquired in a monastery. You can be saved in the world, but it is impossible to be completely purified.. .or to rise up and live like the angels and live a creative spiritual life in the world. All the ways of the world, …. laws destroy or at least slow down the development of the soul. And that’s why people can attain the angelic life only in monasteries… Monasticism is blessedness; the most blessed state that is possible for a person on this earth. There is nothing higher than this blessedness, because monasticism hands you the key to spiritual life.”
In what do we find this blessedness? There is the knowledge that every day of your life and every minute of your day are sanctified and significant before God. Even your “bad” days and your really low days having meaning before Him. As long as you live the life consciously there is no wasted time. There is the solemnity and beauty of the Divine Services of our Church, which is truly the beginning of the life of Heaven still here on earth. In the world our attendance in Church is always time stolen away from the world’s affairs, a welcome respite, a sort of spiritual treat. In the monastery the services determine the very patterns of life, and they are the real life; everything else is time stolen away from them. They nourish us, instruct us, and in a certain sense even entertain us. When I was entering the monastery one of my greatest fears was that eventually I would find the services boring-the same thing, year in, year out, forever. Instead I find that they contain such vast wealth and so many levels, each more profound than the one before it, that a lifetime is nowhere near enough to begin to appreciate them. The saints have become my close friends and mentors, I experience the feasts differently each year, every Great Lent and every Pascha are a completely new revelation. Above all, in monasticism there is what St. Theophan the Recluse called “being sure that God keeps you as His own”. If you accept the ways of the Lord as your life your conscience will soon be lit up with the knowledge that He, too has accepted you as His own. I remember the night I spent in church after my tonsure, after making my monastic vows. I had such a vivid sense that the Lord was with me, it seemed that Heaven was literally just around the corner, that if I opened the door of the church it would be right there. This wasn’t a feeling; I knew this.
There is nothing more beautiful than the way monastics die. Most of our sisters die having received Holy Communion, surrounded by the community, with prayers and chanting and tears. Not the desperate tears of the world, but tears at parting with a friend and sister, even if just for a while. The funeral service of a monk, which is quite different than that of a lay person, is a lesson on the monastic life and the solidly grounded hope of eternal life that it represents rather than a meditation on death. For those that spend their life on the threshold of the Age to Come death is merely stepping into the next room.
We do give up a lot in monastic life. My arms have ached after holding my friends’ children, knowing that I would never hold my own. But the Lord has given me many children of the spirit amongst the young novices that I work with in the monastery. A monastic will never know the special intimacy and closeness that is the blessing of an Orthodox marriage. And a married person will never know the spiritual kinship of a monastic community. There are no vacations from monasticism, no sick days, no time off. But every day is a feast.
“Monasticism”, one of the Optina elders said, “supports the entire world. And when there will be no more monasticism the Dread Judgment will be upon us.
And for those of us that are drawn to this way of life there simply is no other way to live. One writer described it like this: “Some people are very single-minded by nature. And there are ideas that permeate the lives of such people down to the very last detail. Everything beautiful, joyous and of consolation in this life is overshadowed for them by the memory of one thing, by a single thought: that of Christ Crucified. No matter how bright the sun might be, how beautiful nature, God’s creation is, how tempting faraway places might seem, they remember that Christ was Crucified, and everything is dim in comparison. We might hear the most beautiful music, the most inspired speeches, but these souls hear one thing: Christ was Crucified, and what can ever drown out the sound of the nails being hammered into His flesh? Describe to them the happiness of a family life, of a beloved husband or wife, of children, but Christ was Crucified, and how can we not show the Lord that He isn’t alone, we haven’t deserted Him. There are those that are willing to forget everything in the world so as to stand by His Cross, suffer His suffering and wonder at His Sacrifice. For them the world is empty, and only Christ Crucified speaks to their hearts. And only they know what sweetness they taste still on this earth by sharing in the eternal mystery of the Cross and only they hear what He says to them when they come to Him after a life full of incomprehensible hardships and inexplicable joy.