What a visit to an observant Benedictine monastery can teach us
July 7, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — There are two important liturgical dates associated with the patron of Western monasticism and co-patron of Europe. The traditional Roman calendar observes his feast on his transitus or passing into eternal life on March 21. The modern Roman calendar observes his feast on July 11, the date of the translation of his relics. Benedictine monks and nuns customarily celebrated both feasts, which even had octaves — the more festivity, the better!
(Speaking of festivity, today, July 7, is the 13th anniversary of Summorum Pontificum, the great Magna Carta of liturgical restoration — definitely worth a Birra Nursia or some other celebratory beverage.)
The first time I read the Rule of St. Benedict as a young adult, I found it stiff and dry. In reality, I was not yet ready for the purity and depth of its wisdom. Many years passed before I read it again — and this time, my reaction was quite different. The Prologue in and of itself struck me as one of the most profound summaries of the Christian spiritual life I had ever seen; the chapters on humility, the instruments of good works, the manner of praying the office made me realize that I was standing in the presence of a lawgiver like Moses, to whom indeed the traditional liturgy compares the Holy Patriarch. The notable fact that Christian Europe, the heart of Christendom, was constructed primarily by Benedictines ceased to surprise me.
Although I had known or seen Benedictines before, it wasn’t until my visits to the monastery of Norcia that I felt as if I had encountered monks who truly lived by the spirit and letter of the Rule. Their enthusiasm for divine worship (the opus Dei or “work of God”), their quiet joy, and their example of fraternity drew me back again and again. Visits to the monasteries of Le Barroux, Silverstream, and Clear Creek only increased my love for Benedictine monasticism. After praying about it, I decided to become a Benedictine oblate of Norcia, where I made my final oblation on May 22, 2014, the feast of St. Rita of nearby Cascia.
What are some of the lessons I have learned from monks over the years?
God has pride of place. The horarium — that is, the daily fixed round of prayer — takes priority over everything else. If a monk is doing some job and the bell rings, he has to wrap up what he’s doing, or leave it unfinished, and go back to the chapel. If you are expecting to meet a certain monk to talk about some personal or professional matter, you have to wait your turn; it could take days to see the person you want to see, because they are just so busy with the “work of God” — that is, the round of prayer. Your own needs are in third place; first comes worship, then the immediate needs of the community, and finally — as time permits — your own. It is exactly the opposite of the modern world’s motto, “me, myself, and I.”
God deserves our best. Out in the world, there can often be a hasty and slipshod approach to serving God. We do what’s convenient for us. We make things snappy because we have “stuff to do.” Human work tends to take precedence over divine work, the active life over the contemplative. While monks face the same temptations to activism, anthropocentrism, and cutting corners as all other fallen men, their life has been designed from the ground up to be theocentric, receptive, and maximalist. Authentic monks give their first and best hours of the day to God; they give Him the most splendid liturgy they can offer; they strive to store up riches in Heaven rather than on Earth.
God is the meaning of our life and everything in it. In the world, we tend to compartmentalize: I’ll give this hour to God, but the rest of the week is for me and my sphere of concerns. We buy and sell, give and take, wake and sleep, eat and drink and recreate, often without a thought for life eternal, without the infusion of prayer that should permeate our life like incense in a church. The monks, on the other hand, have set up their lives so that everything they do, wear, eat, or say is rooted in God and flows back to Him. This happens not only in the liturgy, where it is most obvious, but also in the routines of the refectory, in the sacral silence of the library, in the fraternal recreations and walks, in the friendly conversations in the guesthouse or the bookshop. A good monastery will remind visitors of the heavenly Jerusalem, where “God is all in all” (cf. 1 Cor. 15:28). This is not to say any monastery or any monk is perfect, but rather that at its best, the monastic life really does supernaturalize all of human life, orienting it toward its transcendent destiny.
God is real, and we encounter Him. In the world, thanks in large part to our forgetfulness and hardness of heart, God seems distant, vague, unreal, more of a concept than a certainty. The solution to this disconnect between ourselves, who have such a tenuous purchase on reality, and the one who is in fact the most real and the source of all reality is not an evangelizing big-tent Christian rock concert or a gooey “sharing” of life stories. We meet this God in the calming repetition of the psalms; we meet Him in the silence that compels us to go beneath the surface and beyond the conventional; we meet Him in the serious joy or joyful seriousness that radiates from men who have given everything to Him. There is no joy like this to be found in the madding crowd. The world is a hard master that demands everything and gives, ultimately, nothing but emptiness and regrets. Pleasures run out quickly, demanding frantically to be renewed: a despair lurks at the center of them. The monastery demands everything and gives more than everything. It connects all that is noble and all that is humble in a man’s life to the One who gives reality its reality, who endows our thoughts, words, and actions with meaning.
Hospitality as a way of life. Fallen human beings — especially in the Modern Age, which privileges various kinds of individualism and collectivism — are burdened with a tendency to “curve inwards,” as the medieval theologians put it. We take stock to make sure we are and will be well fed; when we share, it is with difficulty or for self-interest. St. Benedict’s Rule embodies the opposite attitude: food is for sharing with guests, prayer is for the benefit of all, the liturgy is a gift free and fertile beyond measure, life is to be expended not on oneself, but in service to brethren and strangers. The kernel of civilization is the Rule in its famous principle of hospitality: every guest, be he mighty or marginal in the eyes of the world, is to be received as Christ. Moderns treat even their own children as strangers; monks treat the stranger as Christ. This is the difference between a culture of death and a culture of life. You can see this in action at a monastery.
Visiting a good monastery is always a challenge and a consolation. On the one hand, it shows us how little we are actually giving to God of what we could give to Him; it points up our lack of generosity, our inconsistency and inconstancy, our petty pleasures and disorganized priorities. On the other hand, it reminds us that God is greater than our problems, that His grace is sufficient for our weakness, and that He is calling us gently but insistently to embrace more self-discipline and self-denial for the sake of a fuller life in Him.
My life as an oblate is fortified by the strong presence of St. Benedict and his Rule, always pointing me in the right direction.