Fr Nichodemus Ohanebo, OSB
Monastic Life in St Benedict’s Monastery,
Ewu – A Personal view
In one of the fine pages of his book, “Letters from the Desert”, Carlo Caretto wrote, ‘God builds his Church out of weak stones such as we are’ – this is the living and continuous story and truth of my monastery. The solidity of such a house of God and of such a small part of the Body of Christ is not in the individual strength of virtue or weakness of sin but in the love of the God who deems it fit, as a divine expression, to create such a community, to make a bond of such a body in the larger Body of Christ. In other words, the weak stones do not give the Church its stability, rather it is the condescending love of God in the stones that does this.
Employing, then, the simple courtesy of introducing my community, I will first explain that St. Benedict Monastery, usually called ‘Ewu Monastery’ due to its location on the simple hill of the Ewu-Esan community, a village in the southern part of Nigeria, is a monastic community of brothers living the cenobitic life under the Rule of St. Benedict of Nursia (480AD – 547AD), in the Roman Catholic Church’s Benedictine Congregation of the Annunciation. Our daily activities range from prayer to work, from work to being of service to others, and from our service to the essential sharing of the community life. But what is life in Ewu monastery like?
Without any trouble to my head and saving myself so much thinking about what life in Ewu monastery is like, I must confess that we are here, in this community, a group of staunch humans without any mitigation whatsoever in the raw ways of very normal (and maybe sometimes abnormal) human expressions. It is in being concrete humans that we become aware of the true relevance of the life of conversion in every moment of our being monks or ascetics – our gross human existence must hear the Word of God and give heed to it. Just as there are numerous green plants in almost every nook and cranny of the community, so also one finds in the Ewu monks – each in his own special endowment – the flowers of humane human existence. Understanding the Ewu brothers sometimes is like writing the few lines of a simple poem just as the inspiration comes, while life’s events are happening in every moment, since such understanding is reached only by the radical facing of a natural and realistic human existence. The brothers here are both conscious and spontaneous at different levels. Our community here is happening, just as it unfolds.
Life in Ewu is, for me, a living out of the common and, at the same time, uncommon expression of the Christian life, in a fine blend of divers human experiences and expressions. The life here consists of a practical discovery and rediscovery of the self beneath the spheres of what is seen. While in Ewu we take prayer, work, and various kinds of studies seriously, we also look out for the original person in each brother – that original person to be redeemed, the person with imperfections, and the person with a keen understanding of how to be himself, how to be me. For example, it happened that a witty novice once sat a little closer to the Prior at table, due to the absence of some of the senior brothers. After the meal, he was asked by another brother how he, a novice, felt sitting so close to the Prior at table, and he replied loudly, ‘I felt like I became almost the Sub-prior’, and everyone burst out laughing. Perhaps, if a novice had said that in another community, the laughter would have been rather a summoning of him to leave, since he was not humble enough to have a vocation. But this is the kind of thing one finds amongst the Ewu brothers. This does not rule out the fact that we check excesses and extremes, but points to the fact that our community life here is scarcely perfect. The brothers are seeking the place where the middle chord of God’s harp binds us tunefully into the mystical musical core of a simple and pure life.
Here in Ewu, we quarrel and we settle; we misunderstand and argue ourselves into a common view where our differences disappear after all; we make many mistakes and while some are corrected, others are left as scars on the face of the community, a face where, like a mirror, we look and find the effect of our wrong choices even as a community. Looking through my own frail eyes, one would say that life in Ewu reveals the individual brother and some (if not most) of his failings, even though within him is both an actual and a potential saint. Due to our way of living, I sometimes know that we need help, just as sometimes I know that we must be of help, and this help includes the spiritual as well as the material, the psychological as well as the medical, the emotional as well as the sexual, the experiential as well as the unknown, and the obvious as well as the mystical.
Anyone who takes time to be less of himself or herself is three steps from finding true and pure transformation. And because we are a community of imperfect persons in Ewu monastery, from my own religious perception, we want to be in touch first with our imperfections, find our black spots, identify them by name, if possible, and manifest them in offering them to God by the kind of life we live. We are seeking God, the Father of Jesus Christ, and that is clear to me. This will tell anyone, in my opinion, that if you are seeking to find an already perfect community of monastics, do not come to Ewu monastery; however, you do stand a chance of meeting some saints here.
Finally, I do not say this because I am one of the brothers here, but because I have observed it: the community of the Ewu brothers is moving towards the middle or core or centre of the pure life in God. No doubt, however, that the community may still experience certain crises, as is expected of normal growth in human society, but if it maintains its natural flow of life and experiences it in complete simplicity and conscious spontaneity, it will strike the exact chord of the pitch that God the Absolute is singing in regards to it being as a body in the larger Body of Christ. The goal of our prayer is that Christ may be glorified in all things; and ‘may he bring us all together to everlasting life’ (Rule of St. Benedict 72.12).