Dom Bernhard A. Eckerstorfer, OSB
Rector of Sant'Anselmo, Rome
and Monastic Renewal
Looking at recent theological and monastic publications it is striking that most of these are concerned with contemporary challenges. There can be no doubt that we are faced with changes which for many of us signal the entry into a new era. Like the Church as a whole, monasteries too are looking for ways that will carry them into the future. This search becomes particularly urgent when the continued existence of a given commnity is at stake. Against this background, the question of Benedictine studies and training becomes not only a pressing issue but also one that is not free of risk.
The main title of this issue of the AIM Bulletin contains the key-word ‘Today’. It is true that monastic formation has always tried consciously to situate Benedictine life in contemporary social realities. It is also true that, given the existence over many generations of a strong element of continuity in Church and society, one model was regarded as adequate. Against this, our own situation is not so clear: in the middle of epochal changes, attitudes and practices that hitherto were taken for granted are no longer proving sustainable. At the same time, new paradigms have not been established and no-one knows what the future will look like. We all feel, and may even have become conscious in our concrete experience, that new ways of being and acting are inevitable. But we also ask which of these new ways will really prove reliable guides to and in the future.
I am convinced that in the present situation theology is a decisive element in Benedictine formation and for the articulation of new directions for our communities. But we also need to recognise that monasticism can and ought to play an important role in theological renewal. As in political, social and cultural life one can observe a lack of orientation, a lack indeed that is leading to a breakdown of institutions and generally accepted convictions and ways of thinking that hitherto had provided a foundation, so too in the Church and theology one can observe a change. In this regard, the word ‘crisis’ is on everyone’s lips and the original meaning of this word can help us in discussing our topic. Basically, the word ‘crisis’ means and promotes ‘discernment’ and ‘decision’.
I should like to deal under three headings with the topic suggested to me. First, I should like to look at monastic initiation, its meaning and the form it takes. I was master of novices for twelve years and already before that I experienced in my own development the need for a thorough and well-grounded initiation. As a second point, I should like to outline how monastic practices are actually theological activities. Finally, I shall present the role of the university in the renewal of Benedictine life.
Monastic Formation as a Theological Process
In monasteries in particular we see that the communication of the Faith basically means the introduction to a specific way of life. In an homogeneous religious society, attitudes and practices become natural because they are shared and supported by the majority. In a pluralistic society, however, in which belief is only one of many options, processes which hitherto had been taken for granted must be specifically addressed so that they may not be lost but must also be formulated in a new idiom that does justice to the changed context.
When a person enters the monastery, she or he begins a many-layered learning process. In the first years, many practices that are engrained in the community’s life are consciously communicated; consciously, that is, in the sense of reflected on and questioned. This is important if the individual is not only to appropriate what is embedded in the community but also to make it her or his own. In this way, the monastic life is renewed in every person received into the community. This happens through a process of personal appropriation in the community, aware of the reality of the present, thereby becoming a reality that can be lived.
The introduction to Benedictine life is a theological process. The monastic project has always understood the individual nun or monk as someone who is searching for God, as one who brings to the monastery an appropriate way of thinking. In order to be a theologian in the original sense, one does not need to have a doctoral degree from a theological faculty. There are people who are intellectually and spiritually competent who live a ‘theological’ life and can communicate this to others. I should like to illustrate the significance of a foundational introduction by drawing on a personal experience: when at the age of 29 and after a lengthy period of study both at home and abroad, I was told by my abbot and master of novices after I had entered my abbey, ‘You already have a theological doctorate under your belt. What else can we teach you?’ They seemed to think that without any further ado I could serve, for instance, a pontifical Mass. But I had never been an altar-boy and pontificals had not formed part of my specialised study of Protestant theology in North America! I was clueless and awkward as compared to my fellow-novice, who had come directly from the monastery school into the novitiate and who had been trained in ways I was not familiar with.
My monastery had overestimated the significance of my university studies for life in the monastery and underestimated a young theologian’s need for monastic initiation. In every monastery there are elderly consoeurs and confreres who for decades have followed their path with integrity and become spiritually mature examples for those coming after them – more by what they are than what they do, more by behaviour that has become second nature rather than by their many words. Looking back on my first years in the monastery, I recognise such confreres, including the aforementioned abbot and master of novices, neither of whom considered themselves to be great theologians, as my teachers.
It is true that I had to learn how to understand my new identity and this did involve an intellectual insertion. One of the gifts of my novitiate was that along with other basic texts, I was given the chance to read most of the works of my patron, Bernard of Clairvaux. This was a new learning experience! I was able to read without the pressure of preparing for examinations or academic assignments and assessments. But I was not able automatically to adjust to a correct reading of the great monastic figures and their intellectual history. It was a blessing that immediately after the novitiate I was sent to Sant’Anselmo where for decades, over 100 of my confreres had studied. It was part of the credo of our abbot at the time, ‘Every confrere, if he wishes, should have the possibility of living at Sant’Anselmo for at least one semester.’
In Rome I encountered what was for me a new kind of theology. Suddenly, I was praying and eating with professors and students. And it is here that the secret of Benedictine formation lies: living and thinking flow in, out and over each other. Of course, here theological reflection on and of Benedictine life stands in the foreground. This became clear to me first when I participated in certain academic exercises but even more through personal contact with Benedictine theologians who helped me to integrate my previous theological studies, that I had done as a lay student, with my monastic life. It is precisely this interpenetration of concrete living and deep understanding that characterises monastic life – a life that cannot exist if this concrete living and deeper understanding are split into separate, unrelated, compartments.
Shortly before my final profession, I experienced a crisis. Suddenly, other ways of life became attractive and my four years as a monk began to appear like an experiment with an expiry-date. Looking back, I am conscious that my decision to make final profession was essentially based on the theological ‘saturation’ of my new way of life along with my contact with world-wide monachism, particularly as I experienced the latter during my two years in Sant’Anselmo.
Concrete Introduction to Monastic Practices
The basic building-blocks of monastic renewal consist in monastic usages which must be newly emphasised, understood and inculcated. Monastic formation ends up in a void when it takes too much for granted or already in place in the individual. No longer can we take anything for granted when dealing with the younger members of our communities! Starting from the most basic elements, we need to realise that what appear to be most banal everyday experiences need to be thought through. What and how are we doing things? What rhythms and structures hold us together? The monastic way is not something simply to be imitated but its meaning also needs to be grasped and in a further step questioned and modified, we could even say, transformed. For this to happen, what might be called a mystagogy of monastic practice is required. In such a mystagogy, foundational elements of the monastic tradition in all their richness need to be examined and explained but also given a contemporary articulation: Stabilitas and conversatio, the monastic cell and the wider monastic living-space, reading and self-discipline, loneliness and community...
One of the essential monastic competencies consists is learning how to read. On a world-wide basis we cannot foresee the significance of the digital revolution for our civilisation, cannot see how this revolution changes our societies. This revolution certainly could contain opportunities for monasticism. We should not, however, be blind to the fact that it presents an access to a reality that is foreign to the Benedictine spirit. Social media are based on short, snappy, messages full of symbols and abbreviations that are only briefly current and often retrievable only in the short-term. The digital approach to the world has little time either for the reflective rhythm of a polished text written with conscious effort or, associated with this, a culture of the book as hitherto practised. But can monasteries dispense with such a culture?
In lectio, young sisters and brothers are introduced not only to religious content but also provided with theological skills: this involves spending an hour or at least half-an-hour every day over months and years, exclusively to the mulling over of a text. This experience of reading is consolidated in meditatio, leading in turn to wisdom. Sapientia comes from sapere, a word that can be translated as ‘tasting’ and ‘savouring’. This provides the basis for oratio. But particularly in a highly technologised world this requires much patience and perseverance. Teaching in the novitiate must hold fast to the reading of theological texts which are then discussed. In this process, the individual’s personal opinion is less important than a grasp of ‘what is the author saying?’ in the given text.
Monastic formation must facilitate a more profound grasp of reality and counter the constant tendency to skip from one fleeting textual extract to the next. This can be done by fostering a comprehensive reading experience. It may be the case that the ability of our monasteries to advance into the future can be gauged by whether or not we actually read the books we possess or whether our libraries degenerate into dumping-grounds or at best imposing monuments to what was in the past a living search for God. Is it not one of the essential theological tasks of contemporary monasticism to give new vibrancy to the culture of reading? It would not be the first time in history that monasteries were guardians of learning.
From the Monastery to the University and Back
More than was the case in earlier times, one sees in today’s candidates the need for initiation in the Faith. The nun or monk is formed, educated, by being trained in a reading that is understood and savoured. She or he is thereby empowered to discover a whole cosmos of religious meaning. An experienced professor of theology at a state university once said to me, ‘A person who has gone through a novitaite studies differently here.’ I must say, however, that in my experience of Central Europe, many who come to our monasteries display a certain aversion to university theology. On the one hand, this stems from an acadamic narrowness that sees theology as possessing ‘scientific’ credibility only when it has as little as possible to do with lived faith. On the other hand we have here an example of a limited awareness of what academic theology can and must offer to our monasteries.
Theological teaching and research in the university, when these are coupled with dialogue with other disciplines, offer their own structure for the practice and reflection mentioned above. After 20 years in my monastery in Austria I recognise once again in Sant’Anselmo the freedom offered by the academic ambiance, an ambiance that prioritises study, but study parallel to spiritual life. Consequently, individuals can choose a philosophical, theological or liturgical specialisation and with their chosen field interact with and cross-fertilise those of other specialisations. The coronavirus crisis has shown us how new technoogy can be used in the eductional process. Obviously, we hold fast to the face-to-face model of teaching that prioritises on-site personal interaction and that highlights particularly the city of Rome and with it the Univeral Church as a central beacon of theological experience. But we are increasingly extending our on-line offerings in order to make it possible for those who cannot come to Rome to interact with the personnel and academic programmes at Sant’Anselmo.
We should not underestimate the extent to which work in the academic institutes of religious orders or state faculties contributes to the vitality and credibility of our Benedictine life. It is telling in my view that new monastic foundations usually go hand-in-hand with renewed theological reflection; a reflection drawing primarily on a fresh appropriation of monastic sources. This is what was foreseen by the Second Vatican Council: a return to the sources (ressourcement) linked with a search for ways of living appropriate to contemporary realities (aggiornamento). Academic theology can play an essential role in this process. Lived faith as expressed in monastic praxis, needs critical reflection and the raising of the profile of a rich tradition on the contemporary horizon. This will safeguard monasteries from all kinds of one-sidedness, devotionalism and ideology.
Vice versa, monasteries with their theological tradition have much to say to the contemporary academic world. Recently, the dean of a theological faculty in a state university bemoaned the fact that in today’s society and culture, theology is hardly noticed. We see, nevertheless, that the secular world is indeed interested in a lived witness of faith. It is precisely where theology is perceived as a spirit-led expression of belief and living of the service of God, that other disciplines, along with people who are searching for a convincing alternative, are indeed interested. At least from the perspective of Central Europe I can say: despite the many crises which the Church has experienced and is experiencing in its present pastoral situation - experiences that have not spared the monasteries - interest in the Benedictine life on the part both of believers and sceptics remains consistently high. In monasteries they find embodiments of their desires for ‘another kind of life’ and want to be inspired by the intellectual riches and spiritual strength of older traditions. This should encourage us to integrate our Benedictine way of life with an appropriate way of thinking and seeing, from the novitiate up to the university. In this way, monasticism can contribute to a renewed theology in a missionary Church that, in the words of Pope Francis, relies not only on theological experts in universities and bureaucrats in ecclesiastical administration.