Abbot Primate Gregory J. Polan, OSB
Sant’Anselmo, Rome

Formation for the Monastic Life


PolanGThe key endeavor in monastic formation is the transformation of the heart. In speaking of the human heart, a biblical perspective can provide an essential starting place. In the biblical understanding, the heart is the locus of what we might presently describe as the effect of one’s mental capability combined with one’s emotional awareness. Ancient Greek philosophy, which for centuries has founded and influenced Western thought, separated mind from heart as two distinct functions in a person. For our purposes here, we would like to adopt the biblical view to consider how the mind and the heart may work in harmony. In the course of monastic formation, we acquire a significant amount of information regarding ancient traditions, historical persons, and developments and changes in the way men and women have lived the monastic life through the centuries. And what is thus learned must of course be reflected on, so as to be appropriated over time as an interior disposition. Does one choose to integrate the traditions, values and teachings of monastic formation into one’s life and outlook, so as to bring about the changes that are necessary for the good of one’s soul? This harmonious union of mind and heart has enduring importance insofar as we view the process of formation as a life-long venture. Its beginnings are particularly important in that they establish the rhythm required for lifelong conversion and transformation of the heart.

Establishing the centrality of the heart remains a lifelong endeavor; one might say that formation is a journey of the heart that, once begun, remains attuned to the quiet promptings of God’s voice in our lives. Both the Old and the New Testaments offer perspectives upon which an understanding of formation as a journey can be founded. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew people travelled from a place of slavery in Egypt and through the desert to a land of freedom under God’s providential care in the Promised Land. In the course of that trek they underwent the full gamut of spiritual experience—temptation, frustration, betrayal, fear, mercy, compassion, insight, conversion, and finally the fulfilment of God’s promise (Deut 8.1-18). Having lived through these encounters with sin and redemption, they were formed by God as a people of faith. In the Gospels, the evangelist Luke tells the story of Jesus’ paschal mystery in the context of a journey, a kind of spiritual travellogue. “[Jesus] spoke of his exodus that he was going to fulfil in Jerusalem… When the days for his being taken up were fulfilled, [Jesus] resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem…” (Lk 9.31,51). Jesus himself encounters the same experiences undergone by his ancestors in the faith on their exodus: temptation, frustration, betrayal, fear, mercy, compassion, insight, and finally the fulfilment of God’s promise. Having shared fully in our humanity (with the exception of sin), Jesus made the human journey from birth to death—and ultimately to resurrection. Anyone who seriously wants to make this journey, to follow Jesus on the way of the cross—such a person must undergo a series of movements deeper and deeper into the heart. The heart is the place where initial belief, fervor, and conviction must eventually give way to a lifetime commitment to the journey.

CellaFormation in the monastic life must take into consideration the world in which we live, the culture in which we are raised, the values we have unconsciously assumed. Technological advances that speed up the pace of life, the consumer culture in which we are perhaps unwittingly embedded, the level of noise that we have become accustomed to—these are so much a part of the life we now live that we seldom give them much thought. Only when technological glitches slow or impede our sense of progress or productivity do we recognize technology’s enormous impact on our daily life. Only when we have to go without something that we have come to assume is always readily available do we appreciate our dependence upon it. Only when we are in a place or an atmosphere of utter silence do we acknowledge that the noise now absent had become almost a settling influence. Such realizations can be moments of self-revelation and self-knowledge. They become moments when we can ask those probing questions: What is my life all about? Where am I going? How do I plan to reach my destination? And do I have the inner peace that will enable me to answer such deep questions?

I believe that the years of our 20s and early 30s are a particularly important formative period. We have moved out of adolescence and into adulthood, and we begin to look to the future, considering matters and issues that will have an impact on our lives for years to come. These are years when transformations take place in the processes of living, behaving and believing. And whether we come to monastic life during these formative years, or later after significant formation has already taken place, these years have a lasting impact on how we view ourselves, our world, and importantly, God. These are the years when many things change in our lives: our bodies, our worldview, our intellectual capacities, our perspectives on various values. The word ‘conversion’ bears an important meaning in our world today. It is often seen as a turning from one way of looking at life and what it means, coming to view it in a very different way; the term suggests a dramatic, life-changing shift in one’s outlook. But it is also true that there are ‘little conversions’, more subtle alterations in life, gently changing our direction in ways that will only be apparent after a considerable period of time—perhaps only at the end of a lifetime. For example, some people choose to marry and raise a family later in life after having established a solid career. Others will decide to complete academic degrees to assure employment before making a vocational choice of marriage or monastic life. What is important to consider is how deeply has a person probed his or her heart in the process of making such decisions? How well do they know themselves, their inner life? How much practice has been given to searching the heart with attention and care?

One virtue which must be embraced in the monastic journey to the depths of the heart is trust. The virtue of trust does not come easily today in a world of broken promises, of deceit or corruption from persons in significant positions of leadership, in a technology-driven world of meanings that shift seismically at rates unimaginable before. Yet in the work and process of formation, trust remains essential. First of all, trust must enable us to make that significant leap of faith—of relying on, confiding in, and submitting to a God who, though remaining invisible to the human eye, yet works wonders that are manifest to anyone who proceeds from a perspective of faith. Abraham stands as a primary model of trust. Knowing only that something deep within him was calling him forth to significant changes in his life, Abraham trusted that quiet inner voice; it remains our firm belief that the quiet interior impulse that moved Abraham was the voice of God (Gen 12-14; 22.1-19). The Virgin Mary also models a way of trust—at a moment’s calling and through a lifetime of believing (Lk 1.38; 2.19; 2.51b). To enter into the journey of formation, to remain committed to it, demands a level of trust which accepts the instructions given us, which tests and probes them in the process of appropriation, but always allows them time to find their resting place in the heart. In this process of interior exploration, trust is always an essential component: challenges will inevitably come at the outset, but this is because we are moving from a secular perspective into a monastic tradition. Both have their blessings and their challenges, but there must at least be a decision to trust in this new journey of monastic formation. The Psalmist gives a simple, direct instruction to all who find themselves in this situation: “If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your heart” (Ps 95[94].7b-8a).

When a person is willing to trust, it becomes a stretching, yielding, broadening, and enlarging experience. Trust will encourage us to allow sufficient time to assimilate new and meaningful values that are offered to us. Trust often calls for a letting-go of worldly things. Though engaging, attractive or alluring in themselves, we are moved to abandon past behaviors and attitudes so that a real change of heart can take place. Trust may challenge us; it may reveal that our acceptance of what is asked of us is timid and transitory, because we fear that the familiar, the comfortable, may now be lost forever. Every one of us will face difficult times when only trust and love, developing slowly but surely, will lead us forward. Such situations often require us to recognize a call to obedience.

The very word ‘obedience’ is rooted in the Latin audire, ‘to listen.’ Some lexicographers suggest a nuance, ‘to listen within’. We know how central such inward listening was for Saint Benedict in regard to monastic life; it is the first imperative of his Rule. Furthermore, Saint Benedict directs us to ‘listen with the ear of the heart’. Might not such listening be the very footing of an interior edifice of trust? We can see how significant Saint Benedict held the virtue of obedience to be in securing growth and development in monastic life by how he speaks of it in the Rule. He writes in the Prologue, ‘The labor of obedience will bring you back to him from whom you had drifted through the sloth of disobedience’ (v. 2). And near the end of the Rule, in Chapter 71 on ‘Mutual Obedience’, he writes further, ‘Obedience is a blessing to be shown by all, not only to the abbot but also to one another as brothers [and sisters], since we know that it is by this way of obedience that we go to God’ (vv. 1-2). Saint Benedict opens the Rule describing obedience as a challenging labor, but he closes by portraying it as a blessing. After one has labored at a task that is truly worthwhile, one may, when the task has been completed, see it as a blessing—a growth in virtue, an experience of new life. Step by step, experience by experience, we grow toward an obedience of the heart, led there by the growing trust within us.

The Epistle to the Hebrews presents the obedience of Jesus as a trait meant to inspire and to encourage us. ‘Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him’ (5.8-9). How astounding it is for us to ponder this assertion: Jesus had to learn obedience. This text also teaches us that the obedience of Jesus was redemptive for us. It is no great leap to see that our own obedience can also be redemptive in our lives, and in the lives of others. In his humanity, Jesus, like us, acknowledged and embraced obedience to the One he called Abba, as well as to his parents, whom the Father had given charge over him. Recall the scene when the young Jesus stays behind in Jerusalem to converse with the doctors of the law, while his parents frantically searched for him for three days. When in their anxiety about him his parents question him, he asserts that this was part of God’s plan for him—often translated as his ‘Father’s business’ (Lk 2.49). The text concludes, ‘[Jesus] went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart’ (Lk 2.51). Two striking elements emerge here: the obedience of the God-man Jesus to his human parents, and the identification of Mary’s heart as the locus of her pondering of this event, fraught with mystery both as words exchanged and as experience undergone. Jesus in his humanity is presented to us such that we can see the growth that takes place within him, a growth toward that perfect maturity which leads him to trust the will of God as the right path for his life. The new humanity of Jesus is our ultimate goal in life.

In retreats, I have often commented on how important it is to spend such days of quiet reflection in listening to one’s heart. And yet surprisingly, the heart, the center of our being, is where we sometimes choose to go, sometimes avoid going to, and even in some cases resist choosing to go. But it is essential from the outset of formation to go deep into one’s heart, to establish a rhythm of life that keeps us returning there, lest we run the risk of alienating our outward life from our deepest self—and also from God. One of the saddest realities that may arise in the midst of life’s journey is the avoidance or even rejection of true self-knowledge. Falling into such a pattern can make us strangers to our very selves. Returning time and again to the heart—in our prayers and in our challenges, in our blessings and searchings, our wanderings and doubtings, and yes, even in our sinning—there we will find the God who infinitely loves us. That love will be expressed in the divine comfort that comes to us—in consolation and instruction, in further challenge and blessing. It puts us in right relationship with the God who has brought us into being and continues to sustain us. The true path of formation is well expressed in the prayer of the Psalmist, ‘Of you my heart has spoken, “seek his face.” It is your face, O Lord, that I seek; hide not your face from me’ (Ps 27[26].8-9a). Even at those times when the divine face seems hidden, we have only to keep returning to the heart, where we will find the God of love and mercy ever ready to receive and renew us.