Sister Claire Cachia, OSB
Monastery of Martigné-Briand (France)
Theology Study in the Monastery
No one enters a monastery in order to study theology, but rather to take a path of interior liberation which can lead to holding nothing more dear than Christ. Nevertheless, it can happen that circumstances allow such study and that these circumstances are favourable to monastic life. This short witness would like to echo such a possibility.
Theological study can begin already in the noviciate, thanks to courses sent in or personal reading which can be appreciated more profoundly at the beginning of monastic formation. After temporary profession it is our custom to reserve a year for insertion into the community by work and fraternal life. Nevertheless, during this year I was able to complete a most enriching study on St Irenaeus. It constituted a good entry into theology, guided by a professor at the Catholic University of Angers. After that I participated in STIM, a cycle shared over three years. Quite apart from the fine teaching, this enabled me to experience exchanges and meetings with other young monks and nuns, and some links forged at that time have lasted till today. After this I completed the cycle for the Bac by sharing with the Centre Sèvres and its well-developed pedagogical method. Next I was able to complete the second cycle of theology at the Catholic University of Angers over four years by means of one afternoon a week at the faculty, thereby obtaining a canonical licence. Finally my studies were completed by the writing of a thesis at the Catholic University of Angers on the status of sense perception in the Questions to Thalassios of Maximus the Confessor. In my view the whole study of theology up to the canonical licence is aimed at the acquisition of a certain culture in theology which represents a major task with regard to the breadth of our tradition of Christian thought. But the work on a thesis is really a personal and creative task where it is possible to add one’s own little pebble to the building which is the study of theology, and provide a basis for the work of others who are pursuing this task. I completed these long studies in parallel with the tasks which were given me in community, first the kitchen, then the jam-workshop, then the pottery and the vegetable garden. I would like briefly to outline the benefits of theological study for monastic life.
The first point concerns our monastic tradition. The Rule of St Benedict counsels the division of the time not given to the opus Dei between lectio divina and manual labour. Lectio divina is the study of the Bible and the Fathers, a prayerful and nourishing study, and it is wholly possible to find this nourishment for the soul in the study of theology, provided that it is approached with a thirst for the mystery rather than a secret intention to derive from them a personal glory. The same distinction is of course applicable to manual labour. It should be added that it was in monasteries that the culture of antiquity was preserved in the West, despite the chances of history and political upheavals. In our day the upheavals which shake our society perhaps still require that monasteries should be places which encourage the transmission of a culture, notably that of ancient languages, the teaching of which has been brutally curtailed in recent years.
The second contribution of theological study is that of a human balance. Our nature is so made as to express itself in all its faculties, and just as physical labour allows the harmonious exercise of all the bodily forces, so study enables the exercise of mental energy. Hence study makes it possible to find a balance, provided that one has the taste for it. To concentrate on a subject and to deepen it is a discipline which allows one to defuse personal problems, to open oneself to the thought of another and to enlarge one’s interior world.
Finally, the third point I would like to raise is the most important. The study of theology can be a necessary support to monastic life in itself. At the time through which we are living at the moment monastic life is subject to brutal cultural changes. It is absolutely necessary to take account of our reasons for choosing this way of life, and what are its essentials and what can be lost without changing its very nature. In making this discernment the study of theology is very precious from several points of view. By the confrontation with the thought of Christians passionately involved in their faith such study can arouse an intense personal experience of the faith. It also expresses this experience, for it gives the possibility of putting the interior realities into words, thus giving them more strength, more conviction and making them communicable to others. Lastly it can become a nourishment for faith and an impetus to progress in the union with God. Regular and profound confrontation with an author in the perspective of needing to give an account of one’s work obliges a reader to enter into a process of thought much more consistent that when one reads the books simply by personal preference. It is a matter of building up a sort of interior construction capable of resisting storms and contrary winds, and which makes possible the contruction
of an intellectual personality, a richness which can also be passed on to others who thirst for it.