The Monastic Charism in the life of the Church
Fr Jean-Pierre Longeat, OSB, Abbot of Ligugé
Monastic life gives a special emphasis to certain aspects of the Christian life. It seems to me that in the context of our situation in the global plan these emphases have the greatest possible importance. This can explain on the one hand the enthusiasm of a certain number of our contemporaries for a short stay in a monastery and on the other the varied contacts and ways of collaboration which occur. I stress three points. The first is the fact that monastic life in itself comports a certain utopian character which makes it an eschatological parable. The second concerns the challenge it implies to maintain a balance between the person, the quest for foundations and the right expression of personality, and living in community, which today makes so many difficulties. The third concerns the spiritual sharing which is a sort of consequence of the other two emphases: aflame with desire for heaven already begun on earth, and with a joyful but challenging personal experience of living in community, monks take trouble to share in different ways the treasure of which they are at the same time both heirs and active agents.
An eschatological perspective
In a world always clouded by the urgency and the attraction of success within the limits of earthly existence, monks are seen as eccentric or even marginal, since they make it their business to aim at the Kingdom of Heaven in a life-situation which concentrates on this goal alone. This is radical approach which many find astonishing.
The Rule of Saint Benedict insists on this thrust towards the coming Kingdom which monks are attempting to enjoy already on this earth. There is nothing in this which is not profoundly Christian, but monks emphasise particularly this dimension. Moreover, this hope provides the reason why monks and nuns rejoice particularly during the season of Advent, when they join the whole Church in praying intensely for the Coming of the Son of Man not only at Christmas but each day until the end of time. This perspective, and the consequent attitude to time and space, totally at variance with normal human attitudes, is one of the most marked characteristics of monastic life. Concretely this habit of mind invites monks to enthusiasm and even to run towards this goal. St Benedict frequently returns to this point. The monk is so oriented towards eternal values that his heart is expanded and he runs in the way of the commandment of love (RB, Prologue 49). The Abbot ‘must run’ to channel all his efforts and his labours not to lose any of the sheep entrusted to him (RB 27.5). Likewise the monks must live obedience with enthusiasm: ‘Those who have this spirit immediately stop what they had in hand and leave unfinished what they were doing. That is the way of acting of those who ardently desire eternal life’ (RB 5.3, 9-10). This is also what happens at the sound of the bell calling to the divine office: ‘The monks should always be ready. When the signal is given they immediately get up and hurry to the work of God, though with all gravity and moderation’ (RB 22.6). This comes a second time in the Rule: ‘At the time of the divine office the monk will hasten to run, though with gravity to avoid providing any opportunity for dissipation. Nothing should be preferred to the work of God’ (RB 43.3). Finally, a guest or anyone who knocks at the door of the monastery is to be received with eagerness: ‘As soon as a guest has been announced, the Superior and the brothers should hasten before him with every sign of love’ (RB 53.3).
Everything in the monastery aims to speak of the Kingdom so earnestly desired: the liturgy which rejoins the song of heaven and earth, the meal which is a reminder of the meal predicted by the prophets for the end of time, and compared by the gospel and the Book of Revelation to a marriage-feast, the celebration of the wedding of the Lamb, and above all fraternal love with community of goods and celibacy, features of disponibility and universal love.
Nevertheless, the question may be asked whether such behaviour of monks and nuns is acceptable. Clearly there is a certain amount of haste in monasteries; it cannot be denied! But what sort of haste is it? Is it really the haste of one who is conscious of the one thing necessary, for which everything else has been put aside? Our excessive activity is often influenced by the pressures of contemporary society: our work, our administration and our leisure are subject to the rhythms dictated to avoid loss of status or marginalisation. It cannot be denied that many sectors are obliged to bow to external pressure, but it would be sad to rest the matter there. A truly important feature of monasticism is the outreach towards the final good, life with God in communion with our earthly brothers, and the expression of this in continual readiness to answer such a call without hesitation. Monks and nuns are essentially no different from any other Christian, though perhaps more aware of being men and women of the eighth day. This day is the day beyond, within history but beyond it. The goal of monastic life demands a transcendence of time and place while remaining profoundly involved in them. Monks need to show that it is possible to live in the world without being part of it. They live with one foot on the ground and the other already in heaven, and they need to keep running in order to maintain the precarious balance of such a situation.
Solitude and communion
Another feature of Benedictine life is the maintenance of a harmony between personal solitude and fraternal communion. In presenting the eremitical life, St Benedict shows well the profound dynamic of a monastic asceticism oriented towards continual self-improvement, whose goal is none other than union to God in love and the prayer of fire. For this the importance must be recognised of a silence and solitude chosen and adopted for the express purpose of reaching that goal. This ideal, however, cannot be lived unless it has previously been tested by a common life which proves the quality of this spiritual journey. For cenobites this warfare takes place within the monastery. They need a framework which allows them to live this paschal combat of death and resurrection after the model of Christ himself. This is why St Benedict calls the monastery a school of the Lord’s service.
It takes time, crises and trials to make a monk in community. Probation in the monastery continues throughout life. It is a magical process. It consists in establishing a personal life based on an interior well-spring by which one recognizes the divine presence in our flesh. The image of a well-spring is itself highly evocative, but it needs to be completed by the image of a rock (from which living water may flow) and many others used in the psalms (dwelling-place, temple, refuge, the heart and others). From this cherished well-spring is diffused the holy Spirit which guides all human capacities towards their due expression. The acute awareness of the divine Spirit is the work which the monk must undertake to remain rooted in this Spirit so heavy with promise. In this perspective he is a man of silence and concentrated listening. He bases his whole life on this intimate listening for the accomplishment of the works of God.
Such a work takes place in community life. The community is a fraternal acies, a fraternal army. It leaves room for training and attention to the needs of others in the many situations where the ‘combatants’ can be tempted by discouragement. This community life requires a Rule. The dross of our faulty nature is purged by obedience to a will other than our own: monks seek nothing other than the will of love, which disposes everything as it should be. This rule is point of reference which allows real advance in the track of a long tradition. We have a firm startingpoint: we place ourselves in the line of a memory of others who have gone before us, who have experienced monastic life and from it have learnt lessons which will help their successors.
Nevertheless, to live as a monk not only a Rule is required, but also a shepherd who represents Christ, our only Shepherd. He encourages us to go forwards to green pastures and allows us to return to the fold, passing backwards and forward in tranquillity. So the shepherd is present as a factor in growth and liberty rather than restriction and frustration which the thirst for power and the abuse of power can bring. Finally, stability is equally a major characteristic of this life according to St Benedict. To live out this commitment requires that the monk be profoundly rooted in one place and, even more, in one community or congregation.
Finally, prayer both personal and liturgical forms the privileged time and space for the practice of fraternal community nourished by contact with the well-spring which is our foundation. Personal and liturgical prayer comprises all the dimensions which allow us to find a balance between personal recollection and fraternal sharing. Besides this, the witness of the liturgy in our monasteries is often what primarily catches the attention of our guests.
It seems to me that these points are vital in the life of the world and the contemporary Church. They allow us to make a frontal attack on the difficult question of an individual, agonizingly self-regarding to the point of intolerable solitude, and the widespread difficulty of a harmonious community life not only in a family but also to an even greater extent in the world of the professions and of society as a whole.
It goes without saying that monks and nuns are called upon to share with their brothers and sisters this treasure of which they are not merely exotic guardians but above all the very human participants. Here the current attraction for monastic retreats should be stressed. It is true that chapter 53 of the Rule of St Benedict gives to this subject an interpretation of extraordinary theological importance.
Benedict considers the welcome given to guests to be a meeting in which Christ manifests himself: ‘Any guests who come must be received as Christ himself, for he once said, “I asked for hospitality and you gave it to me.”’ (RB 53.1). The mention of Christ returns several times in chapter 53: ‘Christ must be adored in those who arrive or leave, for in their person he is being received’ (53.7). ‘The poor and pilgrims are to be welcomed with particular care and attention because it is especially in their person that Christ is received’ (53.15). There is also the reference to Christ washing the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper. The whole of chapter 53 in the Rule of St Benedict is a meeting of Christ with Christ. Christ is welcomed and Christ welcomes in the person of the Abbot and the assembled community. How could it be otherwise, since the monastery is an ecclesial community: it represents the body of Christ? Within this ecclesial sign the members of Christ are encountered, each individually representing him. The whole process of the welcome is shot through with this theology: the first contact, the introduction in prayer, the sharing of a meal, the personal encounter.
Who then are the guests received in monasteries at the present day? Certainly there are people involved in the life of the Church who come for an individual retreat or in a group, but there are also others who do not belong to the ecclesial community. They are searching and come to spend some days in silence, reflection, recollection or prayer. Many of those who knock at the door are in difficulties, family difficulties, loss of employment, loneliness, depression. Monks are not social workers, not psychologists nor marriage-counsellors. They are no more than witnesses to a love which goes beyond their own good will. They are altogether based on the Word of Christ, and that is how they share with everyone the love which they have received and receive each day from the Word. The best spiritual accompaniment which monks can provide is the witness of a fraternal community, the sign of a universal love in the midst of the world.
Spiritual sharing, however, occurs also in other forms. The manual work of monks and nuns is the occasion for many links with suppliers, clients, co-workers, all of whom appreciate the way in which the monastic milieu sees this activity as a service of the community. Often the fruit of this work is marked by a label of quality which the industrial world outside has difficulty in coping with, a human Value Added Tax. In fact, it is not unusual for our clientele to make a real economic effort to acquire products which are known to be at the service of a human and spiritual ideal.
Certain monasteries throughout the world fulfil the reference in the Rule about receiving children and taking charge of their education, just as occurred in medieval times. Benedictine schools are numerous throughout the world, and the organ of the Benedictine Confederation which fosters this work is particularly active. One can well imagine the human and spiritual support which educational work entails. The monastic tradition includes also a particular care for the poor and for pilgrims, which is taken up by the Rule of St Benedict. A considerable number of monasteries practise this sort of welcome which is both especially demanding and a crying need, Care for the marginalised is unquestionably a rich source of renewal, fully consonant with the message of the gospel. A word must also be said about attention devoted to culture and society in the widest sense. In every age monks have been agents of development at the level of natural resources, both in landclearance, agriculture, craftsmanship as well as in serving heart and spirit. In these areas certain monks and nuns have the vocation to build a bridge to milieux which the things of faith do not normally reach.
Finally, monastic life includes its own special mission. Monks and nuns proclaim the gospel principally by the witness of a community which works, prays and shares fraternally. A monastic community thus resembles the first Christian communities described in the Acts of the Apostles. Even if he stands out from the group, any individual remains a member of a very particular community without whose witness his own would be much more limited.
Monastic life can make a special contribution especially where, in our world, the horizon of hope is limited, or individuals can be tempted to turn in on themselves, or where human relations are so difficult that they threaten the stability of global institutions and societies. Of course monks and nuns do not claim to teach anyone a lesson. They exist in the midst of society, seekers for God and passionate for humanity. By prayer, contact with the Word of God, the liturgy, fraternal life and sharing, they wish to be witnesses of the well-spring which flows from the loving Heart of Christ, who receives everything from the Father and renders all thanks to the Father in the Spirit which unites Father and Son. In this deep well-spring God remains hidden in the heart of our heart, and from this springs everything that we are. In this perspective, in a world full of beauty and of mystery, in an earthly condition permeated with the infinite longing for a blessed unity, monks and nuns as members of the Church yearn for the Coming of the Lord in glory.