The Essential Elements of the Monastic Life



The following is a discussion paper developed from a meeting of members of the Benedictine Communities of Southern Africa (BECOSA) who were past participants of the Monastic Formators Programme (MFP) in Rome.  The meeting was held from the 11th to the 16th of July 2012 at the Lumko Retreat Centre in Benoni, South Africa.


AfrSudThe seed for this paper was planted when BECOSA began to explore the possibility of a monastic institute in the Southern African region.  It would be a place of continued formation and education for monks and nuns in our area.  We thought about inviting the best Benedictine scholars and experienced speakers as guest lecturers.

As we talked, however, we came to the realisation that we should not ignore the knowledge and expertise we had among our communities’ members.  Almost every community in our association has been represented in the MFP by at least one and in many cases, two, three and more.  This programme is designed to meet the needs of those working in monastic formation or are preparing to do so in the future by being instructed by the some of the important monastic teachers of our time.  It has hosted over 300 monks and nuns from every continent and diverse monastic traditions.  In a real strong sense, it is a formation experience for formators.

With so many from BECOSA having such a rich monastic formation experience, the association already had a valuable resource from which to draw monastic thought and wisdom.

What eventually emerged from our discussions was the realisation of a concrete need for BECOSA to articulate exactly what is monastic life.  When we express our life either verbally or in our actions, what do we say?  Who do we say we are as monastics?

So the past participants of the MFP were given the mandate to express this in a way that could be discussed and used by all our communities.  We have now decided to place this document on the AIM website as well as to publish it in a form that can be easily disseminated.

This document is both a theological and philosophical statement of monastic life.  Monastic life is not vague.  It has uncompromisingly clear definition and form and monasticism breathes with life as well.  We hope that this document presents itself as an expression of the deep and dramatic stirrings at the heart of monasticism. 


Living the Christian Life

To live the monastic life is to “prefer nothing whatever to Christ”.  (RB 71:11)  If we are to communicate the essentials of the monastic life to those who come to join us or to the wider public, this principle would hopefully become obvious in what we say, in how we live and in how we model those essentials for others.  And in our communities, we foster an environment which facilitates this preference.  Our communities are places in which “the perfect love of God, which casts out all fear” is palpable.  (RB 7:67, 1 John 4:18). 

To prefer nothing whatever to Christ requires a kind of self-exploration, perhaps even a soul-searching.  It means asking questions of ourselves, of our community and of those who are in initial formation or who are aspirants to our communities. 

•    How do we meet Christ?
•    Are we living with Christ and in Christ?
•    Who is Christ for us?
•    Where do I meet him in the monastic life?  And even where do I think I will meet him     in the monastic life?

becosa14The answer to these questions can reveal much about ourselves and our communities.  For  Christ becomes the ideal monk for us.  Therefore our monastic life is one of becoming Christlike.  The monastic tradition provides a particular way for us through the help of the Holy Spirit to imitate Christ and to allow God to work and move in and through us. 

Those who affix themselves into this continuum, from the Fourth Century to today, desire to live as God would desire for us in his abundant grace and love, as would be the case for all Christians.  Monastics just choose to do this with an intense awareness of serving God in the context of a community serving under an Abbot, a rule and the Gospel. But the Christian life is the basis for the development of this awareness.  Our Christian life cannot be separate from our monastic life.  Therefore we take upon ourselves the features of being a Christian authentically and zealously.


Living of the Baptismal Vow

Our baptism ties us up with Christ, for some of us from the very beginning and for others a little later in life.  This means that we are marked as God’s own, sealed in the life and teaching of Christ, and so he becomes our model.  He is the litmus test for what we do and say.


Encountering the Word of God

Christ is God’s Word.  This is the title given to him.  Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.  A relationship with God is the starting point to encounter this Word.  We must be willing to interact with God, to listen to God’s Word and to respond when we are asked.



Monastic life has a definite theology, the way through which we encounter Christ and develop our prayer.  If we need to know how to pray, we look to Christ as our teacher and our example.  He is the ultimate expert in prayer.  In all the important milestones in his own life, he goes to a deserted place to pray.  We can bring prayer into the milestones of our journey as well, particularly the monastic journey to become Christlike.



Monastic life is more an interior disposition.  Our external behaviour is a reflection of the transformation that happens within us.  We as monks can lead each other, especially those in initial formation, into a journey of the exploration of the monastic life in Christ.  Monastic life is a continuous turning to God as the source of life.  Our faith must be a lived experience.  It must have a specific meaning for us and not just a theological idea or doctrine.  We self-evangelise ourselves through our faith.  We believe in our relationship with Christ.  We trust in the Word, and we follow.


The Other Sacraments

Through our faith, the sacraments reveal their meaning to us.  They build our relationship with Christ and with our community.  They express the life bound up in Christ.  Reciprocally, the monastic life is the sacramental life in its community as well as the individual journey.  We live the sacraments in our journey with each other and in our own interior turning towards God.  All of this is based upon our relationship with Christ. 


The Place of the Holy Spirit

Monastics are Spirit Bearers.  We are marked by the Spirit of Christ in our baptism.  We not only trust in the Word through the Spirit but we have it within us as well.  And in being bearers of the Spirit we are also bearers of the Cross.  Our monastic life is intricately woven with the Paschal Mystery.  We live that mystery in our everyday life.  Christ gave the Spirit to us in his death and resurrection.  So we are also to take up our crosses and follow him.


Being Christ’s Own

All of what we have described about living the Christian life is to show that our relationship with Christ is so intimate and so close that we are unable to stand back from Christ’s presence.  We are Christ’s own.  We are unable to escape this fact or distance ourselves from this reality.  Monastics embrace Christ with our whole heart, our whole mind and our whole soul, and we are consumed by his teaching and life.


From Theology to Action  (Prologue 20) 

Benedict describes the community as a “school for the Lord’s service”.  (RB Prologue 45)   The kind of school that Benedict is describing is a workshop where the skills of a craft can be honed and perfected.  The spiritual craft of monastic life must move from a theology into action.  What would the interior disposition look like in practice?  In the Prologue of the Rule, Benedict also writes, “What, dear brothers and sisters, is more delightful than this voice of the Lord calling to us?  See how the Lord in his love shows us the way of life.  Clothed then with faith and the performance of good works, let us set out on this way, with the Gospel for our guide, that we may deserve to see him who has called us to his kingdom.”  (RB Prologue 19 – 21)  To look for the answers to the question above, we look to God. 

Again our starting place is with the preference for nothing whatever but to the life of Christ.  We live as Christ lives.  We act as Christ acts.  So our initiation into the monastic life is into a life in Christ with the tested guidance of the Rule of St. Benedict.  We transmit this life to those who come to us fresh through our teaching and through our action.  For example: 

•    If we are to have the Gospel as our guide, lectio must be used and practiced and our monastic life must be lived from the constant practice of that lectio.  Our lectio must be a lived experience.

•    Liturgy is life for us because it is life lived in Christ.  It is the community at prayer together.  Our liturgy must be realised in how we live our community life.

•    Community is our life of communion.  We must develop relationship with each other as much as developing our relationship with Christ, and that relationship must be significant in our living the monastic life.

•    Our work is our mission.  It is our apostolate.

•    And finally, conversion must be a lived experience within us.  Conversion is a transformation at the very core of our being, and it must be reflected in how we live in Christ.  Our conversion is seen by others, sometimes to our surprise.



Listening becomes the first step in relationship with God.  And it is the crucial step into the initiation into lectio divina.  Lectio is to be one of the primary activities of a monk because it allows us to “listen with the ear of our hearts”.  (RB Prologue 1)  In our practice of lectio, we develop faith and trust that God’s Word is Spirit and Truth.  This trust is how we let the Word move and transform us.  We listen and we act upon what we hear God saying to us in scripture in faith.

The practice of lectio is “seeking the heart of God in the Word of God”.  (Gregory the Great).  It is through Scripture that we get to know the God who loves us.  We read slowly, methodically, carefully and repeatedly to meet Christ, and we learn as a disciple of Christ would.  So how we are taught, inspired, comforted and challenged by the Gospel becomes a part of our life’s journey, facing realities as well as gifts.  The Prologue RB 73, the chapters on lectio, on obedience and the chapters on the Opus Dei can provide us with an effective spirituality of the Word.   

However, our journey with the Bible is not just an exclusively individual journey.  We must share the Word with others.  Whenever we can, we try to fill out our ideas with a scriptural text. 



Liturgy in a monastic context is a living liturgy, not just a performance or obligatory routine.  It is the school of prayer for us.  We imitate Christ in our prayer with him.  For he, himself, used the psalms in his own communication with God, particularly in his cry on the Cross.  (Psalm 22)  The Paschal Mystery is alive in us through our worship together in community.

So we must learn to pray through it, actively participating in what we say and what we do together as a community.  Preparation and reflection become crucial aspects in this endeavour.  Private prayer is the foundation for our singing of the psalms “in such a way that our minds are in harmony with our voices” and vice versa.  (RB 19:7)  Bringing aspects of the liturgy, particularly the psalms, into our private prayer can be quite effective for this living worship.

The psalms are the centrepiece to our Opus Dei.  We as monastics try and understand what role they play in each office and in our own life as well.  We must be able to teach people how to pray the psalms, how they are to be seen, what they mean to us and to the world.

We share and celebrate our faith in the Opus Dei.  In the Eucharist with each other and with Christ, we begin to see our worship as beautiful while bringing our bodies into that beauty.  Liturgy then becomes a sacred act which emulates Christ and his teachings.  What we do as Christ’s Church is our response to his loving sacrifice.  The community praying together expresses gratitude for God’s love to all of Creation.



When any of the following – hope, faith, love and charity – are absent from our community life, then our communities become dysfunctional.  All of these characteristics must be present for a community to be centred on Christ and his all embracing love.  And as Paul says, “…The greatest of these is love.”  (1 Cor. 13:13) 

As was said before, the life of community is a life of communion, not only with each other but also with God.  It is the lived Eucharist where we are functioning as the Body of Christ.  The community truly becomes a “school for the Lord’s service” where we are all working together at the craft of serving God.  Service is nothing other than an expression of love. 

All of the chapters in the Rule of St. Benedict having to do with the various roles in the monastery – the Abbot, the cellarer, the novice master, the guestmaster, the deans etc. – closely reflect the service to which Jesus calls us all in his own example and in the new commandment to love one another as he has loved us.  (John 13;  RB 2, 21, 31, 35, 38, 53, 57, 58, 65 and others)

Obedience and, even moreso, mutual obedience (RB 5, 71) play a critical role in this service.  We serve each other in community through obedience.  Then, we begin to see the will of God together.  (RB 3)  The Eucharist is the sacramental sign of our community life in that it builds our community life as well as creates a theology of community.  Love, intimacy, friendship and affection are characteristics of this kind of communion.  We have faith and trust in our community unity, which allows a development of dialogue and communication.  In a community of faith and love, we are committed to stability (one of the three parts of our monastic promise along with obedience (RB 58)). 

To facilitate this commitment, it is important for a monastic community to have a good knowledge of its history and be able to learn from it, its successes as well as mistakes.  To also facilitate this commitment, a community should have a good understanding of the proper place of discipline and rules in the community life.  Fraternal correction is necessary and healthy, as long as it is done in kindness and leads to reconciliation and forgiveness. 

The main basis of culture in community is the Gospel, and the Rule of Benedict offers a proven way to live out that Gospel.  This is the culture we have taken on as monks and nuns.  No other considerations should supersede this.



The work of our monasteries would hopefully have qualities of hospitality and mission.  Furthermore, as Benedict says, we should not be afraid to get our hands dirty.  Manual labour, if it is necessary, is a part of our life.  (RB 48:8)  However, no matter what work we do, we are practicing another form of community building.  We work for human development, others’ as well as our own.  As labourers, we are co-creators and co-workers for the building up of God’s kingdom.  



Conversion is the third part of our promise when we make our profession to the monastic life.  What is involved is allowing of ourselves to be controlled by Christ, the one who died for us so that we can become new creations in Christ.  (1 Corinthians 5:14, 17)  The Holy Spirit is not only the Creator but the Re-Creator of us.  We become new creations by discovering God’s love for us so that we can love God.  (1 John 4:19).  Growth and change come about as a result of this inpouring of love into our hearts.  (Rom. 5:5)  As was said before, this inpouring is first signified by our baptism.  Thus, reminding ourselves of our baptismal covenant helps us to remain faithful to the dramatic and necessary changes to which God may be calling us.  

Conversion involves not only transformation but humility as well.  Chapter 7 of Benedict’s Rule is an excellent guide to open ourselves to the promptings and moving of the Spirit within us.  Humility sometimes requires revolutionary change, at times to let go of our own way and to put our community first in the decisions we make.  We have much to learn from each other, especially those who have gone before us and even those coming after us.  St. Benedict stresses the importance of consulting the newer members of the community as well as the elders for their opinions and knowledge because “the Lord often reveals what is better to the younger.”  (RB 3:3)  It takes humility to admit our limited knowledge and our need for community and God. 

As with stability and obedience, obedience and conversion are closely linked to each other making all three parts of the same promise so intricately woven.  Benedict did not see them as three different vows but all parts of the same promise.  The newcomers entering into our communities are to understand fully the meaning of the promise and what commitment truly means for them.  Therefore it is important that the newcomer read Chapter 58 in full repeatedly.  Discernment is an important prerequisite of conversion.  It is a longing for the pure spiritual milk so that growth into salvation can happen.  (1 Pet. 2:2)  A few documents can help with understanding commitment.

•    The Rite of Christian Initiation for Catholic Adults gives adults  a way to re-commit to their Christian life through their baptismal vows.

•    The Baptismal Covenant in the Anglican Prayer Book of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa or the Book of Common Prayer for the Church of England or the Episcopal Church of the United States can be another important source.

This covenant reminds us of the vows that we or someone has made for us on our behalf of our initiation into the Christian Church.  Our monastic vow is a further fulfilment of our baptism.  Thus, formation to a monastic life happens even at the aspirant stage, possibly requiring some catechetical as well as education of the monastic ethos.  A good Christian foundation is vital for a newcomer’s vocation. 

Conversion also includes various other aspects to our life in community. 

•    The sacrament of reconciliation is not just a way to clean up our messes but is an opportunity for conversion.

•    Fraternal correction, again, can be an effective source for conversion as long as it is done in kindness.

•    In addition to Chapter 7, Chapter 4 of the Rule of Benedict very clearly display the “tools” of conversion for us.  This chapter can teach us a great deal about obtaining the “pure spiritual milk” for which we so long.   

•    Human and spiritual development must contribute to our growth into salvation.  When we grow we grow as whole human beings. 

•    Self-care may not be an obvious tool of conversion, but we have to be vigorous enough to be conscious and aware enough to be monastics.  Monastic life is a life of consciousness.  Bad habits are not living consciously.


The Concern for Seeking God

becosa13In Chapter 58 of the Rule of Benedict, we are told that newcomers should not be given an easy entry into the monastic life.  We should “test the spirits to see if they are from God”  (RB 58:1 - 2: 1 John 4:1).  These statements show how careful Benedict wants us to be with our formation of newcomers.  He also says the following, “A senior chosen for his skill in winning souls should be appointed to look after them [the novices] with careful attention.  The concern must be whether the novice truly seeks God and whether he shows eagerness for the Work of God, for obedience and for trials.”  (RB 58:6 - 7)   The formators in our communities have a very important and in most cases great responsibility in the monastic life. Benedict is very clear about this in Chapter 58 of the Rule.  James Otis Sargent Huntington, the founder of the Order of the Holy Cross, writes in his rule, that the future of a community lies in his hands.  (Rule of James Otis Sargent Huntington Chap. 32: Par. 146)  The formator not only teaches by words but even moreso by example. He or she models for the novice what a life of seeking God is to look like.  The most important features of formation do not happen in a “classroom” but happens in the active spiritual accompaniment and guidance of the novice guardian. 

But it is also important to realise that the community must foster an environment where good formation can happen as well.  The community is as much of a model for the newcomer almost as is the formator.  And so a community of formation is one in which all can be seen as seeking God.  In a sense, we are all a community of constant formation, formation into the monastic tradition.  Formation does not end with life vows.  Continuous learning, growing and developing as a group of men and women who live in unity is how we can best win the souls of those coming into our communities, and of those who come in contact with us in any way, shape or form.  In other words, we are all to be Christ imitators together.   

Below are a list of “essentials” of formation in the monastic tradition of which we can all be cognizant as monks and nuns being steeped in this very ancient, rich, breathing and ever vibrant life-form.  Some of the items on this list have been covered in detail in the sections before, and are grouped into very general categories with a small introduction before each one. 


Community and Relationships

The person in formation must learn to develop relationship and must learn what it means to live in a particular community.  To create a bond between the two requires a considerable amount of sacrifice from the candidate and from the community.  The community plays a mentoring role in how this can be established and can help the newcomer to learn.  They do so by being worthy of being emulated.  They provide role models as well as ways to teach the one in formation.  The community must be involved in this process.  The newcomers must learn to listen, to love their brothers and sisters, to learn from others and their examples and must exhibit care and concern for the community’s promptings and leanings.  It is a two way relationship so of course, dialogue is critical.  Hopefully, the postulants and novices would be able to seek God in the community, in its life, in its people and in their relationships with the community.  The newcomer and the community must commit jointly and faithfully to this process. 

1.  Listen, listen, love, love – listening with the ear of the heart is the very foundation of the monastic life.

2.  The community must be Christ-centred.

3.  Common life is critical in the early stages of formation. 

4.  We must all be willing to learn from each other.

5.  We seek God in the community

6.  We care for one another.

7.  The formator is not the only one who is concerned for the soul of the newcomer.  The community is the formator as well. 

8.  Dialogue (see introduction above).

9.  Commitment to life in community and sacrifice  (see introduction above)

10.  When we come together as a community, we come as who we are.  False piety has no real place in real relationship or in the monastic tradition.

11.  The community members are to be imitators of Christ.  (see introduction above)

12.  When we come together to worship, we live our liturgy.  (see sections on liturgy before)

13.  Community should be a holy, sacred place, a place of sacrificium (to make holy).


The Qualities of Newcomers to Our Community Life - Prerequisites? 

As we said, the monastic life is the preference for nothing whatsoever to Christ.  This preference informs how one lives.  If we have the perfect love of God, it will cast out all fear.  This phrase was used particularly in the chapter on humility, a distinctly monastic value that undergirds all of one’s living that preference.  Christ is the humble servant who “did not deem equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”  (Phil. 2:7-8)  We can look for this as we watch our novices and postulants grow into the tradition.  Chapter 58 also describes the qualities to look for in newcomers quite well.   

1.  Is there a longing or desire for God?  Does the newcomer seek God with all his heart, soul and mind? 

2.  Does the person grasp an integrated message about life?  Is he or she knowledgeable or interested in knowing about their spiritual and human development?

3.  Does the candidate look for God in the community?  (see sections on community before)

4.  The newcomer establishes a loving and definite relationship with the resurrected Christ  and brings others to that dialogue encounter.

5.  Commitment to life in community and sacrifice  (see sections on community before)

6.  The Word is lived out in the person.

7.  The person is willing and able for conversion. 

8.  Is the person in formation comfortable with who they are?  Do they meet the community  that way?  Is there a false piety in the person? 

9.  The person must desire to imitate Christ and show signs of that happening with him.

10.  They must understand where people come from. 

11.  Does the newcomer understand the meaning and purpose of monastic life?

12.  Is the person in formation open to change and learning?

13.  Who is Christ for the person?

14.  The newcomer will hopefully love prayer and naturally be inclined toward it. 

15.  The newcomer must love the Word.


Formator’s Essentials – The Art of Winning Souls

becosa14grpThe overlaps between the qualities to look for in those in formation and that the formator would find crucial to either possess or cultivate in themselves are quite striking.  No, we are not trying to make our postulants and novices carbon copies of ourselves nor are we trying to create robots of other community members.  If so, our own egos are too involved in the formation process.  The true and foremost formator is Christ through the teaching of the Holy Spirit as Pope Benedict would say.  “Educating becomes a marvellous mission if it is done in collaboration with God, who is the first and true educator of every human being”, he writes.  Pope Benedict says this in relation to Baptism.  The child is educated into “the sacrament that marks the entrance into divine life, in the community of the Church.”  He says to the parents, “We can say that this was your first educative decision for your children as witnesses of faith:  the fundamental decision!”  (Pope Benedict XVI, Homily for the Feast of Jesus’ Baptism: preached at the Vatican City on the 9th of January 2012)

We are educating our people in formation to live into their baptism again, to remember who they are and whose they are.  The monastic life can be seen as the further manifestation and expression of the Baptismal life in Christ.  If we are to be formators/educators, we have to remember who is really doing the formation.  And therefore, not get in the way of that.  To do so, we must be willing to be formed by Christ.  We must be malleable in Christ’s redeeming work.  Pope Benedict writes: “As adult persons we have a duty to draw from good sources, for our own good and for that of those entrusted to our responsibility …”  (Ibid.) 

This is especially true in being novice guardians.  We must draw from Christ, the Word, and from the Church’s sacraments.  We need to “nourish” ourselves “from these sources so that they can guide the younger people in their growth.”  For us to give, we have to receive and seek God’s Word in the life of the community, in our prayer and in the formation that we do.  And most of all, we seek to emulate Christ, to be Christlike as we educate our postulants and novices to do the same.    

1.  Formators are to be imitators of Christ

2.  Formators come to our novices just as we are, abandoning any kind of false piety.

3.  Can our postulants and novices see conversion happening in their novice guardians? 

4.  Do we live and model the Word for newcomers?

5.  We have a commitment to life in community and sacrifice

6.  Formators are to establish a loving and definite relationship with the resurrected Christ and be able to bring others to that dialogue encounter.

7.  Are we seeking God in the community?

8.  Do we offer an integrated message about life?

9.  Do we have longing and desire within ourselves especially for God?

10.  We must be ensuring the readiness and suitability of the candidates.  We must take great care and concern in this activity and consult with other experts when needed. 

11.  Accompaniment is guidance and companionship but it is also to learn from our fellow journeyer.

12.  Formators must be able to understand where people come from

13.  Formators must have a good and solid understanding of the meaning and purpose of monastic life.

14.  Formators are to create an environment for the novitiate to be a place of sacrificium (to make holy) in the community.  

15.  Formators have to be open to change and learning particularly in their formandees. 

16.  Who is Christ for us as formators?

17.  We are to have and foster the love of prayer.

18.  We are to have and foster the love of the Word.


The Aim of It All

The aim of our being guided and led by the monastic tradition is to be genuinely reflective and responsive to God’s presence in us.  Monastic life then becomes an authentic witness to Christian life.  In other words, the monastic life is none other than living the Christian life seriously and with integrity.