Modern Monasticism: Personal Journeys and Reflections into Monasticism with general reference to the Benedictine Rule.

Modern Monasticism:

Personal Journeys and Reflections into Monasticism with general reference to the Benedictine Rule.

 

The purpose of monastic renewal and reform is to find ways in which monks and sisters can remain true to their vocation by deepening and developing it in new ways, not merely sacrificing their lives to bolster up antique structures, but channeling their efforts into the creation of new forms of monastic life, new areas of contemplative experience.

 

This is precisely the monk’s chief service to the world: this silence, this listening, this questioning, this humble and courageous exposure to what the world ignores about itself – both good and evil.

– Thomas Merton [1]

 

 

Introduction: Benedictine Monasticism,

An Unfolding Path

 

This is not a traditional paper. Rather then being the fruits of a measure of research and then the subsequent detailing of the finer aspects of a given theological or philosophical concept, it is – in contrast – a description of a journey. It has often been said by theologians and laypersons alike, that Christianity is not as much a religion – as it is a relationship. If one is to therefore frame Christianity within the terms of such a definition – it is arguable that a path of growth/advancement in the knowledge & practice of such, represents less a necessarily advancing knowledge of precepts or dogmatic history – but rather it is marked, more so, by a further walk upon an ongoing path: a continued exploration around the corner on the footpath of faith; a journey not just into the known – but the unknown as well.  In the proceeding pages I hope to relay the journeys, thoughts, and experiences of several members The Company of Jesus[2], a third order Monastic community that operates under the auspices of the Anglican Church.  As well as – but to a much lesser degree – my own. The individuals referenced herein responded to an invitation to participate by way of questions posed by myself to them regarding their monastic experience, spiritual growth, and thoughts on the Rule of St. Benedict in relation to both of these before mentioned aspects of their spiritual journey and associated church ministry. Where a name was not expressly given, I have referenced them by their myspace.com accounts.[3]  An attempt will be made to explore their experiences in light of the Rule of St. Benedict. But it must be noted – there is considerable variance and openness in its interpretation and application; and this aspect itself must be considered in light of the subject. This is not a hard science. It is process and a journey. And more so – it is all about the steady unveiling and deepening of a faith in Christ in the lives of those involved.

 

 

Consecrated Yet Integrated; A ‘Third Order’ is Born

 

When St. Benedict wrote his rule circa 500 A.D., it eventually became the guiding force behind virtually all Latin monasteries outside Ireland. More then just an organizational template – it came to serve as the guiding force behind an emerging communal dichotomy which would serve to guide what it meant to live a ‘monastic life’ for centuries to come. [4] The essence of the Benedictine Rule is essentially Cenobitic in nature[5]; meaning  – in the words of St. Benedict himself – “those who live in monasteries and serve under a rule and an abbot.”[6] It was through the efforts St. Francis of Assisi, though, that the monastic community was expanded to include individuals who desired to be a part of the monastic experience – but who either needed to or willingly desired to remain embedded in the outside world, and not removed away to the confines of a monastery. Because of the charismatic influence of St. Francis, he began to attract ever-larger numbers of people expressing interest in monasticism. St. Francis argued that people should be able to potentially stay were they were in society, and yet learn from the values of the monastics and more importantly, the Gospel in the process. St. Francis wrote an exhortation to the monastic hopefuls who were in situations such as this, which consisted in an encouragement to engage themselves in a lifestyle of penance and the concurrent strict observance of the mandates and assertions made during the reforming council of Lateran IV.[7] It was from this exhortation that the concept of a “Third Order” emerged. Today, many monastic-centric ecclesiastical organizations continue to grow, essentially out of this ‘charter’ or concept. Taking the ideas of the faith of the monastic community that they represent – and not just manifesting them, but influentially radiating their values and ideas, beliefs and hopes – far from the ancient stone walls of their origin and into the hustling and bustling cubical farms and dusty, driven street corners of the modern world.

 

 

A Need For Cohesion & Community

 

The purpose of a participation in such a community is not to develop, what is referred to in the German language as Weltanschauung – or a philosophical view of the Cosmos and Life therein;[8] it is more then just finding an assemblage of rational assertions and guiding understandings. It is, rather, about being a part of a community larger and more important in it’s purpose then one’s own self. This awareness of the importance of community is a foundational precept in Monasticism. The aspect of community is what draws many into the monastic tradition. In his book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,[9]  Robert D. Putnam argues that modern, technologically-driven life and it’s ‘know everything’, ‘explain everything’ aspects has not just taken the mystery out of life – but communal collaboration as well. We are isolated and unfulfilled, despite the plethora of ever expanding knowledge all around us. Monasticism offers its explorers both community and mystery, as an alternative to societal alienation and doctrinal searching; binding them together, just as it did in generations past.  Michael[10], a member of The Company of Jesus, writes

 

In the most simple of terms, the two things that have drawn me to where I am are mystery and community. In other churches I’ve been in, these seemed to be lacking. It’s hard to accept something our mind can’t completely wrap itself around, so we build these boxes and try to make them fit. In some ways, some theology, defining and naming something is crucial to trying to comprehend it. But in other ways it can place limits on something that is beyond limits. And community. All churches preach this and extol its virtue, and yet they seem to be quite individually focused. I’ve seen it a lot in the more contemporary worship services. It seems to be all about the individual instead of the whole.

 

Michael echoes the contrast between so called “modern” or “contemporary” Protestant worship and it’s alternate – “liturgical” or “meditative” worship. Monastic worship is tied back into a more Catholic or meditative style of worship; one that seeks a revelation or authentication of self, the Divine, and the relationships of the two, through an introspective thought process inhering back into the Divine. Whereas a criticism of Protestant or Evangelical worship is that it is sometimes more-so purely communal and either reservedly or outwardly expressed through a state of exuberance – worship for the Monastic starts with the Divine and the self and works back into the larger aspect of what “the self” is a part of; that of not just a definable congregation or denomination – but the much greater body of Christ.  This process is not just a blindly acknowledged fact, but one that is actively wrestled with. Most Protestant congregations will sing and worship through a worship leader and then listen to what a pastor says about this or that. It is no small mystery that so many “Rock Star” Evangelists and T.V. preachers are littered across cable television. A great number of personalities are ready and willing to show you how to get to God through them – or ‘their’ ministry. The dichotomy of liturgical worship – or worship through the elements or sacrements – stands in sharp contrast. A monk is viewed less as a leader and more of a servant; the worship inherent in a monastic-style assembly is decidedly introspective vs. the often potentially personality-driven/centric, extroverted style so prevalent in many churches today.

 

 

Contemplation as the Seed of Community

 

The “Rock Star[11]” of meditative monks – Thomas Merton – expressed what individuality was in terms of a Monastic worship dichotomy.

The monk who is truly a man of prayer and who seriously faces the challenge of his vocation in all its depth is by that very fact exposed to existential dread. He experiences in himself the emptiness, the lack of authenticity, the quest for fidelity, the “lostness” of modern man, but he experiences all this in an altogether different and deeper way then does man in the modern world, to him this disconcerting awareness of himself and of his world come rather as an experience of boredom and of spiritual disorientation. The monk confronts his own humanity and that of his world at the deepest and most central point where the void seems to open out into black despair. The monk confronts this serious possibility, and rejects it, as a Camusian man confronts “the absurd” and transcends it by his freedom. The option of absolute despair is turned into perfect hope by the pure and humble supplication of monastic prayer. The monk faces the worse and discovers in it the hope of the best. From the darkness comes light. From death, life. From the abyss there comes, unaccountably, the mysterious gift of the Spirit sent by God to make all things new, to transform the created and the redeemed world, and to re-establish all things in Christ[12]

 

It is through this radically transcendent introspection, through the gateway of existential dread – that one is potentially brought onto a new foundation, of not just community – but also spiritual discipline. Community does not originate as a “genus;” merely another cultural epistemological stratification; I am not a part of a community because I attend such and such a church – rather it becomes the embodiment and natural fruit of an authentic personal spiritual maturity; I am a follower of Christ – therefore it is natural that I am a part of this part of the Body of Christ.  Matthew Byce, a member of The Company of Jesus[13] writes

 

I come from an evangelical background for the most part so I wasn’t exposed to much monasticism growing up. Having opportunity to read a little about it, and make some decisions personally simply as a Christian, I think it’s goals, and purposes make for amazing disciplines which every Christian, simply as a matter of daily practice should incorporate, at least if you’re serious about obedience. I wonder how many Christians we’d have if everyone were a part of a monastic community though. I’m glad for it’s part in the body, but glad too that the whole body isn’t comprised of monastics.

 

 

Rev. Br. Joe Parise C.J. [14]writes

 

I am a Franciscan but I definitely love the rule of Benedict.

What I like the most about it is emphasis on normalcy and stability. It’s not radical. It’s essentially easy to follow and very well balanced. That is needed in every Christian’s life. When I made my vows it was a very intense experience for me. I knew I could only keep them with God’s grace and I have failed many times! My theology hasn’t changed much at all since I became a friar. I was already at odds with much of today’s theology before I became a monk. Particularly the preaching about money that is a favorite of the charismatic church. Give me a break with that crap!

 

In his book, The Springs of Contemplation, Thomas Merton tells the story of being asked by a shopkeeper what kind of toothpaste he wanted. When he told the shopkeeper “I don’t care,” the shopkeeper was aghast. Merton writes, “He almost dropped dead. I was supposed to feel strongly about Colgate or Pepsodent or something with five colors. And they all have a secret ingredient. But I did not care about the secret ingredient.” Merton concluded his observation of the bewildered shopkeeper, that “the worst thing you can do is not care about these things.”[15] Against the hustle and bustle of an ever expanding plethora of choices, direction, and concern; the accumulative din of which seemingly eventually presses not just against the sanity of society – but the denizens therein, Benedictine Monasticism issues a calming alternative: Normalcy and Stability -through a personal mediation of what’s really important; the cogitory authenticity of which is naturally expressed in the dimension of a community that is concerned with more then just the select aspects of individuals, but with the whole of their care, both physical and spiritual.

 

A monk with the moniker ‘forrestdweller’[16] – who is a part of The Company of Jesus, writes,

 

Monks have evolved throughout the centuries to meet the needs of the society in which they live. I believe one of the most devastating misconceptions the general public has about monks is that they live apart from society. That is not true. Even the Carthusian order, whose monks live in complete austerity and near solitude, are very passionate about the world and are in constant contemplation of the need for our Lord’s mercy in the world. The monks at the abbey to which I belong as an Oblate are very involved in the community in a variety of functions.

 

Monasticism is not about austerity and silent contemplation in itself. At its core it is about drawing nearer to Christ with the assistance of your brothers and sisters through a daily routine of carefully balanced prayer and work. In that regard, it is merely a different expression of the nuclear family. With that in mind, there are many traditions and practices in monasticism that descend from ages past, but none of which are practiced out of legalism – they are retained because they are useful for living a Christian life. When something no longer serves the Christian life it is discarded. As such, most monks are very practical and have allowed change, albeit reluctantly, if careful discernment and contemplation has led them to believe it will be for the greater good of the church.

 

It is this inward authenticity in a faith made real and pushed past the ‘Cultural Christianity’ of today’s religious/political/societal marketplace – that creates what Thomas Merton referred to as a “prophetic community[17]” which speaks past and through the religious consumerism which plagues us today.[18] This timeliness and capacity to speak to the disorder and confusion of the present is evident. Just as it was when St. Benedict answered the call to speak to a different time, which is not all that unlike our own. And just as in his own time, the “Benedictinism that stabilized Europe, that gave a center to it’s villages and a spiritual glue to it’s systems,” truly, “has never been need more.”[19]

 

 

Contemplation Towards Consecration & Ecclesiology

 

In the Benedictine Monasticism, authentic community is birthed through contemplative mediation and an inward, deepening desire for spiritual integrity and authenticity. It is a further fruit of this process, that the dynamics of an ecclesiological mindset (openness to other church/denominational systems), as well as a desire for sacredness and consecration as something to be applied to the whole of one’s experience – not just inside the church walls, but without them as well, is expressed and affirmed in the mind of the monastic practioner.

Rev. Br. Joe Parise C.J. [20]writes of coming from a non-denominational background, and being essentially a Pentecostal or Charismatic monk; integrating into his ministry both the tenants of Benedictine Monasticism, but also the Gifts of the Spirit, as would be understood by non-cessationist evangelicals who refer to themselves as being “Spirit-Filled.”

 

Blending old traditions with new is something that I feel strong about. I love the ancient church and it’s practices but I also love the different aspects of Christianity. I believe that we need the old but we also need the gifts of the spirit at work in the church as well as charismatic worship incorporated into the liturgy. The traditions are fine but we must have the spirit flowing and moving in his church. I did come from a non-denominational background but the Lord led my path here. I learned allot from that group but God’s will for my life and ministry definitely is rooted in monasticism and a more catholic theology. I still consider myself a protestant as Anglicans are, but they are still rather catholic as well. A study of church history will help educate believers on the history of the Christian church and most find that they believe essentially the same things. Basically I am a Franciscan friar, Anglican deacon who prays in tongues, prophesies, moves in words of knowledge, studies church history, preaches through blues music believes in healing and goes to an Anglican church because it is where God has planted me. It is rather a potpourri of things but it is all Christianity.

 

 

Forrest Dweller[21] adds,

 

Within my life, the hardest realization was my need for moderation. I am prone to excess, and even in Christian living such excess can be counter-productive or even destructive. St. Benedict demands moderation and balance in everything – in the work/prayer schedule of the monks to how simple tasks like kitchen details are to be handled. Tempering my spirituality with such moderation so that I lead a well-rounded life was very challenging for me.

 

 

 

 

Further Contemplations: Celibacy, the Cerebrality, Cordiality, and Contemporanity

 

 

The thesis of this paper precludes any in-depth examination of Modern Monasticism; as the unfortunate endeavor of any essayist – when dealing with a complex subject – is to present information with pursuant sparkable interest for the reader, in such as way that is yet concise and still readily perusable. That’s hard when it comes to this subject. To attempt to cover all the bases and yet not write a very lengthy tome; especially in regards to this subject matter; is, for one both interested and journeying into it, a very frustrating endeavor. In a concluding summary of aspects of Modern Benedictine Monasticims, in addition to those already covered – four subjects remain; though other well-deserving aspects can easily be argued for presentation as well. These are, Celibacy, Cerebrality, Cordiality, and Contemporanity. In regards to Celibacy – sex is always a hot topic. It is generally accepted in 3rd orders that Celibacy is interpreted as chastity until marriage and faithfulness therein. But some old school monks argue that you cannot be a monk and be married and sexual,[22] and that such a discipline in one’s life represents more a state of humility then just an abstinence from sex.[23]

 

Another unmistakable component of Benedictine Monasticism is it Cerebrality. It is unmistakably oriented towards establishing a pattern of not just meditation, but also study and research. St. Benedict sets aside guidelines for the traditional lectio divina; which is traditionally understood and interpreted as ‘spiritual reading.’ This ‘directive’ towards a life of study appears in The Rule of Benedict (R.B 48.4) and is generally understood to pertain to a time of memorization and study of scripture. R.B. 48.17-21 warns monks not to play around with or otherwise waste this part of the day. Many churches do not take seriously the idea of committing scripture to memory – and rather just substitute 45-minute sermons on a doctrinal aspect. Benedictine Monasticism reminds us that it is not enough to merely think about doctrine but it must be hidden in our hearts.[24] Otherwise it is just another bit of data floating around in our heads, and may have as much opportunity to influence both us and the lives of those around us as the price of rice in China overheard in a CNN news broadcast. Thomas Merton writes, “They [writers like Peter of Celles] see, quite realistically, and altogether in the spirit of St. Benedict himself, that all life on earth must necessarily combine elements of action and rest, bodily labor and mental illumination.”[25]

 

Another aspect of Benedictine Monasticism is hospitality. In truth, you cannot really understand the lifestyle of a monk until you understand the goal and the essence of how a Benedictine monk is taught to interact with the outside world, especially, any guest of the monastery.  While some may make the assumption that a monk who has chosen to live an ‘enclose life’ – or life inside the confines of a monastery – may be like the odd man at the end of the proverbial suburban block, who never married, has 20 cats, and harasses neighborhood kids who dare trespass his property to get an a forbidden apple from one of his trees, the true essence of a Monk is the exact opposite. Far from disdaining visitors, the reception of guests is actually seen as sacramental act.[26],[27] The Rule of St. Benedict goes to great length to elaborate the reception and treatment of guests; suggesting that prayer be immediately offered up, to place them in the ‘presence of Christ.’[28] Guest are to be treated as Christ and served with a heart geared towards such an understanding of the sacredness of such an act.[29]

 

As in introduction to this paper, I chose a Thomas Merton quote; because it embodies a central element to the essence of Benedictine Monasticism. The Coat of Arms of Monte Cassino – the epicenter of the Benedictine Universe – contains the words “Successa Virescit,” – Cut down, it ever grows again. In the tapestry of the history of Christianity – there are many threads that end; many colors that fade onto unanimity. But Benedictine Monasticism, continues its storied and diverse weavings, and continues to be a part of many past, present, and arguably future movements. When I began the research for this paper, one of the things that impressed me most was the diversity of the backgrounds and present denominational affiliations of many monastic practioners. Many were Southern Baptist or Church of God – and many still continue to attend those same churches. They speak in tongues – believe they move in prophetic gifting and wear robes reminiscent of the centuries of service and piety that they have grounded themselves in. It may be true that many movies and works of literature may ‘shoebox’ a monk – but the truth, in reality and practice, is far from any such perceivable or assumed constraints. They are Blues musicians, Southern Baptist Sunday school teachers, and quiet unassuming housewives who have made vows and followed through with them to serve not just their own family – but the entirety of the Body of Christ. They are people just like you and me – and you might never know it until you saw them in their habit.

 

 

Conclusions

 

Somewhere in the cannon of conventional wisdom; there is an almost universally accepted truth; sometimes – to go forward, you have to go back. In my own spiritual walk, I found myself growing restless – if not, thought it might be a poor and inadequate term: bored. How could I deepen my own existing roots and yet find the further authenticity that I craved? Could I and would I be willing to look for it in potentially unexpected ways? Once I accepted the potential that what I was looking for could potentially be found outside my own ‘denominational sandbox’ – I made earnest efforts to be both jurisprudent and yet open to unexpected opportunities for spiritual awakening and ministry. Many people go searching and get lost literally and figuratively; both emotionally and spiritually. But the proverbial Tolkienian proverb, not all who wander are lost, does hold true; as well as not all who meditate, still have not figured out what they want to really think about. Perhaps these essences might frame the monastic essence of spirituality: searching for authenticity, and mediating upon the work and mind of Christ. The issues of piety, consecration, service, celibacy, cerebrality, cordiality, community, and any other tag words that you could attach to Benedictine Monasticism, or it’s associated kindred traditions, are essentially all tied back to the acts of searching and introspection. Perhaps it is through this ‘language of intent’ that gives Monasticism the continued capacity and authority to speak to past, present and future ecclesiastical generations. The necessity for such never goes away, and in times of flux and instability; the need goes forth as a clarion call for their return. Perhaps it is through this dynamic that both Monasticism and it’s associated Rule of St. Benedict are discovered, explored, and appropriated freshly for each present and encroaching generation. Newly interpreted for a present people – yet ancient in purpose and intent: the strength of generations past finds it’s fiber and glue in the ever present generation – they realize the new and the innovative; the technological and the cultural can never be the summation and foundation for everything. In the end – there has to be more, and Monasticism offers a framework for the discovery of older truths that other previous generations in their own ‘modernity’ found a need to rediscover and reappropriate. You can never be so new – that the old is no longer of any use; especially when the subject is spiritually. For all the strength to be found in forging ahead – the true strength is anchoring oneself in the bedrock of generations prior. This, arguably, is the intent for each new monastic convert, when they don their habit for the first time – and when they make their vows. What was once old – is new again; and what was once thought to be outmoded – is ever essential, if not infinitely practical and potentially desperately needed.

 

The hope of future generations may not lie in the fanciful new technologies of worship or ministry that each in their own time, will discover and try to implement. Every generation prior found itself at the mercy of untried potentials that offered previously unthought-of dynamics. And each, without fail – found more strength in the past – then they did in the future. And so, as the body of Christ moves forward, it will surely almost always continue to do so with a deep meditative intent, and the soft rustle of the habits of a multitude of monks; lost in the contemplative labyrinth of the mercy and justice of God; the reality of an omnipotent God – revealed to a broken and frustrated humanity. The foolish things of God will continue to confound the wise men of the world; and God will continue to use the weakness of those who have given themselves to His work to accomplish His most illustrative, important, and spectacular works.

 

Rev. Br. Joe Parise C.J. [30]writes,

 

 

Monasticism helps keep me grounded on what matters in life. It is also a definite call from God. It’s not for everyone. Most of my friends don’t understand it. I felt the leading of God to it for 10 years before I pursued it. I love it. It suits me and I don’t think I could ever walk away from it. How does it translate in today’s world? It’s the gospel of Christ. The gospel will always be relevant even in these end times. Monastic practice is always in vogue because the gospel always is.I think because of the worldliness of today’s church that monasticism is very much needed today. Desperately so even.

 

I hope this has helped you brother and may God’s peace be upon you.

 

 

“May God bring us all together to everlasting Life” (Rule of St. Benedict, 72).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

 

Thomas Merton. Contemplative Prayer.
Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1971.

 

Robert D. Putman. Bowling Alone.
New York, NY: Simon Schuster, 2000.

 

Thomas Merton. The Springs of Contemplation.
New York, NY: Straus & Giroux, 1994.

 

Peter Francis. Hermits: The Insights of Solitude.
New York, NY: St. Martins Press, 1996.

 

Henry Bettenson & Chris Maunder. The Rule of St. Benedict, Documents of the Christian Church.  Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999.


[1] Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer, pg. 25.

[3] You can access their accounts, blogs, and person details by going to the respective URL (website address) provided.

[4] Hermits, Peter France, pg. 51

[5] Thoughts on the Future of Western Monasticism, Terrance Kardong. From A Monastic Vision for the 21st Century, edited by Patrick Hart, page 65.

[6] R.B. 1.2

[7] Monasticism as a Schola: Some Reflections from the Ivory Tower, Lawrence S. Cunningham. From A Monastic Vision for the 21st Century, edited by Patrick Hart, page 82.

[8] Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer, pg. 69.

[11]Louis Thomas Merton (1915-1968) is by far the most famous monk and prolific writer of both his generation and ours. His work and thought is very pervasive throughout both monastic and spiritual literature.

[12] Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer, pg. 25.

[13] http;//www.myspace.com/matthewbryce

[15] The Secret Ingredient, Kathleen Norris. From A Monastic Vision for the 21st Century, edited by Patrick Hart, page 43.

[17] The Secret Ingredient, Kathleen Norris. From A Monastic Vision for the 21st Century, edited by Patrick Hart, page 49.

[18] The Secret Ingredient, Kathleen Norris. From A Monastic Vision for the 21st Century, edited by Patrick Hart, page 53.

[19] Old Vision for a New Age, Joan Chittister. From A Monastic Vision for the 21st Century, edited by Patrick Hart, page 94.

[22] Thoughts on the Future of Western Monasticism, Terrance Kardong. From A Monastic Vision for the 21st Century, edited by Patrick Hart, page 67.

[23] Thoughts on the Future of Western Monasticism, Terrance Kardong. From A Monastic Vision for the 21st Century, edited by Patrick Hart, page 69.

[24] Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee. Psalms 119:11, King James Version.

[25] Contemplative Prayer, Thomas Merton, pg 61

[26] Enclosure: The Heart of the Matter, Gail Fitzpatrick

[27] Matthew 25:35, R.B. 53.1

[28] R.B. 53:4-5

[29] R.B. 36

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About hollerscholar

I'm a theology & philosophy student, writer, web developer, and medical laboratory professional.
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