Monastic Life: A Concept of Life Marked by Wisdom and Balance
Anna Maria Canopi
Abbess, Benedictine Abbey of 'Mater Ecclesiae', San Giulio Island, Italy
What the world needs now... and always
Today one speaks of post-Christianity and also of post-modernity; strangely we are in a "post" epoch. In fact, such is the speed of change and the development of situations that as soon as one goal is achieved it is immediately surpassed, inevitably giving rise to a strong sense of destabilization.
After the disintegration of the great ideologies of the past century, the dominant culture and mindset of our society is characterized first and foremost by a spreading relativism that now extends to every sphere of life.
The quest for truth gives way to the dominant opinion; goodness is easily sacrificed for utility and pleasure, success and self-fulfillment; freedom is understood as autonomy and self-determination with the consequent fragility of every form of community life.
If "communicating the Gospel in a world that is changing" is the great challenge proposed by the Italian Bishops as their programme at the beginning of this third millennium, then "showing God in a lost and bewildered world" is certainly the specific mission of contemporary monasticism. Monasticism, although separate from the world, is not indifferent and foreign to it; on the contrary, it takes on the travail of the world from within.
This is not an easy mission because the monastic ideal is embodied in concrete communities whose members come from the very society that is sick and in need of healing. By seeking to take on the world's hardships and bewilderment, to overcome temptations and unmask deception, as well as to grasp its most secret positive aspirations, monastic communities — not merely individual monks — present themselves as a sign of contradiction that questions and disturbs souls, attracts them and at the same time dismays them by its radicalism.
In the face of rampant relativism, the keystone of monastic life is absolute love for the Person of Jesus, the Way, the Truth and the Life.
"Prefer nothing, absolutely nothing, to the love of Christ", St. Benedict asked of his monks. Everything else derives from this primacy: the Rule of life, institutions and vows.
There have been various forms of monastic life in history (hermitic, semi-hermitic and cenobitic). With the passing centuries various Rules have come into being with their own specific features. Over and above the differences, which can even be considerable, certain fundamental elements bring together all monastic experiences and give them that characteristic "face" which is formed from the combination of freedom and obedience, austerity and gentleness, poverty and grace, struggle and peace, desire and satisfaction.
Silence, prayer and work punctuate the days of monks and nuns. They respond to the divine call and devote their entire life to seeking the One whom they have already found and by whom they have already been found, who nonetheless always remains beyond them.
Liberation from the land of slavery
The dynamic and ascetic dimension of monastic life consists precisely in this ceaseless search for the Absolute; it entails a difficult experience of a constant exodus — that is, of detachment and renunciation — experienced, however, in seeking the complete vision of God's Face, until now known only through faith, behind the veil of the mystery.
This process symbolizes the inner journey, the journey of the detachment from self, from the land of slavery —which is our ego — towards the land of true freedom which is spontaneous and joyful adherence to God's plan.
To undertake this journey and to bring it to completion great courage, trusting abandonment, perseverance and humility are required. This is the daily price that the monk must pay without counting the cost, knowing that he is taking with him the immense People of God gathered from all humanity towards the "Promised Land".
For various reasons — historical and cultural — today we are living in an epoch of uprooting. In his constant search for a beyond, in a certain sense the monk takes upon himself this painful situation of precariousness and the exile of humanity and lives it; at the same time, by rooting himself in Christ, he witnesses that he has found the "precious pearl" that gives value to his life.
The monk draws grace for his "holy journey" from the celebration of Christ's mystery. In the sacred liturgy he listens to the Word; from the Word he is reborn to faith; in faith he learns obedience to the One whom, in obedience to love, offered himself on the Cross; and at the school of the Cross he learns charity and the humility of service.
Easy happiness diminishes hope
Precisely because he pursues the wisdom of the Cross, the monk seems to be an "absurd" being, incomprehensible to contemporary man.
Indeed, science and technology seek in every way to eliminate suffering; nihilistic philosophy, in turn, withdraws from confrontation with the great existential themes of suffering and death. Yet, from this exasperated search for a facile happiness derives a vision of life without true hope, fragmented — as the Encyclical Letter Spe Salvi says — in the multitude of lesser hopes.
And this is when contemporary man, nearing exhaustion, as a last resort, knocks at the monastery door to receive a word of life and light.
St. Benedict dedicates one of the most beautiful chapters of his Rule: "On the Reception of Guests": in which he says "Let all guests be received [at the monastery] like Christ".
Here they immediately discover, with great amazement, that another way of understanding time prevails and, as a result, work is also a celebration.
The characteristic motto Ora et labora, pray and work, clearly summarizes a concept of life marked by wisdom and balance.
In contrast to how it was viewed in the ancient Greco-Roman society, work is held in high esteem. Not only is it indispensable if we are not to live as parasites, having others serve us, but it is also an expression of that love which compels us to spare no effort to improve the conditions of community life and help our neediest brethren.
The monk does not work because he craves profit or self-affirmation but rather in the awareness that he is "a worker in the Lord's vineyard" and can therefore generously feel that no effort is too much, and can joyfully and freely give as love prompts him.
If this concept of work is revolutionary with regard to the current mindset, there is another more important aspect to emphasize: in the use of time, work must have its proper place. In order to work well, it is indispensable to know for whom and for what we are working; it is necessary to know the purpose of our life and to focus on it: thus prayer deserves primacy.
In monastic communities it is normal to divide the day according to the Liturgical Hours and not according to the hours of the clock. Thus, from merely being chronos, the whole of time becomes kairos, and the grace of life in Christ here on earth paves the way to glory in Heaven.
This is the ideal pursued with sincere desire by monks in every epoch but — obviously — in its practical implementation the current mindset can also influence them.
Monks today are well aware of this and humbly try to renew themselves continuously. To this end St. Benedict's Rule binds them with the vow of ongoing conversion to ensure that they do not conform to the world rather than to Christ, thus their vocation essentially consists in giving the world a glimpse of the marvellous reality of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Weekly Edition in English
30 July 2008, page 11
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