Yesterday, I wrote a longish post on how Christianity is a counter-cultural religion and how discerning a vocation to become a brother is completely against what our culture expects of young men. I would like to add another ingredient to this pot, if you will, a few thoughts on the monastic life and why the monk is not his own man.
Monastic life has attracted me since I was a small child. When I first God’s call to serve Him, I always thought that I would go into an active Order like the Dominicans, Franciscans, Redemptorists, or Brothers of the Christian Schools. Yet the more I turned over the matter in my mind and prayed, the more I came to the realization that God was calling me to live a monastic life away from the world and anchored in God.
There are many monastic Orders in the Church today. Many of them are offshoots of the Benedictines including the Camaldolese, the Cistercians, and the Trappists. In each of these Orders, the monks live together in community and mostly in silence. The center of their lives is the Divine Office and the Mass. The manual labor that they perform every single day is meant to keep them healthy. It is life at its simplest and most uncomplicated.
I think most people today do not believe that monasteries exist. If they do, then their idea of what a monk is the popular image of Friar Tuck from Robin Hood or Brother Cadfael. Yet both of these monks are creations of their author’s imagination. While both live in monasteries, they are men who are very much interested in doing other things than concentrating on God. Indeed, Friar Tuck was all for social justice long before that became a big deal in the late 1960s and 1970s. Thomas Merton was also a monk, yes, but he changed a great deal over the course of his career. Enough said.
Life in community is something that young people long for and monastic life gives it to them. In a community, one is surrounded people with whom you have to get along. Yet you are also a member of a family. Whether it consists of twelve or fifty men, each one of them is your brother. No matter if he cleans the stairs or leads the Divine Office, your brothers are there for you every single day and you are there for them.
As in any family, you may not get along with your brothers. St. Therese of Lisieux wrote in her autobiography about a nun whom she helped to chapel every single day. The old sister constantly complained that Therese was walking too fast for comfort. St. Therese did not get angry, but offered it to God. In the monastery, it is the same way. Everything is offered up to God whether it be a disagreement or an agreement for He controls everything in His Divine Providence.
Of course, obedience is a given in monastic life. The Abbot controls absolutely everything and everybody in the monastery. From giving assignments to designating who will take the discipline and when, the Abbot is obeyed by all the monks. He is obeyed unconditionally because he is Christ’s representative for the community. Like the Holy Father, the Abbot presides over the welfare of his community.
Yet obedience is not merely vowed to a person, but to God. Indeed, one is constantly at the mercy of one’s superiors in the monastery. If they tell you to scrub the dishes and you’ve never done so, you do it. If they tell you to apply a fresh coat of paint, you do it. If you’re told that you shouldn’t sing so loud at Mass, you do it. In all of these exercises, the will is broken and given back to God. It may sound that one is constantly being told not to do something, but the exact opposite is the case. True obedience to God and to the Church means true freedom. Indeed, the monastery is one of the few places where a man can be himself.
I understand that monastic life is not for everyone. God does not call all men to become monks, but its importance cannot be emphasized enough. What we know of as Western culture came from abbeys and monasteries all over the world. Had it not been for monastic libraries in Byzantium, the West would not have been able to assimilate Plato and Aristotle in their originals. Indeed, some of the most beautiful art ever created comes from monasteries. Remember Fra Filippo Lippi? He was a Dominican.
Let us pray for vocations to the monastic life and for the spirit of true obedience.
Our Lady of the Angels, pray for us!
St. Benedict, pray for us!