For the renewal of monastic life

by Fr. Massimo Lapponi

1. It is already many decades, not to say more, that the Benedictine order, as in general the cloistered life, is going through a great crisis, from which it has not yet emerged. It can be said, indeed, that the crisis seems to have almost amalgamated with the life of monasteries as a kind of chronic, malignant and destructive infection. We can certainly not deny that many generous efforts were made by religious men and women particularly gifted to bring about a revival of the order and we cannot fail to admire all that they have achieved and the results they have obtained in one or another monastic centre. And yet the fact remains that there is still no resolute awareness, which highlights the real causes of the crisis and indicates a sure way to overcome it. One has the impression that, in the absence of a clarifying word, in the present situation of general confusion of the Church and society, the crisis of monasteries declines towards their progressive and unstoppable exhaustion.
2. We talked about causes. Let us question history. In the decline of the eighteenth century the Habsburg emperor Joseph II closed an impressive number of male and female monasteries throughout the Empire, often sending men and women in the middle of the road wearing only clothing. Why? The answer can easily be deduced from the fact that the same emperor forced all the remaining monasteries to devote themselves to a socially useful activity, such as teaching. According to the mentality that was spreading in the Enlightenment of the 18th century, cloistered monasteries, dedicated to prayer and work in a life separated from society, were useless. Joseph II was not the only one to think so, as one could find many strenuous defenders of this doctrine between the clergy itself and the crowd of the theologians of the time. But, of course, his imperial power gave him the possibility to transfer in fact what for others were only theories.
The seed sown by these theories and laws of the 18th century was destined to develop in the following centuries. For a long time it was opposed within the Church by the spiritual and theological renewal which followed the tragic events of the French Revolution and which accompanied the appearance of the new Romantic movement. But a secret exhaustion was at work in the Church itself, due to the inevitable confrontation with modern secular culture and the growing difficulty of finding adequate responses to its provocations. As long as Catholic theology and culture remained guarded by a compact and organized tradition, it seemed that the wear and tear remained marginal, but as soon as in the 1960s the compactness of that tradition ceased to exist, the very strong pressure that the secular culture had exerted against the traditional cloistered life for a long time penetrated in an explosive way into the ecclesiastical and monastic world, bringing confusion and desolation.
3. What are cloistered monks and nuns doing? Why don’t they go out and do social works? And since, according to a then prevailing mentality and theology, the true Christian spirit had to lead to the social revolution in order to eliminate with violence all injustice and inequality, to lock him/herself up in the monastery was the culmination of egoism and alienation. Then there were sensational phenomena of abandonment of monastic life, by many who chose to turn to the revolutionary and political activity and, at the same time, there was the proliferation of a literature that repudiated the ascetic traditions of cloistered life as useless and damaging and indiscriminately exalted social, political or revolutionary action alone.
With the passing of the decades and disillusionment over the promise of social palingenesis, the political and revolutionary commitment has greatly diminished, but the identity crisis of a monasticism considered socially useless and the mistrust in the traditional asceticism have remained and still have wide spread in the people, among the faithful, often in the clergy and among the consecrated themselves.
4. In this situation it is a real challenge to take up the threads of an upset plot and to reconstruct a fabric that seems definitively worn out. However, the enterprise is necessary and difficulties should not discourage. It is not enough, in fact, for the salvation and growth of the monastic institutions that still resist to present to the religious and to the new vocations, moreover very scarce in this spiritual climate, only the requirements of a tradition, however venerable, if it is not justified in its ecclesial and social fecundity in the face of the furious accusations of sterility that a centuries-old counter-tradition opposes them. Only the overcoming of a crisis of identity that still seems unresolved can restore to their dignity the venerable traditions left by Saint Benedict, his predecessors and his successors in the monastic ascesis.
5. In order to set the issue correctly, it may be necessary to trace it back to one of the oldest and most authoritative sources of pre-Benedictine monasticism: Saint Pachomius.
Pachomius was a young pagan Egyptian of the fourth century who, like all the Egyptians his own age, hated the harsh military service imposed by the Roman foreign dominator. Forced into military conscription, he found himself one day in a city where a group of particular people dedicated themselves to assisting young conscripts by providing them with food and all kinds of relief and friendly comfort. Pachomius was amazed and asked: who are these? They are the Christians, they answered him. Pachomius began to become curious about these so special people and their faith, and finally he made this oath: if the God of Christians frees me from the odious yoke of military life, I promise to become his faithful servant! Shortly thereafter, following entirely unforeseen circumstances, in fact Pachomius was discharged by the militia. The young man kept his promise and became a Christian.
At this point, according to today’s mentality, we expected him to join that group of Christians who were dedicated to assisting young conscripts and other good works. But that was not the case.
Let us note that Pachomius did not say: I want to save my soul and then I go to the desert. On the contrary, his intention was to do something very useful for his neighbour. And what did he do? He put himself under the monastic discipline of an old and severe ascetic in the desert of Egypt.
6. How can this be explained? Christian life is not limited to the aid of the needy, but includes many other things, such as meekness, purity, peace, renunciation of the avidity of earthly goods, prayer and listening to the Word of God etc. Now Pachomius saw that the Christians who lived in society were strongly opposed by the most common human passions, such as the thirst for enjoyment, possession and power. What to do, then? The hermits of the desert had distanced themselves from the corrupt environment of society in order to be able freely to dedicate themselves to prayer, meditation on the word of God and purification of the heart from evil passions. Pachomius, therefore, decided to put himself in the school of one of them in order to learn to live an integral Christian life, free from the impediments ever present in human society.
But, once practiced in Christian virtues, he wanted to put into practice his program of helping men. Apart from hermits, no one lives alone, and if the sincere faithful find themselves living in a family or in an environment in which human passions dominate, they will be severely impeded in their Christian life. Hermits set a good example, but would it not be even better if we create a society detached from secular society in which the norms of behaviour taught by the Gospel apply to all? What Pachomius had learned from the hermit could become the leaven of a community of people who tried together to live in prayer, in listening to the Word of God, in purity, in charity and in peace. Thus Pachomius would offer to so many of his brothers the way to escape the snares of the world or to get converted, change life, leave behind a sad past and be reborn in a community animated by the Spirit of Christ.
To create such a community was not an easy thing, given the strength of human passions. In fact the first group of his disciples after a while turned their backs on him and went off insulting him. Pachomius did not give himself up and gathered other disciples, with whom he finally succeeded in constituting a great brotherhood, in which they prayed together, served each other, worked in peace also in order to be able to give the fruit of their work to the poor, men and even women – unheard of at that time – were housed in search of God’s peace.
7. Between Pachomius and Benedict there are almost two centuries, in which monasticism expands, forming various ascetic and liturgical traditions. However, there are also signs of decay and the need to collect in a well-defined rule the traditions of the monks of the previous age.
The experience of Benedict is very different from that of Pachomius. As a young man, he went to Rome to study and saw that students, as is all too often the case today, lived a vicious life. That school, then, is wrong! It does not do the good of the young, but it lets them plunge into hell. Benedict flees Rome and the corrupt world to devote himself only to God in monastic life. Later he will gather groups of disciples and, taught by experience, will write a rule, in which, collecting the inheritance of the ancient monks, he will exemplarily outline for future generations the guidelines for those who want to live a Christian life together.
Pachomius wanted to correct, in his fraternity, the defects of secular society. Benedict, in addition to this project, also wants to correct the defects of the school of the world, from which he escaped. He affirms, at the beginning of the rule, that he intends to constitute a school: the school of the divine service. We therefore have an alternative society and an alternative school!
8. Throughout the centuries the Benedictine monasteries have developed the guidelines laid down by Saint Benedict for a Christian community life, but in some respects they have also partially deviated from his teaching. Let’s talk about developments first.
As far as prayer is concerned, all the forms that serve to express and enrich liturgical prayer have developed enormously in monasteries – let us not speak now of developments also in personal devotion. The liturgy has been enriched by architectural constructions, images and decorations, rites and expressive clothes, wonderful poetic and musical compositions, illuminated choir books and precious sacred vases and artistic furnishings. All this is not for the exclusive benefit of monastic communities, but also to nourish the spiritual life of peoples. For a largely illiterate people, all these means were, as they said, the “Biblia pauperum”.
In the field of organized work the monks have made great achievements, both for practical purposes, such as agriculture and industry, and in the field of charity, such as the reception of pilgrims and the soup kitchen, and in culture, such as the copying of manuscripts and the preservation of books in libraries.
Let us not dwell on this aspect now and consider what we might call “deviations”.
One thing that can be pointed out is the restriction, after the Middle Ages and even more recently, of charitable and welcoming activities. It appears that in the women’s monasteries the chapter of the rule on the reception of guests was deleted. This was due, I believe, to the rather artificial definition, in my opinion, of the cloistered life as “contemplative life”, opposed to the “active life”, and therefore the restriction of its social effectiveness to the mere plan of intercessory prayer – an aspect that is certainly important, but which has perhaps been presented too exclusively.
To this too rigid definition of “contemplative life” must be added the division, in the male communities, between priests and brothers monks and in the female communities between choristers and servants. In this perspective, which is not reflected in the rule of Saint Benedict, the contemplative life was artificially reserved for priests and choristers, thus assuming a misleading intellectual aspect, while brothers and servants were considered second class, because they were destined for “material” works, and therefore not “contemplative”. All these characters, which gravely betray the letter and spirit of Saint Benedict’s rule, have coexisted for centuries with elements of true holiness in the Benedictine monasteries, but ending by obscuring the latter and creating fatal prejudices to evaluate the incomparable social function of monastic life, which the true reformers have striven to rediscover and which it is now urgent to put in full light.
9. Let us start from what we said at the beginning: Christian life is not limited to the assistance of the needy, especially if this assistance is restricted only to the most extreme material emergencies. That it is essential to do good to the needy neighbour is a sacrosanct truth, but that the need of the neighbour to be cared for is identified without residue with certain forms of assistance, is a totally arbitrary idea. The evangelical saying “not only does man live by bread” has a very strong practical value. In fact, all the needy must be accompanied from a maimed life to a healthy and integral life, and the latter includes much more than physical nourishment and medical care. From poverty, from vice, from illness it is necessary to bring the needy back to a life that is able to nourish itself, to act virtuously, to preserve health. The evangelical virtues serve not only to nourish with bread, but also to transmit themselves to the neighbour in order to make his/her life joyfully Christian.
Let us now return to a basic principle, which we found in San Pachomius before that we found it in Saint Benedict: no one lives alone and a truly virtuous life cannot be lived except in a community of people who agree to follow together the guidelines of a holy life. Therefore, to initiate those who have a maimed life to an integral life it is necessary not only to heal them individually, but also communally. That is, it is necessary to enable them to build together with others a family or a community governed by good and holy customs. Let us add that prevention is worth more than cure and that, therefore, it is true charity not only to lead the handicapped back to an integral life, but also to create the conditions for the integral life not to become impaired, but to be preserved, developed and transmitted.
10. And here we return to Saint Pachomius and Saint Benedict. They saw in the world of adults and the young common ways of life choking the good seed of the Gospel because of the prevailing thirst for enjoyment, possession and power, and they wanted to create forms of common life in which those three human passions were healed from the root through the total renunciation of the life of perfect consecration to God. For this reason the monastic communities created by them are separated from the common social life and at first sight seem to be interested only in the salvation of their members, and therefore sterile for society. But they are not!
Although Pachomius and Benedict appear to be focused solely on the organization of monastic life, in reality they offer an alternative model of associated life, family life and school life that has universal value. If, in fact, the defects which they wanted to correct are real, it is clear that the alternative proposed by them applies to all. And the fact that they have achieved it within a life of total consecration only indicates the undeniable fact that the passions fought by religious vows of chastity, poverty and obedience are the true destructive root of good individual and social life and the poison that stifles the good seed of the Gospel. For this reason they must also be fought outside the sphere of monastic life. The fact that the two saints were probably not fully aware of the immense social relevance of their foundations does not matter, because there is a rigorous force inscribed in things, which carries its consequences, even if we are not aware of it.
11. This makes us understand the irreplaceable apostolic and social function of monasteries – irreplaceable because no other ecclesial or civil reality can play the role that they play and that seems to be up to our troubled time to put in full light. In monastic life, thanks to religious vows and its communal form, the evangelical seed planted by the apostolic preaching and the sacraments of the Church bears the fruit of a common life shaped according to the divine model that we see outlined already in the Acts of the Apostles and in the letters of Saint Paul. This model, by its nature and regardless of the intentions of the founders of monastic life, is destined to become a guide of conduct and school of life – alternatives to the models of life and the school of the world – for every human community, and in an eminent way for families and parishes. This apostolic and social function increasingly appears not as a contingent appendix, but as an essential and inalienable character of monastic life. This means that what the monastic community accomplishes in everyday life must reverberate, adapting to different situations, in the life of families and parishes.
In recent years it has often happened that monasteries of cloistered life have welcomed prayer groups to guide them in “spiritual life”. Although this initiative is praiseworthy, there is a danger that the traditional artificial division between active and contemplative life will creep in with the undue intellectualization of the latter. What the monastery must pass on, as a model and as a school of divine service, is not primarily a mystical experience, however precious the latter may be, but the model itself of the divinized daily life of the monastic community. This divinized life is in no way restricted to its mystical, and even less intellectual, aspect. On the contrary, Saint Benedict clearly says that by the most humble domestic tasks true charity is exercised and greater merits are earned before God, and that therefore everyone must exercise them in turn – there is no division between choristers and servants in Saint Benedict’s rule! Far from being an essentially “contemplative” life, monastic life is a well-organized community family life, in which everything must be done in time and in the proper way, «so that no one may be troubled and saddened in the house of God».
It is perfectly evident that the times of liturgical prayer occupy a privileged place in the monastic day – and this explains how through the centuries the monks have enriched the liturgy of the Church. But the divine inspiration drawn from the celebration of liturgical prayer must then radiate itself in all the daily activity of the community. So the monks will be engaged both in all that is needed for a more felt liturgy, for the benefit of the community and of all the people of God, in fraternal service and in all that is needed in order that all things may be done in due manner and time, and no one is troubled and saddened in the house of God.
Now, like the liturgy, so too the wise regulation of life according to the divine model of the rule must be for the benefit of all God’s people. Everyday life, shaped by the divine liturgy and conveyed in the soft folds of the rule, must be realized with the greatest love by the community, in order to become the city on the mountain that gives light to the whole house.
12. This awareness of the incomparable apostolic and social function of monastic life, reserved to our times and prompted by the hostile criticisms against the cloistered life itself, must result in a great awakening and in an effective and fervent renewal of the monasteries. If our life, as handed down to us by Saint Benedict and our fathers, is a true irreplaceable model for all God’s people, for parishes, for families, for the poor who aspire to a better life, what our renewed fervour must be in fulfilling even the most humble services so that everything may be fulfilled in its right time and way and no one will be troubled and saddened in God’s house!
As has been said, in fact, the house and family of God, illuminated and pacified by the divine liturgy and the hard-working fervour of the humble fraternal service which springs from it, are destined to become a city on the mountain and a school of divine service for all human families. For this reason, hospitality, so recommended by Saint Benedict, must be widely and wisely exercised, not primarily for spiritual courses, but as a school of life, which, following the teaching of the rule, accompany families to know how to shape their everyday common life according to the divine model, so that even in the daily reality of families and parishes everything is done in time and in the proper way and no one is upset and saddened.
13. What immense work the monasteries have done through the centuries to enrich the liturgy with all the arts, to adorn the dwellings, to refine behaviours and everyday language, to preserve from the prevailing barbarity all the treasures of true humanity expressed in literature and the arts? Should all this not be realized again in times of increasingly widespread barbarization of customs, language, culture, even in the everyday life of families? And what monastic communities can preserve or recreate, should not then be made available to families and parishes through carefully organized hospitality and the wise use of the new possibilities offered by the most recent instruments? Should not the institute of the oblates itself be renewed in order to become a precious means for the spread of renewed common life throughout God’s people?
But the great apostolic mission to which our restless times call the Benedictine and cloistered communities could not really be realized if the communities themselves did not accept the call of the Holy Spirit to renew themselves and shape with a new fervour, according to the divine model outlined by Saint Benedict and realized by our holy fathers, their daily community life, in fervent liturgical celebration and humble fraternal service.