by Fr. Massimo Lapponi
The foundations of monastic life are not particularly taken into account in the core theological courses. What should therefore be the theological training of Benedictines from the beginning of their religious life and then during the years following the novitiate?
As already observed on other occasions, our young people, studying the theology conceived for diocesan priests, move away from the training received, often in an insufficient way, during the novitiate.
With this principle in mind, it is appropriate to follow a precise program that truly studies a theology inspired by St. Benedict.
Let us try to make a list, at least provisional, of subjects studied in our school, divided in different categories, and to illustrate the concepts
Biblical study, especially of the Psalms
Development of the liturgy, especially in the Patristic age
Music and Gregorian and polyphonic chant
Monasticism in the history and life of the Church
The birth and development of monasticism in the history of the Church.
The importance of the Patristic age for the constitution of the essential traits in the Church, including monasticism
The Rule of St. Benedict.
The daily practice of monastic life and the required formation
The subjects indicated above are certainly important but we must not forget that the monastery itself is a school, as St. Benedict says, but it is a different school from that of the outside world. In this school we do not mainly propose to acquire scientific knowledge and confer degrees. What is mainly to be acquired is the habitus of a virtuous life exercised in the daily life of the community. So in this school there are no classrooms separated from the common environments. It is through the practice of ordinary life that one acquires and exercises virtues.
One could believe that problems arise from the fact that students live together with those already trained. Indeed, in this school all are at the same level and no one obtains the “diploma” except in eternal life. As no people live on their own and the environment influences the personal conduct, it is necessary that Christian life and its lessons permeate everything and give an imprint of holiness to common life.
Therefore, contrary to what is believed, even in monasteries, the monks who go to teach in ordinary schools are not of a higher category, on the contrary, to the extent that they deprive themselves from the daily common life and its “lessons”, they are likely to lose some of their identity.
The basic lessons of this school concern the practice of humility and serving charity, which is practiced in putting oneself, especially when this requires effort and patience, at the service of the brothers, the community and its mission benefiting the Church and the society. The master way taught by St. Benedict is to acquire this humble and docile willingness to serve by sacrificing oneself in obedience. Thus, through obedience and generous self-denial, the monk tries to imitate Christ, obedient to the Father until Death on the Cross, and a participant in his life.
But in what daily exercises do the monks principally have to conform to Christ and thus serve for the best of the community, church and society?
«Blessed who inhabits your house: he always sings your praise» says the psalmist speaking of the Temple of the Lord. The monastery is a continuation of the temple, accomplished by the faithful who after having tasted the joy of being in the House of God have decided to live their life in its light. Therefore, in the monastery «one always sings your praise».
«Nihil operi Dei praeponatur», «let nothing be preferred before the Work of God» (Rule of Saint Benedict, ch. 43): the principal work to which the monks must dedicate their time and their commitment is constituted of the need to make the praise of God resonate in his home: from learning the Psalms to preparation of books, from singing to cleaning the choir. But the praise of God, as it must resonate in his house, so must also resound in the souls of the monks and, developed day and night through the “lectio divina”, formal or informal, give life to a divine inspiration of their daily service.
And what is the daily service if not the loving commitment to make the house of God a place of peace, where no one omits what is expected of him and indeed everyone does the work entrusted to him with the fervor of those who know that they are building not only the house of God but also His Kingdom?
The work required extends to all the needs of the community for its daily life and for its common mission: from cleaning to cooking, to laundry, to the assistance of the sick brothers, to teaching and training of the young people, to cultivating plants and breeding animals, to managing goods for the life of the community and for the virtuous works to be undertaken, to the sacred studies and scholarly work and arts for the edification of the brothers, the guests and those living far away, to the wise management of hospitality, the eventual parish church and the means of social communication.
All this great movement must be well organized by the abbot, after hearing the opinion of the community and the deans, and everyone must be ready to obey with the care dictated by the fear and love of God, so that everything is accomplished in due manner and time and everything is done in peace and without disturbing the spirits.
This means that monks, on the foundation of liturgical prayer and the fervent practice of obedience and self-denial, must acquire, according to their own inclinations and the judgment of the abbot, all the abilities and knowledge necessary to carry out their roles efficiently.
The purpose is not a professional affirmation, but to better serve the community and through the community, or on behalf of it, the Church and society.
The apostolic and social mission of monasticism
That the monastery is the city on the mountain and the lamp placed to shed light on the whole house is certainly not a new concept. But today it must be emphasized, focusing on aspects not always considered in the past.
A function that has always been recognized in monastic life is its intercession for everybody, reinforced by the practices of expiatory penance for sins, practices today generally very devalued and scarcely followed. But the apostolic and social mission of the monastery does not stop here. Monastic prayer has not only a value of intercession. It is the visible expression of the communion of Heaven and Earth, achieved by the whole revelation and culminating in the mystery of Christ always present in the Church until the end of the world. This mysterious communion of Heaven and Earth constitutes a wonderful poem, in which all history is revealed; it is made present for all people especially through the liturgy of the Church.
But monks are a special part of God’s people, who, having tasted the communion of the Saints with Christ in the liturgy of the Temple, have exclaimed: «Blessed are those who dwell in your house, ever singing your praise!» and have decided to remain in communion with Christ and his Saints. For this reason they made their house a kind of extension of the Temple, dedicating themselves to always singing the praises of the Lord. Thus the monastery has become the way through which the poem of the liturgy spreads from the Temple into the life of the believers. Thus monastic liturgy is like the echoing of the melody of the celestial Jerusalem amongst men’s houses.
Certainly the sources from which the melody derives are the Temple and the sacraments celebrated by priests. But monks have made this heavenly melody the guiding motive of their daily life, thus developing through the centuries an incalculable wealth of perceivable expressions that intertwine in the life of God’s people the sublime designs of heavenly life – and God’s people are called to the monastery to share in the richness of the liturgy to which the monastic family has consecrated itself.
But as has been said, the outpouring of the divine life into monastic life and its fruitfulness for the life of the world is not confined to the praise of the Lord. This will appear better from a comparison between the temple and the monastery.
The difference of monastic from priestly life lies in the fact that the latter finds its essence in the preaching of the word of God and in the mission of spreading the divine graces in the people through the sacraments and the celebrations of Church liturgy, while the male and female monastics in the first instance feel the call to receive in fullness the gift of God’s word and sacraments and to make them the model shaping their own lives. This ought to be accomplished by all the faithful, but the commitments of married life, use of earthly possessions and personal affirmation in society, and especially the abuses that so easily can arise from these commitments, prevent or restrict the action of the heavenly gifts in their lives. On the contrary monks, free of those commitments thanks to religious vows, can show in the life of their communities all the fecundity of heavenly grace in human life.
Only in the second instance and in its own way, as will be explained later, monastic life becomes apostolic. Wishing, therefore, that the word of God and divine grace can mold without hindrance their life, monks give an ample space to the liturgical celebration, which marks in a substantial way their days. And the shape impressed in monastic life by the word of God and divine grace, from the liturgical celebration flows back, shaping the daily life of the monastic family.
There is a very significant episode in the Acts of the Apostles which, while showing the character of the apostolic mission, indirectly and by contrast makes us understand what would have been the mission, different and complementary, of monastic life.,
«Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.
«And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word”» (Acts 6, 1-4).
It appears clearly that the apostolic mission is essentially aimed at preaching in order to spread the word of God among the people. On the contrary monastic life will be directed essentially in the first instance, not to the preaching, but to the PRACTICE of God’s word, that is to embody the divine grace in everyday life. In this respect the care for meals is not considered profane. On the contrary, St. Benedict in his Rule writes: «All the brethren, except those who are hindered by sickness or by some occupation of great moment, shall serve each other by turns, so that no one be excused from duty in the kitchen, for thereby a greater reward and charity is obtained» (chap. 35).
If, in fact, Christian daily life must be shaped by heavenly grace, it is necessary that the latter, having been spread in the hearts by prayer, descends to animate all the activities of those who live together in the house of God.
But if monastic life is called in the first instance to the practice and not to the preaching of the word of God, nevertheless it has also an important and irreplaceable apostolic and social function. Indeed Monks are called to shape their daily life in a Christian way, with the perfection granted to those who do not put any obstacle to divine grace. In doing so Monks offer up an admirable model to be imitated by all God’s people in the appropriate measures and ways so that they learn, by this this divine light, to use and not to abuse of God’s gifts. And to the example we can also add the teaching that, through hospitality and today even through the modern means of communication, monks can give to human families and parishes in order that they learn how to shape their lives in the light of divine grace.
Thus the School of the Divine Service of St. Benedict becomes an indispensable element of the apostolic mission, complementary to priesthood. In fact if the priest in the temple says that you MUST, consecrated men and women in the monastery show that you CAN.