Soloists on the Path to God?
No one has ever accused St. Benedict of encouraging a lot of fun and games in the monastery. In fact, in his Rule he outlined a pretty sober regimen of prayer, work and study. When there needed to be talking, he advised keeping it to a minimum. He also discouraged laughter, and he forbade gossip altogether. The latter I can understand, since most gossip tiptoes beyond the limits of charity. But when it comes to laughter I try to give Benedict the benefit of some doubt. Like many of his contemporaries, Benedict frowned on laughter because it violated Stoic ideas about self-control of the emotions. Still, that leaves us with an important question. Did monks in Benedict’s community enjoy their lives? Did they ever recreate?
It’s hard to answer, but we know that monks in later centuries did have their moments of enjoyment and relaxation. For example, some of the legal customaries that regulated monastic life made provision for a break in the routine. Medieval monks could take time off and go to the infirmary, even if they were not sick. There they could rest, eat meat, and recover their stamina before resuming the routine. It was their version of a vacation.
Suger spent a lot of time at court, and while Louis VII was off on the Crusades Suger served as a regent of the kingdom of France. That leads to my point. Suger writes that at the end of a busy day of running France he would return to St. Denis, and there he would gather round himself a group of monks to talk about the day’s events, both inside and outside the monastery. It obviously was a relief to Suger to be with the people who mattered most to him. It was also a reminder to even the youngest monks at St. Denis that they were not soloists on the path to God. They were all on pilgrimage together, and they needed the support of each and every brother.
This is a long preamble to the experience I had in the novitiate at Saint John’s last week. Part of the formation of our young monks involves getting to know the senior monks, and that is not always easy to do when people are busy and when the house is large. To achieve this, then, our novices now and again invite individual monks to visit after evening prayer. It’s their chance to get to know a senior, and last Thursday was my turn.
I guessed, for example, that they would not think to ask about my work with the Order of Malta, simply because it’s pastoral work that I do away from the monastery. So I brought along the Order of Malta chasuble and missal that I have, along with the decorations that I wear at Malta events. (I also brought along the Danish-Lutheran ruffed preacher’s collar that some friends gave me several years ago — but that story is for another time.) I spoke too about our pilgrimage to Lourdes, and I concluded with the observation that I volunteer with Malta because it’s an organization in which paying dues is not enough. All are expected to serve the sick and the poor in some way, and that service is transformative.
The novices also knew that I’ve taught, directed a library, and now do development work in our University. So I told them about one project special to me: an effort to build a scholarship fund for students from Immokalee, FL, who come to Saint John’s for college. I do that simply because it’s a chance to help some gifted young men to have a future they never thought possible. Those guys are flourishing at Saint John’s, and it’s a privilege for me to be part of that effort.
Finally, I noted my hope in our future as a monastic community. The fact that we have so many gifted young monks in our community inspires me. Jacob, Elias and Mariano may only be in their year of probation in the community, but even in that first year among us they are gifts from God. St. Benedict reminds us that the face of God can be seen in even the youngest, and so that presents a challenge for us who are their seniors. Their presence demands that we look for the best in them. Their presence is also a reminder that God has not forgotten us!
So those are some of the things we talked about at recreation last Thursday. I’m sure that Benedict will forgive us our laughter, because it’s one of the ways in which monks support each other on the path to God. It’s a reminder too that we will surely see the face of God in the next phase of life’s journey, because in the here and now we are blessed to see the face of Christ in the youngest in our midst.
+On October 16th we welcomed into our community Elias, who was clothed as a novice, and Mariano, who was accepted as a probationary junior monk. They join Novice Jacob in a year of probation in the community.
+On October 19th I visited with Brothers Jacob, Elias and Mariano in the novitiate after evening prayer.
+On October 20th the Saint John’s Pottery hosted a crowd of visitors for the firing of the giant wood-fired kiln, which holds some 12,000 pieces of pottery. They fire the kiln every two years, and it is a huge bit of work to prepare for it.
+While the maples have lost their color and their leaves, the color has shifted to the ivy at Saint John’s. The photos in today’s post show the reds and yellows of the Abbot’s Courtyard at Saint John’s.