Last Saturday I gave a day of reflection for a young man who has now begun his formal entrance into the monastery. It was his first day as a candidate, and Fr. John — the formation director — had asked me to deliver two conferences. I was free to talk about anything I wanted, as long as it had something to do with the monastic life. To say the least, that still gave me plenty of leeway for topics.
What advice do you give to someone who’s come to enter the monastery? “Don’t do it!” is certainly one option, and it would have made my day much easier had I selected that. But I knew that Fr. John would frown on that approach, and it wasn’t my sentiment anyway. So I puzzled over several themes until I concluded that it would be presumptuous of me to tell any candidate what he needed to know or to do. I also realized that I was going to have to sit through these conferences. So why not say something that might make an impression on me? That way if the candidate’s attention were to drift off as I droned on, at least one of us might get something out of the experience. So in the interests of pure self-interest I decided to remind myself of three points.
First of all, why do people come to the monastery? Saint Benedict supplied the answer in his Rule, and it’s simple enough. “The monk comes to seek God.” Still, that’s a little abstract and doesn’t really touch on the practical reasons for why people embrace this life. The fact is, novices enter for all sorts of reasons. They may have a friend or two in the community. They find the life attractive. They enjoy the liturgy and the music. They want to be involved in some aspect of the work of the community. These are just a few of the lures that the Holy Spirit dangles to inspire people to enter.
But these are not the reasons that cause monks to stay in the monastery for a lifetime. The fact is, monks grow and mature, as do whole communities. What matters at one point may matter less twenty years down the road as monks grow in age and experience and wisdom. What brought them to the monastery merely began a process that lasts a lifetime, and change occurs along the way.
That brings me to the second point. In the course of life most monks gradually discover that the abstract business of the search for God is actually why they remain. They also discover that God is not nearly so distant as they may have once assumed. Gradually, little by little, they learn the lessons that Saint Benedict intended to teach. They do begin to get glimpses of God in the abbot, in the sick and elderly, in the guests and the young, and even in themselves. That’s the unexpected reward of the monastic life, unless of course a monk manages to keep his eyes closed to all of this. But if a monk can keep his eyes alert to the possibilities, then he will rub elbows with Christ, resident in the people around him.
My final point has to do with a fundamental reality of life in community. Monks may see the face of Christ in one another, but they also must come to terms with the fact that monks are people too. In spiritual terms they are both sinners and saved. In social terms, they all have their assets and their liabilities. Every monastery and each monk does some things very well, and they fall woefully short in other areas. The irony is that it can be as difficult to live with gifted people as it can be to live with sinners. But the challenge for any candidate is whether he can live with these particular sinners and their particular sins. If this is a deal-breaker, then he needs to find other sinners who are more to his liking.
These are the points with which I satisfied myself during that day of reflection. That said, I harbor no illusion that these issues are somehow unique to the monastic life. For bettter and for worse these crop up in marriage and friendships and in most any human relationship. And if they are the challenges that we all encounter in the course of our spiritual pilgrimage, then no one should be surprised to encounter them in the monastic pilgrimage. Therein is the struggle, and therein is the reward of a life well lived. Along the way, the important goal is this: find the group of sinners with whom you will flourish on the path to God. Not surprisingly, then, that’s what novitiate is all about.
+On March 30th I sat in on the weekly meeting of the Benedictine Living Group, led by Brother Aidan. Participants are college students who live together for a year in one of the residence halls and commit themselves to regular prayer together, as well as a fall and spring retreat and a weekly seminar on the Rule of Saint Benedict. It was fun to participate in their discussion, especially since I didn’t have to prepare anything in advance.
+On April 1st I gave the day of reflection to our incoming candidate for the monastery. For two months he will live and work and pray with us; and at the end of that period he can apply for the novitiate.
+We had plenty of guests during the past few days in the monastery. For two days four students from Saint John’s University lived with us as part of their introduction to the monastery. On Saturday April 1st sixty students and three faculty from St. Olaf College joined us for Mass. This is a yearly trek for these classes from St. Olaf, and no doubt they were surprised by the fact that their host for the day, Brother David-Paul, is an alumnus of St. Olaf. He is subprior of the monastery.
+On March 31st Brothers Simon Peter and Asiel arrived and will spend a week with us. They are newly-professed monks at Newark Abbey in New Jersey. For years we have sent our Benedictine Volunteers to work in their school — Saint Benedict’s Prep — and since 2007 we’ve enrolled over thirty of their alumni at Saint John’s. On Sunday the current cohort of those students joined Brother Simon Peter and Asiel for dinner in the monastic refectory.
+The photos in today’s post all show art from the National Gallery in Washington. At top is The Crucifixion, by the Master of St. Veronica (Germany, tempera on panel, ca. 1400/1410). Next is Calvary, by the Master of the Death of Saint Nicholas of Münster (German, oil on panel, ca. 1470-1480). Below that is The Crucifixion with the Virgin, St. John, St. Jerome, and St. Mary Magdalene, by Pietro Perugino (Umbria, 1482-1485). The gruesome Crucifixion is by Matthias Grünewald, Germany, ca. 1511/1520. At bottom is St. Jerome in the Wilderness by Cima da Conegliano, Venice, ca. 1500-1005.