A Manual for the Novice
1. An Introduction
“Loyalty to the past calls for the discernment to recognize what is permanent in value, and then see how it can be translated into terms that will touch contemporary life”.
David Hodges, Cistercian Monk S Wales
I am writing this in response to my own personal need to summarize and collect thoughts and ideas from my own personal year as a Novice in the New Benedictine Community.
I write this sitting in the Library of the Benedictine Arch Abbey of St. Ottillien of Ersing Germany in the heart of the Black Forest.
It is written with the hope that future members of our community will use it as a source of inspiration and help as they discern and contemplate a journey of their own personal and individual path to life in a Benedictine Community. It is meant as a piece of reflection for further Novices who want to go “deeper” into this New Experiment, which is not so new. We are part of an ongoing movement that seeks to translate the past wisdom and insight into modern and contemporary living. For some, this is a challenge, as I found out my first year as a novice especially in dialogue with Benedictine Monks who had made the clear choice to “live in Community” and “be celibate” as part of their Benedictine Vows of Stability and Conversion of Life. But, here we were, a New Benedictine Community, which had chosen a new kind of Stability “stabilitas” and a new means of conversion “conversatio morum”. We have chosen the stability of belonging to a professed community that has no physical boundaries nor monastery. In other words, The monastic life is lived “at home and in the work place.” As the leader of the Lindesfarne Community so clearly describes it. We are neither completely avowed to the “hermit tradition” of living alone nor of the “coenobitic tradition” of those living in community under one roof. We are a translation of these two monastic traditions as a response to the demands of “modern life”. A modern life which makes it more and more difficult to find that appropriate place for “stillness” and “peace” which Monastic Living has always promised.
As Esther de Waal writes so clearly in her book “Seeking Life”.
“If history gives us a place to stand,a sense of being earthed and grounded, this is not confused with being static. The Benedictine vows illustrate this well when they establish the paradox of keeping stability in tension with “conversatio morum”, which is roughly translated as the commitment, to change, to the ongoing journey and whatever may lie ahead. It is thus a question of holding the balance. While we need the past, we must not let ourselves become imprisoned by it or allow it to become an idol.” P. 26 Recovering our Historical Roots.
My first attraction to the NBC was precisely that…. (Pause) a “NEW” Benedictine Community. Something that carried with it the ancient tradition of Benedictine life yet was willing to be something completely and surprisingly NEW!
2. What is “NEW” about the NBC?
What was some of this newness? First and foremost the use of modern technology to keep community together and intact. The experience of my joining Compline together twice a month with male members of NBC, new inquirers, and members of other Monastic communities in the church, was a new way of practicing what Monks do each and every day, celebrate and live out the “opus Dei” the work of God in the Daily recitation or singing of the Divine Office, also known as The Liturgy of the Hours and The Daily Office or Monastic Breviary. ( Note: the women of our community gather weekly for compline on Thursday night at an earlier hour) I also am blessed to be able to participate and pray with German Monks in the Heart of the Black Forest on a daily basis due to the daily online broadcast of all 5 of their daily liturgies. I only wish there were some “english speaking” monastic communities that would share their liturgies on a daily basis for others to enjoy. This said, there are many online versions of the Daily Office now available to both Anglicans and Roman Catholics and perhaps Lutherans. The NBC also gathers every first Sunday of the month for a “house meeting” or “chapter meeting” to check in with each other, share some of our common vision, and end with the recitation of compline.
Questions for the Novice (or discussion)
What is it about Monasticism that attracts me to a community like the NBC or an other community? How have I experienced Monastic life in the past? Where and How did I experience it?
What are the elements of “new monasticism” that most attracts me to this kind of lifestyle or vocation? What other “religious communities” do I belong to? How am I involved? In what ways are they “life giving”? In what ways do I feel limited by them?
3. How have I formed and informed myself as a member of the NBC?
Being “formed” in the Monastic tradition.
One of the great joys of being a Novice in the NBC was for me the formal study and deeper learning of what the Rule of Benedict was and how it is applied to ones daily living of the Christian Faith. Having a Novice director to walk with me in this process was very helpful. But in the end, formation is not about acquiring more information or intellectual stimulation. It is about finding new ways to “experience” religious living. Or better said, New Ways to Know God! In the New Monastic Handbook written by members of the MOOT community (Ian Mosby and Mark Berry) they reflect on the need to form and teach new people wanting to join their monastic community. They write, “The great challenges for Christianity in the third millennium are the task of formation and discipleship. (Or catechesis) with “never and unchurched” people, who are not interested in religion but either pursue their own spiritual path or who have come reluctantly to accept a life of pain or lack of meaning….New Monastics have responded in a whole of life approach to assist ‘conversion’ to the christian faith by inviting people to engage with the community relationally, in helping others, in attending spirituality discussion groups, and through involvement in contemplative prayer and worship and forms of mentoring. These activities aim to enable people to experience and encounter God, to perceive that God is. Real and relevant in their own understanding and for their own unique spiritual journey.” P.142 Formation and Discipleship
I think formation in the NBC is really about sharing our personal stories in relation to the BIG story of the Monastic Tradition in Christianity which goes back even before Christ with the Jewish Essene Communities. Surely St. John the Baptist belonged to one of these groups and probably Jesus too. True formation in the NBC has been about that year of forming deeper relationships with others in the community. This certainly has been my own personal experience. Esther De Waal Writes “St. Aelred, the twelfth century Abbot of Rievaulx, said that whenever he was talking to a friend there was always a third person and that was Christ….Conversations guided by the Holy Spirit, between an elder and a disciple, between the abba or the amma, dating back to the earliest times in the desert and those who came to learn from them, have always played an important role in the teachings and the spreading of faith. It is an art that takes many forms, not only between master and pupil but between equals and friends, or as in the case of Benedict or Scholastica, between brother and sister.” The greatest gift of my year as a novice has been sharing these deep conversations with other members of the community and with my Novice director. It seems Christ was alway the other silent partner during our many conversations. I am hoping that my time as a “professed” member of the community will create new and other spaces for these conversations to continue.
Questions for the Novice (or discussion)
How do I see myself being “formed” as an ongoing disciple or student of Christ? What are the relationships in my life that help this happen? Who can I talk freely and openly about my feelings and thoughts about God, Prayer, the Sacred Scriptures,
And the unique path that I am on towards God. Do I do this on a regular basis with someone in mind? If not how might I begin this process of sharing my story and listening to the story of another traveler?
4. How do we define ourselves?
As a Novice in the NBC much of my time in the past year has been spent on asking the Question Who am I? In relation to taking on a new identity as a “new monastic” or member of a “new monastic community”. Definitions can be both limiting and liberating. I found myself searching deeply for a means to be able to say to others around me…”This is who I am now…or this is who I am becoming”…now that I have embraced a path of Spirituality very specific to Benedictine Life. In all honesty after a year of Questioning there are more unanswered questions than answers. But after reading the Vows that all Benedictines take from their first entrance into the life of Community, I realized that discernment and living of these vows is a lifetime venture, and there are those moments when we pause to be more specific and intentional when those vows are renewed or said for the first time.
For me, this year as a Novice was about being very intentional in study, reflection, and living the Rule of Benedict as it is lived by Benedictine Communities around the world on a daily basis.
I am also reminded that the Rule of Benedict or the Way of Benedict is not an end but a means to living an authentic Christian life.
“Benedict himself”, writes Esther de Waal, “would probably have been shocked to find that some of those lay people who are turning to the rule today, like to describe themselves as followers of ‘Benedictine Spirituality’. He has one concern only, and that is to encourage us all to become followers of the Word, of Christ, the life-giving way.”
So I have sought in this year to Follow the Way of Christ and Walk the Way of Benedict. To do that in the context of the NBC has meant to try and make some sense about what this life entails on a practical and somewhat theoretical basis. That is why I have made up my own “definitions” around this experience. They have helped me to find some more clarity and guidance as I walk this path.
Thus, the definitions I offer, are only meant to be a starting point not an end to themselves as I have tried to discover what it means to be true followers of Christ.
*Monastic one definition for Monastic is
“Monasticism or monachism, literally the act of “dwelling alone” (Greek monos, monazein, monachos), has come to denote the mode of life pertaining to persons living in seclusion from the world, under religious vows and subject to a fixed rule, as monks, friars, nuns, or in general as religious. The basic idea of monasticism in all its varieties is seclusion or withdrawal from the world or society. The object of this is to achieve a life whose ideal is different from and largely at variance with that pursued by the majority of society, and the method adopted, no matter what its precise details may be, is always self-abnegation or organized asceticism..” One author says the purpose of Monasticism is
A. Discovery of the true self.
B. Spiritual Perfection
C. Emancipation of the self (salvation)
D. Social and institutional (transformation of society)
*New & Benedictine
Obviously these two words taken separately are self explanatory. But the combination of the two creates a new and unique meaning for those of us exploring this ‘new vocation’ or way of religious life.
New for me means, different, free, changing, and evolving. We are as a New group creating something unique and historical in the history of Monasticism or for some, we are just going back a few thousand years to much, of its original meaning which has been over institutionalized and lost in history. We are in some ways part of a “renewal” movement within Monasticism. Not unlike the historical renewal movements of the Camaldolese, or the Carthusians, or the Trappists, who were in them selves part of the ongoing changes in Monasticism.
*Secular vs Religious Monastic
Fritz-Gibbon the founder of the Northumbrian community coins a term which explains for me the uniqueness of the kind of Monasticism that the NBC in part shares. He calls it “secular monasticism”. He makes reference to a letter written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1935 which says, “the restoration of the church will surely come from a new kind of monasticism. Which will have nothing in common with the old, but a life of uncompromising adherence to the Sermon on the Mount in Imitation of Christ.” A “secular monastic religious order” is in contrast with the traditional Models of Monasticism that require common living quarters (a cloister), celibacy, and perhaps adherence to one specific religious denomination or group.
Secular Monastics may live alone or with others, they may be single, partnered or married. They observe the Monastic way of life not in a hermitage nor in a cloister, but in their home and workplace as their principal location of their religious life. Unlike the Northumbrian community the NBC has its roots in mainline denominational Christianity and does not claim to be independent from it.
*Community, Prayer, and Service
Community is the gathering of more than one person for mutual support, inspiration, prayer, and outreach. Peter Pearson makes a clear distinction of the energy or focus of the NBC when he says we are about three things… Community, Prayer, and Service. It is the three legged stool of the New Benedictine Community and is what gives it balance, vision, and focus. These three traits or values of the NBC are what most attracted me to this community because the focus is on a healthy ” “balance” between the individual and the community. Even prayer is part of that balance. “Liturgy,” says Bargellini “is defined as “public work done for the service of others”.
He continues, “prayer is a sacramental sign that realizes and expresses the mystery of the church, the communion of children in dialogue with the Father and among themselves.”
*Externals as a form of Identity
In my journey as a Novice with the NBC, more than. Once the question has arisen, what are the external forms of identity that the NBC shares that make it what it is? Some and even many new monastic communities have habits or clothing that distinguishes them from “non-professed” members. In the last year two external forms of identity have evolved as part of our self understanding. First a community icon (the Holy Trinity) and second, a very simple Benedictine Cross (four sides equal) worn by some members of the community at certain times not defined. It seems to me, that the NBC does not depend on external forms of identity for its existence. As it grows and develops this question might come up from time to time. But these simple external symbols speak strongly to me of connectedness to each other by mutual bonds of affection, and a community at prayer with each other around the divine presence of the Holy Trinity.
*The Marks of (New) Monasticism
Someone has tried to define this renewal movement called new Monasticism. There seem to be common traits or understandings in many of the developing communities. Here is a definition that has been in discussion for some time. We as a community have not gone into detail about how these marks are or are not part of the NBC. But they are a good source for ongoing discussion and definition as the community develops and grows.
Twelve Marks of New Monasticism
1. Relocation to the abandoned places of Empire.
2. Sharing economic resources with fellow community members and the needy among us.
3. Humble submission to Christ’s body, the church.
4. Geographical proximity to community members who share a common rule of life.
5. Hospitality to the stranger.
6. Nurturing common life among members of intentional community.
7. Peacemaking in the midst of violence and conflict resolution within communities along the lines of Matthew 18.
8. Lament for racial divisions within the church and our communities combined with the active pursuit of a just reconciliation.
9. Care for the plot of God’s earth given to us along with support of our local economies.
10. Support for celibate singles alongside monogamous married couples and their children.
11. Intentional formation in the way of Christ and the rule of the community along the lines of the old novitiate [i.e., a probationary period that a novice undergoes before entering into a religious order].
12. Commitment to a disciplined contemplative life.
Hospitality in the NBC is for me one of its greatest virtues. Not unlike the Camaldolese charism of welcoming all. For Christ said, “whoever welcomes any stranger in my name welcomes me” “All Camaldolese houses are encouraged to provide hospitality to Christians and non-Christians alike. If a believer of another faith asks to spend a longer period of time in the community, it shall be considered by the prior. Let the monks remember that ecumenism is today an especially monastic way of responding to the Lords call to preach the Gospel.” Camaldolese Comstitutions V5F2
The NBC is also part of that “ecumenical hospitality” where there is plenty of room to knock, ask, seek, discover, or even retire from its center. A kind of open door for all to peek in and perhaps sit for a while before continuing on ones journey.
Questions for the Novice (or discussion)
What if any of these definitions has spoken to me personally?
What stands out as important or unique? Do any of these definitions seem extreme or difficult to apply or understand? If I had to answer the question Who am I now and what am I becoming In relation to the NBC what would be my response?
5. Spiritual Practices (living a Rhythm of life)
In my year as a Novice with the NBC I have found the freedom to continue the Spiritual Practices which have been important to me most of my life (the Daily office, journaling, Reflective Reading, and regular retreats to a Monastic Closure.) at the same time there has been no pressure to fit into any specific format, or focus of prayer or practices. This has been very liberating. Apart from the two official prayer books (Iona and Glenstal prayer books) used by the community at large. There is much space for self discovery and learning.
The Moot community Handbook speaks about this rhythm of life which includes our spiritual practices. “What new monastics describe as a rhythm of life draws on traditional monastic rules, but goes further in that it seeks to be a holistic and all-embracing approach to opening up a healthy approach to the spiritual life in community.” P. 51 Living a Rhythm of Life.
I am convinced that some kind of regular spiritual practices are essential to belonging to a Religious Community like the NBC.
Many of us it seems who begin our walk within the community already are living some kind of “ordered or disordered” life depending upon how you look at it. Liturgical Prayer is at the Heart of this identity. St. Peter Damianus a monastic reformer wrote, “the Church of Christ is united in all her parts by such a bond of love, that her several members form a single body, and in each one the whole church is present.” He is saying that even when we are praying alone, like a monk or nun in their cel the whole church is praying with us and in us. I believe this is why spiritual practices are so important because there is a kind of “mystical” connection between all of us who live separately from each other but our Life of Prayer makes us One living, and breathing community.
Questions for the Novice (or discussion)
What are my spiritual practices? How often do I practice them? At what times do they work best for me? How do these practices fit in to the calendar of time? (Eg. Daily, Weekly, Monthly, Seasonally, and Yearly.). Can I identify my spiritual practices in the context of these specific times and moments in my own yearly cycle? How do my own spiritual practices fit into what the Rule of Benedict provides to its pupils or students in the School of Lord’s Service. What role do the Psalms play in my spiritual life?
6. Conclusion The Final Question….
Why have I come here?
( to live in the Monastery)
This question, writes Thomas Merton, “is one we should ask ourselves again and again in the course of our monastic life. It is a question which confronts us with new meaning and new urgency as we go on in life. The question is one which must never be evaded…The monk who ceases to ask him or herself, ‘Why have you come here?’ Has perhaps ceased to be a monk.”
In my time as a Novice with the NBC, I have asked this question over and over again. It is a question I hope I will keep asking in the years ahead. The question raises itself in the context of a “new” movement, a new Spirit of life, a new way of looking at the world and how I relate to it. Life gives us always many options. Perhaps that is why it is important to ask ourselves, ‘why have I chosen this option?’ Over and above so many other paths that could be traveled.
There are still many questions to be pondered upon in this sacred journey. One of them for me has to do with this ongoing dialogue both internal and external about the ‘monastic path’.
Can I take this path alone? Or do I need fellow travelers? Who might those travelers be? I have chosen as part of this path to include and involve people who are living in cloistered communities as I continue to engage in this dialogue. Not only for my benefit but for the benefit of others. I find that there is still much resistance or at minimum skepticism from the traditional or cloistered Monk and Nun, to understand and validate this New Path that we are on in the NBC. Do we need validation? Another good question. But I do believe for us to be authentic we need transparent and honest discussion with others who are on a similar path, both monks and nuns who live in community and are celibate, along with other alternative communities of which I have found are growing quickly around the globe. Perhaps that is the advantage of having our annual meetings in different religious communities as we begin our discussion with them and share our stories.
Very soon…I hope to be asked the historic question….
And very soon to respond… (suscipe)
“Receive me, O Lord, as you have promised, that I may live;
And disappoint me not in my hope.”
My hopes for us as a community is that we grow in the Love of the Lord and in the Love of each other.