Knocking on the door(a guide for those seeking entry or participation in a non-traditional Monastic community.)
“At the outset, it is God who desires a relationship with the Human Being. It is God who anticipates us.” Aquinata Bockman OSB
Knocking on the door or seeking a deeper relationship with God through the participation or life with a Monastic Community be it traditional (Cloistered) or Non-Traditional (secular or dispersed) is first and foremost a response to something deeper within us, that started within us as we were being formed in our mothers womb, as we experienced our spiritual rebirth through Baptism, and as we continued to live out that Baptismal Covenant as an adult, and in the moment that something called us to go deeper into ourselves many times what so many call or name a deep longing for something more.
Desire and Disillusion
Sometimes seeking a monastic vocation is a direct result of some kind of disillusionment, say, with an overly detailed and restrictive body found in the “institutional church” whatever that might be for oneself. An institution that demands a certain adherence to doctrine and discipline that we are not always in agreement with. There are other times when this longing comes out of a sense of general dissatisfaction with the status quo or some kind of personal crisis or loss.
The world just does not offer me what it promises, success, money, influence. Something is just not right. It is time to “step out” of these worldly values and seek solitude and aloneness (the root of the Word Monasticism which means to be alone or separate ‘monos’)We are looking for another kind of intimacy, another kind of community that allows us certain freedoms yet at the same time binds and unites us with others.
What are my motives?
The Motives to seek out or find an alternative monastic community are many and are an important part of our journey. It is important to know where and how this longing or desire has come about. Why? Because part of the solution is also in the problem. What has brought me to this point in my life? What satisfies me? What are the things that frustrate me? What am I longing or looking for in a Monastic Community? It is external or internal? What attracts me overall? Critics of New Monasticism say that it is only an excuse to “dress up” like many of the historical game players when reenacting a historical time or period in history, or someone going to a Comic Convention. But we all know that the Habit does not make the Monk. It only confirms to outsiders that this person is a seeker of Holiness and God just like all the rest of us. Some communities like the New Benedictine Community only wear a very simple cross around their neck as a reminder that they belong to a Benedictine Community which serves as a daily reminder of the one who wears it not the one who sees it, to the professed life that they have embraced.
Knocking at the Door
St Benedict has a name for this stage in his Holy Rule. He calls it “knocking”. The rule states, “If one newly arrives to the monastic life, he or she is not to be granted entrance easily, but as the apostle says: ‘Test the spirits if they are from God.” This testing period my be months, or even years before one begins to have a sense of direction. Sometimes it is helpful to have fellow travelers along the way to help you, say a spiritual guide, a mentor, a pastor, or a spiritual director. They can many times help us to frame the questions in the right way. Writing down what our feelings are and our concerns and interests are also a way of clearing our thoughts and getting a hold of what is happening inside of us as we stand at the door of the Monastic Life and “KNOCK”. Knocking comes always with a sense of intrigue, interest, and attraction. These three things are a natural result of coming to the door and knocking. Hopefully when we appear at that door, we have had some experience with Monasticism, either by visiting a Monastery somewhere, or meeting a Monk or a Nun that we respect, or having read the writings of famous Monastic Writers like the Trappist Thomas Merton, Charles Cummings OCSO, Sr. Joanne Chittister OSB, or Esther de Waal. These are some of the more contemporary writers on the Solitary life of Monasticism. They share their journey with others in their writings and help us to clarify what a Monastic Life is about in our times not just as a kind of going back into the past or the dream of better times.
Once we have come to knock on the door of the Monastic Journey, we must begin the long and arduous process of persevering until the end of that journey wherever it takes us. St. Benedict is also very clear about the need for patience when he writes:
“If the newcomer perseveres in knocking and it becomes evident in four or five days that he or she patiently bears the injustices done unto them and the difficulties of entering and persists in requesting entrance, then entrance is to be granted.”
RSB 58 v 3,4.
Anything in our life that is worthwhile usually requires patience, perseverance, and persistence. The journey to Monastic Life requires all three. Why is this so? Because any call is something that comes from outside and inside. It is not just about US, it is about seeking to serve something much greater than ourselves, which we call God and our Neighbor. Monasticism in the end is about “radical discipleship” which finds itself in two seminal elements: surrendering to Christ and rejecting the “world”. Separating ourselves from our surroundings and seeking something greater, that pearl which Christ speaks about found by those who have discovered the Kingdom and are ready to sell everything in order to obtain it. The rule reminds the reader that to enter the Monastery means a drastic change of attitude and change of direction in other words conversion of both mind and heart.
What are some of the basic aspects of the monastic life in a non-traditional setting?
Commitment to Monastic Life outside of a Cloistered Setting requires great maturity and self discipline. In a traditional Monastic Setting there is always the visible element of the surrounding monks and the presence of the Prior or Abbot who must make sure that the Monks behave and act in a manner that is befitting their sacred call and vocation. For secular or dispersed Monks there is a heightened need for self discipline since no one is around to call you to task if you are not fulfilling your vows to live the Vows of Stability and Conversion of Life, and or other vows which might come with your particular setting. Each Monastic Community is different in what they require of their participants, but nearly all of them require this kind of maturity and commitment.
2. Regular Prayer
Prayer is at the Heart of the Monastic way of being and doing. This prayer traditionally makes its self known in the fulfillment of the Monastic Daily Office, or Set times of Prayer during the day with usually Morning and Evening Prayer (Laudes and Vespers) as the backbone of the life of Prayer and Midday Prayer and Night Prayer (sext, none, prime and Compline) as secondary hours of prayer which are shorter. Besides the Daily Office, Lection Divino, Centering Prayer, Daily Spiritual Reading also make up some part of a Monastic Schedule. Each and every Monastic needs to find his or her rhythm of prayer and sustenance. In contemporary times, there are no longer hard and fast rules about What shape prayer needs to take in the life of an individual, though I would say some form of the Daily Office should be at least one aspect of one’s daily practice of Prayer or weekly. As one comes closer and closer to making a commitment to Monastic Living, how one prays becomes an important mark of ones fidelity to a Vocation as a Monk.
3. Independence and Self Reliance.
Independence and Self Reliance, means the ability to make decisions for oneself and to find the time and space to make a commitment to religious life. It means being able to stand by oneself and not need the constant approval or acceptance of others. Living as a secular or dispersed Monastic bring with itself the challenge that others may or may not understand or even support our choices. For many persons “traditional” Monastics are only Monks and Nuns living in Community in close quarters, and with a commitment to celibacy, and this the only Model they will ever accept or understand. As a matter of fact they would say that there is no other way to understand a Monastic Vocation without Celibacy and Communal Living in a Cloister. It is challenging for many to accept this “new” or “alternative” form of Monastic living. What some call the New Monasticism which is really not so new but goes back to the Origins of the Monastic Movement in History. This new form is considered an easy way out by some, or a light form of commitment to God for those who cannot do the “real thing”. New Monastics are not tied to the traditional vows of Celibacy nor living in Close Community with other monks or nuns. When one embraces this Monastic Vocation, there is always a great need for deep commitment, maturity, and decisiveness.
What is amazing is that this new form of Monastic Living is becoming very popular all over the world. A recent Face Book Group called “The Regular Life”, referring to people who live by a Rule, made up of many of these New Monastics has over 200 participants who are actively contemplating or living a Professed or Regular Life in the Church.
In the end, the Monastic Journey and Vocation has always been about the individual who responds to a call to be “alone with the Lord” even when surrounded by others be it family, friends, or a Monastic Community.
4. Sharing a Common Interest with others. (the communal life)
A Monastic is not necessarily a Hermit, or a Solitaire, which means they live totally alone and separate from the rest of the world. In many ways a Monastic is connected to the world in their prayer, study, and service to the world. Many people think that the New Monasticism is a kind of “fleeing from the world”. Sometimes it may look that way. But the opposite is really true. Most “new Monastics” are very much connected not only to the world but to the community they serve including their Local Parishes, Churches and Dioceses. Very few are distanced or separate from what many of us call the “Institutional Church”. Why is this so? Because it is what gives the monastic grounding and stability, which for a Monastic is part of their Rule and Observance, finally their Vows. Every Benedictine Monastic for example commits themselves to a life of Stability in Community. First and foremost the Community they are part of as a Monastic Community be it in our case the “New Benedictine Community.” or some other under some other rule or name. Then they are connected to the “ecclesia” the People of God the Church. Many New Monastic Communities are Ecumenical, because there is so much more that Unites us than Separates us as Christians no matter what our Denomination or Church Name. But that does not take away our obligation to be grounded in the Universal and Historical Church, whatever form that may take.
It is also true that Many involved in the New Monasticism are strongly connected and active in Traditional Cloistered Monastic Communities. They may be Oblates of a Community, or belong to their own Community as dispersed members. They make their annual retreats in and with traditional cloistered communities. Their Spiritual Directors or Mentors are professed Monks or Nuns. In many ways they are more an extension…of the Monastic Cloistered Communities that exist in our midst and are in continuity with their work and Ministry in the World, not in competition with it. It is highly recommended for anyone interested in New Monasticism to be deeply rooted in this historical Monasticism as it has developed over the centuries. Why? Because the form of living is not that far from what traditional Monastics do, day in and day out. For we are branches of the same tree, the same origins, the same movement in history.
5. A heart of Service
Finally, New Monasticism is without power and effect without a Heart of Service. Service is reaching out and offering hospitality to the stranger who comes in our midst, the pilgrim, and the poor fellow traveler who needs our attention and love. We can only know Christ in his own, for he reminds us…When he was hungry we gave him food, when he was thirsty we gave him drink, when in prison, we visited him…and when naked we clothed him. (Gospel of Matthew)
“Monastic tradition often admonishes us to receive all who arrive, with out questioning them at length about their motivations or discussing their worth. It is better to welcome and evil person than to exclude a good one”… says Sister Aquinata Bockman.
Quoting an earlier source she says, “We desire to wash their feet, not discuss their merits.”
Service, is at the root and core of Monastic Spirituality. Since it’s earliest days Monks and Nuns shared their bread with the poor, gave counsel and strength to wayward pilgrims, and served the needs of those fellow travelers in need. “Monastics do not see themselves only as those who give, but as true partners. St Augustine said that ‘You receive a stranger, whose companion you yourself are on the road, because we are all foreign visitors.” Aquinata Bockman
Anyone contemplating a Monastic Vocation would be most helped by looking at these five marks of Monastic Living. These are far from complete or an exhausted list of how one should live. Another Book which takes a good look at Monastic Living from a traditional point of view which I highly recommend and is very much applicable to the “New Monastic” is the Book “Monastic Practices” by Charles Cummings OCSO. Each of us are on a very particular and specific journey. But there are many common elements that bond us all together who have chosen to embrace a Monastic Way of Living and Serving God. As Basil Hume that famous Benedictine latter made Cardinal from England shared about the Monastic Call, “We give ourselves to God in a particular way of life, in a particular place, with particular companions. This is OUR way: in THIS community, with THIS work, with THESE problems, with THESE shortcomings. The inner meaning of our vow of stability is that we embrace life as we find it, knowing that THIS, and not any other is our way to GOD.” Searching for God.