Monastic Practices Customs

Monastic Practices  Customs

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“There is a monastic way of doing things, a monastic way of living, that may seem strange at first because the reasons underlying it are not immediately evident.” 

My first long stay in a Monastery was in St. Otillien, in Bavaria.  It is one of the largest Benedictine houses in the world with monks from all over the world since they were from their origin Benedictine Missionaries.  They have planted Monasteries in nearly every Continent. 

There are many things to get used to that does not happen in the outside world.  First and fore-most it is a community of all men.  There are very few women seen in the Monastery.  This was not so difficult for me since I had spent seven years in a Roman Seminary with all men.  Many monks have women friends.  Most of the monks are not “anti women” by any means .  But the community rule obliges them to socialize and live with people of the same gender.  Men of course socialize differently anyways, so there is a kind of “male bonding” that is consistent in monastic settings,  and perhaps only perceivable by someone of the same sex.  It is a kind of unwritten familiarity among the brothers. 

The Second is Silence.  In a world where we are used to express ourselves freely and openly at any moment or whim.  In the Monastery Silence is the order of the day.  The Grand Silence (die Große Stille) begins every night after Compline where no one is allowed to speak.  It ends with early morning prayers where the first thing that comes from the mouth of every monk is “O Lord Open my Lips, and my Mouth shall proclaim your praise.”   Besides the grand silence, there is the normal silence of the monastery.  Meals are eaten normally in Silence with special days set aside for talking at meals which usually falls on a special Feast Day of the Church.  In hall ways monks speak always briefly to each other and in a lower voice, nearly a whisper.  Almost all of the day in the Monastery is spent in Silence except at work where one may be required to talk for example if you are a teacher, or work on the farm, or have to have contact with visitors.

The third is cordiality and kindness.  This is perhaps the greatest of characteristics that most monastics have and share all over the world.  It may be a smile, it may be a warm handshake, it may be that they hear or listen before they speak, which is the opposite of most of our cultures. 

There is a “monastic demeanor”, that gives clear evidence of the fact that they are disciples of Jesus, followers of the Lord, disciples in the school of Service.  It is this gentleness that I believe is most attractive.  Perhaps the best example is the greatest known Monk in the world, the Dalai Lama.  Yes, there are grumpy Monks.  I have met quite a few in Germany.  But I am not sure how much of that is German, and how much of that is a Monk gone sour. 

The fourth is repetitiveness. 

“Monastic culture,” says Cummings “is based on fidelity to traditional customs.”

There are certain givens in nearly every Monastic Community no matter what the origin or founding. 

Part of it is due to the Communal nature of Monasticism, though there are communities that also have Hermits or spaces for total solitude. 

Our author sets aside some very specific customs that are pretty much universal to Most monastic communities.

The Angeles or Prayers to the Mother of God (Mary)

Self Reflection (Examine of Conscience)

Community Meals (at least two meals daily shared together in Silence)

Daily Eucharist and the Daily Office (3-7 times prayed daily and in community)

Chores (Dish Washing and Communal work or Labor)

For a Monastic who is secular or lives not in a Cloistered setting there are still many monastic customs that are carried over into ones daily routine.  Perhaps you can see the correlation between traditional Monastic living and Secular Monastics.  I can share with you at least what my Customs are as a person who lives with spouse, dog and cat.  We are four in our community. 

My personal Monastic Customs

I Set aside prayer time 3-6 times a day depending on my schedule. I spend one day a week as sabbath and retreat.

I do Regular exercise.  (I walk an hour every morning)

and try to swim at least once or twice a week.

I ride my bike daily as the preferred form of transportation.

I participate in or celebrate a Midweek Eucharist (at least once a week besides Sunday)

I eat “Real Meals”, three times a day (preparing and eating healthy and enjoyable meals sitting down without television or disruptions either alone or with one’s spouse or partner.)

I never miss a coffee or tea break in the mid-late afternoon.

I do Regular House cleaning and chores.  Maintaining order and decency and decorum in the house. 

I find Time for daily reflection, Spiritual Reading, Journal writing, and some Centering Prayer.

I have very limited television viewing (usually not more than an hour or a special program a day or none at all.)   

I would guess that nearly everyone does some of these things in their own homes and with frequency.  But the question is not so much what one does as to how one does it.  Repetitiveness and Daily Order are the Monastic Values are behind all of these Customs practiced in the Monastic Life. 

“Monastic Customs bring order and design into life.” says Cummings.  The challenge for people like myself who choses to live Monastically but in an independent setting is to adapt the many customs that exist in a traditional Monastic setting to my own very specific circumstance. 

(pets, family, work)  I would guess if you asked most Monastics who are living the lifestyle that I live they would concur with many of the above mentioned “customs” that I practice at home. 

We live in a day and age when people no longer or seldom eat together, they seldom prepare their own food, they watch massive amounts of television programs, or have the television blaring unceasingly during the day, they run from one commitment to the other with little time in between, and they never spend time ALONE or in SILENCE.    Much of my day as a parish priest is spent alone and in silence.  There are times when the aloneness feels like loneliness.  It is important to distinguish the difference.  My daily routine and customs keep me grounded which is the best part of the Monastic Practices. 

“With time”,  …Cummings reminds his readers,

“when I accept the rhythm of customary behavior and begin to flow with it, I experience the power it has to quiet the surface level of my life, so that it can be more aware of the spiritual goal and purpose underlying all that I do.” 

I really love my yearly dose of “traditional monastic customs” once a year when I visit my monastic communities in Germany.  They help to fortify my own customs at home,  and give them credibility and affirmation.  I also always come home with some new monastic recipes to try out.  Today since it is the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul the two great Apostles, here with the Jerusalem Community in Cologne.  My take away, (new experience) was a lovely dry german white wine from the Rhein Land during lunch, for dessert,  a rich creamy yogurt topped with fresh picked raspberries, followed by a coffee hour with the brothers of the community (where we could talk) and a woman visitor from Strasbourg who joined us for lunch, with chocolates and Marzipan.  Can it get any better? 

Pax Benedictina+

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