A Monk without walls!
Living a monastic life outside the walls of a traditional monastery.
‘There are clearly four kinds of monastics. First, there are the cenobites, that is to say, those who belong to a monastery, where they serve under a rule and an abbot or prioress.” chapter 1 RB
All of us know the rule is very clear about Benedict’s abhorrence of Monks living outside or leaving the Monastery setting. The worst for him are the sarabaites, and the gyrovagues, who are either “do it on your own” monks , or wandering monks from monastery to monastery. At the same time Benedict has a great amount of respect for the anchorites, or Hermits who are perhaps the most respected and most mature of all the monastic breeds that he describes in his holy rule.
If St. Benedict were to learn of the “new monastic movement” of this contemporary age, he would probably also be sceptic and doubtful or at least somewhat critical of “new monastcicism”, primarily because every monk or monastic needs to follow the essential vows of stability, conversion of life, and obedience. Without following these three vows a true Benedictine is anything but Benedictine.
In my case I have lived a Monastic Life without walls for more than 6 years and now am in Life Vows with the New Benedictine Community, a dispersed community with members and simpathizers in the USA, Europe and now Mexico and Latin America. I am far from an expert on Monastic or Benedictine life, but in these last years I have read as many if not more books on the Rule of Benedict and on Monastic Practices than any other monk who would be in my place but inside a monastic enclosure. It is thus that I would like to make a case for Monastic life outside the closure that still is in the spirit of Benedictine Monasticism and is also part of the continuity of Monastic practices that go back to their roots with the Desert fathers and mothers in the second and third centuries.
- A Monk or a Nun without walls.
We all know that Monasticism in its inception was not communal in the strict sense but individual. Monasticism since its beginning was a call to step outside the bustling communities into a single and solitary form of life, sometimes in union with other monastics and other times totally in isolation. The need for community according to St. Benedict was for accountability and support in the monastic way of life. Yet in the end, every monastic is on his or her own sacred path to the Sacred. The Monastery is the “setting” but the walk is always “solitary”. Thomas Merton is the perfect example of a contemporary monk who knew that he needed some kind or form of hermetical life (solitary or alone) in order to be true to his call as a Monastic.
It is with this in mind that I believe more and more people are being called to a Monastic existence but outside the walls of traditional Monasticism.
2. Competive or Complimentary?
Living a Monastic existence outside the traditional monastery setting which is “new” or some might say “old” form of Monastic life, is far from competitive with the “traditional” form of Monastic existence.
In my experience my form of living the Monastic call is more an extension of traditional Monastic life. I am firmly grounded in my own Benedictine Community of other monastics who live the same style of monasticism as myself and besides I am also grounded in my close relationship with a Traditional Monastic Community in Germany of 120 monks where I spend at least 3 weeks a year living, praying, and communing with Benedictines who are on the same path of solitude as myself. At no time am I ever separated from Community nor from Communal life, though living outside its walls.
3. Why not live “in community” in a traditional setting?
I am one of many people living in contemporary society who cannot afford the luxury of living in a Monastic Enclosure for many reasons. For some it is because they are not called to live a Celibate life or are in a vowed relationship with another person to whom they must remain faithful, for others they cannot leave family or professional commitments to join an enclosed community because they depend upon a fixed income received from their professional life. For others this contemporary form of living a monastic existence permits some freedom or leeway to exercise other gifts or talents that they would not be able to exercise living in an enclosed community. There are many reasons why a person in this day and age would not be able to make a public commitment to an enclosed monastic life. I would like to add, some people are called to be a Monastic without walls or an enclosure. The evidence of this is found in the many new monastic communities developing and growing up in the world who fit this exact description. They are intentional communities grounded in Monastic life and practices without communal property or communal living in fixed places.
4. Living with tension.
A Monastic living outside an enclosure is a life of living constantly with the tensions that surround any monastic in these days and times. The “world” currently run by apps, computers, cell phones, and information is constantly encroaching upon monastic existence either outside or inside the monastic enclosure. Being a Monastic in this day and age requires a great amount of maturity, discipline, and organization of time no matter where one lives. The Monastic enclosure is a space that must be constantly defended at all cost. For persons like myself, my home and my oratory is my enclosure. Within this enclosure I must guarantee that there is space, time, and availability to comply with the Monastic Practices that all Benedictines comply with in their daily setting; The Monastic Office (3-5 times a day, Lectio Divino, Meditation, Work and Service, and Meals). For traditional Monks and Nuns, these practices are already “ingrained” in the daily routine of the community and there is little room for negotiation. For those of us outside the traditional enclosure we must constantly work at creating and living within a “system” designed to comply with our other commitments and responsibilities. This is far from easy yet at the same time far from impossible. In my case I am able to organize my daily schedule to include praying the office 3-4 times a day, regular celebration of the Holy Eucharist, one day a week set aside for retreat and Lectio, and regular weekly hours for community service. Each monastic living outside a closure must find their own specific way to fit in the traditional monastic practices of Benedictine Monasticism.
5. Where is my Community?
For many a Monastic who chooses to accept the call to Monastic life outside the walls of an enclosure, we tend to find more than one community that sustains us and keeps us in balance as compared to the only community that sustains a traditional monk or nun in a monastic enclosure. In my case I have my Dominical Community which is the parish which I belong to where I celebrate weekly the Holy Eucharist, (many traditional Monks too must work on Sundays to sustain particular parishes as a form of income for their communities). I have a community where I celebrate the liturgy midday three times a week in front of my living quarters where I interact with members of this local community and people who show up for the midday liturgy based on the Liturgy celebrated by the Jerusalem Community in Europe. I have the community where I volunteer regularly every week where I gather with other volunteers to practice hospitality in a house for LGTBQ+ elderly and drop in center called Laetus Vitae in Mexico City. Here we offer free medical, psychological, and spiritual services to those who come to our doors every week seeking assistance or help. My Monastic Community gathers weekly online for the Daily Office which keep me in close contact with members of our Benedictine Community from week to week. We also have monthly Chapter meetings and yearly Retreats where we gather physically in a monastic setting to organize our communal life and just be together physically for a few days a year.
So as one can see, a “non-traditional” monastic must look for various communities that fill the place of that one and only traditional monastic enclosure.
Besides as stated earlier, every year I spend three weeks to a month living and praying and communing with a traditional Benedictine community in Germany where I also pray daily with them online the Monastic Offices from Laudes to Compline.
6. The Utopian Monastery
No Monastic will admit to there being a Utopian form of Monastic Life. There is no Utopian Monastery. Every community like every family struggles with its issues of growth and development. Some communities are healthier than others. Some communities struggle to keep their doors open and their numbers up. The monastic way is a way that some and probably few are called to follow. The good news is that there are now new models that are available to those who want to walk seriously this solitary walk of Christian living. For those called to this way or form of life it is life giving and constantly unfolding. The longer one continues on this journey, the deeper the joy, the deeper the commitment.
I would invite anyone reading this article to perhaps ask themselves what form of Christian living they may be called to. As a child I once saw a television program on Public Television about a Priest and Monk who was living his monastic existence outside of the Monastery. He would awake early every morning to pray, to practice meditation and yoga and work with the poor in the inner city. He fulfilled all of the requisites of living a full monastic life even if it was very different from his fellow monks living in the Monastery. As a child I was fascinated with the idea of a Monk who lived “in the world” but who was not “of the world”. He was able to maintain that delicate balance of fulfilling his call to be both monk and professional, both solitary and communal. To this day it is the model that I myself try to imitate if even so imperfect. It continues to be the grounding of my existence and the call that I try to follow day in and day out.
Pater Vincent osb