(Herein is exhibited further proof that there really is neither rhyme nor reason to these blog postings. If you are looking for some master plan or pattern, my advice is to abandon hope now.)
I have often said that the monastic novitiate is a lot like dating. Not because it might sometimes involve a ’76 Honda Accord with Fleetwood Mac rocking out the cassette player (don’t ask), but because both enterprises are meant to be a protected space for “trying on” the relationship without the pressure of a lifetime commitment.
There are similarities in the first flower of most every human relationship: Sometimes the parties click right away and sometimes there is an awkward, pimply “getting to know you” phase; sometimes it feels like kismet and a perfect fit right from the get-go but then life creeps in and the two parties drift apart (a probable sign that at least one of the parties has ceased working very hard at the relationship). It’s the same deal with becoming a Benedictine. Monasteries are made up of people, not angels. We need to get to know one another before—and after—any particular pledge of devotion is made.
Like dating, there is a certain amount of romantic optimism that is associated with the beginnings of monastic vocation. Just as we can be attracted to the appearance of another person, so we can be drawn to the look of historical monasticism: the robes and habits, the majestic liturgies, the aesthetic appeal of the buildings, the “smell” of something so solid, enduring and ancient, the sheen of holiness that surrounds the whole package.
As relationships mature, though, the glories of those first enchanting encounters will probably fade or fray a bit. Donning the habit—whether a literal or a metaphorical one—can become mere habit. Routine settles in and brings with it a relentless predictability. Not that the beaten path is necessarily a bad thing; familiarity can breed content as well as contempt. A reliable rhythm can serve to take the focus off the sauce of external manifestations and place one’s attention on the meat of internal motivation.
Still in all, there are times when a re-kindling of the romance can be a darned welcome thing. When we go to prayer and find ourselves muttering, “What?!! Psalm 51, again??” or when a Sister steps on our last nerve in the dish room or a Brother pulls out that joke you’ve heard him tell at least fifteen times, it is then that memories of our first breathless encounter with monasticism help us to recall why we wanted the relationship in the first place. An old spark fanned to flame re-warms us for the hard work of daily togetherness and can lead us out of discouraging doldrums.
That is one of the benefits of heightened occasions like our annual community retreat. Putting faces to voices for the first time is always exciting. An almost chemical reaction takes place among us—like atoms bonding together to make something wonderful and new and stronger than the individual particles could ever hope to be. The sensory impact of praying with the other more established Benedictine communities in this locale is undeniable: the seeming effortlessness of trained voices chanting in harmony with one another, the habits, the incense, the accoutrement of the contemplative life… It’s as if we are at summer camp for grown-ups, except that rather than canoeing on Lake Granada, we are swimming in the stream of centuries of monastic tradition. It is invigorating. It should encourage us to strive for greater fidelity to our Benedictine identity. It should not, however, become idealized to the point that it is an idol.
I have lived in and worked around Benedictine monasteries for the majority of my adult years. In that time I have witnessed some of the best of what the life can make of persons. And I have seen what it can become when the relationship is at its worst.[i]
The best in monasticism, as in any Christian walk, has its origin in whatever clings to Christ. This past Sunday’s Gospel (Matt 6:24-34) admonished us believers to put our trust wholly and solely in God. We ought not to get so caught up in the provisions that we forget the Provider; rather, we must “strive first for the reign of God and God’s righteousness” and leave the rest to the One who is ever merciful, ever faithful, ever loving. We are called to absolute fidelity in this relationship. No other attraction—no matter how good or beautiful—should distract us from The Main Thing. As John Wesley so strikingly proclaims in his commentary on Matthew’s passage, “whosoever seeks this first, will soon come to seek this only.”[ii]
When we prefer nothing whatever to Christ (72.11), then we are the truest of whom we were created to be. That is why a woman or man can be a “real” Benedictine with or without a bricks and mortar cloister or a habit or any other of the external symbols of monasticism that have developed over the centuries. It’s not about the edifice of the institution; it’s about the sanctification of the soul.
Saint Benedict did a fine job of mapping a Gospel path. Let us never forget, though, that it is Christ himself who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Love being Benedictine, my Sisters and Brothers, but be in love with the Lord.
Grace be with you,