Also on this page:
A(nother) brief introduction to our life;
Early monasticism and St. Benedict’s contribution;
At Holy Cross Abbey, as in every Cistercian monastery, the monks rise long before dawn for the night Office of Vigils, followed by a period of silent prayer. The hours before the morning Office of Lauds and the Mass are given to Scripture and other spiritual reading, personal prayer, and meditation. After the morning’s work and simple noon meal the Meridian provides an hour for rest or reading before Mid-Day Prayer and the afternoon’s work or study. The monks’ day comes to a close with the evening Office of Vespers, a light supper, and a time of quiet before the community’s final prayer together, the Office of Compline. Then, as the monks retire, the silence of the night begins, deepening that stillness they observe throughout the day to provide for each other an environment in which to respond to the living God in prayer, in the Scriptures, and in the ordinary experiences of community life.
The core of monastic life is described by St. Benedict when he speaks of the new-comer: that he “truly seeks God…shows eagerness for the Work of God, for obedience and for trials” (Chapter 58). These few words put the monastic vocation in the context of a Rule and an Abbot, a community of monks and a life centered on prayer, on the realtionship to God. In a very real sense, it is this relationship to God that determines and demands the other components. We cannot build a “privatized” relationship with God; God has created us as part of the human race and God communicates with us through his creatures, through our fellown men and women. St. Benedict’s Rule is one way of interpreting the Gospel for everyday living, a way that guides monks, nuns and lay people. The Abbot, who is himself subject to the Rule, interprets the tradition in the concrete for the community and is required by the Rule to take council from the monks.
Among themselves, the Rule challenges the brothers to obey not only the Abbot but one another; to forgive one another, to listen even to the youngest and most inexperienced monk; to revere the seniors and to love the new comers. No wonder he asks us to be eager for “trials”: none of this is possible without the great trial of displacing self-absorption. But by gradually learning this we are also deepening our relationship with God. Without this “reality check” of daily, mundane interactions with one another, our manual work would only be efficient production–better done in a factory–and our sacred reading would degenerate into the accumulation of information. It is the human context, and challenges, of our life that leave us vulnerable to compunction when we are touched by God’s Word in revelation.
The history pages may also be of interest and are a good supplement to the following outline of St. Benedict’s monastic vision.
ST. BENEDICT AND THE MONASTIC LIFE. The Rule of St. Benedict has become normative for monasticism in the Western Church. Even a monastic Order, like the Carthusians, who do not follow the Rule of St. Benedict, reflect certain parameters (like the alternation of prayer and work) imagined by this Rule.
St. Benedict was born in Nursia (present day Norcia) in Italy around 480 and died at Monte Cassino in 547. Disillusioned as a young student in Rome by the academic life, he fled into the wilderness near Subiaco, east of Rome, to live as a hermit. He was given the habit of a solitary and basic instruction in monastic life by the priest Romanus, rather than submitting to the Abbot Adeodatus who governed a local monastery. Benedict’s self-made eremitical life left something to be desired: he had to be reminded by a local priest when it was Easter Sunday–Benedict has simply lost tract of the time and of the Church’s liturgical life! A life of solitude cannot be an alternative to the Church’s life and discipline but should be at the heart of the Church as an integral member of and a vital influence in the Body of Christ.
Benedict seems to have learned his lesson well. In the final Chapter of his Rule, Chapter 73, he observes that what he offers is only a rule for beginners: “but for anyone hastening on to the perfection of monastic life, there are the teachings of the holy Fathers, the observances of which will lead him to the very heights of perfection.” In particular, he recommends “the Conferences of the Fathers, their Institutes and their Lives; there is also the rule of our holy father Basil.” This presents a very interesting combination. The Conferences and Institutes are taken to refer to the two books so named by John Cassian; “their Lives” may refer to a small library of accounts by Jerome and Athansius. Although the Conferences do contain some material about the cenobitic or communal life, most of Cassian’s accounts–and Jerome’s and Athanasius’-describe the solitary life. And in Chapter One of his Rule, Benedict extols the “anchorites or hermits” as those who (unlike his own early attempt) have been tested by life in community, now “ready with God’s help to grapple single-handed with the vices of the mind and body.” However, what he refers to as “the rule of our holy father Basil”, the ascetical discourses of Basil of Caesarea, describe a purely cenobitic life. Is St. Benedict attempting to fuse both forms of monastic life?
The Desert Fathers: The original form of monastic life was the solitary life, removed from the centers of population and civilization. The goal was to separate the would-be monk from the obligations and distractions of normal secular and ecclesial life; like the martyrs they were to relinquish life as we know it for an orientation to the eschaton, the last days when Christ comes in glory to judge the world and inaugurate the new creation. The ideal was to live rapt in prayer, constantly adoring the creator and meditating on God’s living Word. In this schema, life should be materially simplified and purely provisional, eliminating securities and needs, minimizing dependence on material goods. Work at best was a means to an end.
The solitary life was not the life of a recluse; the anchorite would share his domicile of a few rooms, a walled courtyard (for protection from weather, wild animals and marauders) with a few neophytes learning how to live the monastic discipline from him. Although they would live most of their daily life in the confines of such a “cell”, they’d also meet other solitaries, at least on weekly basis for prayer in common (known as the synaxis) and the eucharist. The more newcomers could take on the day-to-day work, the freer the elder monk could be for uninterrupted prayer. As Cassian himself reported from his tour of the monks in the Egyptian desert, there were opportunities for vain-glorious displays of penance and athletic feats of asceticism which were delusional. From Cassian (and perhaps from his own early experience), Benedict learnt the need for moderation and interiority rather tha outward display.
Cenobitic or Communal Life: Benedict transmitted the values of the early anchorites in terms of obedience (Chapter 5), liturgical prayer (Chapters 8-20), sacred reading (Chapters 48-49), restraint of speech (Chapters 4, 6, 42), cultivation of the virtues and the interior life (Chapter 4 especially) and humility (Chapter 7). From St. Basil he articulated a strategy to bring these values to fruition. Unlike the desert tradition, Basil organized communities near centers of population. His discourses emphasize the need for community members to work together to support themselves and serve one another in charity; to respond to the needs of the local church; to provide hospitality in a more organized way than in the desert (even to the point of caring for the sick from outside the monastic comunity); to meet and discuss organizational and disciplinary concerns with the Abbot who cannot exercise his role in an autonomous fashion.
Basil’s influence on Benedict is clear in Benedict’s perception of work as integral to the community’s life–the famous benedictine ora et labora, that is “prayer and work.” Work is not just a means to an end, a way of supporting the monastic life but part of the benedictine path to God. Consistently, he draws some bold conclusions. Of the cellarer of the monastery he writes: “He will regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar” (Chapter 31). Even on a Sunday, “if anyone is so remiss and indolent that he is unwilling or unable to study or read, he is to be given some work in order that he may not be idle”; or most significantly: “when they live by the labor of their hands, as our fathers and the apostles did, then they are really monks” (both from Chapter 48).
Basil’s thought also impacted Benedict’s admonition to the Abbot to take counsel from the entire community (Chapoter 3). And again, despite the importance of obedience to the Abbot (Chapter 5), the individual who serves the community as Abbot does not know everything and is not expected to be infallible. In fact, “the Lord often reveals what is better to the younger” (chapter 3). The monks themselves are not relieved of the responsibility for their lives, just as they are not relieved of the burden and stress of work. The monk even has the responsibility of informing the Abbot when he is incapable of performing what he has been ordered to do and the Abbot is advised to reconsider his command (Chapter 68).
Rule of the Master: This is a very different conception of monastic life than that described by The Rule of the Master. The Rule of the Master exists as a manuscript rediscovered in the 19th Century; at first it was presumed to be a gloss on the Rule of St. Benedict because they share whole passages. For example, St. Benedict’s Chapter 5 On Obedience would seem to be embedded in the much longer treatment by the Master. Scholars came to appreciate, however, that The Rule of the Master was one of St. Benedict’s sources and what is significant is what he edits out. Unlike the Master’s vision, Benedict’s Abbot is not an autocrat commanding compliance; the Abbot described by the Master is not compelled to reconsider any of his commands but the rank-and-file monk is bound to a literal execution of whatever is asked of him. This emphasis on externals or appearances by the Master is reflected in the composition of the community: there are the elite who fast more and are bound to a stricter silence and have more time for prayer. there is nothing here of St. Benedict’s criteria of work defining the true monk.
Benedictine Discipleship: St. Benedict does not try to fuse two traditions–the solitary and cenobitic–but to inform one by the other. One of his goals would seem to be establishing a flexible discipline (or discipleship) oriented to the concrete business of daily life in community so as to communicate God’s presence and providence through what we can see, know and touch. Nature may be taught in the school of the Lord’s service to be permeated by grace so that we can, indeed, arise from sleep and open our eyes to the deifying light (Prologue).
3. VOCATION INQUIRY.
If you are interested in discerning a monastic vocation at Holy Cross Abbey, please read about our criteria for a candidate under VOCATION. It would also be helpful to you to read through the FAQ’s and to watch the Vocation Video, both under the ABOUT to give you a more detailed sense of our life together. Please give this matter serious thought and prayer; it would be good to talk this over with a trustworthy adviser. If you feel ready to begin an inquiry about discerning a monastic vocation then please fill out our Vocation Inquiry. This form will provide a basis for our opening conversations so we can explore where God is calling you. God bless you and know that you are remembered in the community’s prayers.