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History of Religious Life
The Rise and Growth of Western Monasticism: Part 2

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The Institute on Religious Life and the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence of Chicago bring you the a series of lectures given by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J. on the theme The History of Religious Life. Father John Hardon is a Professor of Theology at St. John’s University in New York. He is a well-known lecturer and consultant to many various national, religious and educational enterprises and is renowned as a retreat master and spiritual director. Father Hardon is the author of many articles and books including Holiness in the Church and The Catholic Catechism which has been strongly endorsed by Holy Mother Church. Following is the second part of Father John Hardon’s lecture on the Rise and Growth of Western Monasticism. Father Hardon.

Taciturnity – Silence with a Purpose

Does this foster humility? It sure does; because given that definition of taciturnity – silence with a purpose – it means therefore that if I am, according to Benedict’s norm, a taciturn individual; I will speak when I should, I will say a lot; change the wording – I will talk a lot. Not everyone who talks a lot says a lot. I will talk a lot when that’s the situation, that’s the call. I will say little when little is called for because, humanly speaking, pride wants to manifest itself. In fact, theologically, we distinguish between pride and what we call vanity or vainglory. Pride is an unruly or inordinate esteem of myself. I think I’m better than I am. But human beings naturally are not satisfied with just thinking they are better than they are; they want others to think so too. In order to give people sufficient evidence to go on, to be thoroughly convinced of how important and intelligent and well-traveled – I hear people for example, on a plane - the last time (you can, the whole plane can hear it) – the last time I was in Morocco; (laughter) or I remember distinctly arguing with a dealer in Tel Aviv. So, I was never in Tel Aviv. That makes me less important than the person who had haggled with a dealer in Tel Aviv.

Taciturnity Is a Very Difficult Practice of Humility

The yen to display our excellence is a profoundly human one. Taciturnity controls that desire. This incidentally is the profoundest meaning hidden behind the word that I’m sure we’ve talked on already before (writing of the board) Christ being an infans - didn’t we talk about this? This is to speak; an infant in Latin is defined as one who does not speak – the speechless one. Talking about God teaching us taciturnity! What display He could have made - what an odd word - of His Divine Omniscience. And we who are, to say the least, not omniscient; how anxious and eager we are that people know exactly how smart we are, or how this or that we’ve got. When I see what looks like a steamship that is called an automobile, stretching from stem to stern, who knows how many feet – what would be a long automobile, how long it would be? I’ve never measured one; let’s make it thirty feet. The purpose of all of that steel and chrome is not to transport a human body; it is to display the person in that car. Why do people wear flashy clothes? Why do they pay - I know they do because I walked, by mistake, into a barbershop in New York - I needed a haircut badly. And I was desperate. I couldn’t get to the one that I ordinarily go to so I walked into another one. Then I noticed there was nobody waiting to be haircut so I’ll be served immediately. As soon as I walked in the provider got up, he said, “Father, you’re in the wrong place.” “What do mean I’m in the wrong place? This is a barbershop.” “Well this is no ordinary barbershop. The prices I charge, you don’t want to pay; ten dollars, the lowest price.” Why do people get expensive hairdo’s? Why do people talk about things which they want people to hear except to display themselves. How many times I have admitted in my evening examination of conscience that I had needlessly displayed my knowledge beyond what I was teaching was required. And the more you know, the more you’ve got to keep that thing, back there! In fact I’ve almost found it as a general rule so often, people who have the least seem to be the most anxious to display what little they’ve got. Taciturnity is a very difficult practice of humility. I know. I’ve been working on it for years.

Be Serious and Always in Control

Number ten. Benedict encourages, what do you mean encourages, prescribes of his followers, that they be serious. You know I felt very guilty this morning when I, for about maybe ten seconds, I couldn’t control my laughter. I shouldn’t have said what I did. Remember what we said, there is Peter, (laughter) Peter sinking and the disciples, well, there goes Peter! (laughter) I should have controlled myself. For just a moment, I let go. What Benedict is talking about is not that we don’t laugh, but that we’re always in control. And just then as there is a place and a time for speaking and what we say and how much we say; so there’s a time and place for, well, levity, recreation. No one will grow - this is Benedict’s verdict - in the spiritual life who does not control man’s natural instinct to a levity. Now there are some melancholy characters and you say to yourself, “ I wonder if she ever cracked a smile.” But I found in dealing with such persons, often it’s remarkable - you touch some aspect of their personality and you wouldn’t believe it! It’s as though a reservoir broke loose. There is levity in all of us, a time and a place and a length and a circumstance. When it’s recreation, it’s recreation. When it’s study, it’s study. When it’s prayer, it’s prayer. When it’s work it’s work.

Gravity in One’s Manner of Speaking

Number eleven. You would almost think when reading the Rule of Benedict that he was, well, an enemy of laughter. No. What the eleventh Rule says, gravity in one’s manner of speaking. Now the word gravity in English does not quite bring out what gravitas is in Latin. It doesn’t mean, for example, that the only conversation should be, say, about the four last things, (laughter) that we’re only talking about death, judgment, heaven and hell. It doesn’t mean that we’re only talking about, well, the problems, the crises in human existence. Not that kind of gravity. But outside of times of recreation, which Benedict beautifully provided for, that what we talk about are the things that count. And here we have the word of the Savior Himself. What does our Savior tell us, in so many words, do people talk about, what is on people’s lips? What’s in their mouth what has first been where? In their minds. People who have God on their mind and in their hearts will be interesting people, cheerful people, pleasant people. But they won’t be silly people, they won’t be shallow people. They will be, in the sense in which Benedict understands it, serious people.

12th Step: The Whole Personality Should Reflect True Humility

Finally, and you might say, what else is left? Well, Benedict wanted to make sure so he said, the whole person should reflect humility and of course this is the 12th step. There is a humble way of talking. There is a humble way of walking. There is a humble way of teaching. There is a humble way of learning. I’ve examined too many people especially oral examinations which we subject our scholastics to regularly. And I know after fifty minutes of, say, an hours examination, you’re not quite sure who is the examiner and who is the examinee. Some people can make you actually feel guilty for asking them a question. Watch sales people. Watch airline stewardesses or now stewards, I guess – is that an airline steward - for men? That’s the men’s liberation. Watch people that deal a lot with many people. They know even if they don’t fully believe all the principles we are enunciating that whatever else turns off, say, a customer, it is any sign of arrogance. Right?

How Quick We Are to Judge the Least Manifestation of Pride

There are so many ways – our lives are filled with manifestations of our personality, and how shrewd and perceptive we are where others are concerned – how quick to judge the least manifestation of pride. I just wish and I yet don’t wish that each of us had, every week, just fifteen minutes in private, confidential discourse with someone with whom we live who would tell us exactly for fifteen minutes a week what impression we’ve left in the past seven days – a practice we had in the novitiate, fifteen minutes a week. They were, I needn’t tell you, the hardest fifteen minutes of the week. And this also took place in the Tertianship after Ordination by monitor, (that’s what we call each other) by personal monitor. The fifteen minutes were evenly divided; seven and a half he would tell me what’s wrong with me, and seven and a half what I thought was wrong with him; and the next week we’d alternate. He told me that when I left the chalice at Mass, he watched me because we’d watch each other for a week. Having been on the stage as I told you before I became a Jesuit, I always suspect my motives that maybe I am somehow displaying. But this time I had to tell him, well Paulinus, his name is Paulinus, it may be but keep watching me the next week. I did have an injured hand - the middle finger is totally useless and it does stick out. All I am saying is that we should not, also judge - that’s one reason why I’m telling this story – sometimes people may seem to be vain or proud or displaying and they really are not. In any case, for Benedict, the whole personality should reflect true humility.

You all have your charts, don’t you? You can see why I suggested that we might have a little of Benedict also next time because we’re just on the spiritual combat, on humility. And Benedict deserves all the attention we can give him. Just to see where we are.

Practice Humility of Heart to Preserve Charity in a Community

The main purpose of asceticism - and we dealt with that word I believe the last time - is to train the will. Notice, there’s nothing there about mortification. The most important form of mortification of asceticism is training the will! In other words, restraining the will’s desire to do what the will wants. For Benedict, this is the goal of the religious life – what he called purity of heart. And we can say that because the only lesson that Our Lord told us to learn from Him, remember, was humility of heart. There was a purpose, however, in Benedict’s mind for practicing humility of heart. That purpose is mainly to preserve charity in a community. On one occasion, depending on whom I’ve spoken to along these lines, an hours’ conference on charity and humility: You cannot practice charity without practicing a lot of humility. To love others, you’ve got to be willing to take it and take it and keep taking it.

Asceticism as a Form of Mortification

Asceticism, of course, may be spoken of as a form of mortification. That’s true. But for Benedict there are two things that need to be mortified because there are two parts of us that are fallen. When we speak of human nature being fallen I suppose we commonly but inadequately identify the fallen human nature with our flesh; and the body can sure cause us all kinds of embarrassing trouble. But it is our nature which is fallen, not just our body. We have a fallen human spirit. Do you hear that? We have a fallen human soul. Our minds and wills are not what they would have been had mankind not sinned at the beginning of its history. Both, therefore, the mind and the will and not just the body need to be mortified. And for Benedict and this was if not an innovation, a major development in Benedictine spirituality.

Practice Asceticism of Our Wills by Giving in to Others

The early monasticism of Pachomius and Paul and Antony and the others so stressed the mortification of the body and I think having read Antony, would you agree? You can’t fault Antony for not being mortified especially in his body. But Benedict discovered – what a blessed discovery – that between the body and the spirit, both need to be mortified. Asceticism should be practiced by both - but between the two - the one that needs mortification more is the spirit. That is the main reason now, you might say, why don’t you put it on a higher level? Well, I could but in this context, this is the level that we’re talking about. This, in Benedict’s mind, is the function of a Community: To enable us to practice that asceticism of our wills by giving in to others, by seeing the finest piece of cake – there it goes! Somebody just took it. Or how many times I’ve gone - we have a common draw room? - do you have that? A room where certain things you have to ask for special permission; other things, that well, for example, stationary, just go in, take as much as we need. Also things you have no more use for, you can leave there. I haven’t even told my Superiors and they wouldn’t want to hear. But I thought I’d save a little money. I tried to buy things in New York thrift shops. You know what they are? They are second hand places where you buy things. These shoes, I’m sorry to admit, I bought new. But I needed a pair of shoes so I went to a thrift shop and I bought myself for ten dollars, a real bargain, a beautiful pair of shoes. I was so enamored of their beauty. I put them on and I thought they’d fit – they didn’t. So, I came home and wore them for a couple of days, but I could hardly walk. In thrift shop, you never return anything. So these are the things we can do, so I left them for somebody whose feet were a little smaller than mine. And when I get back on Tuesday, I’m going to find out if one of my confreres picked them up. I’m sure he did. Things that you look for that you don’t find. Things you expect, you don’t get. That’s Community life – is a life of humility.

Asceticism of the Mind

But also and with emphasis, it is not only in things material; but in things spiritual: Asceticism of the mind; of practicing, for our purpose here, the kind of mortification that is the next step after humility. We have an inveterate desire to know. We have a strong urge to learn. It’s God-given: listening to youngsters asking their mothers, you name it what questions. We want to learn. But as we go through life and I’ve taught minds most of my life – a very difficult faculty to control is the curiosity of the mind: That we practice self-discipline. There are many things we don’t have to read; things we don’t have to know, we don’t have to learn. How much happier all of us would be if many things that are now on our minds were not there. Asceticism of the mind – what you read, what you study and only as long as you need to, no more; what I don’t have to know, don’t learn. And for one who is in the academic life, that’s not an easy statement to make.

Asceticism of the Will

So asceticism of the will, and this is to make sure that whatever we desire, God desires. There are two wills struggling for mastery in this world – the Divine Will and the human will. We are as good religious, we are living as strong a spiritual life as we always first find out what does God want? If He wants it, though I don’t like it – I want it too. If He doesn’t want it no matter how I may like it – what an asceticism of the will that is! But she’s so nice, she does me so much good! Yes, but is she really good for me on the level of my spiritual life? If she isn’t or he isn’t, I, if I’ve fallen into love, I fall out of love: Much more difficult, by the way, than falling into love.

Poverty of Dispossession and Dependence

Poverty: the spiritual combat that we have, when we’re talking about the combat, the struggle we have in all of us – the poverty of dispossession and dependence. The Benedictine tradition has given us what we’ve touched on before and will come to time and again. The Church’s tradition until very modern times has been poverty, not only of dependence on Superiors, but poverty of dispossession: that you give up. You don’t just cease to own; (pardon me) you don’t just cease to use things independently. You cease to own! In a religious community and all religious congregations as I’ve think we’ve explained have what is called a simple vow of poverty which does not require the dispossession of what a person has.

You Just Do Not Depend – You Give up

In the Benedictine tradition monastic spirituality you don’t just depend; you give up. All I know as one who belongs to an Order where this is one of the conditions – it does something big to you. Once you take your last vows, you know you don’t have a cent in the world and you’ve vowed yourself never to own anything. Bill called me up last night. He said, “Father, I think my dad’s clothes will fit you.” “Bring them over.” So, he brought them over this morning. I’ve just acquired two new coats. And I’m happy to say this is Father Burns’ cassock (laughter) after he passed away. I want to tell you something. That’s why I’m saying this. And may God forgive me if there’s the least tinge of self-satisfaction in what I’m saying. This spiritual life is real! And once you believe it, you live it.

Many Religious Communities Are too Wealthy for Their Own Good

Poverty, therefore in the monastic tradition is dispossession – that I give up and that I act in such a way that I don’t claim ownership. And this is even in communities where you may own. There is such a thing as owning but not claiming ownership. Or, as I think I mentioned, and we’ll talk about this when we deal with the Second Vatican Council. The Church now strongly recommends and I’m hoping that within the next decade or so by the new time of the Code coming up that there will be provisions in all Constitutions for legislating the poverty of dispossession. Many religious communities have become too wealthy for their own good. I mean it. I would not dare identify the Community. And Mother Teresa, after she had made a trip in the Midwest and we were together that last time before she went back to India, in New York she said, “Father, will you somehow get the message across; when I saw those beautiful grounds such as few even rich people could afford, I asked myself, “Who is that for?” None of us wants to live in squalor but you know the property, for example, that some communities own. No wonder the Federal Government is putting more and more pressure – a thousand, fifteen hundred acres I know. All we’ve got is one Motherhouse, that’s all. And all this beautiful acreage as far as the eye can reach. What for?” That’s why there was a St. Bernard. Because by the time of Bernard there were Benedictine monasteries that were not living up to what Benedict wanted his followers to practice.

Two Supernatural Means to Preserve Chastity: Eucharist and Prayer

St. Benedict simply assumed that those who entered the religious life were going to live a life of chastity. Over the centuries, since Benedict, not all religious communities require virginity as a condition for admission. There are some, however, who do. In other words, we should distinguish between virginity and chastity, as is obvious, by saying that by virginity is keeping one’s or having kept one’s body preserved from any carnal intercourse. For Benedict, as for the Church ever since, chastity does not mean, merely, the abstention from sexual experience. It is that, indeed, but always motivated by the love of God and the imitation of Christ. What I wish especially to stress because the Rule of St. Benedict is so explicit about it; the ascetical means, which I dare say, are being widely neglected. Chastity can be kept provided one prays and practices asceticism. The two supernatural means for preserving one’s chastity, in the Benedictine Tradition and, as I say now in the Church as large, are the Eucharist and prayer. It is impossible to live a life of chastity without frequent reception of the Virginal Christ in Communion. We must receive His Body into our body to preserve ourselves chaste: And prayer, not only an asking for the gift – but in that humble dependence on God, which is the main purpose of prayer. Because as I’ve said so many times in different ways: “Only humble people are chaste. Pride is always unchaste.” I have yet to have that statement contradicted. And anyone who has trouble with chastity should first look to his or her humility. And the surest sign of the humble person is one who humbly, frequently has recourse to God. GOD HELP ME – the most important three syllables in the human language.

Ascetical Means

Besides the supernatural means, there are the ascetical means for mortifying the body. Benedict, as you gather from his Rule and just compare it with, again Antony or some of the titans of asceticism that preceded Antony. He did want his followers to have adequate food and sleep, but not too much. A very important insight that Benedict had; not to so mortify the body in, say, lack of food or sleep - as to and you may never have heard this, but this is a good ascetical principle – lest the body seek sexual compensation. It’s remarkable!

Unless we are meant to mortify ourselves in body by depriving the body of food and sleep, I mean unless we have the grace to live that kind of a mortified life; a person risks the body seeking satisfaction in other ways, because there is a definite satisfaction for the body in food and sleep and drink. Who doubts it? And the body is a demanding part of our personality. What it doesn’t get in one way, it’s liable to demand in another way; which reflects the balance of Benedict, you see? Don’t think that if you eat less until you’re starving that you will necessarily, necessarily control the sex appetite. It might be just the opposite. Makes sense, doesn’t it, given the kind of religious life that he was talking about.

Modesty – the Virtue of Chastity in Externals

He suggested, also, the practice of modesty. Now modesty, as we know, is the virtue of chastity in externals. The way I dress, the way I walk, the things I look at; even speech – a garrulous tongue is a temptation to the demon of sex.

Benedict was anathema to idleness. And the Rule, as you know, provides every hour and every minute of every hour are somehow provided for. Also, to learn from experience that certain things that I know excite me or arouse me. Maybe someone else can get away with it; I can’t. And as you read Benedictine literature on the subject of chastity, you see the wise counsels that people were given where some, for example, needed to practice either extra mortification or not be exposed to certain stimuli; or others could take them or leave them with no difficulty. So much for poverty.

Benedict’s Vision of Obedience

Something on Benedict’s vision of obedience. For Benedict, although the obedience that a monk or a nun was to practice was, of course, ultimately determined by the Abbot or the Abbess. Nevertheless, the obedience that Benedict was talking about was not only, you might say, the verbal prescriptions of Rule – it is that Rule interpreted by the Community. Moreover, Benedict provided, as we know, for Chapters at which (if you recall) he encouraged even the youngest to speak up and not to have the older ones forbid the younger ones to talk. What do they know? They may lack the experience, but they may have the Holy Spirit! In any case, this was quite different from the concept of obedience, which was almost strictly vertical, from the top down. Take in Pachomius, he was, of course the Abbot of a number of monasteries and, before he died, of several thousand monks. For all practical purposes the Abbot was the Rule; what he said was what everyone had to do. What Benedict did was to draw on much experience and the Rule was being constantly, as it were, reinterpreted or adapted from Chapter after Chapter. In fact, we now canonically speak of a Chapter as that meets only one that’s every four or six years, right? What is it in your Community, Sister? Six years? Five. Four. Four? Four, five, six years whereas originally, now we have more than the vestiges of it because a Chapter is normative, isn’t it? We see as the highest legislative body in the Community. But what is now only a very periodic foregathering of chosen delegates was a regular meeting of the members of a Community. That’s how the notion of the Chapter started.

Active Life Divided between Spiritual Combat and Apostolate

Now there was input – you notice the difference – there was input from the members although always the Abbot reserved to himself the final decision. This is the active life, and who would doubt it takes a lifetime activity. By the way, I would like to see our vocabulary gradually change in even drafting our Constitutions to not so separate. Now (writing on the board) as our spiritual life as somehow divided between the contemplative and the active as though the active were uniquely identified with the apostolate. Isn’t that pretty much the popular notion nowadays? Look at your charts. How is the active life divided? Between spiritual combat and the apostolate. In other words, what has happened, and this is one reason why the religious life has run into such deep water and has run into so many problems. We’ve got the degree of not a few, well I would say, shiftings and changes that are not valid. To identify the active life exclusively with the apostolate is wrong. Ok? As though somehow by cutting that off and just praying and working in the apostolate, you’re going to be good religious. My dear friends, it won’t work. Because we’ve got to struggle! Right? With who? With the world, the flesh and ourselves. This is romanticism. This is tempting God. As I do my part and I say my prayers, God owes it to me to take care of it. No! Takes the business of humility. Suppose a person has not – as we gone through elaborate length to describe the struggle to grow in humility. No matter: we’ve got in one of our provinces in one year, one of the smallest; we lost six PhD’s in one year; the year they got their Doctorate, they left the Order. How convenient! You get a fifty thousand dollar education and then you, you leave the Order.

Unless a Person Works on Humility – God Will Not Work Miracles

Unless a person works among on other things, on humility; God won’t work miracles. And they still talk about the apostolate. What kind of apostolate? The apostolate of self-fulfillment, all right? Let’s make sure that we don’t exclude from that active life that which is so primary because we do have – God knows it, by now we know – we’ve got a fallen human nature with all kinds of weaknesses and stupid desires and passions that need control. So we’re still on the active life in spiritual combat.

Stability – a Great Preservative of Obedience

Stability as perseverance: Benedict legislated this and this is one of his many great contributions to religious life. He saw all kind of wandering hermits traveling, you name it where and as a result they lost their spiritual vitality. I went to the trouble of finding out in the Rule of Pachomius – Rule 36 and Rule 175 warned the monks and the nuns about traveling. Stay put! And the Rule of St. Basil, Rule 36 – stay put! But Benedict wrote it right in the Constitutions. He didn’t just make a Rule out of it. He made a Law out of it. How this has, and a thousand and more years since Benedict, created all kinds of questions; but the basic idea is that a person who remains in one place perseveres in obedience to that Superior. Because, as he found out, the main reason why monks and nuns want to travel, go elsewhere – is not a change of climate or it could be, provedly, better for their health. They just found obedience, where they were, too hard. In other words, stability, in Benedict’s mind, is a great preservative of obedience. And so if religious, for example, as I have by now have so much experience transferring communities. They want to become contemplatives, cloistered contemplatives, which there are such vocations. Person in a more active community may well have a genuine vocation to a contemplative community – all quite understandable. But maybe it’s not that rare occasion of having a special vocation to live one way of life and join another community. The feeling may be, well, I may not find the demands of obedience so hard. As one Trappist monk who identified himself years ago in a clerical magazine; I’ve never forgotten it. He left, as he said, one community to join another one. He joined a much more severe community. It was the Trappists; less food restrictions on diet, all kinds of limitations. But, he said, “Take it from a man who has made the change. Give me bodily mortification” he said, “any day.” This is the way he put it; it’s a man’s way of expressing himself. “It was not,” he said, “tightening the belt around my stomach; is what I didn’t like the tight band around my head.” He left which was actually a more strict community because the obedience, because the obedience was more demanding. And everybody thought he was, well, a hero of virtue because he took on himself the severe austerity of the Trappists. “No”, he said, “it’s easier.” That’s good to hear.

Obedience Ensures a Person’s Growth in Sanctity

In any case, for Benedict, unlike the monasticism before him, he was not hard on the body but he sure was hard on the spirit. And, for Benedict, this was centuries before Ignatius. It was obedience, obedience that ensures a person’s growth in sanctity.

This concludes the second part of Father John A. Hardon’s lecture on The Rise and Growth of Western Monasticism. The third part of this lecture will be found on the next tape.

Conference transcription from a talk that Father Hardon gave to the
Institute on Religious Life

Institute on Religious Life, Inc.
P.O. Box 410007
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Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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