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History of Religious Life
The Rise and Growth of Western Monasticism: Part 3

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

One last word on this business of stability, not to change monasteries. As you know in the Benedictine tradition when a monk takes his vows in an Abbey he vows obedience to the superior of that monastery. For example, in Hungary the Communists suppressed all the monastic houses. Yet in spending some time with a Benedictine monk from Hungary, I asked him who is his superior. He said, “He is somewhere in Hungary and he is my superior." Which creates problems, doesn't it? The Holy See is making provisions. But the monastery is the one to which I bind myself till death. And for centuries it meant not even physical mobility. Then over the years it has been interpreted especially by the women's communities as practicing what we call even the strictest papal cloister.

But Benedict in the context of talking about stability warned his followers against what is called acedia. There is almost no English translation for it. The nearest approximation is boredom. This, he said, along with chaffing under obedience is the second and most popular reason why religious want to move, they want a change. Now you might say: Isn't that legitimate? Yes except when you are talking about sanctity. And this is the presumption: If a person has a vocation to this way of life then it is a vocation to cope with that demon of change, that I will find ways of changing my phantasm not so much by seeing different scenery but by thinking different thoughts. All boredom is psychological. The secret is to have a change of mental climate.

Now of course you've heard this cynical definition of work: Work is that which a person would rather not be doing if they could be doing something else. By that standard many people are bored to death with what they are doing.

Benedict assumes that a religious likes to do what they are doing. And if boredom still steps in, change your thought patterns. Even prayer. I've found out that not a few people pray in the same way. What's your particular examen? How long have you had it? Ten years. No wonder you're bored. You must have other defects. Just to find out what different things are wrong with us is fascinating. It will also be challenging.

Finally, work. The motto of St. Benedict was Ora et Labora, which are imperative moods: pray and labor, and in that order. But while he said pray first and then labor next he didn't mean just pray. What is more important, to commune with God or to commune with human beings? To commune with God. No question about it, except that part of God's will is that we commune with human beings. I would say the hardest work for a religious, and that's apart from any physical labor you may have to exert yourselves on, is just to live with other people. That's work. It requires infinite ingenuity.

It is well to know, and Benedict never had any mistaken notions about this, there are those who have claimed that had men not fallen they would have not had to work; they envision paradise as a place where you don't work. Not so. Even in Genesis didn't Adam somehow till the soil before he fell? The duty to work is not a consequence of the fall. I like that passage in Proverbs: Man is born to labor and the bird is born to fly - avis ad volatum, homo ad laborem. Fancy a bird who can't fly; he'd be in real trouble. But there is something about work and man's fallen nature - not that fundamental duty to work; we would be expected to work and work out our salvation - but because of our fallen human nature work has now become rough, fatiguing, tiring, unpalatable and even if it is not that hard, boring.

The secret therefore of imitating Christ, Benedict lays the ground work, Francis developed it very much, is to recognize that when God became man He became a human being like all of us except for sin and we've got it in the gospels He was reputed to be the Son of a workingman, which means Christ Himself was a workingman; that therefore work is noble, work is dignified; and that we become more like God when we work even as Christ worked as Man. Because that too is a mark of humility. Only God does not have to exert Himself to achieve what He wants. What's the difference between God and us in terms of achievement? God wills it and it is. I need not say that's not us. We will something otherwise we don't even start, but then we must work. We admit therefore our need to exert ourselves in order to achieve what God wants us to do.

Finally, as you recall in the book of Genesis, and this is in the Benedictine tradition, what did God do on the seventh day? Symbolically speaking He rested. What is the implication of that seventh day? We are supposed to commemorate each Sunday, partially as a day of rest, to recall the fact that God created the world symbolically speaking in six days. But God worked for His six days. Whose day is the seventh? Ours. God did His, we are to do ours. We are now in the seventh day of the universe where God tells us: "Now it's your turn."

So much on the spiritual combat of the active life. The spiritual combat is Benedict's great masterful contribution to the spiritual life.

The apostolate is of two kinds: the apostolate of holiness and the apostolate of service. What's the difference? Both are forms of the apostolate. Do the Carthusian monks or nuns that do no active work outside of their respective monasteries, are they practicing the apostolic life? Yes. How are they doing it? It is the apostolate of holiness through virtue. The prayer of the holy person wins many souls to God. Through the liturgy. A great saint, Lawrence, on one occasion observed that the world would long ago have been destroyed for its sins except for the Sacrifices of the Mass that are being offered throughout the world. The Mass is apostolic. The best thing in the world that you can do for a sinner is to pray for them. And the apostolate of witness: not merely being holy but behaving in a holy way. Then what is most obvious is the apostolate of service.

St. Benedict did not institute, because they already existed, but he did develop the idea of religious conducting schools. And as we also know some of the great missionaries of the early Church were Benedictine monks: Ansgar, Boniface, Columban. Benedict assumed that his monasteries as monasteries would become means of evangelization. Ireland for centuries had Benedictine monks traveling all over the then known world establishing monasteries in distant outposts that nobody had ever been in and right in the midst of paganism. Often they were martyred and the faith would spread. So evangelization.

And of course the liturgical movement. The Benedictines have been over the centuries outstanding for their devotion to the liturgy. The daily order had to conform to the liturgy of the Hours; whatever else the person was doing had to be left, to say that Hour of the Divine Office. So everything - sleep, meals, work took second place, primary is especially the Divine Office.

Now the contemplative life. Much of this we have already touched on. There was never any doubt in Benedict that the primary purpose of the religious life is to pray. Any religious who has any other idea is in the wrong place. The primary purpose of the religious life is to pray. Now there are ways and ways of praying; as Christ tells us, we are to pray always. Unquestionably, first prayer.

Secondly, what is called the lectio divina, which literally means divine reading, but more properly means reading the Bible and biblical commentaries. For centuries the Benedictine monks, those who were capable of doing it and had a good hand, their job for a lifetime was to transcribe the Bible. That's how the Bible was kept in tact. Thousands of manuscripts which took years to produce, what a labor of love! Isn't that a tribute to the faith! Except for the thousand years of Benedictine monasteries the Protestants wouldn't even know there was a Bible. So reading the Bible, transcribing the Bible, and all the homilies by the great masters of monastic spirituality have been on the Bible.

Meditation belongs in the contemplative life before contemplation. What is meditation as the monastic tradition has passed it on to the Church? It is reflecting on the truths of the faith in order to better understand them. That's not contemplation. But you don't love what you don't know. And either we spend the mental effort in trying to understand and ask God for light to tell us what this means - without Me you can do nothing - or we shall not live out what we believe. Meditation is the effort of the human mind in God's presence to understand what He revealed. This too is in the best Benedictine tradition because this requires work.

Opus Dei is the Divine Office. The term is Benedict's own; it means literally the work of God. He did not invent the Divine Office; the psalms had been recited in fact by Our Savior at the Last Supper. But to structure the Divine Office as we now know it, to make it the norm for one's whole life and to make that the centerpiece of spirituality we owe to Benedict.

Contemplation. This is to build on meditation. When I meditate I pray but I mainly use my mind. When I contemplate I pray but I mainly use my affections. But I had better have meditated before, otherwise I won't know what to use my affections on. How can I tell God that I love Him unless I know something about this God that I claim I love. Some people find contemplation easier than others. Some have to do a lot of bridge building in meditation to contemplate. No matter. Both forms of prayer are pleasing to God; both are part of the Christian spiritual life as Benedict conceived it.

Paradisus claustri. That means the paradise of the cloister. This can be cheapened by saying the paradise of exclusion, the paradise of seclusion or the paradise of solitude. It's that but not really. The exclusion or the seclusion is not from other human beings, quite the contrary, but from any persons or objects that would distract or detach me from the main purpose for being a religious - which is to be concerned with the things of God. Cloister means an enclosure. Now we can have high walls but if the mind and the thoughts are on the world outside, the walls might just as well be down. No; it is a paradisus claustri mainly that each person lives in his or her own life, so that the cloister though external is mainly the symbolization of that separation from the world. Angelic life. Benedict meant it. He was no starry-eyed poet. He believed that the more perfectly a religious lived his or her spiritual life, the more perfectly they approximate the life of the angels.

We have two purposes for existence. One is to praise God and the other is to be sent as messengers to others, to be of service to human beings. But as Benedict was quick to point out, one is only as effective a messenger to the world as one has first been steeped in the vision and contemplation of God. On both levels the angels can teach us a lot.

I would like to expand a little bit on the apostolate within the Benedictine monastic tradition. As you know, Benedict's concept of religious life spanned what he called the active and contemplative life, but then immediately he distinguished within the active life between the so-called spiritual combat and the apostolate. Now technically the active life on the side of the spiritual combat is the ascetical life and this has to do with one's own struggle with one's fallen human nature in order to conquer inordinate passions and fears and thus equip oneself for the work of a religious. The apostolate on the other hand is the social side of the active life. It presumes however that the spiritual combat is carried on successfully. Notice, I don't say that the apostolate presumes that the spiritual combat has already been won, or that victory has been achieved. Because then most of us would be waiting till almost our dying day to engage in the apostolate.

Moreover, within the spiritual combat there are some that are more immediately interior and there are others that are more external. But taken as a whole they are the precondition in Benedict's view for an effective apostolic work. Now within the apostolate, first it is always assumed the apostolate is authorized by the Church through legitimate superiors. Not everything that I do for my neighbor is an apostolate. The apostolate is only that which the Church, speaking through my superiors, has authorized me to do.

All the fancy talk about 'open placement’ is beginning to haunt many communities, because the Internal Revenue is making it very difficult for a community with open placement to continue.

The apostolate is of two kinds. Why distinguish, as Benedict does, between the apostolate of holiness and the apostolate of service? In general the apostolate of holiness refers to that apostolate where graces are given by God to others because of the apostle's own personal union with God or of the community's union with God, or at least the efficacy of the apostolate is seen as depending on one's union with God. Per se, therefore, the apostolate of holiness is engaged in by a person who does not engage in anything that is technically apostolic work.

It means, consequently, that by the very fact that a person is striving to bring souls either to Christ or closer to Christ, if the one engaging in the effort is him or herself closely united with God that person will be used by God no matter what they do, on an absolute sense, even if they don't do anything except remain bedridden for thirty years. In other words sanctity is apostolic by its very existence. And it is here that for failure to make the distinction people will train themselves in so many ways for effective apostolic work; no blame there; but all the while if they have neglected the One Who is the principal Instrument for communicating grace, then - -

For example, in the priest. He may be in the state of grave sin. Is the Mass that he offers valid? Yes. Is the Communion that he gives or the sacrament of absolution that he gives valid? Yes. In the early Church the problem was the other way around. They were so concerned about the sanctity of the one administering the sacraments that the very validity of the sacraments was called into question; unless the one offering the Mass or administering absolution were holy they would question the very validity of the Mass or the sacraments. Not true.

But having said that, same with a teacher. Suppose I'm teaching sacred doctrine. I've got a good book in front of me and I say the right things and certain ideas enter people's heads. Is it true they profit, they get something out of what I say? Yes. But assuming this, sanctity in the apostle is the thing that needs to be mainly cultivated for effective apostolic work. This principle seriously taken would change religious life in the Catholic Church.

Now of service. Again, an apostle is one who communicates grace. Where the apostolate is one of service, the graces are given by God to others through some form of what we call ministry. It may be for the priest a sacramental ministry, or it can be the corporal works of mercy or the spiritual works of mercy. In any case, in each one of these that we call the apostolate of service there

is some medium between the apostle and the one who is being influenced, something that goes out of me that I share with the person. But there also, even as the apostolate's efficacy within the active life depends on the success of my spiritual combat, so within the apostolate my apostolate of service depends on my apostolate of holiness.

In Archbishop Meyer's talk at the St. Louis congress we had on the religious life, he urged religious especially those in schools to remain in the schools because, as he said, "True, others can replace you as teachers, but no one can replace you as religious except other religious." And he was there making the Benedictine distinction - as a good Benedictine himself.

And it's not something mysterious or mystical; it's very real. The union of the soul with God in the classroom. She may not be teaching religion formally. Now either we believe this or a religious can have misgivings about her apostolic work. Don't you think it is important to realize which comes first and which is a condition for the second? God will infallibly bring souls to Himself provided the apostle himself is holy. Infallibly.

Regarding the contemplative life, I would like to comment on the Divine Office. It is well to know, in spite of what you may read somewhere, the Divine Office as we now have it in religious communities has a twofold origin. It first began in the Cathedrals of the earliest churches of antiquity. It was thought that a Catholic Church and especially the see city of a diocese should not only have worshippers on Sundays or on feast days or even for a Mass or two that might be offered even daily, but throughout the day this should be the house of God, that prayer should be offered. So the Cathedral chapters recited or generally sung the Divine Office in the earliest Cathedrals of Christianity. And by the end of the first century there were already one hundred dioceses in the Church. And this by the way was a continuation of the Jewish practice - both the temple and the synagogue. And this is one of my hopes for other Churches. I think they can be used far more than they are for just the Eucharistic liturgy. There are two kinds of liturgy, the Eucharistic and the liturgy of the Hours.

In other words by the time Benedict came along the Divine Office was an established fact and not only among religious but also among the secular clergy and the laity who would participate. In any case, the Divine Office in the monastic tradition was more extensive, more detailed and involved especially the recitation of the psalms. The Little Hours of the monastic tradition go back already to apostolic times. I would like to recommend to all of you as religious to give serious thought to anything in which we can get the faithful involved in the recitation of the Divine Office. The Church wants it.

We shall say more when we take up St. Francis about the characteristic form of the Divine Office; it is a prayer of praise. So much then for that.

The continuity and the permanent values. Regarding continuity. What do

I intend to bring out here? I wish to show that the monastic tradition has first of all affected all religious institutes. There is no such thing as a religious congregation or order in the Church today that is not somehow built on the monastic model. What are some features of the monastic life that have affected all communities?

First of all the notion of central authority. In other words it is true that the Church already had central authority vested in the Holy Father and in Rome, and then outside of Rome in the various dioceses. In each diocese the people were responsible to the Bishop. The Church herself is highly centralized; the whole world today is divided into dioceses, there is no place in the world which does not have its hierarchical jurisdiction, and all those who belong to that jurisdiction are responsible to the authority in that area, and of course all ultimately are responsible to Rome. So that, whatever other image we have of Catholicism, it is a divinely established centrality.

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

Institute on Religious Life, Inc.
P.O. Box 410007
Chicago, Illinois 60641

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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