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History of Religious Life
The Rise and Growth of Western Monasticism: Part 4

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

What monasticism did, and this is its first great contribution to religious, just as within a diocese the people are responsible to the bishop for the government of that diocese and for obedience to his laws, so in a religious community. Now originally, for example, Monte Cassino would be a territory, St. Benedict modeled religious life on the Church's own pattern of territorial division. Our provinces, our regions are an offshoot of that. Now you might say you would want to do that for reasons of efficiency. Not so. It is much deeper than efficiency. Because the bond is between one of the faithful to the bishop and so between the religious to the Abbot, that everybody within a particular territory was responsible to this one person for his or her sanctification and effective apostolate.

The result was that even when communities like the Society of Jesus came into existence the basic system of centrality was retained. So that no matter where you go you are always attached somewhat to a person. When I step out of my Province - I belong to the Detroit Province, I am living in the New York Province, and I am now teaching in the Chicago Province; but in each case the jurisdiction is not merely legalism - I must get permission to do whatever I am doing not only from my own Provincial but from the Provincial in the territory where I work.

Secondly, community. What the monastic tradition contributed to religious was the idea of a community that was first and mainly a group of believers, it was first of all a community of faith; secondly, it was a community of obedience; thirdly, it was a community of service. But what bears emphasis is that the communal character of religious life depended not only on being obedient to the Abbot, the community is also interrelated; so that my bond to my community is not only that fifty in a given community might have the same superior and then each going their respective ways. You will still have community in name but no longer in reality. We call that a corporate apostolate, for example: Living together, being together, working together, recreating together, everything is done together; that's monasticism pure and simple. One of the features of religious life in the strictly monastic tradition is that everything is done together.

The monastic tradition created what we now call the Constitutions of communities. As we know, the early monastic structures, Pachomius and later on Benedict, did not have what we call Constitutions. Constitutions of course do not originally belong to the first monastic communities. They had a rule of life and basically it was the Rule plus the Abbot. However, the ground was laid for eventual Constitutions and mainly because the Rule tended to remain fixed and times change, needless to say. The Abbot was elected for life, and sometimes it was felt too much depended on just the Abbot because of the changing times and because an Abbot could be quite arbitrary. Constitutions eventually came into existence. But there would have been no thought of Constitutions unless there had first been the Rule written and the Abbot the living rule.

The Divine Office. By office we mean duty. It is a divine office which means a divinely authorized or binding duty. The hours of the Office became the fabric for the whole day; everything had to be adjusted to the liturgy of the Hours.

The Rules. The rules which we now have which are independent of the Constitutions are a further development from the monastic tradition which were generally more specific, prescriptions for either certain persons holding a certain office or for certain duties in the community. What is the contribution of the monastic tradition to priests? The monastic tradition really created the diocesan community. We don't know what the Catholic Church today would be like except that from the very beginning there were religious in the Catholic Church. In the second century, the Bishop became in the nature of father to his priest. And where, as is the case today, most priests are not religious, nevertheless the relationship of bishop to priests and priests to their bishop is patterned on the monastic model.

I really believe that once religious life weakens, as it has drastically weakened in our age, it needs drastic reformation - from the bottom up or for some communities from the top down. The Church suffers especially among the priests where they do not have the pattern of religious who are living the kind of life they should. To this day most of the books in theology, most of the books in morality, most of the writings in the ascetical life, the spiritual life are written by religious priests. Their ideas and ideals affect the diocesan priesthood more than we appreciate. In any case, the diocesan community with all the relationships between bishop and priests depends very much on religious and originally on the monastic tradition.

Secondly, ideally a religious priest is meant to have the best of both worlds. All I can tell is the combination is very difficult to maintain in practice.

Now for the laity. What is the first and most important contribution of the monastic way of life to the laity? It is the idea of living a regulated life. I cannot tell you how important that is for our faithful today. Anything you can do to help the laity live a more regular life do. It's the irregularity that can be so disastrous to progress in virtue. Certain things are done in a certain way at a certain time. Part of that is periodicity. By periodicity I mean that the laity should live a balanced, healthy and happy life. Regularity in food. Regularity in the hours of sleep. Regularity in prayer. This should be taught to our children. Some of this regularity and periodicity we need in our chaotic American culture.

Secular Institutes are of course not religious nor are they laity. It is extremely difficult for them to live, as they try to, their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience but outside of a community. That's almost a good simple definition of a secular institute. They are a religious "without a community." And the need for some regularity and also communal life are both contributions of monasticism to the laity as well. The laity need community life.

The Pittsburgh Press is the principal daily paper of the city of Pittsburgh. It stated there were 22 marriage licenses issued for the previous day, there were twenty-two cases for divorce filled in Pittsburgh for the previous twenty-four hours, and there were twenty-six divorces granted. That's our stable United States. You can't have society on those premises.

What St. Benedict and for centuries his monks did was to civilize by stabilizing, civilize by having them live together so that man would be satisfied with one wife and remain faithful to her until death. So much for continuity.

Finally, permanent values. In general, in the monastic tradition the world was considered sinful. Consequently, there would be a flight from the world of sin, but it was not to run away from human beings. In fact the most densely populated sections of Europe in the seventh and eight centuries were the monasteries. So the first permanent value for everybody: have no illusion about the world being sinful, that there are people who are just not good for us. So there must be withdrawal from certain people. Either you withdraw from certain people or you won't even save your souls. And let no one fool you that you are failing in charity by withdrawing from certain people - especially the one from whom you are withdrawing.

The nine hundred victims of the Reverend Jones were enamored of a wicked person. Now God knows how guilty; that's not the point; his ideas were wicked. He used religion to get people to join him.

But then it is not only withdrawing from people who are sinful. And so, witnessing to Christ. Our Lord, Luke tells us in the opening chapter of Acts, tells His followers to wait and pray for the coming of the Spirit "and then you will be My witnesses." The biblical word is martyr. There are two qualities that a witness has to have, but there is one more that a martyr has to have. Soa witness-martyr has three qualities. This was built into the monastic tradition from the very beginning. If a person is going to be the martyr of which Christ spoke, or in the Greek martyroi, first there must be a deep understanding of who Christ is. One must be familiar with Christ, and this comes especially through prayer. Secondly, in the nature of things should anyone witness to anything that he doesn't know? That would be perjury. So the first condition for witnessing is deep understanding knowledge. You don't begin to witness unless you've got that.

First, therefore, I must know this Jesus to whom I am going to witness. And other things being equal, the more I know Him the better effective witness I can be. Secondly, to witness it is not enough to merely know. What must a witness do? Proclaim. Just as there can be no witnessing without prior knowledge, so there can be no witnessing without proclamation. There are different ways of proclaiming: by word of mouth, by writing, by your actions, by the way you dress. But you do something externally that testifies to internal conviction. Now this is no trivial distinction, that not everybody who has the faith proclaims it. Because to proclaim the truth in any age is not easy, and today it may be heroic.

But thirdly in order to qualify as a martyr what must this witness further be ready to do? To suffer for the proclamation. So there are three elements to this matter of witnessing. And the number of Benedictine monks and nuns that are honored by the Church is over five thousand, indicating that over the centuries they have done a good job of witnessing. But as far as permanent value goes this applies to all of us. We are first to know Christ, we are to proclaim Him, and we are to be willing to pay for the proclamation. One reason we don't have more prophets today is because people read about what happened to Isaiah and Jeremiah and John the Baptist and the greatest of all prophets Christ: they killed them.

Finally whatever else the monastic tradition has done and continues doing for all walks of life - priests, religious and the laity, it is to emphasize the fact that while we must exert ourselves to work out our salvation and we must exert ourselves to win souls to Christ in the apostolate, but the primary agent in our sanctification and the primary agent in the apostolate is not we but God. That's why I would say the two qualities in a religious without which they will not only not do good but will do great harm are humility and the spirit of prayer. Pride is destructive, pride is venomous, pride will eat up thirty, forty years of the spiritual life as though it wasn't there. She may be a golden Jubilarian but unless she is humble forget it.

We are exposed to so many advantages, we have learned so much, we exercise so much influence, people respect us, they deal with us in a way that makes us feel good. So humility.

Secondly, the spirit of prayer. That doesn't mean the monks were always actually praying. It is the spirit of prayer, the desire to pray every chance I get. Then God does things in us and through us, out of all proportion to the human agent. The point is unless you are very humble and you pray constantly, you are not profiting from what St. Benedict and the monastic tradition is meant to give all of us.

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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