Our Common Life
Father Abbot, Reverend and Venerable confreres:
Amongst the several well-known Benedictine mottoes, such as “Pray and Work,” and “Peace.” There is one slightly less familiar, yet equally descriptive of our way of life. It is as follows: “Who needs asceticism: we live in community.” As true as this may seem to be, I’d like to take a bit more scriptural approach to this presentation on “Our common life.”
Saint Paul says in his letter the Church at Ephesus: “God chose us in Him before the world began to be holy and blameless in His sight, to be full of love; He likewise predestined us through Jesus Christ to be adopted sons – such was His will and pleasure – that all might praise the glorious favor He has bestowed on us in the beloved.” (Eph 1:4)
I’d like to propose that in this and in several other passages from the Sacred Scriptures, we might find a model for our common life as monks. Our life together in the cloister is a meeting place of heaven and earth where we become blameless and holy in the sight of God according to His holy will.
It is clear enough that our interior life supernatural, but so is our shared life in the monastery. We have been chosen by God to come to this “school of the Lord’s service.” We are predestined in Christ to become holy and blameless. It is God’s will for us. We have been called to this place for just this purpose.
Blessed Columba Marmion speaks of our “divine adoption;” baptism being the efficacious sign of our sonship in Christ, where we have become full inheritors of our heavenly Father’s kingdom of grace and mercy. We have been brought here by the action of the Holy Spirit to become members of Christ’s Body in this particular church. Again, Saint Paul teaches:“In Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near through the Blood of Christ. It is He who is our peace, and who made two of us one by breaking down the barrier of hostility that kept us apart. In His own flesh He abolished the law with its commands and precepts, to create in Himself one new man from us who had been two, and to make peace.” (Eph 2:13-16)
We, who were many, are called to be one Body, here in this monastery. This is the place where we are to become holy and blameless in the sight of God. This is a supernatural society, where charity is the hallmark of successful living. If we ever try to live this life from mere nature, we will do so quite unhappily. This never need be the case, however, for through sacramental grace received in the daily offering of the Holy Eucharist and the regular reception of the Sacrament of Penance, we experience the deification or sanctification necessary to truly become blameless and holy in the sight of God.
A monastic community is more than an aggregate of individuals; it is constituted through common understanding and acceptance of values and purpose, and employs a rule of life, which is an agreed upon way of meeting objectives and accomplishing goals. Our common identity, and ultimately, our destiny, is formed by our collective listening to the Word of God. It is together that we go to everlasting life. While preaching, Saint Augustine once shouted from the ambo of his cathedral “I don’t want to go to heaven without you!” Again, it is with the assistance of one another that we go to heaven.
Our blessed father, Saint Benedict, places before us a way to union with God comprised of liturgy, lectio, obedience and labor. In the broadest sense, all of these are the “work of God,” for they are together the means of achieving the holiness to which we are called in Christ. In a somewhat more restrictive sense, the “work of God” is, of course, the sacred liturgy. It is in the abbey church that the Holy Spirit calls us together as the very Body of Christ most excellently. It is here that we are given in the one and eternal sacrifice: the only perfect praise of God our Father. Having encountered so great a love in the Holy Eucharist, our lives burst forth, if you will, into a song of divine praise throughout the hours of the day.
The holocaust we offered on the day of our profession is renewed each day at the conventual Mass. Without this renewal we run the risk of taking back our lives once given, of acting out of our reason and natural abilities alone, and settling into an existence short of the life to which we have been called.
The cloister is the House of God where He condescends to dwell among us for no other reason than love. The monastery’s protection of silence and solitude, its good order reflective of that perfect order of heaven, and its holy places: church, refectory, library and cells, is a place of divine encounter. We have the opportunity to complement or distract from this environment of holy encounter, simply by the way we act here, or more precisely, how we inter-act here: singing in unison, processing in statio two by two, serving one another in peace. Saint Benedict begins chapter 35 of the Holy Rule simply enough: “The brothers should serve one another.”
Our love for the community should extend even to the very walls of the monastery, for we dwell in a Holy City – a New Jerusalem. Here we can pray with the psalmist:
“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem! May those who love you prosper! May peace be within your walls: prosperity in your buildings. Because of my relatives and friends I will say, ‘Peace be within you!’ Because of the house of the Lord, our God, I will pray for your good.” (Ps 122:6-8)
The monastic community, as church, is a visible society. We are divinely chosen members of this body, each carefully placed here, and not only for what we can contribute, or what we might need to receive here, but simply that it is good for us to be here in this place of divine predilection.
It is our constant spiritual contact with the glorified humanity of Christ the Savior who lives in us by His Spirit, that our common life is vivified and nourished. Divine Love is incarnate in the charity of the common life. Saint Paul prays: “ May the Lord increase you and make you to overflow with love for one another and for all, even as our love does for you. May He strengthen your hearts, making them blameless and holy before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His holy ones.” (1 Thes 3:12)
The common life is a vigorous training ground for the life of charity. If we are to be holy and blameless in the sight of God, this can be achieved only in charity manifest in the radical gift of self one to another. “I have been crucified with Christ,” says Saint Paul, “and the life I now live is not my own, but Christ living in me. I still live my life in the flesh, but it is a life of faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me. I will not treat God’s gracious gift as pointless.” (Gal 2:20)
Mutual obedience, inspired by Christ’s gift of self, and made possible by the grace of His Holy Sacrifice, is a hallmark of the Benedictine way.
In Chapter 71 of the Holy Rule we read: “Obedience is a blessing to be shown by all, not only to the abbot but also to one another as brothers, since we know that it is by this way of obedience that we go to God.” (RB 71) Saint Benedict realized that we could be formed by our common life itself, Father Michael Casey notes: “A monk committed to the practice of mutual obedience, is one who has come to the realization that he can be formed by many members of the community whose monastic experience may be broader or deeper than his own.” The very encounter with virtue expressed by a brother can be transformative.
The common life is filled with opportunities to imitate Christ by saying “no” to self-will, and saying “yes” to the Father’s will. The monastic life slowly forms us into a total “yes” to God, where our own fiat mirrors that of the most Blessed Virgin Mary.
Meekness and humility are great virtues employed in the life of charity. They should not however, be permitted to devolve into a type of spineless submissiveness that can be filled with doubt and uncertainty. This social pathology often breeds anger, sorrow and resentment on the part of the weak, and invites manipulation and disdain on the part of the more aggressive. Virtue prohibits us from using the intimate knowledge of others gained in community life for anything other than the true good of the person. Human dignity prohibits the objectification of another. We are good, simply because we are – not because of anything we might produce or contribute to our society.
Our way of acting is modeled for us by the early Christian community as found in the Acts of the Apostles: “They devoted themselves to the Apostles instructions and the communal life, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. A reverent fear overtook them all, for many wonders and signs were performed by the Apostles. Those who believed shared all things in common; they would sell their property and goods dividing everything on the basis of each one’s need. They went to the temple area every day, while in their homes they broke bread. With exultant and sincere hearts they took their meals in common, praising God and winning the approval of all the people. Day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:42-47)
Our common life stands against the radical individualism of our day. All too often, freedom is compromised by slavery to sin. This compromised freedom then serves not the good, but rather, the desires of radical individuality.
Our challenge in the common life is to look beyond ourselves, truly believing in Divine Providence and the promise of the Gospel that: “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Mt 16:25)
Again, Father Casey comments that: “The price of seeing others as they really are is to stop play-acting and to allow others to see us as we are, without pretense or self-inflation, and not trying to disguise our limitations or defects.” (Casey 119) Humility is foundational for true relationship.
Contrary to this honesty before God that allows us to be simply what we are is a narcissism born of pride and an insecurity born of fear. This vice can cause one to project on others the disturbances that are within. Mere difference can be perceived to be insensitivity. Thoughtlessness seen through the lens of self-love becomes malice. Ideas become threats and insecurity promotes jealousy and exclusivity. Ultimately, fear replaces love.
True community is built upon selflessness. Mortification is not the purpose of community life, but it is the means by which each person contributes to the mutuality of the life that makes it a place where grace and peace can flourish. The following observation may be helpful:
• I cannot listen if I do not practice restraint of speech.
• I cannot serve if I always seek to be served.
• I cannot be attentive to others if I cannot forget myself.
• I cannot truly serve Christ until I serve all.
• I cannot be truly sorry for my sins until I learn to apologize to others.
• I cannot truly love God until I also love my neighbor.
Perhaps the genius of the common life is that the roles are constantly changing. The offenders of today get offended tomorrow. Those who serve this week will be served next week. If ever there was a place that embodied the old saying “What goes around comes around,” it is a monastery. Here we learn both the art of humble apology, and that of gracious acceptance. To allow others to do good works for us is, at the same time, we allowing the opportunity for others to receive grace. Both are blessed, and the community built up.
“Just as there is a wicked zeal of bitterness which separates from God and leads to hell – so there is a good zeal which separates from evil and leads to God and everlasting life. This is the good zeal monks must foster with fervent love. They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other, supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior and earnestly competing on obedience to one another.” (RB 72) “Bearing patiently with one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior” is a way of introducing grace into the life of the community – perhaps just where it is needed most. Doing this faithfully, we might just find one day – on that last day – that we will also reign with Christ in His Kingdom, for Saint Benedict again reminds us that it is “through patience that we share in the sufferings of Christ.” (RB prol 50)
Since our life is one of vowed obedience and poverty, we receive everything as a grace. All that comes our way is an unmerited gift. Gratitude characterizes the common life. Meals are always provided. There is always toothpaste in the Lloyd center. There is gas for the cars, and the list goes on and on. A laborer is worth his wages, but an ungrateful soul is a scourge upon his friends. A persistent state of gratitude will allow us the joy of daily receiving more than we ever expected.
Saint Benedict’s penal system, for those who become harmful to the Body of Christ, is of course, a system of excommunication: exclusion from the choir, table or even the cloister. This is effective only if we value our inclusion in the community, believing that it is the Body of Christ, and apart from it, we will perish from the exposure of spiritual desolation.
Dom Marmion notes that monks have, over the centuries added a few other types of excommunication. There is “Self-excommunication, where out of pride we absent ourselves from the common life, believing that we are the proverbial “exception to the Rule.” Anger, mistaken piety, pride or singularity may be the motivation. The problem here is that in doing this, we are also absenting ourselves from the flow of grace, who’s current is always moving in the life of the community. “Blessed are those servants whom the Lord shall find watching when he comes” (Lk 12:37)
Worse yet is excommunication of a monk by his own brother. This may be done through social exclusion or perhaps an interior rejection of another. To incite doubt, distrust or dislike of a brother offends Christ in His Body.
Dom Marmion offers this description: “In rending the robe of the Bride, they tear from their own soul the Christian sign excelling all others: love.”
Charity cements a community together. Saint Bede once remarked that: “The sole means we have of showing others that Christ dwells within us is the spirit of holy and undivided charity.” (St. Bede) The desire of our Blessed Lord is quite clear: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you should also love one another. This is how all men shall know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (Jn 13:35)
Our common life is a sign of unity Christ wishes to see in His Body. Our unity in Christ is also a sign for the world. A monastery is a place on earth that points to heaven. If it ceases to do so, it has lost its reason for being, and finds itself in the very real danger of ceasing to be at all.
The life we share together is a gift from God. Every part of it is holy. We might have come here to seek God in peace, good order and beautiful liturgy. Some might have found that here. But, even if these wonderful things are a bit elusive, the thing that is always before us is the very real encounter with Christ in one another.
Our life is caught up in this prayer of our Lord: “I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me. Father, they are your gift to me. I wish that where I am they also may be with me, that they may see my glory.” (Jn 17:22-24)
May our common life bring us all together to that glory everlasting.