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Within the local Church, how should we view a group of Christians living, praying and working together according to the monastic tradition? Many cells of Christians live within the local Church, also called the particular Church, but a monastery lives its own unique lifestyle with unique relationships to the other Christians, the diocesan bishop and the hierarchical structures of the Church.

The monastery is one of many communities of disciples united in solidarity with the other communities of the local Church, primarily through the person of the diocesan bishop. Having stated this, however, it is necessary to describe or define monastery. All Christians seek God, but the monastery is the place where a person seeks God in a very particular way. The way is not superior or inferior to the other ways followed by other communities of disciples. Benedict's summons is "Come and listen." All Christians are called to listen, but monastics are called to listen through a cenobitic rhythm of life.

The Monastery

A monastery, then, is a place where a person comes to listen to God in and through the lifestyle of the monastery. A monastery in its lifestyle, horarium, customs and work must be a place conducive to listening. Throughout the Rule this is evidenced by concern for silence, by admonitions against murmuring, the most destructive evil against listening, by the manner in which the monastics gives counsel, and by a simple lifestyle with an uncluttered environment and common ownership of property to avoid avarice and jealousy. Benedict advocates adaptation to the local conditions so as not to make the life so objectively difficult as to distract from listening, the wisdom of listening to visiting monastics for observations and criticism, and an attitude of listening between the abbot and the monastic when the task seems impossible.

When the monastery is visitated, a primary criterion of evaluation must be whether or not it is a place of listening. Is the architecture conducive to listening? Are the times of common prayer a community-centered call to listen and an experience of communal hearing the Word and of individually responding in silence to that Word? Is the work so overwhelming that the monastics, or even some of them, cannot observe the ebb and flow of communal and private prayer, work, and cenobitic togetherness? Has the lifestyle become so affluent that time is filled with constant entertainment and self-satisfaction or so meager that discomfort blocks listening? Has private ownership or private income become prevalent so that dependence and interdependence, prerequisites for cenobitic listening, are lost and replaced by jealousy, murmuring, avarice and self-satisfaction?

Monastic Obedience

Listening is so fundamental to the monastery and the monastic life that it is the mark which differentiates monastic obedience from obedience in the hierarchical and apostolic parts of the Church. Monastic obedience is listening, but not just of the monastic to the superior. It is also the superior listening so that decisions about a monastic are primarily based on what will profit this individual in the seeking of God and not just what is needed for the community or the Church or the superior. Thus the dialogue established in chapter 68 of the Rule on impossible tasks presents the monastic as having listened and discerned the task to be impossible because it hinders the individual's seeking God. The superior is to listen and discern with the monastic the truth of this in the manner described in chapter 2 of the Rule. It seems that the primary criterion for evaluating an abbot is whether or not the abbot listens, first, in his own heart to the Word; second, to each monastic individually; and third, to the community as a whole. The concrete demonstration of all three is the way in which the abbot lives and what decisions he makes, for listening is to move the heart to action.

The monastery, then is a place to which a person comes to listen. The person must understand this in order to understand the place of this community of disciples living within the local Church. Thus the Rule restricts entrance into the monastery: "This message of mine is for you, then, if you are ready to give up your own will once and for all, and armed with the strong and noble weapons of obedience. . . " (RB Prol 3). The will, for Benedict, signifies independence, which renders a person self-centered because the person depends only on self. But the monastic way is to make God the center of existence. All creation is a summons from God to hear and to respond to what God says, rather than to hear oneself and respond to self. Obedience, as understood in the monastic tradition, is the outward manifestation of the inward giving up on one's own self-centeredness.

Today the monastery must be a special place of listening to the persons coming, either to be disciples or to be visitors seeking a touch of the monastery. All seem to come to be heard and offered pardon and healing so that each can also listen to God and others. All come to the monastery wounded, in need of experiencing God's love from others. Through the gifts of psychology and sociology, the world is attuned to the woundedness, hurts, needs and imperfections of the individual. The monastery must be a place where the disciples listen to the wounded and apply the Word of God, the Word of love experienced in pardoning and healing.

The Monastic Journey

Since monastic discipleship is a journey, monastics within the community are at different stages of moving from self-centeredness, with all its woundedness, to God-centeredness. Hopefully this journey is a positive progression which enables the monastic to hear the need for pardoning and healing required by one's fellow disciples and visitors. The more the monastic is able to accept the fact that the monastery is not an ideal place set apart from the realities of the world, but a place built upon human weakness, then the more pardon and healing can take place at the monastery and the more the monastery can become a place where God's loving word is truly heard and lived. The monastic experiences God's pardon because the monastic has heard God and has moved from self to God. Now the monastic can do the same for others in the place of listening: the monastery.

The fear, however, is that the monastery may lose the sense of listening by replacing it with a sense of institution, a sense of perfection, a sense of criticizing and judging others. The monastics in the monastery may lose the sense of listening to God and become centered on their own status, perfection and style of life. They may dislike and feel uneasy about public acknowledgment of monastic weaknesses. This makes it difficult to understand and live the particular way of monastic life as a community of disciples within the local Church when the monastery loses its sense of monastic discipleship.

Monastic Discipleship

Within the local Church the monastery is a particular community of disciples living the cenobitic life, always attentive to listening. Their locale may be the canonically established monastic center or elsewhere. A small cell of monastics, canonically attached to a monastic center, might live at a dependent priory, in a parish, or in a private house. Whichever, the monastery is a concrete community of disciples who are primarily dependent and interdependent upon one another at the place where they live.

Within the local Church, the monastery first stands as its own community of discipleship with its own charism. It is not merely a residence for a work force of the hierarchical Church. Rather it is a charismatic place which finds its purpose in being nothing more or less than a place at which the inhabitants seek God by listening and responding in that place.

As a community of disciples, it is like any other community of disciples within the local Church, be they families, apostolic religious communities or lay associations. The monastery's internal life belongs to itself and not to the diocesan bishop. Yet its internal life is touched by the bishop who grants permission for the establishment of the monastery and who blesses the superior. In this blessing the bishop recognizes, in the name of the Church, the legitimacy of the special bond existing within the monastic discipleship. It might be compared to the way in which a priest recognizes in the name of the Church the special bond of marriage existing between a man and a woman.


Just as a husband and wife internally govern most aspects of their lives, so the monastic community does the same. This, by tradition, has been termed the autonomy or exemption of the monastery. It is built upon the unique relationships existing within the discipleship and is marked by four characteristics: 1) the special role of the superior who is the source of unity for the monastics and above all responsible for the spiritual formation of the monastics; 2) monastic obedience, which is based upon a personal relationship between the superior and the monastic and among the monastics themselves; 3) the co-responsibility of all members for the development an destiny of the monastery, realized by the sharing of counsel and of all goods; and 4) stability, which creates a close and enduring bond among the monastics of a particular monastery and provides the unique flavor of life at the monastery. [See Daniel Rees, ed., Consider Your Call (Kalamazoo: Cistercian 1978) pp. 358-60.]

Practically speaking, autonomy means that the governance of the monastery belongs to the monastics. They govern themselves and are subject to outside intervention only when authority becomes abusive or the community loses sight of the monastic life. Although the Rule permits this intervention to be made by the local Church through either the bishop or the people (RB 64.3-6), monastic structures provide for such intervention by surrounding abbots through the monastic congregation/federation.

Monastic Prayer and Sacraments

Determination of the monastic prayer life also belongs to the monastery. Monastic communal prayer is not the same as the Roman Liturgy of the Hours. Monastic communal prayer is a rhythmic flow throughout each day, a rhythm of communally listening to the Word, of being reminded rhythmically of the center of life. Its form and style are different from the Roman Office; the monastic communal prayer is rooted in listening while the Roman Office is based on praying in the name of the Church. The way of monastic life must always be kept in mind lest monastic prayer be confused with "liturgical actions" which are subject to the diocesan bishop (Code of Canon Law, canons 392.1, 678.1, 837, 838.1, 839.1).

The lifestyle of the monastery belongs to the determination of monastics. This includes such things as clothing, horarium, formation, and real and personal property.

On the other hand, autonomy does not include those aspects of monastic life which are either common to the entire People of God or are done in the name of the Church. Thus, while monastic communal prayer is not subject to the diocesan bishop, celebrations of the sacraments are, insofar as the diocesan bishop must ensure that canonical and liturgical norms are observed.

It should be noted, however, that this has not always been the view. Tradition held that sacraments celebrated exclusively for the monastic community were not subject to the authority of the diocesan bishop. They were considered subject only to the superior because of the unique rhythm of the monastic day and the integration of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, into the monastic communal prayer. The Second Vatican Council and subsequent legislation determined, however, that sacramental celebrations were subject to the diocesan bishop in accordance with the norms of law.

Works of the Monastery

The works of the monastery, when done in the name of the Church, are subject to the diocesan bishop, but only in accordance with the norms of law. Thus, works owned by the diocese but entrusted to the monastery, such as schools and parishes, are subject to the authority of the diocesan bishop and are to be governed by a written contractual agreement between the monastery and the diocese (canon 681).

Works, however, which belong to the monastery are subject to the diocesan bishop in limited ways. The works which are at the monastery and operated as part of the monastic rhythm of life, such as a school or an industry, have not been subject to the diocesan bishop according to monastic tradition and canon law. Romanos Pontifices, dated May 8, 1881, by Pope Leo XIII, stated that monastic schools are exempt from the jurisdiction of the diocesan bishop.

In the instance of schools, however, this view seems to have been changed with the promulgation of the 1983 Code of Canon Law which gives the diocesan bishop various rights to regulate all Catholic schools (canons 678.3 and 680). The extent of the diocesan bishop's authority over a monastic school is now subject to litigation pending before the Apostolic See (Congregation for Catholic Education Prot. N. 1634/88/11 and Congregation for Institutes of the Consecrated Life and Societies of the Apostolic Life Prot. N. 15131/89) [Editor's note: The legislation was decided in favor of the monastery, that is, the monastic school is not subject to the diocesan bishop except in very limited areas].

Within the monastery presently, the words "subject to the diocesan bishop" do not seem proper. As a community of listening disciples, the monastics render mutual obedience to each other and personal obedience to the superior. When speaking of the monastery in relationship to the local Church, the phrase "subject to" seems to be more common since the relationship is placed within the hierarchical structures of the Church. Yet, the document "Mutual Relations Between Religious and Bishops" and the Code of Canon Law speak of cooperation. In the work of bringing God's loving pardon and healing to a world too often turned against itself, mutual cooperation and respect, rather than authority, speak of the love of God. Authority seems more to speak of human failure, weakness, conflict and the need of control.


A monastery truly is to be a place where listening disciples share life together in a very definite rhythm and method. When a person understands this and begins at this starting point, the monastery within the local Church takes on its most ancient role. But if the monastery is seen primarily as a work place, or a work force, or an agent of the hierarchical structures, the monastery's relationship within the local Church loses its charismatic nature. The monastery is to have its place within the local Church first and foremost as a place of listening. Its apostolic or ministerial work within the local Church is to be valued only insofar as the work flows from the listening.

American monasticism, even in an apparent numerical decline, is in the midst of renewal and a reclaiming of the rich monastic tradition of cenobitic life with all that it entails, such as physically living and praying together, common sharing of goods, interdependence upon one another, silence and listening. This reclaiming seeks again the rhythmic, physical living together of the cenobitic life from which flows the work of the monastery, rather than the continuation of works from which the monastic living and legal relationships flow.

Laurence Freeman, in the article "Modern Monasticism" in the 1988 Monastic Studies, refers to monasticism as a "wild card." In this time of reclaiming, these communities of disciples within the local Church again can become "wild cards," places of listening to the Spirit and living charismatically. They will be not merely institutions but places of people pardoning, healing, and growing. The future depends upon a willingness to evaluate institutions, lifestyles and works, and to be ready to be or establish experimental contemplative communities. This will test the elasticity of the listening and the relationship of the monastery to the local Church.

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