At times in the life of a movement it is good to stop and reflect on the past and to vision into the future. In doing so the movement can hold firm to its basics and shed the transitory. The movement can also see what must be done for it not only to survive, but also to flourish in the future.
It has been over 150 years since Boniface Wimmer brought the movement of Benedictine monasticism to the United States. Since that time, this monasticism has developed from a missionary-oriented lifestyle to a rooted lifestyle with a sense of place for each community. In many instances the fluidity of the missionary style has changed into a very institutional style of monastic life. To reflect on this whole movement would require a much more in-depth and lengthy study than this essay. What follows is my personal reflection on the last ten years of Benedictine monasticism in the United States. During these ten years many monastic communities and federations/congregations have sought out the constitutive elements of the Rule of Saint Benedict and tried to concretize them in the present age. What also follows are my hopes for making monasticism vibrant in the future.
Among the many aspects of the recent past of monasticism, seven seem to stand out and lead into the future. The following comments on these seven aspects are meant to spark thought among monastics and non-monastics alike as monasticism stands on the verge of the 21st century.
1. One thing that has been apparent on the surface level of monastic life is that cenobitic living is very difficult. Cenobitic living is more than cohabiting; it is more than working together; it is more than praying together; it is these things and more. It is the interpersonal life of the people living together as they make their journey to God. Yet on the average, monks tend to dive into work rather than into interpersonal relationships. Sisters/nuns tend to create numerous rules to prevent interpersonal antagonism. Work or rules. Work or rules-is this to be the reality of our monastic life?
2. In recent years we have become more conscious of being monastic. Monastic life is not just another religious community which does ministry within the Church and society. Monastic life is different. Its origin is not grounded in ministerial works, but in the seeking of God through the Word and the community. American Benedictines have reclaimed the word monastic and now are rediscovering its meaning and enfleshing it in the present. Yet one of the problems up to now has been that some members of a community have difficulty with the concept or even the word monastic. Others like the term, but not its import. This has caused tension in some communities, while in others it has resulted in mutual tolerance. However, overall, this consciousness of being monastics has been positive and dynamic. Many monasteries and monastics have been finding their foundation in the spiritual life rather than in work.
3. When monastic women and men first came to this country, they worked together. Men's and women's monasteries grew up side by side. In a sense there was a vision of the intertwining of men's and women's monasteries. This early relationship between the men's and women's monasteries was strengthened by the many blood brothers and sisters who entered neighboring monasteries. In recent years, it seems that this spirit of working and even sharing together has become a problem, particularly for men. Perhaps it is because the nature of the relationship must change as the equality of women and men is recognized. Yet, most men's monasteries still do not consider having a woman give the community retreat nor do the men's congregations consider having women presenters at their general chapters. A sign of hope was the joint meeting of abbots and prioresses in February 1997 at Abadia del Tepeyac in Mexico. Perhaps that meeting will help break down some of the fears men monastics may have about women monastics.
4. New communities have been started. These communities, which are small, have tried to seek the spirit of monasticism in forms for our times. While contemplating the past, they have not been limited by the vision of the past. They vision monasticism with new models into the future.
Unfortunately, many of these new communities have not received the support from the established monasteries and ecclesiastical authorities. At times, monastics of established monasteries have seen the persons moving into a new vision as a threat (What is wrong with our community?) or as troubled persons (They could never live with anyone.) or as persons wanting to be their own superiors. Men's monasteries tend to say that they cannot afford to let men leave to start a new monastery. Women's monasteries tend not to understand that a new community needs the support of the older monastery but the members of the new monastery can no longer be as personally involved in the affairs of the supporting monastery.
In addition when a monastery has established a dependent monastery, at times some founding monasteries have been hesitant and even unwilling to allow the dependent monastery to admit members before the dependent monastery is independent. This has resulted in some dependent monasteries becoming independent before they were ready. Some founding monasteries have not recognized that the establishing of a dependent monastery involves risk and requires trust and a willingness to accommodate.
5. For some time now monastics have worked diligently at the meaning and the depth of monasticism. Documents and papers have been produced, the proper laws of monastic federations and congregations have been approved, workshops have been given, prayer forms have been changed. All of these have been for the purpose of enriching and deepening monastic life. Yet at some point monastics need to stop and ask, "Have these surface changes moved the inner spirit?" Structure, institutions, education are tools. It is the inner spirit of the community and of the individual which must change and grow.
6. Prayer is no longer spoken of as an obligation but as a method of listening to God. Communal prayer is important because it is the community together listening to the Word. Private prayer with the Scriptures is as important because it is the individual listening to the Word at his/her own pace. Prayer is more and more becoming recognized as central to monastic life.
Still, work so often tends to govern prayer life, whether it is the time of day, length or attendance. Many monastics still find it difficult to pray privately with the Scriptures. Monastics have rediscovered lectio but find it difficult to put it into practice.
7. Declining numbers of members in monasteries have necessitated evaluating the works of each established monastery. Some monasteries have used this opportunity to refocus their monastic life away from institutions to a more personal style of monastic life. Some monasteries have tried to continue institutions which have become detrimental to the individual members who become overworked or appreciated because they are income producers. Some monasteries have planned and visioned a new way of work/ministry; others have just discontinued works and institutions as membership has declined. However, it has been clear that most monasteries must do something. And it has seemed that the monasteries who have had a willingness to vision and risk have continued to be places that are alive and life-giving.
The future holds much for Benedictine monastics. There is no crystal ball to say how it will happen. Each monastic and each monastic community, based on history, experience and hope, needs to reflect on the future. The following are some things which could be considered in this reflection.
There are a number of choices which can be made about the future. The future of monasticism could lie with those monastics willing to contemplate a new vision, to make a commitment to a shared vision and a commitment to one another. These are the people willing to be transformed or as the Rule says, "ready to give up your own will" (Prol 3). They are willing to die to their present self-identification with the present level of monastic life, its forms and institutions. They are the ones who are willing to move beyond surface-structural changes to changes of the heart.
The future also could lie with those who become preoccupied with the past, who concentrate on work, who seek good feelings and friendly understanding as the main criteria for community living.
The future also could lie with those who see no need for change, who do not understand what is happening and so they will not let the rest of the community change.
The future also could lie with those monastics who wish to return to what transpersonal psychology calls the "pre-law state." The monastery continues or begins to attract mainly persons "who are emotionally dependent" and seek a "family" to which to belong, an authority figure to obey and an ideology in which to believe. The future is limited by assigned roles within the monastery and by an attitude that laws and structure are more important than persons.
The future will have smaller communities. It will be more and more necessary for these smaller communities to interact. First, they need each other to continue the dialogue and the dynamism. Without interchange, life can become dull and rigid. Second, the smaller communities will need to share with each other the talents of their members. In a sense, the Scripture scholar, the accountant, the musician, the artist will be a "member" of a number of monasteries. Smallness can be good. Isolation, however, is death.
The future will have a diversity of monastic communities, some of which are emerging now. The old lines and divisions of congregations/federations, while not dissolving, will have to be open to diversity and mutual support. One of the things Abbot Primate Jerome Theisen tried to bring awareness of during his visit to the United States shortly before his death was the great diversity within the Benedictine monastic family. No one monastery can claim to be living the most authentic form of monastic life.
The future holds difficulties for those monasteries tied to and identified with institutions. Sponsored institutions eventually take on their own lives and identities and in many instances begin to become the identifying mark of the monastery. However, in the future a monastery with a sponsored institution will have to claim its own life and identity, find its own space, place, and allow for the possibility of a new vision, and provide work opportunities for new monastics who may not be attracted to the institution.
There is much hope for the future of Benedictine monasticism, maybe not hope for every monastery or every congregation/federation, but an overall hope. Throughout much of the history of the world religions, monasticism has been alive, has developed, has endured. It has been an ever-present way of life. If the history of the world religions demonstrates anything, it demonstrates that the monastic way of life will continue. The challenge for contemporary monastics and monasteries is to continue to be part of this ever-constant yet ever-new way of life.