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 can't 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.
Dan Ward, OSB
Monk of St. John's Abbey
(Editor's Note: The next issue of the American Monastic Newsletter will have the conclusion to this article entitled "The Future.")