A statement on the American-Cassinese Benedictine Monastic Life
Thirty Sixth General Chapter, Second Session, June 1969
Part 1 - Introduction
Part 2 - Problems
Part 3 - Life
Elements of Benedictine Life
Part 4 - Conclusion
1. The Ideal. By his grace God calls men to accept Christ's gift of the evangelical counsels as embodied in the Rule of Benedict. These counsels channel the monks' pursuit of perfect charity and prompt them to offer to their brothers in the Church and to the world a sign of the heavenly kingdom.
2. Prayer. Benedictine life is primarily a seeking of God and a responding to him in a life of prayer. This is its inner dynamism -- a whole way of life which is so ordered from beginning to end as to facilitate habitual union with God. It is not simply a matter of praying from time to time, alternating prayer with other activities, but of directing one's whole life to this end. His sensitivity to God's presence leads the monk to gaze with wonder and gratitude upon the gracious deeds God has wrought -- not only in history, but also in his personal life.
As a man of his time -- an age in which men are more than usually sensitive to the reality of process in history -- today's monk, a man of faith, recognizes the mystery of God's presence especially as the mystery of his coming. The monastic attitude of prayer, therefore, is a greeting of the Lord as he comes in his own sovereign, often surprising, way to claim each new moment of time.
The monk is thus a person radically open to the future , his prayer itself is colored by the urgent petition that God's kingdom come, and his life is stamped with the mark of a pilgrim.
Benedictine prayer life expresses itself most explicitly in communal prayer, the Work of God, continued by the individual prayer of the monk throughout the day. The communal prayer is one of praise, adoration, and thanksgiving rendered to God, celebrating the mysteries of his wondrous deeds in Christ Jesus.
The monk's basic spiritual stance -- termed "humility" in the Rule -- gives rise to a profound sense of compunction, which in turn flows into praise. Thus the principal emphases of monastic prayer are compunction and praise, and the prime medium of this prayer has traditionally been the psalms, rich in the articulation of these dispositions.
The community Eucharist is the center of communal praise. Herein each member expresses most intensely and clearly his consciousness of being God's creature called to the glorious destiny of the kingdom. Renewing in grateful remembrance the Lord's covenant sacrifice, the community as a whole celebrates the deepest dimensions of its existence and purpose. Communing in the body and blood of Christ, the monastic family confesses and experiences the mystery of faith and hope, while fraternal unity is fostered and strengthened.
3. Reading. Of great importance in this life of prayer is meditative reading (lectio divina). The reflective pondering of the word of God aims at giving the monk an awareness of God's presence, a consciousness of the immersion of his life in the mystery of God's activity as revealed in sacred history. Not only the Scriptures, but also the fathers and spiritual and ascetical writers of every age, provide the nourishment without which the life of prayer, the life as lived in the Spirit, is inevitably retarded in the promise of its growth.
Hence the formation of the monk implies an adequate schooling in lectio, and the ordering of his day, coupled with the distribution of work, will permit the time and conditions conducive to regular prayerful reading.
4. Silence. It is in this context, too, that silence is primarily understood: a necessary condition for hearing and being responsive to the call of God. Recollection is a bulwark against the enervating dispersion of oneself and the consequent loss of a clear identity and vision of one's life. Silence of course must be subservient to charity. A good kind of silence unites in charity, while a bad kind of silence can be a way of dividing one from another.
Silence also has an ascetic and penitential aspect -- a means of growth in self -- discipline and an expression reminder and witness to a world which often attempts to forestall coming to grips with itself and its problems by escaping into frenetic activity and noise. By his silence the monk communicates -- he bespeaks peace and calm, an awareness of the divine presence, and a receptivity to the promptings of the Spirit.
It is evident that in the mind of the Rule there is within the context of silence and meditative reading a harmonious blending of individual and communal prayer for the monk. Should he fail in this, the Church suffers from want of his indispensable witness, "a service to the divine majesty at once humble and noble within the walls of the monastery" ("Perfectae caritatis" 9).
5. Community Life. Modern monks should not lose sight of the positive values intended by the traditional rule of enclosure. Because it fosters cohesion and excludes what is detrimental, enclosure is seen as the necessary condition of monastic community living. The call to monastic life bids one leave secular life and at the same time congregates a community in Christ. Responding to God's call, the monk enters more deeply into communion with men, united as he is with God, "in whom he lives and moves and has his being." More concretely, he becomes a part of a specific community of charity, this monastic family.
Seeking God in prayer with all the powers of his being, he is the more really and authentically involved in genuine communion with like-minded men who together strive to form an ideal environment for living the Christian life as fully as possible. Here, experiencing the Pentecostal mystery, the community finds true solidarity as an anticipation of the fully revealed kingdom, and the varying gifts that the Spirit imparts to each can be shared for the benefit of all.
Benedictines take to heart the primacy of charity and the communal dimensions of Christ's saving action. Hence we choose communal life above all other forms of monastic life and recognize in the formation of a Christian community of charity the preferred context for pursuing personal holiness.
This seeking of God in community is a most appropriate way to prepare for service of mankind simply because a facet of the mystery of God as he-who-comes is the mystery of one's fellow man as he-who-is-discovered. Hence the surest sign of true openness to God is an openness to all men. It is principally by this sign of joyful and generous sharing that the monastic family anticipates the heavenly life and gives hope to a world that is sorely tempted to despair of the possibility of men living together in love and mutual trust.
Inherent in the monastic life, then, is the mission of mutual service for the upbuilding of the community, of brother helping brother to fulfill his call within this "school of the Lord's service." In the community of charity the monk's life is no longer his personal possession, but belongs to others, as theirs belongs to him -- becoming one life, Christ's.
The realization that one cannot be truly open to the mystery of God and eager for his coming without being open also to the mystery of one's fellow men and eager for their fulfillment a so essential that there can be no authentic prayer where this charity and spirit of shared hopes does not exist. The monk is committed to sharing his total self -- talents, abilities, hopes -- his very person. Hence, it also implies the sharing of his time arid words in encouragement, help, and sympathy, particularly in times of spiritual crisis and personal distress.
6. Poverty. The evangelical counsel of poverty implies leaving all things for the sake of the kingdom. In the context of community living, the vow of poverty finds deeper meaning as a promise to share all that one is and has with one's brother monks and, beyond them, with all men.
The sharing of material goods will find its fullness in that charity which prompts a monk to share also those treasures of faith and hope and encouragement which are the indispensable provisions of the community in its pilgrimage toward God. The sharing of material goods thus becomes an external sign both of simplicity and of charity.
Further, the crying injustices and sufferings of men everywhere, and the debasement which affluence so easily brings to human life, make it imperative that the individual monk and the community as a whole live in true simplicity, sharing their goods with the less fortunate. Moreover, the monk is not unaware of the penitential and ascetic dimensions of poverty: a means, an educative force, helping him learn to seek the kingdom of God and his justice.
7. Conversion. This seeking of God, his kingdom, and his justice in a life of prayer is central to monastic life. To assure monastic vitality and to accelerate its momentum, the monk specifically dedicates himself to conversatio morum, which is here interpreted as a growth in readiness for, and openness to, the inbreaking of the kingdom.
Commitment to growth, in a monastically structured context, implements the words of Saint Paul: "Forgetting what is behind me, and reaching out for that which lies ahead, I press towards the goal to win the prize which is God's call to the life above, in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 3:13-14).
8. Stability. To anchor himself the more firmly in this constant and arduous task the monk binds himself to stability. It is a promise to abide in one specific monastic community because this is the condition for effective spiritual development under one master in a living, continuous community. Thus the monk is encouraged to come to terms with self: he cannot flee self-confrontation. Stability, then, is a self-discipline, since the monk promises to persevere in the task of spiritual growth despite discouragements and difficulties, realizing that he cannot really escape by running from place to place.
9. Prophetic Witness. In striving to know himself better in the presence of God, the monk hears the voice of God calling him to worship in the desert (Exodus 5:1). The desert theme as a distinctive element in monastic spirituality was a symbol of spiritual combat and desire for solitude. In its deepest Biblical sense, however, the desert is a trackless, unmapped, unexplored region, and stands in sharp contrast to the planned, familiar, domesticated city (Egypt, Canaan).
Moreover, in the dynamic dimension of the flux of historical time (so prominent in Biblical thought), the desert symbolizes the future. Accordingly, fuga mundi while it has always been rightly interpreted as physical separation from worldly distractions, must also be understood as a sign representing flight from contentment with, and attachment to, the present insofar as it is limited to the familiar, comfortable moment where men are tempted to imprison God and where God's plans are allowed to die for lack of vision and courage.
Flight from the world is therefore something positive -- a flight into the desert, not certainly as an unreal place where one can muse and daydream, but as -- the future where the monk searches for God, whose mystery is expressed in the image of the unexplored regions in which the faith and courage of men are tested and perfected. It is therefore to the present as open to the future, as the propitious today when God's call is heard, that the monk commits himself (cf. Psalm 94:7 and the Prologue to the Rule; cf. also Hebrews 3:7 and 4:13).
The willingness to reject the classic idolatry of worshipping the status quo in order to move resolutely into the mystery of God is therefore an expression of the deepest monastic instinct, which has identified monks as successors of the prophets, whose model representatives, Elijah and John the Baptist, clearly claimed the desert as their native milieu.
10. Celibacy. At the heart of the monastic vocation is the mystery of divine love and election. In response to God's predilection a monk prefers absolutely nothing to the love of Christ and denies himself in order to follow Christ through a life of celibacy. Therefore, celibacy has consistently been understood as an essential part of that special form of following Christ which the Church has traditionally understood to be the religious life. Here, perhaps more cogently than from any other aspect, the mystery of the monastic life stands out as a witness to the new age of the Kingdom. Here, too, it is perhaps most clearly seen that the monastic life is a martyrdom, as its earliest adherents, in the post-persecution age of the Church, intended.
The monk and his community embrace celibacy as a declaration of intense dedication to God, of intimate solidarity with Christ, and to further the -- monk's openness to the call of God for his service and the service of one's brothers. Celibacy is not sought for its own sake, but for the sake of the kingdom. It is a sign, a witness to the kingdom that is coming. It implies leaving unchosen something good (marriage) in the interest of that kingdom where there will be neither marrying nor giving in marriage. As a mode of Christian renunciation it brings other renunciations in its train.
Celibacy implies penance and an ascesis which must be vital if the monk's life of prayer with God is to be preserved and be fruitful in spiritual growth for himself and for others. Seen in its positive aspect of sign for the kingdom, and in its spiritual fecundity in love and service to one's brothers, celibacy, like entering marriage and raising a family, is a way of self-sacrifice in union with Christ, in which destructive self-centeredness is overcome, in a religious fellowship in God -- an anticipation of the heavenly Jerusalem.
Attempts to explain celibacy in terms of efficiency or of a purely natural logic will always fall short and perhaps even obscure its meaning. The mystery of celibacy is ultimately intelligible only in the light of faith and within the perspective of the prophetic, eschatological witness. The monk seeks to be more keenly aware of the inbreaking of the kingdom, more ready to run to meet the Lord: through celibacy he wishes to hold himself ready. Or, with Saint Paul, he thinks it better, "in a time of stress (anagke)," to be free of anything, however valuable, that might delay his response or divide his heart and attention (I Cor. 7:26).
The time of stress is the travail that attends the birth of the new age, and the monk commits himself to total absorption in this momentous event. He is very much a pilgrim, and his celibacy accentuates that he has not yet arrived home. In some mysterious way, celibacy is the attitude, at once poignant and painful, of him who stands in the vanguard -- one who accepts the loneliness of not having yet caught up with his heart's desire.
11. Obedience. Placing himself in a community of brothers under an abbot, the monk further readies himself to follow the call of God by obedience. The monk's obedience, which means a giving heed to (ob-audire) his abbot and brethren, must be seen as an expression of his faith and hope. By it the monk seeks to enter more fully into that mystery of loving obedience whereby Christ, fulfilling his Father's will, laid down his life for his brethren and opened for the future the hope of the resurrection. This is why the monk seeks to place God's will before all selfish impulse and why his obedience becomes a manifesto of fidelity to his brethren and of his responsibility to his own community, the Church, and the world.
Far, then, from being an attempt to crush the human will considered to be radically evil, or from being a mere technique to insure efficiency of institutional operation, the monk's obedience, as the heeding and attentive listening to others, becomes, in a very real sense, that love of neighbor which schools one for life in the family of God.
The monk who is faithful in listening attentively and heeding his abbot and brethren soon discovers the many positive benefits of obedience. Gradually he finds himself freed from the tyranny of self-centered impulse. The partial ignorance of himself and the prejudice which tend to obscure his judgment in matters touching him most personally are dissipated, as the monk grows in the wisdom of the Spirit mediated to him through his spiritual father and his community. As through obedience he gains deeper insight into the spirit which is in him, so too does he learn to discern the spirit in others.
Besides deeper self-knowledge, obedience can also provide a greater scope of activity for the individual monk, for his benefit and that of others; through obedience to his abbot and the encouragement of his brothers, the monk may be emboldened to undertake tasks and responsibilities which he might not otherwise accept.
In all these ways, then, obedience is intended to liberate the monk through the power of the cross, to give his natural talents the capacity for growth, and to increase his dedication to that worship and service which are the vocation of the children of God.
12. The Abbot The context of the monk's response to God's call is the Rule of Saint Benedict, his abbot, and his community. The Rule proffers a definite program, embodies a specific shape of life, a particular thrust which is the tried and proven way of personal monastic growth and effective external witness. The abbot, a sacrament of the person and will of Christ, and himself guided by the Rule, is principally a spiritual leader helping and guiding the community and the individual monk to fulfill their role in the Church and to respond to the challenge of the "kairos" -- the grace-born, opportune moment of God's saving action.
The abbot accomplishes his task by his obedience to the word of God perceived in the gospel, the Rule, and the counsels of his community. The Rule, indeed, is the norm according to which the life is pursued, but it is the abbot with his community -- against the background of a deepening understanding of the gospel -- who has the office of interpreting the Rule for the community in each age. It is in this way that the abbot and community express that creative fidelity encouraged by Saint Benedict.
It has been noted earlier in these pages that the Rule is not something static. Rather, it is the trunk of a living tradition whose roots sink deep the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament and the early Christian community, with branches that constantly produce new forms and offshoots.
13. Renunciation. In aligning himself with the values discussed in previous sections, the monk is aware that in the present life, where so much is provisional, the choice of one good involves leaving unchosen many things of great value. In other words, his life is not without renunciation. He recognizes the very real existence of sin, evil, and weakness in himself and in those about him, and he is cognizant of the constant efforts of discipline and self-denial that train and school him for perseverance in his conversion. His is a share in the Cross of Christ, but a fully redemptive share, in that he also partakes of the joy and hope of the Resurrection.
The monk, like every Christian, is not of this world. But he is in the world in a manner different from Christians generally. Embracing the monastic life in response to God's call, and striving to fulfill an important role in the life of the Mystical Body, the monk knowingly and freely forgoes certain goods and values. His style of life, therefore, cannot fail to embody and implement this continuing choice.
Such renunciations, like the Cross itself, are intelligible only in the light of faith. Since they are undertaken for the sake of the kingdom, they will often appear as mere folly and scandal to those of little faith. There will always be an element of folly in the life of the monk who lives the full consequences of his commitment, certainly not because of eccentricity or imprudence, but because the God of mystery, revealing himself on the frontier of time, will frequently lead the monk to adopt attitudes and to assume roles that appear foolish precisely because they may be out of step with the times.
The monk is one who even now attempts to live as fully as possible in the new age of the kingdom. This may well expose him to the risk of ridicule from those who, closed to the future, cling to the established order of the present age. The true monk is, in this sense, an innovator, one who challenges the sacrosanct order: he is a witness to the kingdom which is to come.
So wholehearted and single-minded a commitment to God's future -- the hallmark of the prophetic and therefore of the monastic call -- brings to the monk a certain clarity and simplicity. His life thereby assumes an ever deepening knowledge of who he is before God. This self-awareness, far from oppressing and discouraging him, enables him to accept himself, with both his assets and his deficiencies. It leads him at the same time to an acceptance of his brother as he is, with no desire for odious comparisons, with no inclination to remake his brother into his own likeness.
The clarity of self-identity -- and the consequent joy in the realization of being loved by God and his brothers -- lends the monk's life transparency and wholeness, the fruit of that humility which Saint Benedict outlines as the very substance of monastic spirituality, the basic orientation that all the elements of Benedictine life coalesce to effect.
14. Work. The monastic life strives to achieve a delicate balance that is often difficult to attain. It intends to state and realize forthrightly an uncompromising hierarchy of values. Within the framework of his primary call -- the seeking of God and the responding to him in a life of prayer, to which nothing else may be preferred -- the monk takes up his daily work as a task full of hope and promise, a service to his brothers in the community, in the Church, in the world at large.
A monastic community is not, by its nature, bound to specific endeavors. However, work has always been considered essential in the life of the monk. In fulfillment of this obligation the individual monk always relates his personal work to the interests of the community, and is sensitive about sharing the burden of his fellow monks. Each monastic community should discover for itself and pursue work which is consonant with its goals. I n each generation it will reflect critically upon the fittingness of the work in which it is engaged.
15. Witness. The challenges and thrust of the present age, far from rendering the monastic witness obsolete, make that witness all the more timely and necessary. Monasticism, indeed, where authentically realized, embodies much that is best in contemporary thought and aspirations: a spirit of openness to new possibilities, a respect for the dignity and uniqueness of the person, an affirmation of pluralism, a concern for honesty and authenticity, a desire for simplicity and straightforwardness of life.
On the other hand, the monastic witness provides precisely what is needed to counter certain deficiencies to which modern thought and life are prone. For this witness asserts the primacy of God and the things of God, embodies a heightened sense of, and reverence for, the sacred, a profound awareness of the sense and meaning of one's existence and a single-minded orientation toward its achievement, and a strong affirmation of the value of prayer, silence, community, responsibility, and perseverance.
Though some contemporary voices raise doubts concerning the continuing validity of monasticism in our day, the General Chapter believes that such views rest on inadequate conceptions of monasticism and upon a misreading of the times as well as of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.
There is a variety of gifts and of roles in the Church. The call to the monastic way of life is one of many vocations. Each gift and each role in the Church needs the others -- in their pristine integrity and creative fidelity -- so that the living body of Christ may more and more perfectly mirror the marvelous riches of the Word made flesh, to the glory of God and the salvation of the world.
Conclusion - Next >
Renew and Create
Congregations of North America
The Confederation of Monastic Congregations
Copyright © 1969; 2002 American-Cassinese Congregation. All rights