American-Cassinese Congregation

Renew and Create

Part 1 - Introduction

Part 2 - Problems

Part 3 - Life
Part 4 - Conclusion

Some Specifically Benedictine Problems

(1) The Root Problem. The General Chapter is convinced that most of our specifically Benedictine problems are derived in one way or another and to a greater or lesser extent from one basic problem, that of Benedictine identity, in the sense expressed in No. 4 (Part I - Introduction).

Thus, renewal discussions in our monasteries frequently return to one basic question phrased in various ways: "What is a monk?" "What is monasticism?" "Does being a monk have a value in itself, or is it simply a framework for engaging in priestly and educational work?" Behind such questions there lies the deeper question of Benedictine identity. "Where are we going?" "What interpretation and valuation should be given to our heritage, and what goals should we set for ourselves?" The implication of these questions should be noted: they indicate a thrust toward new growth requiring an insight into the basic orientation of Benedictine life within the Church, in the light of which a coherent spiritual doctrine and patterns of living can unfold.

Again, the root problem can be expressed in terms of the Benedictine Rule. Men who profess to live their lives according to the Rule of Saint Benedict and according to statutes which state that nothing should be lacking to our Congregation "as regards the spirit of the Rule of Saint Benedict" cannot evade the responsibility of attempting to identify this spirit of the Rule. Now within the Congregation both individuals and communities relate to the Rule in very different ways. Some of the more common of these ways may be described as follows:

a. By some the Rule is looked upon simply as a set of religious prescriptions, to be followed as they have been officially modified by the Holy See, and it is the observance of these prescriptions and their modifications which guarantees a life according to the Rule,

b. For others the Rule is normative for American Benedictines only in the loosest sense, that is, as a general guide from which certain principles concerning common Christian realities community, liturgy, Scripture are drawn to nourish the spiritual life. According to this understanding, the Benedictine community exists to undertake any work useful for the Church.

c. There are also those who find in the Rule the inspiration and spiritual doctrine for a kind of life distinct from other forms of Christian life, with particular institutional structures and practical prescriptions which are normative to the extent that they truly serve the basic inspiration of the Rule. According to this understanding, all the activities of the monastery, including external apostolic commitments, should be in harmony with this basic inspiration.

d. Many, not feeling a need for theorizing on monastic life, scarcely raise the theoretical question of the normative value of the Rule and consider the traditional community practices and commitments and abbatial decisions to be sufficient guarantee of life according to the Rule.

e. Some have the conviction that, whatever the Rule's value in the past, it is now irrelevant to contemporary needs and conditions.

Besides the fact that in its long history the Rule has received a great variety of interpretations, there are a number of special reasons why such divergent interpretations of what it means to live according to the Rule should coexist in the houses of the Congregation.

First, for many decades the document most directly influential in the spiritual formation of many American-Cassinese novices was the Tyrocinium Religiosum, whose spiritual doctrine differs in many respects from that of the Rule. In addition, the regular observance carried out habitually in the monastery by at least some members of the community was accepted as sufficient expression of Benedictine theory, while on the other hand policy decisions vitally affecting the life of the community were not infrequently made without explicit reference to clearly articulated Benedictine spirituality. Further, the virtue of obedience was often presented as a sufficient guarantee of Benedictine life, even when obedience placed many monks for long periods of their lives outside of habitual contact with their community and abbot.

No value judgment is intended here on the three above-mentioned factors in their particular historical context. They help to explain, however, why there is confusion concerning our relation to the spirit of the Rule which we profess to follow, and why the practical life of our communities appears to be shaped by elements of doctrine, patterns of living, and community commitments which do not form a coherent whole.

The problem has become more acute since historical research in the last few decades has helped to clarify the basic thrust and spiritual doctrine of the Rule in terms of its own historical context, and since Vatican II has called upon religious orders to preserve their own special character and purpose by a continuous return to the original inspiration behind the order. The contemporary stress upon authenticity in values and ways of living and upon honesty in facing problems makes resolution of the difficulties outlined above still more urgent.

In summary, the General Chapter is convinced that on the institutional level the root Benedictine problem facing our communities is this: a lack of clarity concerning the basic orientation of Benedictine life as a distinct form of Christian life having a specific function in the Church; a consequent lack of clarity and inner coherence between elements of spiritual doctrine and the concrete structures of living which de facto shape the life of our communities; and a resultant confusion concerning the concrete manner in which our monasteries ought to effect creative adaptation to contemporary realities. This root problem is clearly manifested in specific elements of spiritual doctrine and institutional structure.

(2) Manifestations of the Root Problem on the Level of Spiritual Doctrine.

a. Difficulty in Defining Distance from the World. The difficulty is classical and crucial. How "separation from the world" or "flight from the world" is interpreted is crucial because it determines to a great extent what functions Benedictines may have in the Church and what general style of life should be theirs. The need to interpret these expressions arises not only from the words themselves: in what sense is "world" used? In what sense should "separation" be understood? The need flows also from two seemingly conflicting historical phenomena.

On the one hand it seems that the doctrine of the Rule, expressed in frequent and categorical statements, indicates habitual separation from the activities of ordinary human society as the normal context of the Benedictine's life. This doctrine has been applied continuously through the centuries in some branches of Benedictine tradition; it has been reasserted at Vatican II: "Monks are to offer their service to the divine majesty within the confines of the monastery" ("Perfectae caritatis" 9); and to the extent that monasticism has a meaning in the popular mind, it connotes physical separation from the world.

On the other hand, other branches of the Benedictine tradition have engaged in extensive missionary and pastoral work, and the American-Cassinese Congregation in particular was not only founded under an active missionary inspiration, but its houses have expanded their dedication to works of the active apostolate long after the original missionary needs disappeared. At present, the secularization of culture and the demands which apostolates now make in terms of professionalism and specialization encourage this involvement in the activities of ordinary human society still more.

The point of these observations is not to establish who or what is authentically Benedictine or to encourage fruitless discussions on "how separated from the world" Benedictine communities must be. The point is that our communities, on the level of spiritual doctrine, continue to suffer from a lack of clearly articulated and realistic teaching on "separation from the world"; hence there are lacking in this decisive area clear criteria for the formation of new members (cf. c below) and for guiding the policy decisions of the community.

b. The Problem of Prayer, Lectio, Silence, Recollection. What has been said about defining distance from the world can be said about the role of these elements in the spirituality of our communities. Obviously the function and style of Benedictine life in the Church depends in great part on the value attributed to these elements -- elements which form an organic whole in the spiritual teaching of the Rule. In the practical ordering of daily life in our houses, an implicit evaluative judgment is made concerning the relative importance of these elements. But this practical judgment is not brought into clear confrontation with the spiritual doctrine of the Rule.

To the extent that our practical evaluation differs from that of the Rule, an alternate spiritual doctrine has not been elaborated, and this failure has contributed to harmful confusion on both the theoretical and practical level.

c. The Difficulty of Formulating a Spirituality Which Can Be Taught to New Members. The ambiguity that exists on the level of spiritual doctrine in regard to such decisive elements as separation from the world and the life of prayer with its concomitants of lectio and recollection emerges most strongly on the level of formation of candidates for our communities. The expression of a community's spiritual ideals and its conception of its role in the Church must be communicated above all to those who seek to know whether they should commit themselves to a life according to the spirit of the Rule in our communities. The difficulty of communicating to the novices and juniors of the monastery a spiritual doctrine coherent with the commitments of the community is not a matter of theoretical speculation but of repeated experience in our houses.

Many monks speak of the conflict they have experienced between the spirituality offered them in their year or years of formation and the demands made on them after formation. (In the case of diocesan clergy and of religious dedicated to the works of the active apostolate, the conflict between spirituality and apostolic practice has, often been blamed on the imposition of a "monastic" spirituality during the years of formation!) The comments of monastic superiors on the difference in a monk "once he got into the clericate," "when he started to teach," "after he was ordained," "when he returned from the university," and so on, may well be comments not simply on personal problems but on defective programs of formation.

Many monks have had to form, with reflection or unreflectively, a personal spirituality which has little to do with the "monastic" spirituality taught them in their early years, and not infrequently this has resulted in persistent feelings of guilt. To directors of formation the problem is placed most acutely: how to communicate to new members a spiritual doctrine that can honestly be said to be according to the spirit of the Rule and which at the same time is adequate for the concrete patterns of living found in the community.

d. The Presence of Persons with Different Vocational Orientations in the Same Community. A wide range of personalities and activities generally exists in any given community, so that community structures must be flexible and unity must not be confused with uniformity. Nevertheless, a lack of clarity in regard to the basic orientation of Benedictine life serves to attract people whose temperament and vocational leanings cover such a wide spectrum as to make even unity in pluriforrnity very difficult, if not impossible.

With community as the central feature, our monasteries attract some persons through elements of doctrine and practice which stress local stability, a meditative atmosphere, and communal worship; others are attracted by the apostolic opportunities of an educational, parochial, or artistic apostolate in the context of community; still others by the apparent balance of all these elements. The umbrella is large. Not infrequently, however, professed monks, by reason of temperament, deliberate choice, or obedience, find themselves in practice more committed to one orientation than to another.

The result is a weakening of communal unity of purpose, as individuals of diverse bent identify their orientation with that of the community as a whole and consider others as the opposition. It follows that unity is often preserved by compromise on key issues, leaving all sides uneasy, and the flexibility required in the face of change is endangered as some individuals feel their whole way of life threatened by newfangled ideas about monasticism, or others feel menaced by unexpected and seemingly unending demands of the apostolate. Polarization and rigidity are encouraged when men of diverse vocational leaning are drawn into a community whose spiritual doctrine and identity are ambiguous.

(3) Manifestations of the Root Problem on the Level of Structure.

a. Living in Community. Recent congresses of abbots and general chapters have exalted living in the local community as a primary characteristic of the Benedictine way of life. Nevertheless, the apostolic commitments of many of our communities require that many monks live outside the local community. Thus some Benedictines under obedience spend long periods of time in pastoral work away from the rhythm and style of community life, and many others, assigned to educational work in the schools of the abbey, participate only sporadically in the round of activities which take place in the monastery.

b. The Primacy of the Opus Dei. In theory the principle that nothing is to be preferred to the work of God is constantly extolled by Benedictine authorities. In practice, in many of our Houses life is so structured than many monks, after their period of formation, generally can take part in the choral office only to the extent that other duties permit. In addition, the question is now more frequently raised by some monks whether the choral office should be considered a primary or even essential element of contemporary Benedictine life.

c. The Clericalization of Benedictine Life. The juridical requirement that all who wished to be monks in the full canonical sense had also to seek admission to sacred orders -- a requirement only recently relaxed -- has been productive of great good for individual monks, for monastic communities, and for the Church at large.

Nevertheless, it is a historical fact that it has also been the source of many serious problems. It has tended towards an assimilation of Benedictine life to clerical life within the hierarchical structure of the Church, whereas the clerical state is not essential to Benedictine life; it has contributed greatly to the dispersal of the members of the Benedictine community; it has raised serious problems of formation for both clerical and nonclerical monks.

d. The Common Good and the Good of the Individual Monk. The common problem of finding the proper relationship between the talents and aspirations of the individual monk and the welfare of the community is intensified when a sense of community identity is weak or lacking. In the absence of a clear sense of religious identity within the community, the tendency of individuals to pursue private projects and esoteric types of personal fulfillment to the neglect of community concerns is encouraged, and our communities tend to produce rugged individualists who really live on the margin of the community.

On the other hand, to the extent that the traditionally Benedictine understanding of obedience as directed primarily to the welfare of the monk has been overshadowed by a concept of obedience as primarily an instrument for furthering community apostolates, a process of depersonalization has set in. Some monks come to feel that they are being "used" to fulfill commitments, as they are assigned tasks for which they have little preparation, talent, interest, or spiritual resources, or as their value is assessed primarily in terms of the contribution of their work to the institution.

e. The Role of the Abbot. In Benedictine teaching the abbot has general responsibility for all aspects of the monastic community's life; within this overall responsibility his primary role has generally been considered to be that of spiritual master and ascetical director; in the context of local stability he has, in theory, a relationship to each of his monks which does not characterize the role of major superiors in other religious orders. Because of this role attributed to him by the Rule, his influence on the spiritual vitality of the community is very great. Hence the manifold problems presently experienced in regard to the role of the abbot in our communities are crucial.

Thus, in a democratic culture that stresses dialogue, individual responsibility, and personal fulfillment, the plenary authority given to the abbot by the pope and the way in which this authority is sometimes exercised present serious problems to many. In several cases, the dispersal of monks outside the community, the large size of the community, and the administrative demands made upon the abbot interfere with his role of forming the community spiritually.

Further, the qualifications necessary for fulfilling the primary role of the abbot as spiritual father and the qualifications for holding ultimate responsibility over specialized modern apostolates do not coincide in every respect and may not easily be found in one man. Hence communities engaged in such apostolates may find themselves in a dilemma in choosing an abbot, and abbots themselves may find a conflict of finalities in exercising their several roles.

Finally, because of the lack of clarity in regard to Benedictine identity, it happens that communities sometimes decide to choose as abbot a person who can maintain some kind of equilibrium between conflicting elements in the community rather than one who can resolve the conflicts by firm leadership.

f. Overcommitment. Problems arising from overcommitment are common in our monasteries, and overcommitment itself is encouraged by a lack of clear criteria for judging what kind and degree of commitments are compatible with the basic orientation of Benedictine life. Such problems begin already on the level of formation. There is considerable difficulty in offering and assimilating three complete programs of formation -- religious, clerical, and professional -- programs whose finalities do not entirely coincide.

Then there is the overcommitment of the individual or the community to activities that either in their number or in the time and effort they demand make the balance between prayer, lectio, and work as envisaged by the Rule a practical impossibility for many.

Programs of renewal on the local and congregational level have often been seriously hindered by such overcommitment, in as much as such programs often depend to a great extent on monks whose commitments are already heavy. Not least of all, some monks feel that their communities have made such heavy investments of personnel and money in certain traditional apostolates that the monks are no longer capable of exercising their traditional prophetic role of reading the signs of the times and adjusting flexibly to the present needs of the Church and the world.

The institutional problems which our communities face are not only numerous, but they also touch all the major aspects of our religious life. All are to some degree problems of adaptation: if the houses of our Congregation wish to survive with any vitality, they must take seriously the cultural transformation through which human society is passing, and with a critical spirit seek new forms of Benedictine life which can be meaningful for men of the Church and world today. But the problem of adaptation immediately implies the more basic problem of identity. The process of adaptation can become a process of creative growth only on condition that it is related to a clear perception of our heritage.

Part 3 - Next >

Renew and Create
American-Cassinese Index
Congregations of North America
The Confederation of Monastic Congregations


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