Friday, August 26, 2016

What is a monastery for?

Note:  I originally wrote this in two posts for the Prior's Blog on the Mount Calvary Monastery website, and then edited it for our monastery newsletter's Summer 2016 edition.  I thought it might reach a slightly different audience by offering it here.


What is a monastery for?

People have been writing about this question for at least 1,650 years, if you date the beginning of setting and answering the question with the Life of Anthony by St. Athanasius shortly after the saint’s death in 356. It is a very considerable body of literature! And it seems presumptuous to write more about it!

A monastery is “for” creating a place and a style of life to allow both the monks and our guests to pursue closeness to God seriously. Any- one can do this anywhere, of course, and many people do it in their daily lives without monasteries and do it better than we do.

Monks need to be with other people who want to do the same thing and so we try to create a place and a way of living to facilitate it.  Maybe we need it because we are fallible, not especially strong, or because we are not very heroic and need mutual encouragement. At any rate, what we do is build places and styles of living that facilitate rather than hinder the pursuit of God.

So what do monks do?

We work. We pray. We study. We try to practice the Benedictine bal- ance of all three.  Everything about our life is supposed to lead us into God’s presence, to encounter God. Our work makes this economically possible for us. Our studies prepare our minds for this encounter.

But most of all, our prayer directs our hearts to God.  Like Christians everywhere, we pray the Lord’s Prayer, remember the needs of the world and others, turn to the Lord in joy and sorrow and contrition.  We share the Body and Blood of Christ. We sit in silence to meditate and contemplate in the presence of the triune God. Just like every practicing Christian.

But monastic prayer has another component, and it is what makes monasteries what they are.

Several times a day we pray the opus Dei, the work of God. This is not especially personal. We recite the Psalms, listen to the Word of God, spend some silent time together in the presence of what we have recited and heard, and collect its themes in a prayer. For centuries this was done eight times a day. Many monasteries, in response to our clock-centered and work-centered culture, now gather four times a day.

These services are laid out in advance: which psalms, which lessons, which prayer, how much silence. This might seem to leave little room for the movement of the spirit, but anyone who does this kind of prayer knows that the spirit is moving in the mind and heart, but in a special way.

One of the oldest Christian theologies of Scripture is that all of the Bible is the Word of God: what God is actually saying to the world, as complex as that is. If we want to come close to what God is saying to us, Scripture is the place to go. And the way to do it is to listen.

What monks do is set our own concerns aside and listen to Scripture unfiltered. No preacher or teacher or commentary. Just the words of God. The Word of God. We allow ourselves a great privilege: speaking the Word through our own mouths when we recite the psalms.  Hearing the Word read by one of us. As though we are worthy to say the psalms and as though we are worthy to read the Word, to be the mouth by which it enters the world and the ears which are ready to
listen to it.

In monastic tradition the psalms are the very thoughts and prayers and reflections of Jesus himself, Son of Man and Son of God.  When we recite them, we are inviting the resurrected Jesus to enter us, to utter his thoughts and prayers and reflections through us. It is a kind of incarnation, if we let it happen. And if we do, we are putting ourselves close to God.

Benedict begins his Rule with a pregnant word: Obsculta.  Actually, Benedict begins with three words: Obsculta, o fili. Listen, O son. These words have a sequence, a causality. Listening to the Word creates a re- lationship. If we listen to the Word, if we make that Word our words, we will enter a new relationship. We will be sons. And daughters.

So. That’s really what monks do.