Michael Casey, ocso,
Monk of Tarrawarra, Australia
There was a little girl who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead;
When she was good, she was very, very good,
And when she was bad she was horrid.
This nursery rhyme by the American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882), expresses both my first thought when confronted with the topic of monastic autonomy, and my final conclusion. On those occasions in monastic history when local autonomy has worked well, the results were brilliant; but where leadership was defective and the community dysfunctional, the absence of effective external supervision and intervention often led to dire results.
The world in which Saint Benedict realised his vision of monastic life was in a mess. The western region of the Roman Empire was severed from its eastern counterpart and allowed to weaken and wither. Its territories were ravaged by successive incursions of ‘barbarian’ tribes. Towns and villages were destroyed. Food production and supply were interrupted and famines resulted. Floods and plagues took their toll of an already diminished population. Meanwhile the fabric of the Church continued to be rent by lingering doctrinal controversies. Not the ideal time or place for a monastic foundation!
Within this context Saint Benedict seems to have conceived of his monastery as an island of tranquillity and order surrounded by a wild sea of conflict and chaos. It was to be a stronghold against the destructive forces at work outside its confines. The monastery defined itself in terms of its not being like ambient society. It was what the ‘world’ was not. The most potent symbol of this determination was the enclosure wall surrounding the monks’ living area, outside which ‘there should be no need for monks to wander, for that would not be beneficial for their souls’ (RB 66:7).
Thus, from the beginning, the Benedictine monastery was a world apart. Within the monastic precinct order reigned. The pax which has established itself as one of the hallmarks of the Benedictine tradition was, in Augustine’s terms, the tranquillity of order. The order thus created was not simply a tight regime with no purpose but its own continuance. It was an order with finality. ‘Let the abbot so temper and arrange everything that souls are saved, and that what the brothers do, they may do without just grumbling’ (RB 41:5). The good order of the monastery is promoted when everything is in dynamic harmony with its lofty spiritual purposes, on the one hand and, on the other, when it does not make excessive demands on the good will or capacity of the monks. In other words, the good order of the monastic community is achieved not merely by reference to some objective standard, but by constant finetuning in accordance with the subjective condition of the community in a particular time and place.
It is this pastoral sensitivity to the concrete reality of the community – in its struggle to become strangers to worldly ways of acting and in its journey to the heavenly homeland – that offers the best rationale for autonomous monasteries. The Benedictine monastery was not totally autonomous, however, it remained subject to the Rule and open to episcopal intervention in emergencies. Autonomy was conditional upon fidelity to its intrinsic values. As it happens, this is the sense in which the term ‘autonomy’ is used in Can. 586.1 CIC – autonomy is a means of ensuring the continuance and integrity of tradition and discipline. Its prime purpose is to allow for the creation of a more rarefied environment in which, by following monastic tradition, the beliefs and values of the Gospel are paramount, and in which attention is paid to nurturing the interior receptivity of those who are privileged to live there.
From 628 when Pope Honorius I granted to Saint Columban’s monastery of Bobbio exemption from immediate episcopal jurisdiction, monastic autonomy became widespread, particularly in matters of internal discipline, in electing new abbots, and in the administration of the temporal domain. Of course, accepting legal exemption is to place oneself under the law rather than being independent of it.
In time, larger monasteries became virtually self-sufficient; houses of God still, but surrounded village-like by a well-ordered complex of gardens, workshops, services and industries. We can see this exemplified in the ninth-century copy of the Plan of St Gall. Settlements grew up around the monasteries, and the influence and power of abbots expanded apace. The autonomy granted to Cluny at its foundation in 912 was extended also to include its many dependent priories so that the Cluniac empire became something of a parallel universe, and its abbot effectively a more powerful man than many prelates or princes.
When Pope Callixtus II gave approval to the Cistercians in 1119, a new situation emerged, one more closely approximating what we know today. Not only did the Pope re-affirm the freedom from interference in the internal affairs of the monasteries, formerly granted in the decree Desiderium quod of Paschal II (19 October, 1100), but he sanctioned a new arrangement whereby individual monasteries were independent, and yet subject to supervision, ‘in matters both human and divine’. This was done, firstly, by maintaining a relationship with the founding house within the context of which, the Father Abbot was to conduct a yearly visitation. Secondly, all the abbots were to come together annually in General Chapter to discuss ‘the salvation of their own souls’.
In principle, the annual visit of the Father Abbot was not an infringement of local autonomy. According to the Charter of Charity, ‘He is not to presume to deal with anything or to give orders about or to handle anything concerning the material goods of the place to which he has come against the will of the abbot and the brethren’ (CC 4:5). Even so, the visitor is to remain vigilant: ‘If he realises that the precepts of the Rule or of our Order are being violated in that place then, with the advice of the abbot and in his presence, he should charitably apply himself to making correction’ (CC 4:6). The visitor is seconding the pastoral efforts of the local abbot not by-passing them.
The yearly General Chapter in its earliest form was more a pastoral than a legislative body. The abbots came together ‘to treat of the salvation of their own souls’. It is as though the text suggests that if the abbot’s own spiritual life is flourishing, his monastery is in good hands. On the other hand, ‘if any abbot proves to have been less zealous for the Rule or too intent on things secular, or habitually prone to vice,’ correction is to be made. Only after that, ‘if something is to be emended or added to in the observance of the Holy Rule or of the Order, let them so ordain it.’ The conditional form of the sentence is to be noted. The legislative function of the meeting is clearly secondary. Finally, their gathering is meant to strengthen the grace of communion: ‘Let them re-establish among themselves the good of peace and charity’ (CC 7:2). These first Cistercians pursued unanimity not uniformity; like the primitive community in Acts, they wanted, above all, to have one heart and one soul.
This simple pastoral gathering was well suited to the needs of a small group of newly-founded monasteries, but as the number of monasteries affiliated with Cîteaux increased, its fraternal structure was impossible to maintain. Cistercian monasteries, meanwhile, experienced a boom in recruitment. Exempt from ecclesiastical and secular imposts, road tolls and market fees they became successful entrepreneurs – as they needed to in order to provide for the large communities that many had to support.
As ‘the poor of Christ’ became richer and more powerful, new issues and problems multiplied. The nature of Cistercian General Chapters changed; they became more legislative and disciplinary – and more resented and resisted. The Chapter became a kind of parliament of abbots – the supreme authority in the Order and, thereby, the authority of each monastery was proportionately reduced. From 1185, the formulation of the decisions of the General Chapter was entrusted to what we would probably call a ‘leadership team’ consisting of the president (usually the Abbot of Cîteaux), one of the four proto-Abbots and two others chosen for their superior discernment. By 1197 this group has been expanded and its members were named ‘definitors’. In 1265 the number of definitors rose to twenty-five. By the fourteenth century, with encouragement from the Roman authorities, a curial bureaucracy had been formed under a procurator general and, in the next century, Pope Eugene IV referred to the Abbot of Cîteaux as ‘Abbot General’. Needless to say, this centralising tendency was contested by those Cistercian abbots who considered themselves disempowered by it, but its progress was inevitable.
Meanwhile monastic life, in all its variety, was under attack from many sides. The system of commendatory abbots struck at the very heart of Benedictine observance. Monasteries often became the targets of secular and ecclesiastical greed. The Hundred Years War (1337-1453) disrupted lines of communication. Many monasteries were depopulated as a result of the Black Death (1347-1352). Newer and more exciting orders were recruiting heavily, and the Reformation led to the suppression of many monasteries and the dispersal of their communities. Internally, cumulative mitigations often allowed observance to fall beneath the critical mass needed to sustain fervour and attract vocations. As a result even large monasteries with huge domains and long histories were under-populated and, worse still, not all those who lived in the community were there by choice, since surplus family members were regularly dumped in the cloister to avoid their being a drain on family resources.
There was, obviously, a need for reform; but any attempt to reform groups with no central authority was a daunting task, especially because among the monasteries of Black Monks local autonomy remained a prime concern. The call of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 for all monasteries to form themselves into congregations with regular chapters and visitations fell on deaf ears, as did similar appeals in the following century. In the fifteenth century, localised efforts at reform often resulted in more or less informal clusters of monasteries bound together more often by strong leadership and renewed observance than by law.
The situation changed when, in 1563, the Council of Trent promulgated its decree De regularibus et monialibus, making provision for the reform of religious life, by which previously independent houses were constrained to come together following the model of the burgeoning active orders. And so congregations were formed according to region, language or affinity, but the degree of unity varied from relatively cohesive and centralised groups to loose federations in which each abbey remained effectively autonomous and maintained its own particular traditions.
Again, despite the revival evidenced in many places, external events intervened to confuse the situation: first the Thirty Years War(s) (1618-1648), then the decline in standards and the loss of monastic focus that paralleled the Enlightenment and, finally, the closures at the time of the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon and, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the suppression of monasteries that were not considered ‘useful’ by Joseph II.
Yet, as the nineteenth century progressed, Benedictine monasticism reinvented itself, entering a period of re-founding and geographical expansion. Under Leo XIII there was a general movement towards consolidation, exemplified in the three principal Trappist congregations being merged into a single entity and in the attempt to create a Benedictine Order that was like other orders, with its head and house of studies here in Rome and regular meetings of superiors.
The reluctance that such centralising tendencies encountered was due to a concern that the pastoral freedom to deal with the particularity of the local situation would be lost without any compensatory gain. The imposition of a universal standardised observance from above was not only contrary to immemorial Benedictine tradition, but it failed to respond to the new situations emerging as monasticism ventured into new continents and engaged with different cultures.
This instinctive reservation regarding centralised authority was not groundless. In the case of Strict Observance Cistercians, the Abbot General is theoretically subject to the General Chapter and, between sessions, acts in its name. Apart from extraordinary instances, his is mainly a moral authority. Yet it has happened that certain strong personalities have acted in a way that ignored this restriction and used their authority in a bullying and intimidating way.
A certain Abbot General while visiting a particular monastery was ensconced in the VIP suite, the windows of which overlooked the monastic enclosure. At the conclusion of his visit he reported to the local abbot that, gazing down, he had observed two monks engaged in conversation for a protracted period, and demanded that something be done about it. Something was done about it. As soon as he had departed, the local abbot acted; he replaced the clear glass of the VIP suite with opaque glass, so that future visitors would not be similarly disturbed. The windows remain so to this day.
The same Abbot General when visiting a convent of nuns in Japan noticed that the workers in their small factory were taking a short cut through the enclosure. He pointed this out to the abbess and she replied, ‘Yes,’ meaning that she understood what he was saying. When he returned some years later and found the situation unchanged, he became angry and threatening, insisting that the gate to the enclosure be kept locked. In some accounts he is reported as providing the padlock to do this. Of course the abbess obeyed and the gate was kept locked. But then she opened a second gate in the wall, a few metres away from the locked gate, so that the workers could continue to have the most direct access to the factory.
In both these anecdotes we see something of the frustration of local superiors when the delicacy or complexity of a particular situation is overlooked, and common sense is sacrificed at the altar of rigidity. What seems to be happening is that the judgement and authority of the local superior is being summarily overridden on the basis of fairly superficial contact with the situation.
Not every local situation leads to a derogation from the letter of the law, but most abbots and abbesses feel the need to experience a certain latitude in applying the law, one that allows for a creative pastoral response to persons and situations for which the blind application of universal norms would be counter-productive. The principle of autonomy is not about power games; it is about pastoral effectiveness.
The specifically Benedictine vow of stability means that a monk or nun belongs to a particular monastery (or congregation) for life; their spiritual physiognomy is shaped by that attachment. From it they receive their monastic identity. For most monks and nuns, interchangeability of personnel, after the manner of modern congregations, is unthinkable. With the composition of communities relatively stable, there is no need to insist on a reductionist uniformity of observance. In fact, in my contacts with scores of Benedictine and Cistercian communities, despite many superficial variations, I have found a remarkable similarity of spirit and practice, though always with a specific local flavour. This sense of belonging is very important. It is because, over the years, monks and nuns have become ‘lovers of the place and of the brethren’, that it is very difficult when, for some reason, a monastery has to close and its members disperse. It is more than just a move, it is an uprooting.
Having stated this principle, it is necessary to add the qualification that unsupervised local autonomy can lead to the erosion of fundamental monastic values. There have been many reforms in Benedictine history; of these we are rightly proud. We must not forget, however, that, for the most part, periods of reformation were preceded by periods of deformation, in which the moderation typical of Benedict’s rule was allowed to degenerate into mediocrity, and the dura et aspera of a disciplined way of life were smoothed down to a comfortable routine of piety and service, in which the radicality of the Gospel was hushed. There is no need for me to dwell on such sad histories; they are known to us all. What is of particular concern to me is that these periods of decline were almost invisible to those who lived through them. Usually, there was no wild flurry of overt immorality; life seemed to continue much as it had always done. There was little drama; members of such communities were drawn unknowingly into a self-legitimating spiral of laxity. Each new mitigation of monastic austerity quickly passed into the body of customary practices. This easier life did not make the monks conspicuously happier as it did not bring them closer to the goal for which they had embraced monasticism. After a generation or two they knew no other practice. It was hard for those involved to envisage an alternative way of living monastic life, and even harder to take practical measures to move towards that objective. Those who tried to initiate reform often found themselves blocked by the inertia of the majority and sometimes intimidated by active hostility. For the advocates of the status quo any tightening of discipline was extremist. In particular cases, especially when a community was under the sway of an omnipotent superior, the group may have exhibited the characteristics of what R. D. Laing has termed a ‘shared fantasy system’, in which reality is defined only terms of interior community dynamics; and whatever happens ‘outside’, and whatever views ‘outsiders’ express are considered irrelevant and meaningless. Such a monastery would have become a self-enclosed, self-legitimating entity, immune to any feedback that might clash with its own self-congratulatory sense of superiority. Not a good form of autonomy!
It is often said that reforms are successful to the extent that they capture and engage the aspirations of the times in which they occur. This may involve the temporary embrace of forms of piety or missionary outreach that are less than timeless in character and soon fall into disuse. The spirituality that energised the reforming efforts of Armand-Jean de Rancé (1626-1700) in the seventeenth century and, later, those of Augustin de Lestrange (1754-1827) is viewed with a certain distaste by many contemporary Trappists, but it was admirably suited to the tenor of the times and, as a result, their communities flourished. The point is that responding to contemporary spiritual aspirations brings vitality and growth. The complementary proposition is also worth considering. A failure to read the signs of the times and to respond to them is likely to lead to stagnation. And let us be honest with ourselves. As Benedictines we are heirs of a significant spiritual tradition; there is a tendency to define ourselves so strongly by our links to the past that we do not always attend to the importance of belonging also to the present and of being, as it were, a bridge between past and present, drawing our energy from both a return to the sources and an attention to the signs of the times.
It is easier for a Visitator, for example, to remark upon sins of commission against the received tradition than to draw attention to omissions such as an absence of zeal for the ongoing renewal of monastic conversatio in the light of changing circumstances. Has the community formed a policy concerning new means of social communication and other technological advances? Has the community taken seriously changes in society and in the Church and their likely impact on its future, or does it persist in a state of hopeful denial? Are there effective means of responding to unacceptable behaviour? As part of God’s providence for a community (RB 61:4) the gift that an outsider may offer is to point out unhelpful tendencies before they reach the stage of being glaringly obvious to everyone.
Compared with past ages Benedictine monasticism is hardly in dire straits today, but there are many communities that are faced with the difficulty of maintaining their customary commitments due to demographic changes, ageing, and fewer entrants. Objectively, there seem to be more things to be done and fewer people to do them. Subjectively, those people
that we have do not always seem to have the same appetite or capacity for work that previous generations had. In many cases we miss the industry and expertise of dedicated lay-brothers. This situation does not necessarily involve a crisis, but it does call for thinking ‘outside the box’.
For various reasons, persons outside the community are often better sources of information, feedback and facilitation than those inside. Sometimes the advice we most need to hear and heed is the advice to which we are least inclined to listen. The chapter in the Rule about calling the community together to give counsel should provide a structure that offers a corrective to any tunnel-vision on the part of superiors, but it can happen that members of communities are reluctant to express views contrary to the known preferences of their superiors, either through undue deference or from unspoken fear of the consequences. The saying of Seneca is not without relevance. ‘Even a low-born peasant can get true praise. But only the powerful can get false praise.’ The esteem in which an abbot is held may cause necessary data to remain unexpressed.
Autonomy is liable to degenerate unless there is some ongoing accountability for the quality of community life. Several times Saint Benedict reminds the abbot that his decisions and policies will be reviewed on Judgement Day (RB 2:6, 3:11, 55:22, 65:22), but that seems rather a long way off. In a world in which secular authorities subject us to detailed auditing to ensure our compliance with a wide range of regulations and statutes – some of them quite trivial – it would be strange if there were no structures of review and assessment in those areas that belong to the heart of the monastic enterprise. Today, constitutions make provision for this, and visitations and general chapters have become part of our normal practice. The structures are in place. It is probably worthwhile to ask ourselves how effectively they are used. We treasure our autonomy and we respect that of others so much that it is only in the direst of situations that there is any willingness to intervene in the internal affairs of another community, particularly if there is a history of rivalry between communities. We act generously and courageously when a situation explodes; the question I raise concerns rather the prevention of that explosion. Here we may recall the warning Saint Benedict gives to the abbot about procrastinating in making corrections, reminding him of the unhappy fate that befell Heli the priest of Silo (RB 2:26).
Apart from the strictly legal forms by which autonomy is protected from abuse, during this past half-century there have been three informal channels that have increased greatly to complement and enrich autonomy, and to safeguard the integrity of the monastic patrimony: a) conversation, b) co-operation, and c) communion.
The traditional monastic emphasis on silence and restraint of speech has, perhaps, led us to underestimate the role of serious and adult conversation in the transmission and nuancing of monastic beliefs and values. This is true within communities; the spirit and charism are more effectively communicated by interpersonal contact than by formal classes and reading lists. Is it not true also that dialogue between communities is useful, whether these communities belong to the same branch of the Benedictine tradition or not?
Genuine conversation involves the offering of hospitality to another person. It requires a certain emptiness of self in order to make room for the other in all his or her distinctiveness. It also requires a sincere response to the other, revealing oneself without affectation. This is a meeting of minds which does not require total agreement, but a respectful recognition of the otherness of the other person. It is impossible, however, to depart from such a frank exchange without being somewhat influenced, concluding, perhaps, that contrary positions are not as divergent as previously supposed. Such a conversation does not weaken our own fundamental convictions, but brings them into sharper focus and into a new level of appreciation.
What we have learned in our engagement with inter-religious dialogue is that perfect consensus is not the purpose of the exercise. Even after the most fruitful sharing, substantial and basic differences remain. What happens is that in our openness to alternative expressions of wisdom, we discover or re-discover the depth of our own tradition. Conversely, in its being listened to and appreciated by a person of another tradition, our own spiritual heritage is affirmed in ways that in-house approbation can never match. Conversation does not lead to a watering down of ‘our’ truth but to a renewed level of confidence in its value and a friendly introduction into a wider truth such as cannot be encompassed by any single expression of a tradition.
Let us bring the matter closer to home. Conversation between different communities and different expressions of the Benedictine grace (including those that cross the gender divide) has the capacity to strengthen our hold on the common tradition without in any way diminishing the authority of local or congregational custom. Such conversation does not seek to make converts nor, through negotiation and compromise, to produce some global synthesis of the Benedictine ‘thing’ that will then be adopted by all. Monastic history scoffs at such a notion! Even as zealous a recruiter as Saint Bernard of Clairvaux used to respond to Black Monks who wished to make a transitus to the Cistercians by quoting 1 Cor 7:20: ‘Let each one remain in the vocation to which he has been called’. We are not in competition with one another because ‘in every place we are servants of the one Lord and soldiers of the one king’ (RB 61:10). We each have a particular gift from God, shaped and developed by the circumstances of our own history. By recognising the different forms of the Benedictine grace we can to begin not only to appreciate positively the difference in others, but also to recognise some of what may be latent in our own giftedness.
All genuine conversation is grounded on mutual respect. Respect, however, need not be generated immediately. No doubt it is easy to practise common courtesy and politeness, but respect depends on the recognition of what is worthwhile in the other. Often, it has first to overcome the barriers of insecurity and ignorance, projection and prejudice. In other words, persistence and patience are necessary if conversation is to go deeper. In some case we have to negotiate a common language before any fusion of horizons is feasible.
Conversation almost inevitably reveals areas of common interest and opens up the possibility of co-operation. Given the complexity of modern life, autonomous monasteries can no longer expect to be self-sufficient like the sprawling monastic compounds of earlier times. In a period when we need to outsource many essential services to keep the monastic plant functioning, such as building maintenance, food service, electrical and plumbing works, it need occasion no surprise that monasteries can help one another in providing mutual assistance in such areas as formation, liturgy, and the ongoing renewal of the way of life. There is no guarantee that in a rapidly changing world and with numbers in our communities fewer than previously, that by ourselves we can provide the kind of expertise that is needed in these areas. We are prepared to admit this possibility with regard to communities in regions where monasticism is new, and we have been generous in helping them either directly or through AIM. Perhaps we need to recognise that neediness can begin at home.
The area of formation is crucial because on it depends the quality of the next monastic generation. The candidates we receive today are the monks and abbots of tomorrow. In the past, it may have been possible for people to proceed smoothly from a practising Catholic family via a Catholic education more or less straight into the novitiate. It may have been sufficient then to train them in monastic practices and to impart the rudiments of monastic ideology. With monks destined for the priesthood it could be hoped that their theological studies would make up for any omissions in what have gone before. For the most part, it was a matter of learning by experience – that is learning from their own mistakes. Few would suggest that such a process is suitable today, when the gap between monastic tradition and the received beliefs and values of new entrants often yawns into a chasm. Maybe we are too anxious to get people working and so fail to allow them the time and resources necessary to internalise and cherish monastic values.
It may well be that, when we examine the situation today, we come to the conclusion that individually our communities are not able to offer the full formation that candidates deserve. In centuries past, especially in times when reform was necessary, the solution was to propose central houses of formation. Understandably, this initiative usually met with resistance. Today co-operation in formation does not necessarily entail permanent residence elsewhere. Techniques of distance education are well-developed and technology has made participation in such programs simple. Distance between monasteries is relativised by modern means of transportation and need not be an issue in bringing groups together for occasional sessions. The solidarity younger monks and nuns experience in meeting with their peers is a counterweight to the generational isolation they may experience in their own monasteries. Regarding the more intimate pastoral care that they continue to receive from their local formators, this can be upgraded by ensuring that these formators have themselves received an appropriate training before they take office and, afterwards, have the opportunity for supervision and pastoral sharing with other formators. Together monasteries in a particular region, even though they belong to different groups, can provide at least some of these services. None of these cooperative ventures impinges on the rights of autonomous monasteries; all of them potentially contribute to individual communities providing a better product to the next generation.
The question of liturgy is no less sensitive. In the days when Gregorian Chant ruled, the content of the liturgy was fixed, and improvement was merely a matter of performing it better. Today, when format, texts and music vary considerably, from one monastery to another, there is also a considerable variation in the quality of the end product. When it is good, it is very, very good, but it is not unknown for the local liturgy to be under the iron grip of one or two persons who resist any change that they do not themselves initiate. In such cases peer review would be not unhelpful, and the wider sharing of resources could help to filter out material that is difficult, inferior or trite.
Obviously liturgical co-operation is a matter for regional and language groups, as is already happening to good effect. Beyond technical excellence, there needs also to be a sensitivity to different levels of performance. This is a question less of high aesthetics than of having a liturgy that encourages full and prayerful participation. In certain regions this will involve a sustained effort to produce an inculturated liturgy. In other places it will demand a certain simplicity that does not overtax the abilities of communities whose members are ageing, whose numbers are reduced or whose musical abilities are slight. Here I wish to do no more than state a principle. Together we can do more than we can alone.
These past years many of us have profited by cross-fertilisation from other branches of the Benedictine family through educational programs, retreats and workshops and other forms of mutual service. Through these co-operative ventures a certain sense of solidarity and friendship has developed that makes us more confident in our relationships, more open to give and receive support as occasion demands, more likely to rejoice with those who rejoice and be sad when they are sad. When we abandon competition the grace of communion grows stronger among us.
Conversation, co-operation and communion are no threat to local autonomy. In a certain sense, they are its fruit. It is because we recognise the gift of our own particular tradition that we are sufficiently secure to enter into dialogue and co-operative enterprises and dare to build bridges to those who seem different. Interdependence is a beautiful human quality; it is no threat to autonomy, but together we can do more than we can alone.
In the immediate aftermath of the Second Vatican Council there was some talk of building up a sense of the ordo monasticus – mostly with a view to influencing the revision of Canon Law which was then imminent. It is a pity that we do not hear much about the concept these days. Benedictine life is fundamentally cenobitic. We live a life in common with brothers or sisters in a community. We also live a life in common with all those who have engaged in spiritual warfare under Benedict’s Rule throughout the centuries. All of us, though we belong to different orders and congregations, are bonded together by our stability in a way of life derived from Saint Benedict’s Rule. Our autonomy, however we conceive it, is no obstacle to our communion.
The ancient monks sought, above all, a life of continual prayer. We who are today anxious and concerned about many things have experienced the near-impossibility of attaining this goal as individuals. The grace of communion, however, allows the ordo monasticus to realise this hope corporately. It is surely not mere imagination to assert that at each hour and at every moment, somewhere in the world, a Benedictine community is dedicating its time and energy to the celebration of the Opus Dei. As one community closes its books at the end of Compline, another community on the other side of the world is opening books to begin Vigils. Even though we are proudly autonomous, we yet constitute one choir, standing together in the presence of the angels for the glory of God and the salvation of the world.