AUTONOMY AND COMMMUNITY
AN ESSAY ON THE PRECARIOUSNESS
OF MONASTIC LIFE TODAY

Michael Hochschild

HochschildBuilding on the talk which he gave at the Congress of Abbots in 2012, Michael Hochschild offers a reflection on a major point in the evolution of mentalities which are to be found in monasteries. The life of communities must take into account the individuality of persons without it damaging the notion of fraternal communion. On the basis of an enquiry conducted mostly in German-speaking monasteries the author shows how self-expression in all kinds of activities can sometimes impinge on care for a real presence in community life. If this structural element is neglected there cannot be a happy development of monastic life.

In today’s society nothing is more normal than to be an individual, oneself, not somebody else. Nothing is more abnormal for individuals today than to be alone, isolated from others. This is a fine paradox which strikes at the heart of everyday life, whether personal or professional, and which engenders a genuine problem in the monastic life of our day: the challenge of social cohesion in the bosom of a monastic community. Monks are faced with delicate questions: how should one live as a community? How distant should one be from others in building sociability without alienation, a solitude without exile? A double fear inhabits monasteries, or more exactly, there is a cohabitation of a fear of others and a fear of oneself. Add to that a further fear: can one hope for any future unless the answer to these fundamental questions is found? It is time to speak of the precariousness of monastic life today.

At first sight the equation is simple: the more individualism grows in monasteries, the more community life is threatened. If one thinks only of oneself and one’s work then meals and prayers in community rapidly become secondary, or indeed obstacles to the personal use of the monk’s time. There are in fact monks who feel obliged, at one time or another, to economise the few minutes of common mealtime in order to fulfil their mission better, although they are concerned for their monastery and its community. They are even convinced that by hard and tough work they are serving others. Nor is this altogether false. But just how far is it true? This fact confirms just how far monks act and reflect in the last analysis in individual terms. It is community life that suffers: someone who misses meals or the divine office because of personal priorities is necessarily not interested in recreation nor in other monks nor in their lives. Little by little the community loses it vital force. The first thing to lose its quality is communication; next there is less and less concern for the community. Finally one is content with the silence which reigns and which nevertheless originally had a totally different meaning. Now it has become a sign of inability to communicate, while originally silence had been sought as a technique for concentrating on the essential, adoring God and listening to the Rule.

magasinClearly such monastic individualism is unhealthy. But is it real, and in what forms, more or less disturbing, does it appear? In other words, what sort of thing is it, and what does it hide? To answer these questions less theoretically, and above all less speculatively, I would like to give a short report on a research-project in eight Benedictine monasteries in Germany, Austria and Hungary during the years 2011 and 2012.[1] This was a biometric enquiry on the question: is the Benedictine tradition flexible and does it have difficulty in revitalizing itself today, at this moment of religious renewal in the West? In the course of this enquiry a local study of each monastery was made, sociological, psychological and from the point of view of a new institutional economy. In this context we have different profiles of monastic activities. What monks do in their daily lives (work, pastorate, liturgy and many other activities) was next laid out on a scale which showed the value attached to each activity. The results could shock the image of a monastery! In no case did the community of the monks figure high on the scale. Neither monks nor their friends showed any tendency to value the community of the monks on the same scale as the other activities of the monastery such as cultural proposals or recent pastoral initiatives. The community was normally placed lower than halfway down the scale of all activities. This showed that neither the interior of the monastery nor the exterior of the community of monks was considered very attractive. Its charm remained in contrast – a polite word to say unnoticed or even negative.

The reasons for such a lack of appreciation are various. The friends of the monastery often ask for more visibility and interactivity on the part of the community. Where the divine office is not very accessible to the public, it is nevertheless one of the opportunities of seeing the community together, which is rather rare in a daily life which is more and more individualised. The value attached to this by the community was still less favourable. Interactivity is a problem when the community of monks encourages neither sharing in the work nor in the collective spirit. The more the community of monks seems theoretical to the friends of the monastery, the less the monks themselves appreciate community.

liturgieAs far as concerns the monks, they have other expectations of their community. In general they prefer a minimalist community, and this with absolute clarity. For them no obligation to spend much time together, but each to live his own vocation together, and above all not to stress rituals. Someone who no longer works but shares less in the offices is perhaps considered more social than one who arrives at the office late and upsets arrangements. This rigorous minimalism is, on the contrary, less surprising than one would expect, as it is a phenomenon perfectly normal in human society outside monasteries.

To resume, the friends of the monastery want a rather active community, while the monks prefer a passive community which requires little effort. It is fairly surprising that neither of the two groups, despite their opposing views, is apparently satisfied by the community life of the monasteries. Still more important, the two are incompatible: a community which is at once minimalist and maximalist can only be utopian and unreal. No one could live in it or be attached to it, for what is too much for some is too little for others. This leads to a first conclusion for monastic life today: selfrealisation is less obvious for a community than for an individual.

This is also and above all the impression drawn from looking at the psychology of the monks. It is perfectly easy to see that this differs in a characteristic way from what is observable in actual society. There are few points in common between the two approaches. As for the monks themselves, they are perhaps less motivated by a search for justice or success, which are noble contemporary values for lay society. But where the most striking difference between monks and citizens lies is in the level of autodeterminism. Who would have believed that a monk should build his personal identity around an autodeterminism still more decisive than an ordinary individual, for whom one is already inclined to characterize it as hyper-individualist? This must be linked to something even more serious: the monk shows a level far lower for everything which concerns dependence on someone else or submission to an authority. In bringing together men of strong character – a quality certainly necessary to choose to live a religious option today – one finally understands why their community should be minimalist: it gives room for individuals.

From this point of view another conclusion may be drawn: an individual autonomy on the part of the monks can be opposed to the needs of their community. This is a reason to look in minute detail at the organisation of work in a monastery. First of all, in general, men (much more than women) are defined by their work. Secondly, in a monastery, to work means to assure oneself of autonomy, and in the last analysis to gain it. A hierarchy, whether monastic or not, must be sure of each individual’s work and rely on its results. It has little interest in the process of the work and meddles in it only in emergency. In work, the monk is autonomous, for he can dictate the conditions of its success. If he did not work he would be less mobile; otherwise he would have to rely on the community – in one place. This is the reason why work is much valued, even overvalued, in monasteries. A monk is not only convinced by his work but also happy in it! The fact that this contentment depends so strongly on his work recalls something else: each monk working individually contributes by his work to the life of the community, whether he is paid or not. His social link is his work. Consequently the work carries a complex signification: the monk becomes more autonomous in order to be more social. This is also a paradox, more sociological than monastic.

poterieNevertheless there are risks in this conception of monastic work. At the individual level there is often talk of ‘burn out’, expressing a personal depression caused by exhaustion at work. The situation in monasteries is very exposed to this risk. When there is no ‘office’ with all the organisation which this entails, the work risks getting out of order in the matter of timetable and its importance in life. In the end life becomes work, always more and always better. There is no longer a natural limit. This is where fraternal correction is needed. Just as work can dominate community life, so fraternal correction occurs to balance individual life again. The community needs to keep an eye on each person’s autonomy for his own interest. According to the results of our enquiry, this task seems to be difficult, already out of respect for each person’s autonomy, but also from another risk in the conception of monastic work. On the psychological level communities often also show a strange exhaustion: in several psychological categories, whether this be practical solidarity, affectivity or intellectuality (to give only a few examples) monastic communities prefer a low level. What message does this give? It is simple: one cannot ask of them any extra effort. What communities need is, on the contrary, tranquillity and contemplation, in other words a more concentrated way of life. Their greatest gift would be a more important commitment on the part of the monks. It is interesting to discover that often the newest generation of monks does not consider itself so attached to work as their predecessors, but more attached to the liturgy. This is a way of showing a disagreement (which often provokes criticism from the older generation of the weak performance of the young brothers) which can, even without having a less individualist vocation, bring a stone to the build-up of community renewal.

elevageIs it necessary in monastic communities to wait for the arrival of a future generation to renew confidence in the future? Is there not some means at the present moment of better harmonising individual and community? What is the answer of the enquiry for this question? Above all, the results help to see more clearly the fairly fruitful yield of the phenomenon of monastic individualism. Obviously it is important to realise the difference between a good and a bad yield. In the framework of the enquiry this is not too complicated: first of all one must distinguish between monasteries where in their own evolution the monks prefer that the level of their autodetermination should become still more accentuated – a sign of expanding individualism – in relation to monasteries where the level remains at least stable. Next it is important to know what separates the two categories in the matter of this individualism; technically speaking, it is important to take account of some important correlations between the level of autodeterminism and the sharing of social life.

In fact there are certainly monasteries where the level of autodeterminism is being accentuated, and others where it remains stable. What is the difference between them? There are several differences, but these do not consist in the work itself. It would be naive to suppose that it would be sufficient to work a bit less (and to pray a bit more) to discipline the individualism. The question is not quantitative but qualitative. In monasteries where autodeterminism is on the increase there is no teamwork lasting several hours; work is organised in short bursts of one or two (maximum three) hours. Obviously it is necessary to leave time, that is, to give space to work, to decrease the individualism. Where this is not the case, the autonomy of the monks begins to revolt. Evidently a revision of the timetable making (individualist) work easier has an enormous impact on the order of the day: prayer and work can cut too short the length of work. This is particularly the case when the work is intellectual, as is more and more the case in monasteries today. In the same logic, monasteries which firmly demand from their monks a presence several times a day (for prayer, eating and even relaxing together for recreation) autodeterminism tends to be aroused in a life lived on the side: all energy goes into the work and the rest is lost to view. By contrast, where expectations are weaker, leaving more room for individual rhythms, autodeterminism stagnates. In these cases the results show that the monks come to appreciate again the community framework. This is not surprising, for monks wish to differentiate themselves as do individuals in society, but just like such individuals are afraid of solitude. Anyone who wishes to lessen the level of autodeterminism can therefore take advantage of this research of the community, but an omnipresent community merits no research. It is the same in monasteries as in society. Today it is always necessary to energize oneself in order to have the feeling of being able to find something for oneself, to expect less of each person in order to rejoice more together. It seems that this is a strategy (flexibility) to improve the harmony of community and monastic individualism.

It remains to reflect whether the results of the enquiry are valid also outside the cultural context of the research, which was predominantly of the German language. At any rate it was the case for Hungary. It seems to me probable that, in different degrees, the paradox of wishing to individualise oneself by at the same time seeking contact with someone else is a worldwide social fact. Of course there are cultures which are more communitarian than others, but technology is fast moderating cultural differences. When it is necessary to personalize one’s portable appliance in order to use it, it is less important whether I am in a monastery or outside one, in Germany or in Africa. The important thing is that technology demands a standardized (that is, individual) communication which leaves no choice of anything else.

In this sense, monastic communities no longer have a choice. They are faced with monastic individualism, but they can also, by their own means, become reconciled with this phenomenon. As for the individualism itself, both the problem and its solution are in the hands of the monastery. That is why the playing-field must be called ‘both autonomy and community’.

[1] See Hochschild, M, ‘Benediktiner zwischen Kontuität und Wandel, Erkentnisse und Perspektiven aus einem internationalen Forschungprojekt‘ in Erbe und Auftrag 1 (2013), p. 23-45.

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