Sister Christine Conrath, OSB
Secretariat of the AIM
‘A Mirror of Monastic Life’ –
a tool for discernment
With the opportunity to work at the AIM I met brothers and sisters who regularly visited communities all over the world. I too had the chance to travel. These circumstances gave me a relatively broad view of the reality of monastic life. The situations of the monasteries are diverse but the aim is identical: to run in the way of the commandments of God by putting the gospel into practice according to the Rule of St Benedict. This objective is shared by us all, omnes pariter, in the house where God waits for us and hopes for us.
The Benedictine proposal remains intact. We think it vital for our world in search of community. It is urgent to confront ourselves with reality and lead a work of reflection and conversion, both personally and as a community. Rather than write a Summa on monastic life (the dream, the hope or the life, year in year out) the International Team of the AIM has restricted itself to a modest aim and has worked out a bag of elementary tools, seven entries in a mini-manual of 32 pages. Each theme has the same structure: a general presentation in which more or less every Benedictine community ought to recognise itself, and some questions to start a community debate. The ‘Mirror’ is a tool, not a text to leave on a bookshelf.
The first theme is community, the foundation of Benedictine monastic life; next comes leadership, for without a head no community can make progress. Then come topical themes: formation, vocation, work, economic and financial stability, a place in the local Church and in society. Nothing original about this. Every mini-chapter is followed by three questions. Why? We all agree on the values of monastic life. The difficulties begin when it comes to the concrete reality.
For example, let us read together chapter 3 on formation, a theme which has a following wind since Cor orans (the normative text of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life concerning nuns), which is considered ‘the first document of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life to treat properly the question of formation’. Let us lay down the ingredients: good direction and well-trained formators. It is already difficult to join these two in a single community, and that is not enough. The community as a whole is the prime formator. How? By its mode of life, the correctness of its behaviour, its commitment, its prayer. Let us speak in the first person: since my entry into monastic life and right up to death (usque ad mortem, RB Prol) I am responsible for my own formation by my way of giving myself to prayer, reading, study, work and community life. We affirm forcefully that no community will survive without a serious programme of formation, supported by the sincere efforts of each member to live the cenobitic life faithfully. The monastery is a school of the Lord’s service (RB Prol) and a centre of evangelisation. Everyone must be engaged in it and maintain this engagement for the duration. For the future of monasticism dilettantism is forbidden. On the contrary, we make a point of activism in work, a typical contemporary failing. Our seniors worked in the fields, and the bell calling them for Vespers relieved their hands and their backs. Nowadays one can stay sitting without exertion in front of a screen, to the point of it being an effort to leave it for the Divine Office. We note the discernment needed at each stage of formation which brings an authentic exchange between the candidates and their formator, and also with members of the community. One is not born a Christian, but becomes one: monastic life is only one among many ways of living as a Christian. We underline the seriousness of the discernment of candidates. Getting to know the antecedents of the new arrivals and estimating their suitability for community life. In the West it is rare to have a numerous family and a lone child is not always prepared for the common life which is, let’s face it, often tough for their little ego. These few words on affectivity are essential and inescapable today. The Church has not been sufficiently vigilant in the recent past.
‘We must excel in the practice of the Gospel’ This saying is audacious, but we do not regret it. Putting Christ alone at the centre of my life obliges me to live out the Gospel each day in the humble labour of every day. This art of monastic living is learnt by weaving the threads in community and by the responsibility which falls on each individual. As for studies, sisters have been kept away from theological and philosophical studies for too long; they have been reserved for future clerics. With the lengthening of life it is a duty to arm intellects so that they can persevere in prayer and lectio when the Lord seems to be absent. It is important to learn how to make use of the monastic library. Research on Google can never replace a good book. Faced with urgent needs we do not hesitate to invest in the formation of profane skills, for example accountancy. Let us also help candidates to develop their artistic and musical skills, etc. It is not permissible to skimp formation.
After these generalities the text outlines irreplaceable values:
All this makes sense only if the members in formation are permeated by the ethic of silence in monastic life: contemplative prayer can unfold only in a climate of silence. Candidates coming from a world which is noisy andcluttered with gadgets will have to discover the value and beauty of silence, of solitude with God, of the consecration of tracts of each day to prayer and lectio.
Silence is repeated three times in three lines, a reflection of interrogation of the editors before the noise invading our cloisters. The regular spaces where one passes others with a smile are a balm for the heart of those who live this out, Let us keep safe our treasure of intimacy with the Lord.
Following these claims we propose some paths for opening a discussion. The first explanatory part is put forward for the monasteries of the whole world and therefore must be adjusted to local conditions.
The questions concern the here and now. In this third chapter we draw attention to five points;
1. Formation is ideally seen as the responsibility of the whole community since candidates enter into monastic life by osmosis. Is this really the case today in my community? How can I integrate myself into it more fully? Am I faithful to lectio, prayer, to the obligations to which I signed up on my day of profession? Each of us must ask some straight questions.
2. Formation can always be improved; let us see how. Biblical groups in community, shared lectio, accounts of books read are small ways of sharing the links that hold us together in community in the service of the same Lord.
3. Are sufficient financial resources made available for formation? In this area stinginess is a crime. The AIM is ready to support formation projects.
4. The question of selection must certainly be raised. To live is to choose; not everyone is made to live in a monastery. In this matter we call for vigilance and discernment on the part of all. It is preferable to discern as quickly as possible whether one needs to say goodbye to a candidate. It needs courage and bravery in a fragile and small community not to cling onto a badly adapted candidate. Psychological weaknesses will not be sorted out in the closed world of a monastery – quite the contrary. Experience teaches us this. This is true both for male and for female communities.
5. How can we best show Christ living among us? We would like to answer this last question. Let us set to work and ask ourselves in community and let suggestions spring up for the good and the joy of all. This could create a splendid firework display.
Thanks to all!