Dom Alex Echeandía, OSB
Prior of the community of Lurín (Peru)
The experience of a monk
in a young community in Peru
The word “Experienced’ for a person usually refers to older people, a man or woman who has lived enough within a vast tradition of habits, customs and a way of life. In this sense, Peruvian monastic tradition is fairly new, in fact as new as the first Benedictine monastery founded here in the 1960s. ‘Monasticism’ is not a word the Church in Peru knew when the mendicant orders arrived. In fact, monks were not allowed to come by the Spanish Crown because the New Indies were considered mission territory. History tells us that on Christopher Columbus´ second journey to America there were already Franciscan friars. Their main purpose was to evangelize the New World. Evangelization required catechesis and also the removal of any kind of idolatry.
The strange thing is that evangelization was carried out by monks long before the mendicant orders existed in the Church. In the history of the Early Church there were well-known missionary monks like St Columba, St Augustine of Canterbury, St Boniface of Fulda and many other monks who evangelized Europe and the Middle East. The fact that the mendicant orders already existed at the end of the fifteenth century was crucial to the Spanish decision to send mainly Franciscans and Dominicans to evangelize America. It was also because monastic life in Spain was experiencing a reform. The crown did not ask monks to join the new wind of evangelization. There were only nuns of the same orders, who were supporting the missions with their prayers and way of life. In Peruvian history very few monks arrived from Spain. It is well-known that the Jeronimites and monks from Monserrat came only as a token presence in Peru.
The big surprise is that there was a Cistercian monastery in sixteenth century Lima called Monasterio de la Santísima Trinidad founded by mother and daughter: Lucrecia de Sanzoles and Mencia de Vargas. The foundation was established by St Toribio de Mogrovejo with Papal approval. The monastery in Lima existed from the sixteenth century until its suppression in 1960s. The Cistercian nuns of Las Huelgas, Spain, arrived in 1992 to refound the Cistercian monastery in the southern outskirts of Lima and so brought back to life the history of the monastery. They returned to Spain in 2017 for lack of vocations and asked us to take over the monastery of Lurin, where the remains of the founders and the Cistercian nuns are now buried. In fact, we were asked by them to transfer our community to their monastery, so we are living in a place that holds history, tradition and especially the prayer of a monastic community in place for the Peruvian Church. Certainly, historical facts show that God works in unexpected ways.
I mention these historical facts because, after four failed attempts from different countries and Benedictine congregations, we have survived so far by the grace of God. It is the first Benedictine community in Peru living the monastic life entirely with Peruvian monks. Monasticism for men in Peru is almost unknown. However, the Lord inspires men to live a way of life that existed from the early Church and within a rich monastic tradition.
I personally did not know much about monastic life, since there was not much information in the Peruvian Church about monasticism. The first Orders to arrive were the well-known ones. However, the Lord calls men and women to search for God in a dynamic movement of prayer and work, Divine Office, lectio and study, hospitality and spiritual direction within the cloister and for the whole Church.
I joined the monastery when I was 20 years old. I met a small monastic community which was founded in 1981 by Belmont Abbey in England, just two years after I was born. I was invited to visit it without knowing the immense happiness it would produce by the first Hour I prayed, Compline. It captured me and touched the deepest place of my being. Something strange and new happened. It was by experience that I got to know what monastic life was about. Praying the Psalms was an act of encounter with God in my religious life. I did not know much about monastic life in theory. Progressively I learned more about its history, meaning, richness and aim. There was an encounter with the Lord in a mysterious way. The Lord really made me experience his call and my answer in the context of monastic life.
As I said, there is not much history of monastic life in South America. Unlike Brazil, which was Portuguese, the other countries of South America received the first monastic foundations only at the end of the nineteenth century. Interestingly, even if monastic life is the starting point of religious life in the Church, it is also apparently new to religious life in Latin America.
The Lord has called me to live the monastic life in a particular time and space and has invited me and my brethren to follow Christ by living according to the Rule of St Benedict. Thus monastic life has been established in our land so that in all things God may be glorified.