Sister Antoinette Ndubane OSB
Elukwatini, South Africa
The challenges and joys of monastic life
There are several questions or subtopics to look at when one thinks of the experience of monastic life in South Africa. These questions and headings include the understanding of a monastery or monastics in a South African perspective: is monastic life a reality in South Africa? How does it feel to be a monastic/religious in South Africa?- and the challenges and joys of monastic life in this region. In my opinion, these questions are vital, and they need to be explored.
The understanding of monastic life
When I joined the Benedictines in 2002, I did not know I was joining monastic life. I thought Benedictines were just like any other religious congregation I knew. It took me time to understand that there is a difference between apostolic institutes and us monastics. However, the confusion may still occur, due to maybe a general question of lack of identity of the congregations. I have come to understand that living in a monastery does not just mean to live inside the walls of the church premises; it means to belong to it with my whole being. I now understand a monastery as a university or a school, where one studies life as it is; and there is a choice of what one wants to learn. For example, one may choose to learn negative things, to learn good things in a positive way or even to learn both at the same time. How is this possible? Sometimes I hear people saying, ‘When I entered this life, I did not know how to respond impolitely when confronted, but now I do know’. So, it is possible that one can choose to learn negative things; however, there are lots of good things to be cultivated: manual work, prayer, way of life, how to become a better and serious Christian and so forth. A monastery is a house of prayer, where consecrated people live. I also look at it as a house where God dwells; therefore most, if not all, monasteries are well maintained. According to what I have seen so far, a monastery is a home or a fountain, where one draws out what to give to those who stay outside this life; for example, there is time to pray and to meditate, so that one can know what to offer to those who are in need of God’s inspiration and graces. Therefore, silence is very important in the monastic life; it is when I am silent that I will hear God’s voice.
Is monastic life a reality in South Africa?
Monastic life in this part of the world seems to have both YES and NO when it comes to its actuality. It becomes a reality because there are monasteries in South Africa, and there are people living there; however, we cannot ignore the fact that there are very few indigenous monastics and very few monasteries. One may also raise the question of whether those who live in the monastery understand who they are or not. It does happen that even those who live in the monasteries do not really understand their vocation, regardless of age or duration of their stay in this life. The demands of the outside world give rise to a question of whether monastic life is a reality in this part of Africa or not. The challenge of today’s life may also give us a question: is it possible to live monastic life in its fullness today in 2019? Well, it should be entirely possible, but then the question would be, ‘How’? One may ask oneself this question over and over again, and this would help to deepen the vitality of one’s vocation in order to live it better and in the way one is called to live. Somehow monastic life must be both foreign and at home. In a way, at times it looks as though this life came to us like a ship, it was brought to us by particular people; therefore even some of the expectations of it may seem strange to the local church/people; however, some aspects of monastic life seem to be very much in harmony with the indigenous way of life in southern Africa, e.g. respect and hospitality, and a few other effects.
How does it feel to be a religious/monastic in the Southern Africa?
I think it is normal to sometimes feel as though you are missing out something outside there. Nevertheless, such thoughts do not last, especially when one feels the sense of belonging to a monastic family. One of the most essential things in the monastic or religious life in general is formation, both initial and ongoing formation. In this southern part of Africa, the Benedictines include the issues of formation whenever they meet at the conferences known as BECOSA. This fact contributes so much in the lives of the monks and sisters living in this area. Almost every time there is a meeting, there is a topic which the members are sure to bring up, ongoing and initial formation for the members of our communities. This helps to deepen our knowledge of who we are and how we should conduct our lives as monastics. I believe that the annual meetings of BECOSA and the workshops which we sometimes have play a very important role in our lives, especially concerning formation and the sense of belonging to a bigger family. BECOSA is a source of support in both individual and communal ways. Each time one attends a BECOSA meeting or workshop, one feels nourished. There is always a longing to have more of BECOSA workshops, especially for those of us who are still in need of more nourishment, the formators and those who are in initial formation.
Challenges and joys
Monastic life is a most fulfilling life. It has all I need as a person who strives for a better Christian life. Being a young South African living a monastic life, I find it challenging in both ways, negative and positive. Most of my contemporaries are responsible people in different fields of life; they have families, own properties and so forth. They seem to enjoy having those valuables. Here I am, it looks as though I have nothing of my own, but then, is that true? I am called to live a possible happy life. It feels good, and sometimes it is expected that when a child of a particular family grows up, he/she will help the family in one way or another. So, in my case I may not be able to visibly help my people at home, but I am there as an intercessor for them. However, to come to this conviction, it does not occur overnight. In fact, I think I help them even more, because I bring them to Jesus Christ who is my everything. I pray not only for my family, but for friends and all who need my care.
Another obvious challenge, especially these days, is communication through social media. Almost every young person in South Africa has a smart phone. One needs self-discipline when it comes to social media. I cannot deny the fact that we do use them, they exist, but how to put a measure on them? This is no joke. However, it is very important that I ask myself each time I pick up my phone whether, it is necessary. Is it for the good of my religious life? Is it helping me or destroying me? How do I set the boundaries? When I joined religious life 17 years ago, when we wanted to send a letter, the superior had to read that letter before you could send it. The same with receiving, it had to be read before coming to the owner’s hands. Today most of us use emails and whatsapp, who is there to exercise control? No one; only myself and my conscience.
There is another fact when it comes to religious life or monastic life as such, opportunities. Different people feel differently about the opportunities offered by religious life. They may include studies, discoveries, freedom and so forth. Looking from far, one may be tempted to think that people who live in monasteries have very limited chances, and yet, at the same time when you look deeper, we seem to be the most exploring people; of course depending on the mission or field where one is.
Silence is one of the most essential elements of a monastic life. However, though it is so important, it is not easy to be quiet. If one does not say a word, it does not necessarily mean that there is silence; it may only mean that no one is talking to us at that particular time, but inside a person is busy making noise, which may even disturb them more. A monastery is capable of providing a quiet atmosphere, which is meant to help those who dwell there and those who visit to be able to meet God. However, one needs to create one’s own kind of silence, to be ready to listen to God. There are a lot of things which may distract our inner silence, but still one has to make it a personal priority, because it is important to hear God’s voice. Challenging as it is to keep silence, it is very much rewarding. There is joy in conversing with God. We live in a noisy world, but I have found silence in the monastery, though not always, as at times one may be disturbed by outside noises around.
There are other stepping stones in the lives of the monastics; the community prayers which we pray several times a day, daily Eucharist, Lectio Divina, the community life itself, annual retreats, spiritual direction and so forth; these are some of the things which sustain us in this precious life. Even though life may be somehow challenging in the monastery, I have come to realize that if one takes seriously the opportunities offered, then life becomes possible. I often have believed and still do believe that Christ is among us; though at times some circumstances may blind us so that we think that he is far away, or to try to convince ourselves that this life is not of inestimable value. But one has to really believe in the divine presence and in his calling; and this has sustained my life till today. True joy and consolation comes from the Lord himself.
Being a ‘young’ South African living in this 21st century, it may seem to be very much questionable to live in a monastery. However, I believe it is a special calling from God, which may not be for everybody, but only for those who are chosen to live it. One has to embrace this precious life as a valuable treasure from above, and it has been given to us out of love. I am very much aware that God calls people where he sees that they will find him and serve him better. However, one often hears that not all people in the choir are gifted in singing, some voices accompany others, and this may force us either to appreciate the facts and live with them harmoniously, or to be bothered every time. A monastery, being a school, has a possibility of including all kinds of students. But the question is: what kind of a student am I? Another question may be: how do I cope with the rest of the students studying with me in that school? These could be the questions for daily reflection.