Dom Jean-Pierre Longeat, OSB
President of AIM
The subject of formation is inexhaustible. In the beginning we did not intend to consecrate to it two consecutive issues, but in fact even this now seems insufficient. The very fact of speaking about monastic formation necessarily implies a certain approach to the phenomenon of monastic life and more widely to a way of considering the Christian faith and its transmission.
Abbot Maksymilian R. Nawara, previous abbot of Lubin in Poland and now President of the Congregation of the Annunciation, introduces us to this reflection by a lectio on the call of the first disciples in the Gospel of John. The Abbot Primate gives us his point of view, as does the Abbot General of the Cistercians. After this, several examples of monastic formation on the ground are offered, as well as one or two witnesses and echoes of various initiatives. Italo de Sandro shares with us his concerns about the relationship between monastic life and the world situation.
After this you will find the usual features : liturgy, a page of history, monks and nuns witnesses for our time, news, etc. We should get to know our vocation at the deepest level. This time of crisis is the prime moment to care for the basic values which will enable us to overcome obstacles and build a new world.
Training for Monastic Life
In the final part of the Prologue to his Rule St Benedict presents the monastery as a school of the Lord’s service. That is, he means to make monastic life a place of permanent formation. In the same Prologue he gives some characteristics of the teaching shared in this school: the first and most important is the quality of listening in order to put into practice the effective fulfilment of the commandment of love.
At this point I would like to concentrate on one of the elements of the Prologue which seems to me to put an emphasis useful for formation in today’s world. St Benedict is not envisaging simply perfect fulfilment of an exterior observance which would constitute the measure of illusory success in the present situation: he is concerned
above all with a perspective which integrates the dimension of eternal life already active but directed beyond the limits of today’s world. That is why he makes use of that verse of the Gospel of John which so well delineates the Benedictine purpose, ‘Walk while you have the light of life, so that the darkness of death does not overtake you’ (John 12.35, as quoted in the Rule, Prologue 13).
In the Gospel of John this light indicates Christ himself and darkness the adversary. St Benedict gives the verse a slightly different perspective, or even alters it, by adding ‘of life’ to ‘light’ and ‘of death’ to ‘darkness’. So he is insisting in general terms on the drama of human choice by putting an opposition between the short time of earthly life and the long ‘time’ of eternal death. He thus puts a special emphasis on the urgency of the choice of lifestyle.
1. An eschatological perspective and its consequences
Monks are called to live a very particular form of life in an eschatological perspective. Even though he grants that eternal gifts are already partly offered here below (RB 7, 72 and 73) St Benedict envisages the monk as living in tension from the fact that eternal life has not yet arrived. A certain number of observations in the Rule give concrete expression to this perspective. Thus St Benedict invites monks to ‘long for eternal life with all their heart and soul’ (4.46), to behave with ‘the good zeal which leads to God and eternal life’ (72.2). This is why St Benedict pressingly requires monks, ‘Let us run and do already now what will profit us for eternity’ (Prologue 44). Basically in monastic life we are forming and preparing ourselves for the superabundant life of the eternal Kingdom. As for the abbot, ‘he must always remember that at the redoubtable judgment of God he will have to render an account’ (2, 6, 34, 37, 38, 39-40).
In this context it is worth remembering the prayer so typical of monastic life, the Office of Vigils, which is a time of vigil directed towards the coming of Christ in the hope of light. There is nothing here which is not deeply Christian, but monks lay special emphasis on this dimension. It is what best characterizes monastic life with a temporal
dimension which cuts across normal human attitudes. It is what sometimes makes monks a little difficult to understand and accept.
The way of looking at life here below as a short passage to eternal life already begun and continuing beyond death invites monks not to squander time, and so to run towards the goal. St Benedict returns to this point several times. First comes the general principle:
‘So eager to avoid the pains of hell, we long for eternal life although there is still time and we are in this world and we can do all things in the light of this life, let us run and from this moment onwards do what will profit us for all eternity’ (Prologue 44).
This passage is very close to the quotation from John 12.35 already cited. So concretely anyone who wishes to live in this way, must take to heart the desire to live in the Kingdom, knowing that it will be possible to attain the goal only by running there ‘by good works’ (Prologue 22). Therefore, in so far as progress is made in religious life and in faith, the heart expands and the monk runs in the way of the commandments of God (Prologue 49). This is a consequence of the interior disposition for which the monk yearns, having his heart bent on eternal life, which in turn produces an expansion which means that he now runs in the way of the commandments of God. It is indeed a commandment as it should be, not an exterior order to be obeyed but an attitude consonant with the Greek word entole, formed from telos, which leads to the final goal.
Only after laying down this principle can Benedict envisage particular situations whose purpose makes sense only in relation to this principle. For example, the abbot must run (currere) with all his care and work not to lose any of the flock entrusted to him (RB 27.5). Chapter 5 of the Rule is ruled by this perspective of responding to the call. The verb currere is not used there, but particularly strong expressions occur which evoke the perspective of a yearning for eternal life.
The disciples, on their part, ‘moved by the sacred service they have professed or by fear (metum) of hell or by the glory of eternal life, as soon as the superior gives an order cannot bear to delay its execution, just as though God had personally given the order… those who are thus disposed, immediately renouncing their own interests and their own will, straightway (mox) put side what they had in hand and leave unfinished whatever they were doing. With a ready foot they obey the given order with the enthusiasm of the fear of God, leaving no interval between the word of the superior and the action of the disciple.’(…) ‘Such is the behaviour of those who ardently desire eternal life’ (5.3, 9-10).
This rhythm of obedience applies equally to the reaction to the summons to the Divine Office:
‘Monks should always be ready. At the signal given, they get up immediately and hurry to the Work of God, but with all gravity and modesty’ (22.6).
This occurs a second time in the Rule,
‘At the hour of the Divine Office all haste should be made to the Divine Office, but nevertheless with gravity, avoiding any grounds for dissipation. Nothing should be preferred to the Work of God’ (43.3).
The first passage is taken from the chapter on the monks’ sleeping-quarters and the second from the chapter on those who arrive late for the Work of God or for meals. We must recognise here a characteristic of Benedictine monastic life. It is always very striking to see in our monasteries how the monks hasten towards the church for the Divine Office, whatever their reason for haste may be – and it is not always to avoid missing out on eternal life!
Finally there is one other dimension of urgency to which St Benedict gives a special place in the life of a monk: the reception of a guest or of someone who knocks at the door of the monastery:
‘As soon as a guest is announced, the superior and the monks run (occurratur) towards him with all the marks of love’ (53.3). ‘As soon as there is a knock or a poor person calls, in all the gentleness inspired by the fear of God, the porter will hurry (festinanter) to respond with fervent love’ (66.3-4).
This is a feature of our Benedictine life, even if today it is sometimes difficult to face up with enthusiam to all demands, and often a slight distance is imposed in the interests of the service of love. This theme of haste takes its origin in the Bible. The Word of God itself speeds joyously on its course (Ps 18). It leaps down from its royal throne (Wisdom 18.15). Swiftly runs his command (Ps 147.15). People of God, the true prophets, holy priests and good kings, run to put the Word into effect: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring peace.’ The crowds run towards John the Baptist in the desert, towards Jesus throughout his public ministry. Mary leaves in all haste to go to her cousin Elizabeth after the annunciation. In the case of Jesus there is not even time to eat a meal at a fixed time. The disciples run to the tomb and come running back to announce the resurrection of the Lord. After Pentecost the disciples run in every direction to proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth. St Paul is ‘racing towards the finishing-line’ (Philippians 3.14).
There is an urgency in running for the Good News, either to hear it or to proclaim it, for the time is short. ‘The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God is upon us’. There is no time to lose. Be converted and believe in the Good News.
3. Running without haste in these last times
Finally, a few salient points on this theme of formation, monastic training, dear to St Benedict. Monks run in haste. This is obvious in monasteries, but what is their objective? Is it really the objective of someone who has observed that life is short and that there is no time to lose? Our business is often a feature of the pressure of contemporary society: work, administration, leisure are all subject to the rhythms for fear of losing control or marginalisation. It is certainly true that in many areas imperatives brook no delay. But should we leave it at that? Should not our goal be progressively directed toward the final longing, that of completing life in God in the community of human brotherhood?
Essentially monks are, like all Christians, a people of the eighth day, though perhaps more sensitive. This day is beyond days, a dimension of history beyond history. The sense of monastic life is outside time, taking up a position, more or less pronounced, which makes it possible to be in the world without belonging to the world. This stance envisages an experience of God by liberation from the tyranny of the passions, and by prayer free from the constraints of time and space, based on a different scale of values. If there is to be any running, it is in the paths of love, in good works as outlined in the Rule, chapter 4, on the way of the commandments, with an expanded heart, in prayer, in the Divine Office, in obedience, in the care of sinners, so as not to lose any of the flock, in the reception of guests and those who knock at the door of the monastery.
It is a matter of breaking with worldly values, without despising them but committed to a different scale of values. Do we truly commit ourselves to such a course, to such training, to such formation?