Correspondence on the Monastic Vocation 13

Disclaimer: The series of letters entitled “Correspondence on the Monastic Vocation”, while based on the real questions of a number of men in various places and states of life, is entirely fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons, institutions, or places is purely coincidental.

Letter 13: Jeb T.

Dear Father,

My name is Jeb T. I am 21 years old and a seminarian for the diocese of Wilting. I began my second year of theology last week and I am looking forward to this academic year. Although I have always had a theoretical interest in monks and monasteries, something happened last summer that touched me at a deeper level. Together with Eugene F., another seminarian for the Wilting diocese, I had the opportunity of making a pilgrimage to Rome, Monte Cassino, Subiaco, and Assisi. Rome was — well, Rome is Rome! What more can I say? I found Assisi charming and spent a long time in prayer at the tomb of Saint Francis in the great basilica. What I did not expect at all was the profound effect that both Monte Cassino and Subiaco had on my soul. I don’t know how to describe what happened in these places except by saying that I experienced a real connection with Saint Benedict . . . and with Saint Benedict as a father.

My interest in Saint Benedict began with Pope Benedict XVI. Even in school, I was a fervent follower of Pope Benedict’s Wednesday audiences, particularly his presentations of the saints. Later, when Pope Benedict’s Wednesday audiences appeared in book form, I started using them for spiritual reading. In some strange way both Saint Benedict and Pope Benedict XVI have had an impact on my life.

I entered the seminary because I wanted to give my life to Christ and serve His Church. My interest in monastic life was, until my pilgrimage in Italy, intellectual and cultural. I never thought of the possibility of living it myself. Something changed after I visited Monte Cassino and Subiaco. There was no vision . . . nothing even remotely mystical, at least as people usually understand the term. There was only a sense of being connected to Saint Benedict, as if a current of life, of warmth, of sympathy, were flowing from him to me. Since that experience, I have started reading the Rule, and asking myself if, in fact, I have had a monastic vocation all along, and didn’t recognise it as such.

I am not unhappy as a seminarian for the diocese. I get on well with my superiors and my peers. My pastoral experience helping in parishes has been a blessing. At the same time, I’m not naive. Most of the older Wilting priests would not share my generation’s views about the Church, the liturgy, and the priesthood. I know that the “1968” generation of priests will not last forever. At the same time, let’s face it, the 68ers are still in charge at the moment. Most of them are in complete denial of the ongoing crisis in catechesis and in sacramental practice. They resist any objective critical appraisal of the past fifty years. Although these men call for dialogue, they will practice it only with people who think as they do, for they seem unable to tolerate any theological thought at variance with their own. I say nothing of the problems that surround the liturgy. Some of my friends have had a shockingly rough time during their pastoral year because they had so little in common with the older priests with whom they had to work. A sense of humour helps!

What scares me about going forward for the diocese is not the inter–generational conflict with brother priests; it is that, in all likelihood, after ordination I will find myself on my own. Is this what God really wants for me? The things I want — and need — are prayer in community, the sustenance of the traditional liturgy, fraternal life, the security of walking in a great tradition, and the guidance of a spiritual father.

I have been completely open with my spiritual director about my “monastic temptations”. He is not surprised. In fact, he encouraged me to write to you, saying that it is better to get the question out in the open and to address it. I haven’t discussed the issue with my bishop. He is a wise and fatherly man and sympathetic to those of us who love the traditional liturgy, so I wouldn’t expect him to put up any roadblocks should I ask to look into the possibility of monastic life.

I am asking you, then, for some advice and direction. Above all, I ask for your prayers.

In Saint Benedict,

Dear Jeb,

Thank you for writing. I wish you well as you begin a new academic year. The study of theology is a slow advance into the blinding splendour of the Truth.

But we all beholding the glory of the Lord with open face, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as by the Spirit of the Lord.(2 Corinthians 3:18)

I smiled when I read of your “intellectual and cultural interest in monks and monasteries”. Such interest is not uncommon among bright young Catholic men; in a few instances, very few, it leads to something much deeper, and higher, and richer: “the pearl of great price” and “the treasure hidden in the field”.

The kingdom of heaven is like unto a treasure hidden in a field. Which a man having found, hid it, and for joy thereof goeth, and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field. Again the kingdom of heaven is like to a merchant seeking good pearls. Who when he had found one pearl of great price, went his way, and sold all that he had, and bought it. (Matthew 13:44–46)

The inter–generational unpleasantness to which you allude is something that has always existed in the clergy, but it has been hugely exacerbated latterly by the clash between two readings of the Second Vatican Council: on one side there is the “hermeneutic of continuity” and on the other, the “hermeneutic of rupture”. Fruitful conversation across the chasm can be very difficult. Keep your sense of humour, Jeb. You will need it no matter where you go. A sense of humour is as important in the cloister as it is in the ranks of the diocesan clergy. Do not go all grim and pessimistic. Learn to see beauty, and goodness, and truth even in those with whom you disagree. Quietly cultivate your love of the traditional liturgy; it is the future of the Church. Keep on reading the serene and luminous writings of Pope Benedict XVI; they will teach you to think with the Church of the saints in every age. Develop good friendships and treasure them.

Your story, Jeb, reminds me of that of a certain Irish seminarian who studied at the Irish College in Rome from 1879 to 1881. He too experienced a special grace at Monte Cassino. His name was Joe Marmion. Years later, his biographer related Marmion’s “Benedictine grace” at Monte Cassino:

When he was living in Italy he had the opportunity of going to Monte Cassino on the occasion of a visit to Naples. The wonderful panorama which from that height was unfolded to his gaze, the antiquity of the monastery founded by St Benedict (sixth century), the venerable associations attached to it, the noble simplicity of the monastic observances, all this had keenly struck the mind of the young Irish seminarist. It was there, too, he first heard the secret invitation to the life of the cloister. Dom Marmion recalled this grace in a letter he wrote more than thirty years later, in 1912, when — this time as a monk — the opportunity was again given him of making this pilgrimage.

“We have been overjoyed in making the ascent of the holy mountain. I had not seen it since 1880, when I went up it on returning from Naples. It as there I felt for the first time that God was calling me to the monastic life. It all came back to me with a sense of living reality, as if it had happened yesterday”.

It was standing before a picture hanging in the refectory of the monastery and representing the Patriarch of monks that Father Marmion received the first notion of his monastic vocation. (Dom Raymond Thibaut, Abbot Columba Marmion, p. 30)

As I am sure you know, Father Joe Marmion, after working in the archdiocese of Dublin for five years, followed his heart’s deepest desire and, faithful to the grace given him at Monte Cassino, entered the Belgian Benedictine abbey of Maredsous, receiving the name Columba. Dom Columba Marmion was elected abbot of Maredsous, and received the abbatial blessing on Rosary Sunday (his choice), 3 October 1909. A gifted preacher, he proclaimed Christ wherever he spoke: Christ, the Ideal of the Monk; Christ, the Life of the Soul; Christ in His Mysteries. Blessed Marmion is, without any doubt, the greatest Irish Benedictine in history. He will probably become the first Irish Doctor of the Church, the “Doctor of Divine Adoption”.

I have prayed to Abbot Marmion for years. From his place in heaven he has been for me a real father in Christ. His teaching has guided me through many a dark night. I have often felt his stabilising presence in hours of uncertainty and anguish. Pray to Blessed Columba, dear Jeb. Ask him to intercede for you and to guide you into the safe harbour of God’s perfect will.  Yes, this may mean that you will, rather sooner than later, find yourself knocking at the door of a monastery.

I would not want you to entertain any illusions, Jeb, about the demands of monastic life. Saint Benedict would have me tell you the plain truth. Speaking of a man embarking on the monastic journey, he says: “Let all the hard and rugged paths by which we walk towards God be set before him” (Rule, Chapter 58). A man comes to the monastery to die . . . to die to his projects, hopes, and dreams, even to his own way of praying and of relating to God. Much of what sustained him in the world — even good things — will have to be unlearned and forsaken. Only the man who consents to go forward with empty hands will, in the end, become a true monk.

Blessed Marmion said that he became a monk because he wanted the good thing that is obedience: the “bonum obedientiae”. If one enters the cloister for the beauty of the liturgy alone, one will quickly be disillusioned: there are days when the choir cannot sustain the pitch, when the chant is deplorable, when the ceremonial is bungled, and when the whole “pensum” of the liturgy is just that, an intolerably tiresome burden. If one enters the cloister for pleasant companionship, one will soon discover that every man has his foibles, that few men are unfailingly affable all the time, and that no man is exempt from being, at times, both vexsome and vexed. If one enters the monastery to obey, however, one will never be disappointed.

As a diocesan priest, Father Joe Marmion had much going in his favour. (I think that, had he stayed in the diocesan clergy, he would have become the Lord Archbishop of Dublin!) Marmion was close to his family, esteemed, popular, and successful. He felt, nonetheless, that one thing was missing: the holocaust of vowed obedience. This is why he became a monk: he wanted to offer God the beautiful sacrifice of his will every minute of every day.

“Before becoming a monk”, he sometimes said, “I could not, in the eyes of the world, do more good than I was doing where I then was. But I reflected, I prayed, and I understood that I should be sure of always doing God’s will except in practicing religious obedience. I had all that was needful for my sanctification with the exception of one sole boon, namely, obedience. That is the reason why I left my country, gave up my liberty and all else”.

“I may say”, he confided to someone on another occasion, “that I became a monk in order to be able to obey. I was professor, I had, while still young, what is called a fine position, success, and friends strongly attached to me; but I had not the opportunity of obeying. I became a monk because God had revealed to me the beauty and greatness of obedience”. (Dom Raymond Thibaut, Abbot Columba Marmion, p. 36)

Saint Benedict speaks of those who so love Christ that they embrace obedience for His sake:

These, therefore, choose the narrow way, of which the Lord saith: “Narrow is the way which leadeth unto life”; so that living not by their own will, nor obeying their own desires and pleasures, but walking according to the judgment and command of another, and dwelling in community, they desire to have an Abbot over them. Such as these without doubt fulfil that saying of the Lord: “I came not to do Mine own will, but the will of Him Who sent Me.” (Rule, Chapter 5)

The formation for diocesan life given in seminaries still tends to prepare men to live, and work, and pray on their own. Although the Second Vatican Council explicitly recommended the common life for diocesan clergy, one cannot say that the idea has caught on.

In order that priests may find mutual assistance in the development of their spiritual and intellectual life, that they may be able to cooperate more effectively in their ministry and be saved from the dangers of loneliness which may arise, it is necessary that some kind of common life or some sharing of common life be encouraged among priests. This, however, may take many forms, according to different personal or pastoral needs, such as living together where this is possible, or having a common table, or at least by frequent and periodic meetings. One should hold also in high regard and eagerly promote those associations which, having been recognized by competent ecclesiastical authority, encourage priestly holiness in the ministry by the use of an appropriate and duly approved rule of life and by fraternal aid, intending thus to do service to the whole order of priests. (Presbyterorum Ordinis, Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, art. 8)

This was written fifty years ago in 1965, but things have continued as before, except that now the numbers of diocesan clergy are so diminished, and priests are so stretched, that the mere thought of beginning some form of fraternal life is daunting. The common life for diocesan priests was not tried and found wanting; at least in recent times, it was barely tried at all, but that, dear Jeb, is another story. There are a few remarkable exceptions such as the Communauté de Saint Martin in France. One of our guestrooms for priests here at Silverstream is named for Saint Chrodegang! The name sometimes gives our retreatants a start, but it was chosen precisely because Saint Chrodegang of Metz was an eighth century advocate of the common life for the diocesan clergy.

At the end of the day, Jeb, the priestly vocation is one thing and the monastic vocation another. If you are indeed being called to the monastic life — and that remains to be seen — the only way of testing the call is by living in a monastery, Silverstream or another. I recommend a minimum of 90 days for such an experience. Why? Because for the first 30 days everything and everyone is rosy and grand. For the second 30 days everything and everyone is tedious and flawed. And for the last 30 days one begins to know oneself and to see the monastic community and its daily round with some measure of clarity and objectivity.

I can say this one thing with certainty Jeb, and I borrow it from Saint Bernard, the shining abbot of Clairvaux in the 12th century: “In the cloister one falls more rarely, rises more quickly, advances more surely, sanctifies oneself more fully, and dies more joyously”.

Be assured of my prayers, Jeb. I send you my blessing and look forward to your reply.
Father Prior