Christ the Word

Author: Richard Ffield, OSB

Christ the Word

Richard Ffield, OSB*

Benedictine monasticism takes root in Zimbabwe

When Br Joseph Dinala made his Simple Profession earlier this year, he became the first Zimbabwean ever to take Benedictine vows in Zimbabwe. He made his Simple Profession on Saturday, 23 January 2010, at the Monastery of Christ the Word in Zimbabwe in the presence of Abbot Cuthbert Madden of Ampleforth. These vows are for three years, after which Br Joseph will have the opportunity to make his Solemn Profession, taking these vows for life. How had this come about?

In 1992, the Zimbabwean Bishops had approached the community of Ampleforth Abbey in North Yorkshire, England, and invited them to make a foundation in Zimbabwe. The Bishops said they did not want the monks to run schools or parishes but to become a centre of spirituality in the country.

Four years later, in 1996, following extensive consultation, exploration and investigation, four Ampleforth monks arrived and started the daily recitation of the Divine Office at a site made available to them by the Precious Blood Sisters on their Mission near Macheke, just over 100 km from Harare, the capital, on the road to Mutare on the border of Mozambique. Fortuitously, the Mission had been named Monte Cassino, after St Benedict's own sixth century monastery in Italy, by Abbot Pfanner, a Cistercian monk who had founded the Precious Blood Sisters in South Africa in 5885.

The monks' primary occupation is what St Benedict called the Opus Dei, the Work of God, that is the singing or recitation of the whole Psalter of 150 psalms every week, at the hours of Matins, Lauds, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. The other components of the monks' day, besides the Eucharist, are Lectio Divina (prayerful reading of Scripture) and manual work. These are what St Benedict had laid down in his Rule, written over 1,500 years ago. The words that express this — "Ora et Labora" ("Prayer and Work") — are well known. However, St Benedict also said that a monastic community should be self-supporting: "When they live by the labour of their hands ... then they are really monks". Accordingly, this community does not employ anyone on a regular basis and does all its own cooking, cleaning and laundry. We grow most of our own fruit and vegetables and keep goats, geese,ducks, rabbits and chickens to provide us with meat and eggs.

The other element of our work, which seeks to provide what the Bishops asked for as well as providing some income, is the giving of retreats. Priests, sisters and lay people come to make individual retreats with us or for days of recollection. Almost all of them remark on the silence and the atmosphere of prayer that they feel enfolding them. This spiritual resource is much valued by a large number of the priests and religious sisters in this country who work all hours of the day and, often well into old age, in teaching, nursing or pastoral work. One or other of the monks will usually spend an hour or so with each retreatant every day. We are also often called upon to give retreats or days of recollection to religious communities and parishes. We try to meet these demands while ensuring that not more than one monk is away from the monastery at a time.

The monks come from a variety of backgrounds. Of the three monks from Ampleforth in the present community, one trained as a psychiatric nurse before ordination as an Anglican priest. He later became a Catholic and then a monk. He was the founding Prior and is our Prior still. Another trained as a mechanical engineer before joining Ampleforth and teaching in the school at Ampleforth and looking after one of the boarding houses for over twenty years. The third arrived in England after a British tanker rescued him from the open boat in which he was escaping from Vietnam in 1980 because he wanted to join a seminary. He found his way to Ampleforth and became a monk.

Ten years after the monks came from England and after a number of short visits, Br Joseph came to the monastery as a Candidate. Now aged 45, he had been a Primary School teacher in Gweru, a city in the midlands of Zimbabwe. He was a Karate Black Belt and had represented Zimbabwe against South Africa. After a year as a Candidate, followed by a further year as a Postulant, he was clothed as a Novice in the Benedictine habit. Last January, after a two year novitiate, he made his Simple Vows. These are for three years, after which he may renew them or make his Solemn Profession and take vows for life. Another Zimbabwean grew up locally and is coming to the end of his two year Novitiate and hoping to take vows next year and a third is a Postulant who has been with us for nearly two years. Others have expressed a wish to join.

The vows that Br Joseph took were the Benedictine vows of Obedience, Stability and ConversatioMorum. The vow of Obedience seeks to follow the example of Jesus's obedience to His Father, instead of following our own will. It is expressed not only in obedience to the monk's Abbot or local superior but also to one's brethren. Stability binds a monk in commitment to one monastic community (or its dependent foundations) for life. Conversatio Morum is a vow to keep on seeking to change to become ever more like Christ.

In his first Encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI emphasized how any Christian community must be seen to be active in giving to the poor and disadvantaged. This is a challenge for any monastery and it has taken time for us to find the right balance between time and resources devoted to charity on the one hand and the demands of monastic routine and enclosure on the other. Hospitality, to which Benedict devotes a chapter of his Rule, is one area in which we can offer care to others. Besides those who come and stay with us, there are many who come to the door seeking help. With his nursing background, Fr Robert is often able to treat minor injuries and give medical aid. With the help of funds sent from abroad, he can sometimes help people get ARV drugs. His regular residential retreats here for those who are HIV Positive are much valued. His experience over many years and in several African countries has led to his writing a book on Pastoral Counselling for those with AIDS. Earlier this year his second book, Window Into Hope, was launched by Archbishop Alex Thomas of Bulawayo. It is a wide ranging study of the Theology of AIDS and has been well reviewed.

Other people who come to the door are in need of food. Ladies from the local parish are far more effective than we could be in discerning those who are in real need. So we print a number of chits that they distribute to those in need, who bring them to us each week to receive a ration of maize, cooking oil and sugar or soap. Fr Barnabas can sometimes help with vegetables or fruit from the garden. He does not use fertilizer or pesticides in the monastery garden and so he can sometimes give advice from his organic farming experience to those who cannot get fertilizer or seed.

There is also a thirst for education and, again with the help of funds from abroad, we are able to pay fees for about a hundred children at the local primary and secondary schools.
We also help about twenty people with their Tertiary education.

Coming to live in this monastery in Zimbabwe has given at least one monk formed in England an opportunity for him to renew his monastic vocation at a fairly late stage in his life. The trials and tribulations, besides the perennial ones of living in community, are different: struggling with bore-hole pumps to maintain a dependable water supply and cooking in the dark and transferring pots from electric stove to outside barbeque when frequent power cuts strike unpredictably. The joys, besides the perennial ones of living in community, are also different. They include the sun rising as one comes out of church at the end of Matins but perhaps most appealing are the looks of joy and friendly greeting that are always on the faces of the people here.

Founding a monastery in Zimbabwe is perhaps not so much importing a seed and sowing it as watching it take root. It could be said that it is more like providing a culture in which a monasticism that is latent in this country can take root and flourish. Br Joseph's profession is evidence that this has begun to happen.

*A monk of Ampleforth Abbey, England; since 2003, a member of the Monastery of Christ the Word, Zimbabwe

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
15 December 2010, page 16

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