The Monastic Vocation
The Monastic Vocation
by a Benedictine Monk
(This account of the monastic calling is the translation of a lecture given by Prior of the Monastery of Sainte-Madeleine a Bedoin, before an audience of nine hundred in the hall of the Mutualite in Paris on November 24, 1977. With thanks to 'Oriens', magazine of the Ecclessia Dei Society, Australia.)
I thank you for coming in such numbers this evening.
You are here because we have launched an appeal: our little monastery in mid-foundation needs practical help. You will read on your invitations that this lecture is entitled . His very modest witness seeks to identify the deep meaning of monastic life in the modern world. I shall divide my argument into three parts: first I shall show how monastic life is contemplative, secondly I shall emphasise its apostolic value, and, to finish, I shall say a few words about the little monastery in which you are kind enough to take an interest.
Recently an agnostic, faced with our foundering civilisation in thrall to liberalism ("to every man his own religion", and so "to every man his own morality":- you can see just how far that can go!) and to materialism (a two- dimensional universe without after-life or a beyond) remarked: "You monks, you are the most useful members of society". We retorted: "How can you say that if you believe neither in God, prayer nor heaven?" He replied: "Because we are witnessing a haemorrhage of values, a continuing evolution where everything is questioned, a real collective suicide. Now amidst the general rout you monks are witnesses to the permanence of values. And make no mistake the day you cease to be uncompromising you will interest us no longer".
Dear friends, shall we search together this evening for the secret of an institution which even agnostics regard as an immovable rock in the midst of this rush to the abyss?
Monastic Life is Contemplative
Let us being with an anecdote. Some time ago a celebrated guru from India was asked to visit Paris. They extolled to him the benefits of technological civilisation, they showed him Christianity in the light of its good works, social and charitable. Then he asked the following question: "Works, is that all? But the most excellent work is contemplation. Where are your contemplatives"?
Was there not a stinging reproach in that question? The story is not finished: our guru was introduced to a literary circle in which he heard the spirituality of the Hindu mystics extolled. Then he pulled himself up and remarked dryly: "You in the West have mystics superior to ours. They are called Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Jean-Marie Vianey".
The first incident shows that for many, religion has become a social phenomenon, where activity is what counts. The Second shows that ignorance of our own mystical patrimony extends to looking abroad for what we have at home. And that raised the question of the place made for contemplative life in the present-day Church and the contemporary world. Well, let us say at once and boldly: . Because it is not the very work of man. God is its beginning and end. God by His very perfection gives rise to the contemplative life. God infinitely merits that creatures surrender themselves, consecrate themselves entirely, forever and exclusively to contemplate, praise and adore Him. That is the truth, that is order, that is normality. Because God, as you know, is infinite in His perfections. He is the Lord, the Absolute Good, sovereignly desirable.
A religion which is not contemplative is unworthy of God. So because he interests himself in God above all, the monk not only points to God, not only testifies to Him, he bear witness to the excellence of God. The God whom the majority of men forget - it is He whom the monk makes the centre of his life. The only thing that interests him, the only interesting thing in the world for him, is God. A monk is thus simply someone who has been ravished by the thought - by more than the thought of God; the monk has been caught up by the very sweetness of God, by the goodness of God, by the beauty of God. So he reaches out to seize hold immediately, in this present life, of what others lose sight of and end by encountering, sometimes too late, at the moment of death, on the threshold of eternity.
This journey of the monastic life, this radical attitude before the All of God, is profoundly logical. I am certain that every baptised person, even if a little dazed by life, by work, by other activities, recognised, in the depths of his being, that interior logic. And I shall suggest a striking example: the story of the conversion of Charles de Foucauld. While still an agnostic, he agreed, at the repeated request of his aunt Mme. Moitessier, to meet the Abbe Huvelin. Begged to make his confession: "But I don't believe in God, Father"! "Kneel down". Touched by grace, the freethinker became a penitent and confessed the faults of a sinful life. Then he got up with an attraction to the consecrated life, and was to declare later on: "As soon as I believed that there was a God, I realized that I could do no other than live for Him alone".
Such is the logic of the saints! Because all questions, in the end, are contained in one: "Will God be adored, loved, served as He deserves and as the first commandment of the Decalogue requires"? On the reply to this question depend the happiness of souls and the survival of civilisations. Now monastic life is precisely the total consecration of human existence to the solemn service of God. And in the civilisation that may rightly be described as apostate, which seeks to build a world without God, this solemn service is a kind of shout, a shout like that of St. Michael's "Quis ut Deus"? (Who is like to God?). A monk's life is no more than a witness rendered to the transcendence of God. God is all, and because He is all, He deserves to be given all. The monk thus witnesses to the relative character, the insufficiency of the goods of this world. God alone is infinite Good. St. Teresa of Avila has recorded a splendid saying which came to her mind. "God alone is greater that the soul". And so He alone is capable of satisfying it. Dear friend, to say that monastic life is essentially contemplative is to define the monk as a
One day, some ten years ago in our monastery in the High Pyrenees, a group of pilgrims were being received. They were shown the church. It was about five o'clock and twilight on a winter afternoon. After a moment one of the visitors approached the choir. He thought he saw there, against a pillar, a statue that interested him. He went up to the immobile form, leaned down, and, embarrassed, immediately withdrew. The reason for his discomfiture was that the "statue" was a monk praying - a still form in the shadows unaware that there were people around. The story became known, and we realised yet again the radiance, the mysterious influence, which prayer exercises on men - on all men. It is this which is immediately tangible in a monastery.
Therefore a monk is orientated towards his principal activity. At an hour when everything around him is shifting, he remains immobile at his post of prayer. It was St. Francis de Sales who said: "The world was created for prayer". And the first impression of anyone making a retreat with us is precisely the atmosphere created by the hymns, psalms, silent prayer which bathe our existence.
Let us say a few words now about the famous liturgical prayer which makes up the pattern of our days. Seven times during the day, once at night. As you know, the figure seven signifies perfection plenitude. Let us recall that this prayer was settled in the earliest ages of the Church, at a period in which there was a sense of the sacred. In fact it was necessary for the earliest monks to practice, as it were, for eternal life, to give to God that proof of the love of uninterrupted prayer which makes their life a beginning of heaven. Hence the figure seven.
Another characteristic: While modern man since the sixteenth century seems to have shown a tendency to close the shutters and withdraw to a distant room to pray, man of old praised God through the whole of creation; and our whole liturgical office, made up of what are called the Canonical Hours, consists in adoring God and praising Him
It is this which gives our prayer that noble, spacious character worthy of God. The sun is, after all, the most beautiful image of God, of the god Who is called Sun of Justice. Like the sun, God spreads His benefits and is never poorer for sending out His radiance.
This is the order of our Offices, first, at 6.30 a.m. there is Lauds, which is the dawn prayer singing of the victory of light over darkness. Then, a short time afterwards (about 7.30 a.m.), comes Prime, with its reference to the first rays of the sun: . Then, before the Conventual Mass, Terce, followed by Sext, which we sing when the sun is at its zenith: - in the heat of the noonday sun. In the afternoon there is None, which marks the setting sun and the vanishing of earthly things in face of the Immutable God: . Then Vespers, the prayer of evening, and finally Compline at sunset: We shall speak in a moment of the night psalmody.
These liturgical Offices are made up mainly of the Psalms of David which Jesus sang in the synagogue with Mary and Joseph when he was a child. He gave them their true meaning. The psalms speak of Christ, and it is Christ who speaks through the psalms. We do no more than lend our voices to Holy Church singing, in unison with her Divine Bridegroom, the new canticle of the New covenant. Do you know that these psalms are poems of wonderful beauty? They correspond to all the sentiments of the soul, all the aspirations, all the needs of the spiritual life: adoration, thanksgiving, praise, awareness of our poverty, penitence, supplication of divine aid and the outpourings of a tender, filial piety. The tenderness is palpable in certain psalms as is also love of the law, of the will of God, and a rapt confidence in Providence. Such are our psalms. And Christians have been singing-them since the Church first came into existence.
The liturgical Offices also express something very particular which I shall call the spirit of gratuitousness. You have noticed how modern living is marked by the sign of the useful, the profitable faced with a manufactured object, the first question posed is "What is it for"? or "How much does it cost"? But the most noble activities of man are those which are, by contrast 'gratuitous'. The Louvre is full of things which are not used for anything. They are nevertheless guarded by alarm signals and a powerful security network, which indicates that man values them above all else. Their 'uselessness' is all their glory.
Well, these thing are only a pale image on that libation of love poured out for the honour of God. Contemplative life is thus entirely 'gratuitous', in the sense that it is not a means to anything beyond itself. I would even say that it is perfectly useless, if I were not afraid of giving scandal. So ask these young monks, these apprentices to contemplative life in our monastery "Why do you pray"?, and they will answer, with perhaps a touch of malice. "We don't pray for anything"! Understand, we do not pray for anything, we pray to someone. For this reason monastic prayer consists primarily of adoration, admiration and praise.
Dom Marmion said: "A monk's life is one endless ", that conclusion to the psalms at which the monks bow gravely while singing . A perpetual that suffices, because we are made for it. The creature is fulfilled in acknowledgement of the infinite goodness of God. Dom Gueranger defined the Church as the society of divine praise. He wanted his monks to be "living alleluias". Why? Because God in Himself is above all praise. So the Benedictine spirit expresses itself in a free outpouring of love, in thanksgiving enraptured by the splendour of God. "We give Thee thanks for Thy great glory", as we sing in the Andre Charlier, a man to whom we owe much, used to say: "It matters more than anything to preserve the gratuitousness of love". I thing that this gratuitous character of love is best expressed precisely in prayer which is first of all praise; because in praise the soul forgets itself and total forgetfulness of self is most difficult and most rare. And already one glimpses the apostolic role of contemplative life, of which we shall be speaking in a moment, because, anticipating eternity, monastic life is a proclamation of the Kingdom where perfectly pure and disinterested love will finally triumph.
I would not wish to end this brief account of contemplative prayer without telling you something about the night Office which, with us, begins at two in the morning (or two thirty, according to the feast day). Our Father Abbot founder, Dom Romain Banquet, used to say: "Night with its darkness, its silence, its pure and secret charm from on high, invites the soul and draws it to interior, luminous sanctifying ascents".
Do you know, dear friends, that the night rising is a very ancient custom? It belongs to the beginnings of monastic life. When the first monks, those whom we call the Fathers of the Desert - Paul the Hermit, Anthony, Pacomius began the great monastic adventure, they instituted the night psalmody. Besides, we have a very exalted example: it is Our Saviour, who gave us the first example of night prayer. St. Luke reports that Our Saviour spent nights of prayer - "He spent the night in prayer to God". In the Acts of the Apostles there is a delightful scene. Paul and Silas are in prison loaded with chains, and they rise in the middle of the night to sing their psalms in front of their guards, who come to listen to them with curiosity.
Holy Church thus instituted the Office known as Matins, and that so that the night should not escape the universal praise of creatures. It too must resound with our singing. And then, you see, by praying night and day the monk sends out a message to his contemporaries, a message to which they are in general very responsive: this message tells them of eternity, the heavenly country which we do not see and towards which we go. Certainly, I shall not hide from you that it is a difficult observance and consequently one which is endowed with a penitential character - and hence a work of reparation. Think, then, of the sins committed at night: that black tide of lust which breaks on the world, the crimes of every kind calling for punishment. The monk must station himself as an intercessory and pray at that time for his brothers. Think too of those dying in hospital, of the sleepless for whom the night is never- ending, of the misery, the nightly anguish of which we can have no idea. Finally, let us think of Christians behind the Iron Curtain who are imprisoned and tortured.
You all know the story, as charming now as ever, told by Joinville. One night at sea a storm broke over the returning Crusaders. Among the passengers there was panic, but King St. Louis cried out: "Don't be afraid, they are praying for us" And the tempest sub-sided.
At one time France, and indeed all Europe, were literally covered with great abbeys, monasteries and monastic "ranges. Archaeologists find remains of such foundations below the soil every twenty-five kilometres. France was as if held in a chaplet, a network of prayer. Think of those thousands of hands raised to heaven, of those monks and nuns who watched over the temporal cities, who pleased, who called for the reign of God on earth (which is what we too ask). What an immense grace what a lightning-conductor for civilisation! It made the grandeur of the Middle Ages, it makes possible those extraordinary works which are called cathedrals, crusades, order of chivalry, monastic schools, works of mercy, hospices and those monuments of intellectual wisdom which are the writings of a St. Bonaventure and a St. Thomas Aquinas. Think above all of the yearnings for sanctity, of those princesses who went to bury their beauty and youth in the cloisters, of those knights who renounced the honours or the glory of arms to embrace the cross of Jesus Christ, of men and women who set out for heaven.
It reminded men that there is another world, the world of God. The sacred penetrated human institutions. It shaped the piety of Christians, because our West, however sick it is, however decadent because unfaithful to its vocation, has nevertheless received a seal, an impression that has marked it forever: it was the first monks sent out by the Benedictine Pope St. Gregory the Great who completed the evangelisation of Europe. He sent them to England, to the Friesians in Germany, to Spain and as far as Scandinavia. St. Maurus, the first disciple of our Father St. Benedict, had already planted the Benedictine monastic life among the Gauls. These missionary monks were sent not at first to preach, because at the beginning that was impossible, but to live their monastic life among the pagans. They founded monasteries, they lived the Rule of St. Benedict, they taught men how to work. It is good when a man works well, when he does a beautiful piece of work. They taught men to read in a beautiful book which the pagans did not know, the book of Holy Scripture. And, above all they taught them how to pray, thanks to the liturgical river which flows throughout the year and which is the best school of prayer.
In this way, Western Christianity was moulded by the first Benedictine monks. And something of it remains, something not always found on other continents where Anglo-Saxon Protestantism has placed its mark, where temporal success is considered a blessing from God, where luck evidently has its place. With us, it is not the same pattern. In our West, sick as it is (it is perhaps stricken to death), despite our degradation, our surrenders, there is a sense of God, a spiritual quest. Why? Because it is in our blood. It was instilled into us in our cradle. Our civilisation was signed by the Benedictines in the early centuries. They laid stress on the gratuitousness of divine service on disinterested love. And I believe it is this which will save the world.
Apostolic Value of the Contemplative Life
To grasp what it is which makes fruitful the vocation whose gratuitous character we have been emphasising, it will be enough to state a universal principle. . It is quite simple. If one explains to a child, he understands at once. For example: the more the spirit of the disciple is in tune with the master, the better he propagates his doctrine. It is obvious.
This is what Christ Jesus expressed when He chose to begin His human existence with thirty years of hidden life, silent life, apart from the world, unknown to man, entirely absorbed in a secret dialogue with God the Father. Thirty years of for three years of ! That is the model set before us by Jesus Christ Who is the apostle . He began His work of salvation with thirty years of hidden life, in the apparent inactivity of prayer and humility. What a lesson for us! It shows in what high esteem we should hold the interior life, silence, solitude - things so undervalued by the world: the example of Jesus Christ is enough to save the honour of contemplatives.
From all this we can already draw a certain conclusion: the salvation of the world is dependent of the prayer of a few souls in love with God. And now, to demonstrate the apostolic character of the contemplative life, that life of prayer and sacrifice hidden in God, we shall, with your permission, invoke the exemplary character of the life of St. Theresa of the Child Jesus. As you know, St. Theresa died aged twenty four, without ever leaving her Carmel. Yet at her beatification Pope St. Pius X called her "the greatest saint of modern times", and Pius XI proclaimed her patron of the missions of the universal church, by the same title as St. Francis Xavier. So we now ask a question: how can contemplative life be missionary?
Two anecdotes will make us understand St. Theresa at the end of her brief life, continued heroically to observe the Carmelite rule. Her sisters recount that shed was sometimes so crushed by the illness which was to carry her away that, returning from Matins, she would climb the stairs very slowly, leaning her hand on the wall to catch her breath. A sister noticed this. As it was then the hour of the Great silence, she waited until the next day and then said to her "Sister Theresa, why do you not ask for a dispensation from Matins? Why do you go on walking like that? You are exhausted". And she replied: "I am walking for the missionaries"! That is the Communion of saints in all its splendour.
That is why Pius XI, who has been called the Pope of the Missions, declared one day that he would prefer to see a monastery of contemplatives founded in a mission country than to learn of the conversion of 30,000 pagans. And it was the same Pius XI who wrote for the Carthusians, who are pure contemplatives, the famous bull Umbratilem, from which I shall quote for you the following passage:
The second incident took place before Theresa's entry into Carmel and decided her apostolic vocation in favour of the salvation of souls. We read her account in the . It is the well known Pranzini affair. There was at the time a criminal called Pranzini, a man responsible for several murders, who had been captured and sentenced to death. He was to be guillotined on August 31, 1887. Now the chaplain who visited him in prison had never succeeded in making him regret his crimes. Pranzini received him with arrogance and sent him away without showing a shadow of repentance. The young Theresa heard talk about the notorious criminal, she was moved by compassion (as she herself said) and she asked God for a sign of his conversion. The day after his execution, she, opened the newspaper with, she admitted, unusual haste. And she read the account of his last moments. Pranzini had mounted the scaffold without confession, without absolution. The chaplain behind him was holding a crucifix in his hand when suddenly the condemned man turned and kissed three times the crucifix which the priest offered him. St. Theresa of the Child Jesus herself recounts the miracle in her history. Let us hear her:
That was in 1887 when Theresa was fifteen years old. The following year she entered Carmel.
St. Theresa of the Child Jesus had a very bold doctrine of the apostolic role of prayer. She drew it from the theology of the Mystical Body in St. Paul. She explains in that out of love for the Church she would have liked to take on every role - to be missionary, martyr, doctor, priest, warrior, hospital worker - but she could not, since one cannot do everything: Because of the state of her health, she was not even able to answer the appeal of the Saigon Carmel for a reinforcement of French sisters. Nevertheless, in her autobiography she left a testimony to the illuminating grace which made her understand that if she could not take on all vocations, she could embrace them all. Reading St. Paul, she had grasped that in a body there are several members, but the central organ which drives the blood through the arteries, bring life to each member, is the heart. St. Theresa exclaimed them, in a tone of triumph "I have found my vocation in the heart of the Church, my mother. I shall be love, and because I shall be love, I shall be everything". From then on she practiced the perfection of charity. She said: "One can' save the world while picking up a pin which has fallen to the ground". She was a worthy daughter of St. John of the Cross, that great Doctor of the Church, who wrote in his spiritual Canticle: "The smallest part of pure love IS more precious in the eyes of God, and more profitable to the Church in its apparent inactivity, than all other works taken together". You see, dear friends, that the contemplative monk may also become a soldier of the Church Militant and a saviour of souls.
Our Monastery at Bedoin
And now, as I promised you, a few words on our little monastery at Bedoin, for which I am asking your generous support. It was founded in 1970 by a Father and a Brother. The Father, who is speaking to you this evening, came from an abbey in the High Pyrenees, where he had made his profession some twenty years earlier. That abbey was then in decline. He could not reconcile himself to having his whole existence unfold in a sense contrary to the Rule which he had embraced with solemn vows. The vows of religion are chains of love which bind you in the depths of the conscience. So he asked his Father Abbot's blessing and resolved to leave, and to continue to live according to the Holy Rule in the strict observance and customs of the Order.
At the end of a year of solitary existence a very small place of worship offered itself. It was an ancient romanesque chapel. Five days after he had carried in his few belongings, a young man came to him asking to be initiated into the monastic life. He received the reply one should always give a postulant: "It is not possible, it is beyond your strength". Moreover I had an excellent excuse: "By myself, how do you expect me to form you in the Benedictine life? There must be a Father Abbot, a Master of Novices, older monks". Then I sent him away - it is our way of welcoming postulants. He came back three months later saying: "If you don't accept me, I shall go and live my monastic life alone in the woods". "No, don't do that, it is dangerous"! And so he stayed. I tried to teach him what I had been taught: the Holy Rule, the Holy Liturgy. He was our first novice. Today he is a priest.
Then, some months later, another young man arrived: he was the son of a working man. I said to him, "You want to be a monk?" "Yes, but I have no education; I am self taught. My father humped grain sacks. I do have the technical certificate". "You don't know Latin"? "No", "What is it that interests you in our life"? "Prayer". "But you don't understand any of it since we sing the psalms in Latin". "I don't understand, but it helps me to pray". He had put his finger on that incantatory value of our splendid Catholic liturgy with its sacred language and Gregorian chant. What a magnificent instrument of prayer! We received the young man. He was made to do half an hour of Latin a day. Now he is able to translate the Psalter at sight.
Some time later a third came, then a fourth. But the whole Office was already being sung, the great solemn office, all the Hours were sung. Oh, it was no concert! It was not as beautiful as at Solesmes. It was not beautiful. It was grand. Because these young men felt themselves to be repositories of a grand tradition and they wanted to be worthy of it. One of them confided to me that without the splendour of the liturgical life, he would not have persevered.
Now they are fifteen, if one includes postulants. And I will admit that what encourages me is their youth (they are between twenty and twenty-five years of age) and their love of the monastic tradition. The 'progressive' Benedictines have chosen evolution. And so they empty their monasteries. It is understandable. For our young men want the solid, the traditional, they love demanding forms, true contemplative life, and not "adaptations". You see, when I ask them - and it is a question I always ask - "Why have you come? What is the reason for your action"?, they reply: "I have come for prayer, for union with God".
God, prayer, and let us add, the life of brethren. In the end they come to know that marvellous Benedictine balance where prayer, study, and manual labour alternate, making possible a true harmony. It is a challenge to nature, you know, to make men live together all their lives. It would not be possible if there were not first the grace of the good God and then the miracle which is the Rule of St. Benedict.
Yet please, believe that their wish to imitate the monks of old who for centuries - for fourteen centuries - embrace a life of gravity and recollection does not take away from them their simplicity and gaiety. You should see them on their Monday morning walk as, after good talk and laughter, they come down from Ventoux saying their rosary and singing their so that it resounds on the evening air before they plunge again into the life of silence: "What can be sweeter to us dearest brethren, than this voice of our Lord inviting us? Behold in His loving mercy the Lord showeth us the way of life" (Prologue to the Rule).
That is what will continue, thanks to you, if your are generous if you allow us, by your gifts by your aims to raise towards the sky of Provence stone walls like those of the beautiful peasant houses, so humble, so noble in their simplicity. Like those churches, those little romanesque monasteries of Provence blend perfectly into the countryside. We desire this for the glory of God and also to help our brothers in the world, to enable them to stay from time to time in the haven of peace which is a Benedictine monastery.
Sometimes a man may meet God there for the first time. There are conversions. They are matters of which one should not speak. But we are among Christians. We know it is grace which does these things. It is not us. And I shall tell you that these conversions are made by the radiance of liturgical prayer. It is the choir of monks in unison day and night which has led certain Protestants to become Catholics, and certain souls who had left the Church or abandoned sacramental practice to return to the good Lord. And that shows to what point Tradition, our holy liturgical Tradition, is a bearer of graces. How good to realise that souls come to know themselves, are touched, come to the truth at such moments. That too deserves to continue, don't you agree?
For it is a whole little world that gravitates round the monastery. It is sometimes even funny to see and officer alongside a student, sometimes a vagabond, priest, seminarian, boy scout. All go to make up that good Christianity which comes to us, which makes with us a single thing round the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. At the same time it all evidently constitutes a bastion, a taking root, a guiding mark in the raging sea in which Holy Church finds herself battered by the tempest of revolutionary modernism. Well, there will be islets which will continue Tradition.
A great cardinal came to see us (he was not entirely in agreement with us), and he told us: "Continue, your are witnesses, you are guiding marks and later on it will be known what exactly the great Catholic liturgy was". The name of the cardinal was Charles Journet.
And so, my dear friends, nothing remains for me except to ask for the support of your generosity. In this way you will be taking up again the medieval tradition by which it was once the whole Christian people which built the monasteries. Every man brought his stone, and each monastery built was a window pierced in the sky!
I shall conclude this talk, with your permission, by expressing two wishes. The first concerns you. It is that your generosity towards us may rebound first upon you in graces of personal sanctification, so that we may all walk shoulder to shoulder in the Communion of Saints; then that it may rebound on your families, your sick and your dead. The second concerns us: I ardently desire that the young monks whose charge I have accepted may live a holy life behind the walls that you will have helped raise towards the sky; that they may live there to their last breath in the daily labour of conversion, faithful to their vocation of adoring God and saving souls.
This article was taken from the November 1995 issue of "Christian Order". Published by Fr. Paul Crane, S.J. from 53, Penerley Road, Catford, London SE6 2LH. The annual subscription to "Christian Order" is $20.00.
Copyright (c) 1996 EWTN