Monastic Life and Life’s Vocation

“By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise always to God, that is to say, the fruit of lips confessing to his name. And do not forget to do good, and to impart; for by such sacrifices God’s favour is obtained”. – Heb 13:15-16

It should not surprise us why so many religious communities today have declined. We must remember that we are now living in the midst of one of the greatest trials in Church history. The shear number of 20th-century apparitions and miracles far outnumber all the previous centuries combined. According to modern apparitions, our common adversary is becoming more and more desperate, attempting to drag more souls with him. To say that the moral state decay of our society is worse than it has ever been, would not be an unreasonable statement. Like old Israel, we too have allowed paganism and hedonism to become the law of our land, worshipping the three-headed idol of pride, lust, and avarice. And God has granted our desires, just as He did with Israel. He has handed us over to our enemies, to the tyranny of a foreign ruler. And we have been held captive for so long, that we have become accustomed to our slavery, as if it is the normal way of life. And yet, there is still hope. Satan’s reign is coming to an end. And just like Josiah in the Old Testament, who tore his garments after rediscovering the long-lost Scriptures (2 Chr 34:14-15), it seems we too are on the cusp of rediscovering our true identity once again. But let us be clear about this. The answer is not in a certain “brand” of Catholicism, whether “traditional” or “charismatic”, which can lead to polarisation and division. But it is in one thing only; love; to love God by loving what He loves; His children, His lost sheep, His Holy Mother and His Church.

Monastic obedience is not a carrying out of an order, but a total giving of self to God through a monastic community. Such giving sometimes does involve pain and hurt because the individual cannot ‘march merely to his own beat.’ But then neither can a spouse in a marriage or a child in a family. Obedience within the monastery today rests upon the idea that the cenobium, the community, is a society of persons who, through mutual love, sanctify each other. Obedience is the Yes of community living.” If we obeyed and were faithful to our own vocations and duties, the Church (and the world) would be in a wonderful state. Far too often though, we Christians want to live our Christianity according to our own ideas.  We may be doing good things but that doesn’t mean we are fulfilling our first obligations and submitting our will to God.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola stated “If a person thinks of embracing a secular life, he should ask and desire more evident signs that God calls him to a secular life, than if there were question of embracing the evangelical counsels; for Our Lord Himself has evidently exhorted us to embrace His counsels.”

In our Western culture, we have been raised from infancy with an inwards gaze toward self and want; to self-seeking pleasure, convenience, and instant gratification, pacified by ceaseless noise, shiny flashing lights, and candy floss. Unfortunately, many people import this mindset into their vocation, expecting always to find the sweet taste of consolation and spiritual transports. But the way toward purification is a rugged one, especially at the beginning when the soul is still divided and pulled at by the world. It is therefore easy to become discouraged and abandon the path to perfection altogether. If we only knew of the great joy and peace that we could experience even in this life, we would never get sidetracked from this path! Never forget that holiness is not so much a sudden burst of fire that quickly dies, but rather a small and steady flame unceasing in its intensity and constant in its light. Padre Pio was once asked ‘what is necessary to become a saint?’ His response was candid and unambiguous; “One thing alone is necessary. You must will it.” According to the revelations given to the Venerable Mary of Agreda, many souls fail precisely because they flee from the cross; especially during the first stage of purification, from dying to self-love.

One need not have absolute certainty of a calling to the religious life in order to have a genuine vocation. If there is but a seed of desire within the soul, then this is enough reason to water and cultivate this seed, to see whether is takes root or not. And the best way to have greater certainty, is to visit the communities in person (many of them, if necessary), as well as your diocesan vocations office.

When the father of all monks, St. Anthony the Great lived in the desert he was beset by accidie (spiritual or mental sloth; apathy), and attacked by many sinful thoughts. He said to God, ‘Lord, I want to be saved but these thoughts do not leave me alone; what shall I do in my affliction? How can I be saved?’ A short while afterwards, when he got up to go out, St. Anthony saw a man like himself sitting at his work, getting up from his work to pray, then sitting down and plaiting a rope, then getting up again to pray. It was an angel of the Lord sent to correct and reassure him. He heard the angel saying to him, ‘Do this and you will be saved.’ At these words, St. Anthony was filled with joy and courage. He did this, and he was saved.

Someone asked St. Anthony, ‘What must one do in order to please God?’ The old man replied, ‘Pay attention to what I tell you: whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the holy Scriptures; in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it. Keep these three precepts and you will be saved.’”

Monasticism is a radical living out of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Following in the footsteps of the Apostles and the early Desert Fathers, religious have heard Christ’s words to the rich young man, “Jesus saith to him: If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come follow me.” (Mt 19:21.) Striving to love God “And thou shalt love the Lord thy God, with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind, and with thy whole strength. This is the first commandment.” (Mk 12:30), monks leave all things, “Furthermore I count all things to be but loss for the excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ my Lord; for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but as dung, that I may gain Christ” (Phil 3:8.) Being a monk is to be “Dead; and your life is hid with Christ in God.” (Col 3:3) so that we can be “alive in Christ”.

It does not mean that the monks spurn others in their pursuit of God! As Evagrius the Solitary, said, “A monk is separated from all and united to all.” They realise that the unity of all in Christ and their life becomes one of prayer for the whole world. Praying together includes the cry, the invocation, the aspiration, the desire for peace, the healing and salvation of the men and women of this world. Prayer is never in vain; it rises ceaselessly to the Lord so that anguish is turned into hope, tears into joy, despair into happiness, and solitude into communion. May the Kingdom of God come soon among people!

Historically monastics have always had hospitality as an important aspect of their life, to share a bit of their life with the faithful. At other times, monks have been called out of their monasteries to do apostolic ministry when needed. All over the world people gather in the various places of prayer and lay before the Lord the hopes and the sufferings of the tired, exhausted crowds of which the Gospel speaks. In these crowds we can see the Brobdingnagian of the modern cities, millions of refugees who continue to flee their war torn countries, the homeless and poor, relegated to the very fringes of society and life and all those who are waiting for someone to take care of them. Even Saint Anthony the Great abandoned his beloved solitude when it was called for. In whatever situation the monk finds himself, his goal is always to live “in Christ”.

The heart of the life of any monastery is prayer, and the heart of prayer is a deep and intimate relationship with Christ. Christ is encountered in a great number of ways in the ordinary life of the brotherhood: in public prayers, in the life of discipline and spiritual efforts, the interactions between brothers, and in the way they, in turn, associate with the outside world. Most notably, Christ is encountered in the seemingly endless hours of private prayer which each monk undertakes each day, both in his cell rule and as he goes about his daily work. Here we call to mind 1 Th 5:17 to “Pray without ceasing”. The Apostle Paul exhorted the Ephesian believers to see prayer as a weapon to use in fighting spiritual battles (Eph 6:18). As we go through the day, prayer should be our first response to every fearful situation, every anxious thought, and every undesired task that God commands. A lack of prayer will cause us to depend on ourselves instead of depending on God’s grace. Unceasing prayer is, in essence, continual dependence upon and communion with the Father. To facilitate this encounter, the monastery has to be a sanctuary. This sanctuary is created through the common life of the monks, based on the vows of traditional monasticism. These are the vows which the monks take when they become ‘cross bearers’.

The vows made are to obedience, conversion of life and stability. Poverty and charity are inferred in the vow of conversion, although the vow contains so much more. Officially and canonically there are three vows. Morally and religiously the observance is of the five vows. Just what these words signify is an important question, and one that each monk will face from time to time throughout his life.

The discipline and silence necessary for prayer are a reminder that consecration by the vows of religion requires a certain asceticism of life “embracing the whole being”. Christ’s response of poverty, love, and obedience led him to the solitude of the desert, the pain of contradiction, and the abandonment of the cross. The consecration of religious enters into this way of his; it cannot be a reflection of his consecration if its expression in life does not hold an element of self-denial. Religious life itself is an ongoing, public, visible expression of Christian conversion. It calls for the leaving of all things and the taking up of one’s cross to follow Christ throughout the whole of life. This involves the asceticism necessary to live in poverty of spirit and of fact; to love as Christ loves; to give up one’s own will for God’s sake to the will of another who represents him, however imperfectly. It calls for the self-giving without which it is not possible to live either a good community life or a fruitful mission. Jesus’ statement that the grain of wheat needs to fall to the ground and die if it is to bear fruit has a particular application to religious because of the public nature of their profession. It is true that much of today’s penance is to be found in the circumstances of life and should be accepted there. However, unless religious build into their lives “a joyful, well-balanced austerity” and deliberately determined renunciations, they risk losing the spiritual freedom necessary for living the counsels. Indeed, without such austerity and renunciation, their consecration itself can be affected. This is because there cannot be a public witness to Christ poor, chaste, and obedient without asceticism. Moreover, by professing the counsels by vows, religious undertake to do all that is necessary to deepen and foster what they have vowed, and this means a free choice of the cross, that it may be “as it was for Christ, proof of the greatest love”.

There has been a long debate within the Church about the differences between monastic-v-religious vows, and of the differences in the monastic and religious states of life. Prior to Vatican II it was said there were two main types of consecrated states of life: the monastic and the religious. The monastic life was generally viewed to be something more involved and demanding than the religious life. We used to see this principally in the differentiation between Nuns and Sisters. Nuns had solemn vows and were rigidly cloistered; whilst the Sisters has simple vows and were not cloistered and could move around the town and community in which they lived.

Each vow has an obvious and uncomplicated meaning, and it is this uncomplicated meaning which governs the daily life of the community, its customs and traditions. Be that as it may, in the observance of the vows there is also a deeper, distinctive importance which each monk must contemplate in terms of his own life and condition.

These vows, then, create a sanctuary in which the monastic life is possible. To elucidate how this works, it may be helpful to think in terms of a four-dimensional space, with each vow providing one of those dimensions. Taking the imagery a little further, it is possible to say that the space which is created by those four dimensions is one in which the love of God is expressed. Each monk lives within this ‘matrix of love’ simultaneously taking from, and contributing to, the experience of the brotherhood as a whole. Living a life of total inter-dependence, where each person of the monastic family depends upon everyone else, the monk learns to surrender to the will of God at a yet more and more heartfelt level. In return for surrendering all that he is, all that he has, and all that he might become, the monk receives all that he needs (but not necessarily all that he wants!) including a subtle, yet essential, quality of trust in God. As this trust develops he feels more and more able to surrender his own self worth, whilst living in a state of total surrender, albeit in total security. With the surrender of the self worth, the monk can even reach a level of living in which the concept of his own “wants” ceases to exert any power over him.

Religious criticism asserts that materialist consumerism interferes with the connection between the individual and God, and so is an inherently immoral style of life; From the Roman Catholic perspective, Thomas Aquinas said that “Greed is a sin against God, just as all mortal sins, in as much as man condemns things eternal for the sake of temporal things”; in that vein, Francis of Assisi, said that spiritual inspiration guided him toward simple living.

Some adapt to monastic life effortlessly, others less so. There is a great need to spend some time in unhurried and un-pressured contemplation of whether or not monastic life in general, and monastic life certain religious order in particular, is suitable for a given candidate. Thus, built into the structure of monastic life the various stages at which the individual is confronted by his own decision to remain in the monastery. While it is possible to see monasticism as a “vocation” or calling, should be viewed as the self-offering of an individual. That self-offering then has to be accepted by a particular monastic community in order for it to bloom and come to fruition.

The importance of the monastery is not, however, limited to the members of the brotherhood. The reality which the monks experience on a daily basis becomes available to friends, pilgrims and visitors who come to the monastery for longer or shorter periods of time. Even the experience of being around the monastic community for a few hours can effect great changes in people’s lives. Since a monastery is ‘de facto’ a place of healing, the life of the community spills over into the lives of the greater community, affording many opportunities for repentance, healing and a deep abiding sense of spiritual happiness.

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux once estimated that about one out of three Catholics (~33%) have a vocation to the consecrated life. Today, less one in every twenty-thousand Catholics (~0.005%) are consecrated religious. These statistics, if even remotely accurate, help us to better understand the difficulty Catholics face today when discerning a religious vocation, that is; that many either do not hear the call of God, or they hear it but do not listen.

Saint Teresa of Los Andes OCD stated: ” We no longer belong to the world. Jesus has taken us from the world, that we may follow Him more closely, and He says to us: “If anyone would come after Me, let him take up his cross and follow Me.” And so, Sister, let’s walk after Him. Love demands this, since He has chosen us to make us entirely His own; And when the weight of the cross weighs us down, let us call upon Jesus to help us. […] We do not belong to the worldly spirit any longer, for Jesus has taken from us the spirit of the world in order to clothe us with His Divine Spirit. And what is that spirit…? The spirit of the Cross, the renunciation of our selfish impulses and demands of the flesh; the denial of our appetites and tastes, comforts, etc.”

Realising that discouragement is a tool of our common adversary, we must remind ourselves that all things done for the love of God will bear abundant fruit, especially if the sacrifice is great (“And every one that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall possess life everlasting.” – Matt 19:29). Thus, we need not fear our own weaknesses, for the grace we will receive will suffice for us to become saints. But we must correspond with grace. As Our Lord told Saint Maria Faustyna (Kowalska) of the Blessed Sacrament, OLM; “Do not be guided by feeling, because it is not always under your control; but all merit lies in the will.” Indeed, becoming a saint or, loving God to the point of total conformity to His will requires nothing more than a persistent good will to do so. To become a saint, only three things are necessary; love, prayer, and mortification.

With every blessing, and love in JESUS Christ and our Mother The Blessed Virgin MARY,

Given on the Feast of Saint Augustine of Hippo
Dom Ugo Maria er. dio.
St Mary’s Hermitage near Canterbury