Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Monk and the Cross

Anonymous asked the following questions late last week:

"As a monk, what would you say is the monk's primary relation to taking up one's
cross and being a disciple of Christ? On a side note, do monks ever get time to
be alone in solitude? Do they ever go outside of the monastery?Or is the
schedule always strictly structured?"

I will answer these questions in order, beginning with the first, which is more central and yet more subtle than the others. Sometimes early monastic literature is criticized for not fully accounting for the Cross. St. Benedict's Rule, at first glance, would seem to support this: the word 'Cross' does not appear in the Rule.

However, St. Benedict alludes to the Cross indirectly, and in this allusion gives an insight into the peculiar relationship between the monk and the Cross. At the end of the Prologue, St. Benedict writes, "we shall through patience share in the sufferings [passionibus] of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his kingdom." Here, St. Benedict demonstrates that discipleship of Jesus Christ is bound up for the monk with patience and perseverance. The monk perseveres especially in the disciplines of obedience, restraint of speech, humility, and prayer (chapters 5-20). These qualities are quintessentially those of the crucified Christ, who 'humbled himself and became obedient unto death [Phil 2: 8],' who was 'oppressed [and] afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter [Is 53: 7; Acts 8: 32-33].' As for prayer, 'in the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death [Heb 5: 7].' So the monk puts no confidence in his own accomplishments, even when he makes progress in humility and obedience; rather, he recognizes the need to persevere continually.

Now it might not immediately appear that these disciplines are worthy of the sufferings of Christ, but St. Benedict and the monastic Fathers before him would hold that the powers of evil stand against the person who attempts to model Christ in this way, and so they engineer all sorts of temptations and hidden sufferings to sway the monk from his path. Thus, monks traditionally see themselves next to Christ in the spiritual battle that He underwent in the desert after His baptism. After our solemn professions, we expect to encounter great spiritual resistance, and it is by persevering and not running away that we share in the Cross through patience (which, at root, means to suffer).

The three remaining questions are of a piece: we do have a very strict schedule, but it allows for monks to spend a significant amount of time in solitude. Each day from 5:40 a.m. to 6:25 a.m. and again from 5:40 p.m. to 6:15 p.m. we are to be alone in our cells. On Sundays and Mondays, we have more personal time. We also practice silence, which means that when we are together, it is without talking most of the time. This heightens a sense of privacy and interiority. As far as leaving the monastery, it depends on the reason: since we have a very small property, it is common for brothers to go out for exercise and fresh air. On the other hand, we do not generally go out for social reasons: to see movies, eat at restaurants and go to museums or concerts. From time to time we will go as a group for some recreational outing, but our withdrawal from the world requires us to renounce the social life available to persons in the world.

For most monks, the schedule is a Cross! We have very little say in how we plan our days, and even if a monk is content to do what he is told to do, most of us encounter stretches of time when we wish we could just grab some money and go out for a hamburger on our own! So obedience to a community schedule is both liberating and a participation in the annihilation of self-will, which is crucifying.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for responding to my questions, Father! I appreciate it.

A follow-up: are the monks in your congregation faithful to the Magisterium and the Holy Father?


This blog is published with ecclesiastical approval.

If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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