Benedictine Monks

Assumption Abbey

Conversion of Life

The Monastic Way of Life

Talk One

Brian Wangler, OSB

St. Benedict’s phrase, “prefer nothing to the love of Christ” implies that we have a choice.  It is about this choice that I wish to speak.  Obviously  if the choice for Christ were easy, natural and simple, it would not merit effort or this talk.  Reality is that the choice for Christ is not easy, natural or simple.

Basil Hume (ABR) says St. Benedict was a realist.  Basil Hume says that our very humanness calls for asceticism and for self-denial so that a habit of right choices will be formed in us.  Once the habit of right choices is established, love will have the upper hand in our life.  Freedom to choose rightly is the goal of our vow of conversion according to the monastic manner of life.  With a habit of right choices to guide us we can be ever more hospitable to Christ.

St. Gregory of Nyssa says that we never truly become what we become unless deep down we choose it and keep choosing it all our life.  According to Gregory of Nyssa we become what we choose continuously.  Obviously the habits we develop are very important.

St. Basil says that asceticism means not the giving up of any worldly thing.  Rather, asceticism means the giving up entirely one’s own self-will.  St. Bernard says that we do not learn the truths of the spiritual life by means of discussion.  We understand them by means of holiness.  St. Bernard tells us to be holy so that our experience will instruct us about the truths of the spiritual life.

Asceticism, self-denial of various kinds, may seem to be the least good way to foster the freedom to make right choices.  But it is. It is true that imposed asceticism, like the old Friday abstinence from meat, may not have been fully chosen but only conformed to.  Such an act of asceticism soon becomes empty.  If an act of asceticism does not foster the growth of love in us, then it is vain and empty.

Right choices imply the possibility of wrong choices.  Does not living in a free country mean that we are indeed free?  Not when it comes to the choice for or against Christ.  There is plenty in us that fights a deep and daily and complete choice for Christ. Interior freedom does not come to us on a silver platter.  I have spoken before about our weaknesses.  It is these ingrained weaknesses that make interior freedom so difficult.  Asceticism is our attempt to overcome our weaknesses and subsequent lack of freedom and our tendency to choose wrongly.  We likely will not choose wrongly in big matters.  But self-centeredness asserts itself most in the daily details of our life.  It is here that wrong choices are most often made.

The goal of asceticism is the healing of our spiritual wounds.  It is balm for our spirit and mind.  The wrong choices that our weaknesses lead us to are a pain to our soul and mind.  Monastic life asks nothing less than the total surrender of one’s person to God.  Great freedom is required for that.  Christ has won this freedom for us by his cross and resurrection.  Accepting this freedom, this grace, from Christ, is work.  It is a daily task.  It is a daily giving of oneself to the Lord.

There are three key words in the process of surrender to God. They are:  Separation from the World, Silence/Solitude, and Stability

1. Separation from the World:  This is the first effect a person will experience when he comes to the monastery.  Chapter 4 on “The Tools of Good Works” says:  “Your way of life should be different than from the world.”  The Prologue of St. Benedict’s Rule invites us to come, if we are willing, to give up our will.  As soon as he enters the monastery, the candidate begins to follow the horarium.  He no longer sets his schedule.  His basic schedule for each day of the week is set for him.  He begins to live at the monastery and outside contacts and travels are cut down or eliminated for the most part.  While the notion of separation from the ways of the world is subtle, it must nevertheless, be real in the life of the monk.  The world’s ways are not God’s ways. Even the monastic schedule can be seen as just another schedule, as a practical way to order our life.  In fact that is what it is in many ways.  So the monk has to look through the schedule to its deeper intent, its purpose and its goal.  The intent of the monastic schedule is to begin to pull the monk away from his self-will, from his own way of organizing his life. This is but one simple step toward the giving over of oneself to God.  The intent, purpose and goal of the monastic horarium is to help us surrender to God.  Its practical side is secondary to its main purpose.  When we talk about the ways of the world we are not talking about how our parents or brothers and sisters live. We are not talking about how our neighbors live.  When we talk about the ways of the world we are talking about a way of life that has at its core the doing of self-will instead of God’s will.  This core of self-will will incarnate itself in a person’s life in a thousand ways.  It will form the person’s attitudes, values, goals and desires.  The monk is to live in a different way.  His way is a God-centered life with all the attitudes, values, goals and desires that come with it.  St. Benedict cautions that the beginner, and all of us, not to run away, for the road is bound to be narrow at the beginning.  I think we can add that it will be narrow for a while longer.  The work of separating oneself from the world is a daily task. The focal point is  choosing God, and not self, in all things.

2. Silence/Solitude:  These two are necessary for our freedom to be.  They help to provide an environment free from noise so that we can be who we are before God.

A Word about Solitude:  There is a solitariness even when we are in the midst of the most loving and familiar of groups.  We each are individual.  We are unique.  Before God we are only ourselves.  Celibacy is part of our uniqueness before God.

A Word about Silence:  Silence is a means for solitude. But silence has its own authentic value in the monastic life.  Silence is a hallmark of the monk.  We need silence as monks.  But we also need loving conversations.  God’s initiative in our life will establish a proper order in our life.  Hospitality to Christ requires both solitude and silence in his presence.

Silence and solitude foster presence to oneself.  They foster truth.  In the company of Christ they foster loving self-reflection so that we might see our motivations, especially those that foster our self-centeredness and alienation from God.  If solitude and silence are entered into and allowed to do their work in us, they will reveal our motivations.  In silence and solitude the monk, with his mind and with the companionship of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, looks at himself.  He sits back and relives in his mind situations and interactions he was involved in during he last few days.  He asks Jesus to accompany him and they together look at how the monk interacted with people.  With Jesus present he will look at himself with love and have the strength necessary to be truthful.  He sees himself in situations and ascertains the thoughts, feeling and motivations present in that act.  “So this is way I respond with anger so often; so this is why I feel I am getting short-changed; so this is why I am controlling,” and so forth.  (The Holy Way by Paula Huston, Part II)  The monk, in a sense, steps back and watches himself.  He watches himself talk and interact with others.  In this mental watching the monk seeks to become aware of himself.  Self knowledge is basic to the spiritual life.  Journaling is a way of facilitating this by writing down awarenesses of myself as I observe myself.  The goal is not self perfection and there is no competition with others.  The goal is love.  The goal is to make the right choices.  Silence and solitude are intended to be ascetical practices that will help us make right choices.  When Cassian lists the eight deadly sins, he lists gluttony first and avarice third.  Both of these are a kind of greed, a greed basic to the human condition.  An example of this can be seen in cutting up a birthday cake at a child’s birthday party.  Cries of “he got a bigger piece than me” and “not fair” really mean that I want what I want and I do not care about what you get.  This primitive self interest is pervasive in the human person and affects all we do. What we want is a little bigger slice of the pie than everyone else.  Self-denial is a help to freedom so that right choices can be made freely.

3. Stability:   Because we tend to drift, we root ourselves to the anchor that is Christ.  In monastic life our rootedness in Christ is expressed in the vow of stability.  At this place, to this group of monks I root myself in Christ, the Lord of my life.  Because we tend to drift from one thing to another, because we tend to spend our money on what is not bread and on what fails to satisfy (Is 55:2) we need asceticism that will help us make correct choices.

We have to admit that we may be reluctant to follow the asceticism that separation from the world, solitude and silence and stability require.  We can escape them, even in a monastery. Monks can be worldly, that is, self-centered.  They can refuse to practice solitude and silence.  They may disdain growth in self knowledge.  They may think that doing lots of things, impressing others by good actions is the way to be.  Living in a monastery does not guarantee that one is rooted in Christ.  It takes faith, love and courage to give oneself over to the movement and power of these three ascetical practices.

“Prefer nothing to the love of Christ”, St. Benedict says.  Sure.  That is easy to say.  Try doing it day in and day out.  It will not take long before we will become aware that mercy and forgiveness is what we need most from God.  For we soon discover that there are many other things that we prefer before the love of Christ.  Nevertheless,  we monks have vowed to work at conversion to Christ.  And we work at that conversion by living the monastic way of life to the full.  It is the monastic life itself that is the asceticism that we are called to practice.  So, again, the daily horarium points out the way for us.  Entering deeply into what the horarium directs us to makes all the difference.

Let me make it clear.  We are not called to invent new ascetical practices.  It is our life, the monastic way of life, that is our ascetical practice.  Again, brothers, follow the horarium, all of it. Do not just follow the part that places no challenge on you.  The goal of asceticism and all self-denial is love.  The goal is freedom to make right choices.  The goal is Christ and living in union with him.  St. Gregory of Nyssa says that we become what we become by what we choose.

May God bless you, may his face shine upon you and give you peace.  Amen.

The Monastic Way of Life – Asceticism

Talk Two

Brian Wangler, OSB

St. Paul in Romans 8:28 writes:  “We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose”.  This means our situation itself is used by God for our benefit.  In John 3:3 Jesus says:  “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above”. It takes faith to see the hand of God.  It is God’s own hand that helps us make right choices.

In life there are many things.  There are prayer, problems, joys, successes, failures, our background, our biological and psychological makeup, Scripture, Church teaching, cultural trends, etc.  And then there are people.  God uses the people in our life for our benefit.  God uses them to help us grow in freedom and to help us make right choices.

Proverbs 27:17 states:  “As iron sharpens iron, so man sharpens his fellow man”.  In his Rule St. Benedict says:  “The eighth step of humility is that a monk does only what is endorsed by the common rule of the monastery and the example set by his superiors”.

St. John of the Cross has precautions against the world, the devil and the flesh.  The first precaution against the flesh applies here: It reads as follows:

The first precaution is to understand that you have come to the monastery so that all may fashion you and try you.  Thus, to free yourself from the imperfections and disturbances that can be engendered by the mannerisms and attitudes of the religious and draw profit from every occurrence.  You should think that all in the community are artisans – as indeed they are – present there in order to prove you; that some will fashion you with words, others by deeds, and others with thoughts against you;  and that in all this you must be submissive as is the statue to the craftsman who molds it, to the artisan who paints it, and to the gilder who embellishes it.

If you fail to observe this precaution you will not know how to overcome sensitiveness and feelings, nor will you get along well in the community with religious, nor attain holy peace, nor free yourself from many stumbling blocks and evils.  p. 660

This is saying quite a mouthful, isn’t it?  St. John of the Cross says that you, my confreres, are here to shape and fashion me into what God wants me to be.  You are God’s workmen.  What is my attitude toward this?   “As iron sharpens iron, so man sharpens his fellow man”.  Am I willing to see my confreres as God’s instruments for my human and spiritual growth?  Can I see others with more than just human eyes?  Can I see them with the eyes of faith and see then as God workmen who have a task from God directed to me.  Namely, to make my life more perfect?  Am I willing to give my confreres permission to form and fashion me? Can I make myself available to their influence?  Do I want my confreres to form and fashion me?  Or would I rather avoid these brothers who would do that.  It is only natural that as soon as I sense them challenging me, sensing that they want me to change, I will tend to defend myself, fight back or simply pull into my shell.  Do I have the humility needed to recognize that my confreres have something positive to offer in my struggle to grow in being Christ-like?  We do not rationally think that we are perfect, but we often act like it.  We act like it when we are unwilling to open a crack in the self-protective agenda and way of life we have built for ourselves.  Can I also see that it is beneficial for me to take on the customs of the monastery and follow the horarium in all its aspects?  Do I prefer to live under my own rule rather than under the Rule of St. Benedict and the abbot?  

If I were really desirous of my confreres helping me in my spiritual and human growth toward greater maturity, what could I expect them to do?  How would they help form me?  What, in fact, are they already doing that I may be missing.  Well, they help me by their words, by their deeds, by their thoughts and by their temperament. (From “Counsels to a Religious on how to Reach Perfection” by St. John of the Cross, Collected Works p. 663)

1. Words:  My beloved confreres give me two kinds of words. First, there are words of welcome, encouragement, appreciation, acceptance, friendship, gratitude, etc.  These are words I like to hear.  Second, there are words I would rather not hear.  These are words like:  do not judge people, you seem angry quite often, you are moody, you do not associate with the community, how come you never volunteer for anything, you often do not finish your work, you are too controlling, etc.

2. Deeds:  Again, my confreres give me two kinds of deeds. First, they notice me, give me attention, they help me, they give me the sense that I count.  Second, my confreres ignore me, take me for granted, by their actions they tell me that I am not the center of their world or anyone’s world, sometimes they will hurt me and not even notice or care that they did so, etc.

3. Thoughts:  As you may have guessed by now, my confreres give me two kinds of thoughts.  First there are thoughts where they esteem me and are glad I am here.  Along with these are thoughts of love and appreciation.  Second, they have thoughts where they esteem me not, do not appreciate me and love me not.  In their thoughts they are critical of me and put me down.

4. Temperament:  Here again confreres with their various temperaments affect me in two ways.  First, there are those whose temperament agrees with me.  I enjoy them and their company.  When I am in their company I feel build up and I think the world is a wonderful place.  Second, there are those who, because of their temperament, are in their person and in their actions a bother and an annoyance to me.  I find their company burdensome and distasteful.

These, then, dear confreres, are the ways our confreres fashion, try and purify us.  In all four of these categories, the first way my confreres form me is by their positive response to me.  I need that.  It is necessary.  We all need positive strokes.  The positive response of my brothers helps to build up interior strength.  The interior strength it builds is self-esteem, self-acceptance, security, a sense that I have talents and gifts to offer and that I am a person of honor and worth.  These gifts that my brothers build up in me do not make me self-centered.  Rather, they are gifts that teach me that God loves me and has given me gifts to share with others.  In their positive response to me, my brothers show me what good gifts God has given me.  In short, they help me experience God’s love for me since God is the source of all the good in me.  I become more able to love and make right choices because of the positive response of my confreres to me.

The second set of responses my confreres give me show me one thing – that I am self-centered.  That is it.  When I am not at the center of someone’s attention I begin to become upset.  I become upset when someone says words to me that I would rather not hear.  If they do things I would rather not endure, or when someone does not esteem or love me I become angry and may pout.  If their temperament is a bother and an annoyance to me, my self-centeredness asserts itself and I avoid this person.  I want to be pleased all the time.  I want what I want.  If I am not pleased and not the center of attention, I cry out internally:  “Not fair! Not fair!  My piece of cake is not as big as the next persons’”.

My brothers, I hope each of us can sense the generosity necessary to respond positively to our confreres as God’s workmen.  Their task if given to them by God who is love.  Their task is to help me grown in human and spiritual maturity. Someone once told me that most people, especially the elderly, would like to be in heaven.  It is just that they do not want to die.  So it is for us.  We would like to be a mature human being. We would like to be a mature and wise spiritual person.  But we do not want to do the work to get there.  We do not want to die to our self-centeredness.  We want to be holy, pure, righteous, and spiritually wise.  We want to be able to expound spiritual truths of great depth and insight. The problem is that we do not want to give up our self-centeredness, our plan for our life, our comfort zones that we have established.  Thus we do not grow. Selfless love remains small and correct choices in the details of our life are not made.  And it is the details that count.

So what are we called to do?  Jesus says:  “Enter through the narrow gate” (Mt 7:13).  “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt 16:24-25).  About this St. Paul writes: “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18).  He goes on:  “For the Jews demand signs, the Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom” (1 Cor 22-25).

The road we are asked to walk is Christ crucified and risen. Crucified first and then risen.  We like the risen part and dislike the crucified part.  The cross is THE sign of unselfish and disinterested love.  This kind of love is our goal.  Our confreres are the tools God uses to get us there.  Be good to your confreres.  Be good especially to those you do not like.  They are God’s special gift to you to root our self-centeredness, to root out the deep seated desire that I have to be pleased and be the center of attention of someone before I will love them or even be civil to them.

We do not have to do anything extra in monastic life.  All we have to do is do what the horarium calls us to.  Namely, communal and private prayer and lectio divina.  In addition there is our work and our associating with one another.  If I am avoiding one or the other monastic practice, or if I am superficial in how I do it, I will suffer by not growing humanly and spiritually. If I avoid my confreres, I am avoiding the tools God sent into my life to do the hard but loving work of rooting out self-centeredness and planting selfless love in my life.

Our ability to love tends to be quite narrow. When I am being pleased, when the rule I have made for my life is being followed by me and others, then I can be real kind and generous.  But as soon as someone hints or insists that I follow the community’s way of doing things instead of my own way, or if they tell me that I am not living by God’s standards, then I become hurt and withdraw or strike out in anger.  We want to be perfect but we do not want to change.  We want to be in heaven but we do not want to die. Thomas Merton in New Seeds of Contemplation says: “One of the paradoxes of the mystical life is this:  that people cannot enter into the deepest center of themselves and pass through that center into God, unless they are able to pass entirely out of themselves and empty themselves and give themselves to other people in the purity of a selfless love” (Ch. 9, p. 64).

God in his wisdom has appointed my confreres as his workmen to fashion and shape me in my outer and inner self so that self-centeredness will be replaced with selfless love.  Selfless love, that is the goal.  Selfless love frees me to make right choices. Selfless love for God, for others and for self.  Our call as monks is great.  The fine task that our confreres work at to accomplish in us is summarized by St. Benedict in the final section of Chapter 72 on “The Good Zeal of Monks”.  Notice in this section the absence of selfishness and presence of selfless love.  St. Benedict writes:  “No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else.  To their fellow monks they show the pure love of brothers; to God, loving fear; to their abbot, unfeigned and humble love.  Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life” (Vv 7-12).  Amen.