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The Benedictine monastic life

Ordinary Sunday 16: 18th July, 2004
Dom Michael King, OSB, Abbot, Benedictine Monastery, Camperdown

I come among you today to offer thanks to God for the foundation of the Benedictine monastic life within the Australian Anglican Church. Without the initial understanding and cooperation of the parish in the mid seventies this phenomenon might never have happened.

At the present time Benedictine monasticism is still in the wake of the renewal burst of The Second Vatican Council. The mandate to return to the sources has inaugurated a very fruitful time for Benedictines. Probably there has been more widespread research into the history and meaning of monasticism in the past thirty years than at any other time. We have learned much and are still learning.

This era was preceded by the final stage of the 19th century European monastic revival, which had come out of the ashes of the French Revolution and secularisation movements, and was born in the romantic age. It was translated to our present day world and adapted to local cultures.

Before all of that, a movement which had nothing particularly to do with monasticism had what I believe has been a more pervasive influence on monasticism up to the present time. This was the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, the exaltation of the intellect. This movement has done much good and should not be made a whipping post for all current problems. But we must say that because of the Enlightenment it is very hard for us to understand key aspects of monastic spirituality from the earlier ages, especially lectio divina and prayer. That is changing and will have to change for the coming age. Western civilisation is now in a period of integrating emotion and intellect, feeling and reason, right brain and left brain. Monasticism has already reaped much from this movement and in this area is beginning to contribute much to Western spirituality. Simply put, I believe that in the West the enlightenment of the intellect of the 18th century is finally being followed in spirituality by an enlightenment of the heart for the 21st century, in which monastics will have an important role to play.

Benedictine monasticism is still a curiosity in the world, even in the Church, and even in various degrees for other religious orders. A story Abbot Patrick Barry tells is indicative. He was out walking at Ampleforth Abbey when a group of tourists approached him and asked if this was really an Abbey. He said, "Yes, it is." "Well," they asked, "where are the ruins?"

Recently this attitude has been changing at least to the extent that monasticism, though still a curiosity, is more and more an attractive curiosity. Monasticism is becoming attractive because of a growing hunger for a deeper life. Seekers of transcendence are coming from various religious faiths and from no identified faith. There is more interest in retreats, silence, prayer, the spiritual journey, books about monasteries and Benedictine spirituality. More and more people are affiliating themselves with monastic communities. Monasteries have historically served an ecumenical role and this is growing again today. Monasteries are by nature non-threatening environments, where questioners and seekers of all kinds, believers and non-believers, can come without making a statement about themselves or revealing their own faith stance.

Eminent theologian Karl Rahner produced volumes and volumes of commentary on God, redemption, the life of grace. Scattered throughout the tomes of long and often convoluted sentences are short and clear statements recognized as seminal insights which continue to be much quoted. One of those statements bears a relationship to what the Christian must be today. "The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all" (Theol. Invent. XX, 149). By mysticism, Rahner explains, he does not mean some esoteric phenomenon but "a genuine experience of God emerging from the very heart of our existence." He goes on to comment that the source of spiritual conviction comes not from theology but from the personal experience of God. This statement, made late in Rahner's career, is similar to the comment reported of Thomas Aquinas at the end of his life about his volumes of theology being so much straw.

If monasticism is to mean anything and be of any value in the coming age, it will be within this context of the living experience of God. I think we could paraphrase Rahner to say "Monastics will be rooted in contemplative prayer or they will not exist at all." A deep experience of God, constantly renewed, will be necessary to offset the threats to faith from a defiantly secular and even atheistic culture. What is already true today will continue to be the norm in the future: only monastics committed to an intense personal prayer life beyond the communal structures will find the joy and transformation that this life offers.

Monasticism sinks its roots into the real world of God by seeking an ever deeper union with God in prayer; this vocation is a ministry of prayer by which a community makes itself available to God as a channel of grace for Christ's saving mission in this world.

I have been profoundly affected by a statement of Archbishop Desmond Tutu in a sermon preached in Washington National Cathedral in 1984. He thanked Christians around the world for the help that had come to South Africa through their prayer. But he was not making the usual connection about prayers for a particular intention: he was not thanking us for including his suffering people in our prayer intentions. He was making a deeper connection: "Sometimes you may not feel like praying because your prayers are insipid. There is a dryness, and God seems miles and miles away. But because you are faithful, you say to God, `I want to pray, and I offer you these thirty minutes, God, even if its means fighting these awkward distractions,' and because you are so faithful, someone in South Africa suddenly receives an excess of grace; inexplicably it appears."

Archbishop Tutu was not thanking us for remembering his people in prayer, but just for praying; for God in unseen ways uses the availability of our hearts to heal other hearts and other situations around the world.

This is an insight from the ancient Christian tradition of prayer which understands the deeper connections beyond request and response. Though not all prayer is petitionary, because of the mystery of the Incarnation all prayer is intercessory; the divine pattern is for human beings to be channels of grace to one another.

Monasticism focuses and concretizes this insight for the Church. Our call is to become channels of blessing for the world by making ourselves more and more available for God's action in and through us. Through the humility of deep prayer we are able to penetrate beyond the false self to our true centre, where God is always waiting. We prostrate ourselves interiorly, offering ourselves to God for the world. And God distributes gifts in our name, without our ever knowing where or how. Thomas Merton wrote: "In the economy of God's grace you may be sharing his gifts with someone you will never know until you get to heaven."

The monastery, like the Church, exists not for itself but for the world. However, the monastic and the Christian have to be themselves before they can be of service to the world.

Our culture's exaltation of function over being – what I do is more important than who I am – is a dangerous pitfall as we grow in years and it encourages feelings of inadequacy and uselessness. Monasticism, I believe, has an answer for this. The power of individual lives to channel blessings to the world through hearts united to God is what monastics are about. We further believe that this does not diminish within the process of time – in fact the older we get the better we become at passing on the blessings! St Benedict says "As we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God's commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love." The heart that has chosen be free human actions over years to be emptied of self and filled with Christ remains fixed in that attitude and continues as a channel of God's grace for the world.

That particular attitude is the daily holiness offered to all of us through our monastic and Christian life. It empowers our acts and it empowers our prayer. It is the best gift monasteries can give to the world, and whether or not it is present will determine the future of monastic life in the years to come.

I want to close with a Prayer of St Aelred for his community.

You know my heart, Lord, and that, whatever you have
given to your servant, I desire to spend wholly on them
and to consume it all in their service.

Grant to me then, O Lord my God, that your eyes may
be opened upon them day and night.

Tenderly spread your wings to protect them.
Stretch forth your holy right hand to bless them.

Pour into their hearts your Holy Spirit
who may abide with them while they pray:
to refresh them with devout compunction,
to stimulate them with hope,
to make them humble with reverence,
and to inflame them with love.


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