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Living in the Monastery

Ordinary Sunday 21: 21st August, 2005
Dom Michael King, OSB, Abbot, Benedictine Monastery, Camperdown

Why do some men and women live in monasteries? What, or who, began the train of events that led them to a monastery and how is this impetus continually animated? Millions of people, down the centuries, have given themselves to this way of life, and none of them would produce an identical answer to the question I have posed. Yet some things have remained constant, and it is these that both sustain the individuals and also draw them towards others who are similarly drawn. There is the human being's thirst for God, the unfulfilled longing to know and to be known in God, to find and be found in God, to live within the contradictions of experiences in the assurance of understanding. And there is the desire to serve and to be used.

The yearning for God, for truth, for goodness and beauty is by its very nature insatiable; and taking it seriously involves living with a paradox. God in his transcendence is always beyond the horizon, like the secret pale light of the sun before dawn, or the brilliant, unpredictable colours of the sky after sunset. God is beyond a person's most satisfying thought of him, whether that be expressed in a line of a poem, in a long look or in the silence of wonder. God is beyond what can be thought let alone what can be expressed. Yet is is God who comes close enough to beckon and to whisper as people search for him; and it is God's insistent invitation that impels some men and women to set aside other occupations and ways of life in order to seek him within a monastery.

Seek as you shall find (Mt 7.7.): but you cannot possess what you find, it remains God's and there is always more to seek. So we continue the search, through the years spent within the enclosure of the monastery; with an every growing awareness of the value of what is given, with increasing courage when the search is dark and unfulfilled for long years, with growing gratitude for the glimpses of God's loveliness that we are occasionally allowed to see and to hold and always to remember. Without this contemplation, life in a monastery would be unsupportable.

If there is anguish in seeking the hiddenness of God, his very nearness often brings agony as well as joy to those who love and long for him. As with human relationships that suddenly burst into a dimension of living that opens the heart to another's understanding, and in the humility of love that makes fear of being known to fall away, so in their encounter with God in the very life which they live, people may be liberated into a rich and rewarding awareness of his beauty and of their potential likeness to him. But what they must also see and accept are the many dark and ugly aspects of themselves which spoil their relationship with God and with each other. God's care and providence in the little life of each one, in the staggering fact of creation which in our generation is being more wonderfully revealed to us, in the ingenuity and the beauty of which the human mind is capable – the miracle of humanness at its best – in the lovableness of people, in books, in pictures, music, and in all that is a meeting place with others; all of these gifts of God are the foci of his immediacy to which the contemplative soul responds with love and with humility. The integral place of love and humility within the life of the community arises out of the spirit of contemplation which is the primary motive that each monk or nun has for committing themselves to life in the monastery.

The way of contemplation embraces every aspect of monastic life, and every part of that life has to be tested again and again in the light of this primary vocation. If the single-minded search – the repeated three-fold rhythm of seeking, finding, and adoring – is lost sight of, a religious and even a whole community may be close to living a sterile existence. This means that there must always be movement within the community. Growth and change are the fruit of contemplation, for they express the humble recognition of the not - yet - achieved end of the search itself. For contemplation draws people into the dynamism of God and enables them to share his power which he expressed in millions of different ways all the time. We have to become very supple, if God is to use us a channels of his immanence; we must have eyes, to see his slightest movement and ears to hear his whispered word; we may hold nothing back if he is to use us for the continued making of his world and the building up of his church in every generation.

The impulse to contemplation lies very close to the second source of monastic vocation; the desire to place oneself entirely at God's disposal and to be of service to him in whatever way he wants. In biblical terms, to seek God sometimes actually means to serve him faithfully. The first monks were often known as 'servants of God', and it is significant that when Athanasius wrote his life of the man who came to be called the father of monasticism, he said that Antony gained renown not because of his writings, nor for the worldly wisdom, nor for any art but solely for his service to God. This desire to be of use, to be recognised as valuable, lies deep in the human condition and is itself a good thing. It has its roots in awareness of oneself and also in awareness of others, of the fact that they have needs as one has, that they are worth helping. In other words, it is closely related to people's capacity to love and also to their need to have their love recognised. It implies, too, the willingness to be at the disposal of another.

No one can be willing to serve God without knowing him, worshipping him, loving him: to try to serve him without this disposition could achieve nothing, for there could be no point of meeting. Experience of God, recognition of his activity, response to him as one person to another; all these things draw people out of themselves, out beyond awareness of others, into a threefold relationship in which God, someone else, and I myself are bound together. It involves more than knowing another; it means seeing, worshipping, loving God's activity in the other and seeing the other through God. A work of interpretation and intercession is constantly going on within the life of a servant of God. Heart and head are given over to this labour of service the Lord; flesh and blood, bone and muscle too. There is nothing that he does not need to use in us, and nothing that we may hold back from the service of others because of him. Yet we do hold back very often pride, anger, laziness, or sheer weak-will can make us unprofitable servants. It takes heroism of a high order to be willing to give oneself away all the time, and the church of the 4th century was quick to make the discovery that this utter giving way of life demanded the same courage and bravery as that which had made the martyrdoms of the years of persecutions the supreme witness of fidelity to Christ. Indeed, monasticism was still in its early days when its way of life was seen to be itself a way of martyrdom.

Martyrdom was not simply a laying down of one's life; it was regarded as an expression of sanctity; and because sanctity is always an attribute that is given and never earned, it is supremely a witness to the grace of God at work within humankind. The testimony of the Christian martyr, monk, nun, or servant of God proclaims one thing: that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.

The present time is teaching us much more of what it means to be a reconciler in personal relationships, between groups and between nations. The cost is great and it is endless. The capacity to see both sides of an argument is not something that comes easily to most of us, nor does the ability to suspend judgement. To stand in the firing line between opposing forces as a mediator demands great self-awareness and selflessness. It demands a willingness to lose all, to be challenged as to our objectives and our resources, to give ourselves away to the point of seeming emptiness; and it can only be undertaken to the extent that we are dedicated to this work. In the Prologue to his Rule St Benedict exhorts us: What can be sweeter to us, dearest brethren, than this voice of the Lord inviting us? Behold in his loving kindness the Lord shows us the way of life.


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