An elderly monk-priest enters the sanctuary to prepare for one of the many prayer services of the day. Personal photo.
I spent last week at Belmont Abbey outside of Charlotte, N.C. I was warmly treated by the Benedictine brothers who live and work at the Abbey, which is on the campus of a small Catholic college. While the purpose of the week was to study and plan sermons for the upcoming year, I also enjoyed the rich prayer and worship practices of the Benedictine life and learned much during my all-too-brief time with the community. Here are a few of my takeaways from the week, along with some pertinent reflections from Benedict himself. I would be interested to hear your own experiences with monastic and/or retreat communities as well, and discover what insights others have gained in such contexts.
1) Community is a blessing
Monastic life is built on the principle that the Christian life is a community experience. As John Wesley – sometimes compared to Benedict – said, “The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.” In their daily prayers, the monks remembered their brothers who had most recently died. Portraits of deceased Abbots (leaders of monastic communities) adorned the hallways. They know that a personal search for the face of God is inextricable from a community dedicated to the same. After all, these dedicated men possess a timeless social network; not one built on clicks, pixels, and limited to 140 characters at a go, but flesh-and-blood brotherhood established by a communal effort at what Eugene Peterson calls “a long obedience in the same direction” over time.
2) Community is difficult
The only way to live a life without annoyances might be to leave human interaction all together. This, of course, would not be without its own problems. But the point remains that community is a discipline, and one that is sometimes more task than gift. After just a few days I found myself picking out which brothers annoyed me during prayer times. This one constantly rubbed his face; that one seemed to always be sneezing and snorting; another appeared to be giving me the stink eye from across the chancel; and WHY did the fellow behind me have have the LOUDEST ticking watch in all of Christendom?? (You get the idea.)
Last week I had to face, once more, that I can be a rather petty creature. I suspect I am not alone. That tells me that we shouldn’t be too triumphalist about community, because human sinfulness affects even the most well-intentioned persons and reaches into the holiest places. Community – any community, religious in orientation or not – is a challenge because it is always made up of flawed creatures.
3) Reverence is a rare treasure
Something that continually struck me last week, because of its ubiquity in the monastery, was the absence of something significant in my life: reverence. Awe. Rudolph Otto called this sense the “numinous,” that deep intuition that something greater, something worthy of our highest adoration, is both accessible and yet not fully within one’s grasp. I appreciate the incarnational nature of so much of today’s Protestant worship. God is our true joy and our friend, and we should celebrate that with gladness. But I fear we have sometimes so embraced these aspects in our shared worship that the transcendence of God, the holy Otherness of the “I AM” who gives life to Israel and the Church, gets lost. We need reverence as much, if not more so, than we need comfort. In his instructions to his Order, known as the Rule, Benedict says,
“When we wish to suggest our wants to persons of high station,
we do not presume to do so
except with humility and reverence.
How much the more, then,
are complete humility and pure devotion necessary
in supplication of the Lord who is God of the universe!”
4) Hospitality is a beautiful spiritual gift
UMC Bishop Robert Schnase has reminded us that one of key practices of a fruitful congregation is “radical hospitality.” The Benedictines who welcomed me this week embody this virtue in a truly gracious way. The Rule of Benedict, again, says:
“If a pilgrim monastic coming from a distant region
wants to live as a guest of the monastery,
let her be received for as long a time as she desires,
provided she…does not disturb the monastery by superfluous demands, but is simply content with what she finds.”
I especially appreciated the gifts of hospitality shared by the Guest Master, Br. Edward, and his assistant, Br. Emmanuel. They were exceptional hosts, doing everything from eating with me, to making sure I knew how to follow along in the worship services, to simply making me feel welcome. As I prepared to leave, Br. Edward took me in the chapel to offer a prayer for me. He then told me how blessed they were to welcome me, and how much he loved his role in the monastery because, “God has brought you to us, and now, after you leave, I get to welcome two more Christs today.” He is so shaped by the gospel call to see Christ in the stranger, that he refers to the guests in his charge as “Christs.” What a humbling gift, and a saintly heart.
5) Obedience and freedom are connected
Because of certain things happening in my own tribe at present, I was curious to ask the monks how discipline works among them. I inquired about how things are handled if a brother fails to live up to their obligations by, say, skipping prayers, being constantly late, or shirking their duties in some other way. The reply was pretty simple: the Abbot gets involved and, if needed, so does the Bishop. Eventually, if a monk is recalcitrant and refuses correction, he can be released from his vows and asked to leave and thus avoid, as one brother put it, “harming the whole community.”
The Prologue to Benedict’s Rule reads, in part,
“And so we are going to establish
a school for the service of the Lord.
In founding it we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome.
But if a certain strictness results from the dictates of equity
for the amendment of vices or the preservation of charity,
do not be at once dismayed and fly from the way of salvation,
whose entrance cannot but be narrow (Matt. 7:14).”
Obedience and true freedom, order and charity, ultimately hang together. Every healthy organism – and a community is an organism – has boundaries. Though asserting such an interrelationship is anathema to the cult of “authenticity” and “self-actualization,” it is nevertheless true. Obedience without grace devolves to legalism, and love without some sense of order will self-destruct under the weight of its own incoherence.
6) Silence is holy
Continuing in the theme of “things the 21st century has forgotten,” I will end with some thoughts on silence. The Benedictines with whom I shared this week cherish the power of silence. They know that cultivating the Spirit of charity requires space to listen, pray, and reflect. This community kept silence from after dinner though lauds (the 2nd prayer service of the day, following vigils and breakfast). The worship services themselves contain intentional silences, as well.
In the chapter on maintaining silence after compline, Benedict says,
“Monastics ought to be zealous for silence at all times,
but especially during the hours of the night.”
I confess am too often fearful of silence; I love “background” noise, whether from CNN, or Pandora, or some other source of distraction. My week with the brothers helped me better appreciate how impoverished this cacophonous existence of ours – so full as it is of iPhones, tablets, and Beats headphones – really is. After all, sometimes God is in the silence (1 Kings 19:11-12).
This experience was a great blessing, both in terms of my vocation (I had a truly fruitful week) and my own spiritual walk. I will certainly return to be among these simple, devoted men again. They have much to teach the Body of Christ and, indeed, the whole human community.
Benedict concludes his Rule by indicating that his text deals with only the “rudiments” of the virtuous life, the bulk of which is found in the Fathers of the Church and, especially, the Old and New Testaments:
“Whoever you are, therefore,
who are hastening to the heavenly homeland,
fulfill with the help of Christ
this minimum Rule which we have written for beginners;
and then at length under God’s protection
you will attain to the loftier heights of doctrine and virtue
which we have mentioned above.”