Tuesday, October 14, 2014

CHAPTER 58: How to Become a Monk

Do not make it easy on a newcomer to the monastic life; but, as the Apostle says, "Test the spirits, to see whether they are from God" (1 Jn 4:1).  If, therefore, he keeps on knocking, and after four or five days you can see that he has patiently endured the harsh treatment offered him and the difficulty of admission, and that he perseveres in his request, let him in, and let him live for a while in the guesthouse.

      The contemplative life is rewarding, but it isn’t easy.  Only about one in four even makes it through the training.  And this is by design.  You can’t judge a man’s spiritual strength by looking at him, so you have to “test his spirit.”  Saint Benedict’s first test is to slam the door in his face.  If he’s still knocking after five days, we let him in.
     Again, this might strike the reader as rather severe.  It is.  But it’s also charitable.  In the long run, you don’t want a man in the monastery who is going to take vows and end up too weak to keep them.  For his own sake, it’s better to challenge him early on, because ours is a very special, very rare, very difficult vocation.
     It used to be that when Catholics spoke of “having a vocation,” what they meant was a calling to the consecrated life—that of a priest or nun, for example.  But the Second Vatican Council made it clear that everyone has a vocation to holiness, and now the term has lost much of its meaning.  So I’d like to coin a new word.  When you’re called to this special kind of Christian life, you have an e-vocation —a calling apart, a calling away from the rest of humanity.  And it’s not just that the calling is special.  It is privileged—even, in a certain sense, superior, though admittedly that term demands clarification.
Here’s one way to think about it:

     Imagine that you are on the beach at the lake of Gennesaret.  You’re a fisherman.  It’s right around the sixteenth year of the reign of Tiberius.  Jesus of Nazareth is starting to stir things up in Israel.  You’ve heard stories about him.  You’ve heard him preach.  You realize that this is one of the most extraordinary men in the history of the world. 
"Hey, you!  Wait...no, never mind."
    So there you are, packing up your fishing gear, when you look up the beach, and there He is.  He’s walking along the shore in your direction.  He is choosing his apostles.
Here he comes.
He’s walking toward you.
     As he draws closer, you see that he is looking in your direction.  He’s walking straight toward you.  He draws closer.  Closer.  And just as he gets to your boat, he stops, turns around, and chooses the guy in the boat next to you.  Then he walks away.
     If the ending of this story disappoints you, then you may have an e-vocation.  Because, you see, everyone on that beach at Gennesaret was called to be a disciple.  But the apostles were evoked—called apart—from the others.  They weren’t just disciples, they were the chosen twelve.  And that is the kind of vocation that the monk has—a vocation to give up everything and follow Christ.
     Now, not everyone has this special kind of calling, but on some level, everyone is called to contemplative prayer, so even if you don’t think you have what it takes to be a full-time monk, you can, at any rate, be a part-time monk—called apart, maybe just for five or ten minutes a day, to give yourself over to Christ in contemplation.
      Consider this warning though, from the Book of Sirach: it won’t be easy.  “My son, if you want to enter the Lord’s service, be prepared for trials. Set your heart on a straight course, stay focused, and do not lose your head in times of struggle. Hold fast to Him, never desert Him if you would end your days well.  Endure every hardship that is sent you; be patient under humiliation, no matter what the cost.  For gold is purified by fire, and the Lord purifies men in the furnace of humiliation.” (Sirach 2: 1-5)

Thursday, October 2, 2014

CHAPTER 57: Monks with Skills

If there are skilled craftsmen in the monastery, let them work humbly at their art, provided that the abbot has given permission. But if the artist should grow proud because he is so good at what he does (as though he were doing the monastery a favor) he should be removed from that work and not return to it until he has humbled himself. If any of his work is to be sold, let a third party negotiate the sale, provided that they do not try to take advantage of the monastery. On the other hand, when it comes to setting a price for these items, they should be careful not to be greedy, but should set the prices a little cheaper than the competition, so that God may be glorified in all things.

Here in Chapter 57, Saint Benedict puts his money where his mouth is.  Every man comes to the monastery with a set of skills[1] and sometimes these skills can be very lucrative.  At my monastery, we’ve got monks from all kinds of backgrounds: professors, artists, musicians, soldiers, programmers, economists, physicists, mathematicians, writers…we even have a monk who worked in the movies!  And any one of these guys could be making a load of money at what they do.  But they gave it up to be contemplatives, so no matter how much wealth they might generate for the community, the abbot cannot allow their talent to get in the way of their holiness.  In the words of Saint Therese of Liseux, “without love, even the most brilliant deeds count as nothing” (The Story of a Soul).
Monks with skills!
But, the monastery isn’t a hangout for freeloaders either.  If the community can’t support itself, it has to shut down, so every abbey takes on a “work” of some sort.  Some monasteries brew beer, some bake cakes, some run farms, others run schools.  The work varies, but the purpose remains the same: to support and nourish the community’s prayer.  Thus, everything the monks do—working, sleeping, praying, playing—is done with that one goal in mind, which is why Benedict ends this chapter with a quote from Saint Peter’s second letter: “that in all things, God may be glorified”—ut in omnia glorificatur Dei. 
I have a friend who works in international business, and he made a resolution to put this philosophy into practice.  After a near-fatal car accident, he swore he would never close a deal that he wouldn’t take if he were on the other side of the negotiations.  At first, his partners were skeptical.  Was it a scam?  Was he nuts?  But then word started to get around the business community that if you wanted a fair deal, you could go to Jim, and pretty soon he was getting paid tons of money just to sit in on other peoples’ transactions and tell them whether or not they were fair.  As a business stratagem, honesty, simplicity and integrity are sound principles, which is why Saint Benedict’s monks could often afford to sell their goods for slightly less than market value.
But beware.  Holiness isn’t always profitable.  In fact, it could cost you everything.

[1] You know, like nunchuk skills, bow hunting skills, computer hacking skills...