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Epiphany : a theological introduction to Catholicism

by Aidan Nichols O.P.

Chapter 8: The Religious Life
Part 2

Development in West and East

The expansion of Latin monasticism passes crucially but not exclusively through Benedict of Nursia. The Dialogues of Gregory the Great show Benedict's predecessors and contemporaries living a life not unlike his. A comparison of his Rule with the "Rule of the Master," his main source, shows his work to be a codification outstanding in sagacity of what was widely held. Gregory's own monastery on the Coelian hill in Rome had a mixed rule, while Benedict dedicated Monte Cassino to Martin of Tours, whose influence, through his Vita, encouraged a monasticism in Gaul which normally included a semi­anchoritic life for mature monks. In Spain, the brothers Leander and Isidore of Seville represent a cultivated, humanist monasticism. Jerome's influence gave Western monks a taste for Scripture. Everywhere, in West as in East, cenobitic monasticism (and of an increasingly liturgical kind at that) gained ground.

The Celtic monks embodied the general trend in a remarkably short period of time. In the Patrician period, such monks and nuns as existed lived in modest groupings in connection with secular churches, rather than in monasteries proper, which seem to have emerged under Scottish and Welsh influence, though soon there followed the era of the great founders, Columba, Columbanus, and Ciaran. Celtic monasteries were gatherings of wooden or stone cells around an oratory and some conventual buildings. Their inhabitants practiced a rigorous asceticism: fasting, vigils, prostrations, standing with the arms spread out as a cross, immersions in streams. The ancient practice of manifesting thoughts to a spiritual father became with them private confession, sometimes daily. The Mass of devotion, celebrated by an individual priest-monk, was greatly valued. They developed a strong stress on literary culture from the sixth century onwards. Their interest in voluntary exile could be linked, but need not be, to evangelism. It seems that their basic orientation remained contemplative; the number actively engaged in mission was small proportionate to the whole. From the mid-seventh century onward exchanges increased between monasteries following the Celtic Rule of Columbanus. Sometimes the Rule of Benedict was taken as completing, and moderating, the Rule of Columbanus. This enabled it to spread in these milieus. From the eight century onwards we find the development of libraries and scriptoria in the continental Columbanian houses.

What of Benedict himself? Significantly, the vice to which Benedict was most opposed was subjectivism. Of such monks he says,

"Their law is their good pleasure: whatever they think of or choose to do, that they call holy."[12]

By contrast, the Rule stresses the need to accept a common discipline and the abbot's judgment, though this judgment must itself be informed by a realistic assessment of the needs of the community's members. Similarly, Benedict's objections to monastic wandering, at any rate when undertaken from caprice and fecklessness, leads him to stress the importance of stability in the sense of lasting attachment to one community and one abbot. Benedict himself had led the strict eremitical life for three years at Subiaco, but, as other monks gathered around him, a new idea hatched in his mind: a single monastic family living under an abbot with direct and intimate responsibility for each and all. Within the enclosure of his new monastery, Cassino (the word enclosure occurs here for the first time in monastic history), everything the monk needed could be found. In the life passed in God's presence to which the Rule directs Benedict's monks, there were three chief instruments: liturgical prayer, reading, and work. The Rule's horary allots some six hours daily to labor: Benedict was conscious that the ordinary man cannot spend a whole lifetime simply reading or praying vocally, it asks too much of human nature. Reading does, however, receive four hours per day. It is not intellectual study designed to help the monk enrich the mind of the Church at large (though this was already known in Benedict's day with Cassiodorus and in Spain), but a meditative poring over Bible and Fathers designed to be at once a spiritual education and a safeguard for faith and prayer. Normal persons need mental just as much as bodily activity. Such lectio for Benedict leads of itself to prayer: when a monk felt that reading had done its part he could simply enter the oratory and pray (as yet set hours of mental prayer are unknown). The monk's principal daily prayer was the liturgy, the offering of the whole person voice, gesture, and all and carried out in common, like every important action (seven times daily: cf. Ps 118:164).

What holds this way of life together is, outwardly, the spiritual relation of each monk to the abbot who stands in Christ's place. The monks are his that he may lead them to God who will hold him to answer for them at the judgment. He is to wait upon their different characters, knowing that sheep may be killed by over-driving, the vessel broken if scoured too fiercely. But the inner coherence of the Benedictine life comes from the promise of conversio or conversatio morum, "reformation of life." The phrase is close enough to Cassian's conversatio actualis: the monastic way of life as aimed at purity of heart. If Benedict does not follow Cassian in the latter's nostalgia for an age when hermits were the norm, and the Evagrian prayer of the pure contemplative the expected standard of the solitary, he is entirely at one with him in taking purity of heart to be the goal of all moral and ascetical endeavor, and the fount from which love of God flows.

Benedict's monk contemplates God primarily in others, in the abbot, the fellow monk, the guest, the poor. This makes the monastery a "school of the Lord's service." As to prayer, it should be short and sharp: more store should be set by compunction for our sins and by purity of heart than by length of praying. By distinguishing prayer so clearly from work (unlike the Egyptian attitude of pursuing meditation, including psalmody, while working with the hands), and by demarcating the Hours so sharply from other prayer (whereas in the desert tradition, as in Cassian, the Hours are there to stimulate unceasing prayer), Benedict prepares a path for two major developments of the Middle Ages and beyond: the rise of mental prayer, oraison, as a supplement to the vocal prayer of the liturgy, and a concept of the Office itself as not so much devotional and even charismatic (one thinks of the long silences, accompanied by prostrations, that punctuated it in Egypt) but rather as the formal, hieratic offering of the monastic Church to its divine sovereign. If the first tendency is especially typical of the early modem orders, the second is highly visible in later Benedictinism in the Middle Ages, and above all at Cluny.

The Western Middle Ages see other shifts also. In the Carolingian empire an attempt is made in the name of Church reform at strict classification and control. At the Aachen synods of 816 and 817, the emperor Louis the Pious imposed the Benedictine Rule on all "monks," restricting the title to those who accepted its authority. All other male coenobites were to take as their guide a little dossier of
Latin patristic documents of non-Benedictine provenance and be termed
canons". Here the background was long prepared: monks living simply iuxta canones, rather than according to the Benedictine Rule and abbot, often merged with the clergy of the basilican monasteries to form an ordo canonicus from the sixth century onwards. Expected to live in one house, communities of such canons would be further reformed in the Middle Ages as "canons regular" (itself a tautology!). The Carolingian practice narrowed the future ambit of the term "monk" in the Latin Church. Benedict himself had recognized four types of monks: cenobites, hermits trained cenobitically, those who lived simply or in small groups, and wanderers. Though he is critical of the last, he never denies them the name "monk." With Louis' contemporary and collaborater Benedict of Aniane there originated the idea of customs, consuetudines, to complete a Rule, which had left too much to abbot and local custom. His Concordia regularum was written with the aim of creating a basic uniformity in the monastic life. This could not be achieved without a degree of centralization; the emperor gave him rights of supervision over monasteries in France and Germany. Here we have the "religious order" of later times in nuce. At the same time, Benedict of Aniane's reform gave Benedictinism a more pronounced liturgical and contemplative character: missionary monasteries were no longer a critical need. Cluny took liturgical monasticism to its apogee. While the Benedictine Rule presupposes a comparatively short liturgy it was influenced by the liturgy of the Roman basilicas, where the faithful still participated, and by Cassian, who was himself in reaction against the prolix Offices of the monks of Gaul and stressed rather the prayer of the heart the Frankish implantation of the Rule brought it into a milieu used to more florid worship and, in certain pre­Benedictine circles, the laus perennis, "perpetual praise." Also at Cluny emerged the principle of exemption of a monastery, through papal patronage, from some at least of the juridical control of the local bishop.

Something more must be said about the canons before turning to the hermits and the White Monks, or Cistercians. The word canonicus denotes a cleric who lives according to a rule, . The appearance of the term canon regular precedes the creation of the orders of such canons in the eleventh century. Originally, it simply meant a presbyter, deacon or sub-deacon living in accordance with the rules characteristic of the eighth and ninth centuries (as distinct from others who lived more secularly). Canons living a common life were grouped in chapters: the term, which meant the same for the monks, came from the practice of reading a chapter of the Rule semi-liturgically after Prime in a room set apart for this purpose. Several (literary) Rules were used, not just Augustine's. The basic idea was simply that of living in conformity with the (juridical) rules or canons imposed by the Church, that is, the developing prescriptions of popes and councils, which began in the fourth century. From that time on, bishops tried to regulate clergy living in the domus episcopalis, the bishop's house, dissuading them from such secular activities as trading, hunting, and frequenting of shows, and getting them to wear the tonsure and a particular style of dress. The ecumenical Council of Chalcedon imposed stability within a diocese. Eusebius of Vercelli anticipated Augustine in establishing regular life for a cathedral clergy: his rule of life, known as the Disciplina monasterii, was not in fact intended to create an institution parallel to monasticism, but to order the lives of a clerus with its bishop, which should evidently be exemplary in its ecclesial authenticity. The name canonici emerged in the fifth to seventh centuries as bishops everywhere in the West took up this idea. Appealing to the example of the common life of the Jerusalem Church in Acts, it was not surprising that the reformed canonical life became known as the vita apostolica. The first person to give a precise rule to clerics living in community was Chrodegang of Metz, whose Rule would be imposed on canons by Louis the Pious's second Synod of Aachen in 817. Chrodegang's Rule prescribed the solemn celebration of the Divine Office (adapted from the rule of Benedict) as the opus Dei; it insisted on a common table and dormitory, silence, and some manual work and the wearing, as habit, of a tunic with cappa or cloak. Such regular canons differed from monks only by the lack of formal vows, and through their right to enjoy the usufruct of their own property (though not its bequeathing, which passed to their church of attachment). In the sixth century there is already some confusion between monks and canons. It is against this background that the Carolingian attempt to forge a distinction via the Rules of Benedict and Augustine must be seen. The Council of Tours (813) would distinguish between canons governed by a bishop (the later cathedral chapter) and those ruled by an abbot without being monks: the abbas canonicus (the later situation of the collegiate chapters). Frequently in this period monks gave way to canons, including Celtic monks unattracted by the Rule of Benedict.

The eleventh-century Gregorian reform definitely favored canons over against monks; the latter had proved more susceptible to decadence. From the end of the first millennium onward the new institutes of canons regular appeared: the canonical reformers both influenced by and influencing the monastic. A community of clerics of this kind could be referred to either as an ecclesia or a monasterium. The terminology for the superior varied: Augustine's praepositus became prévôt or Probst in the vernacular, but abbas could be borrowed from the monks though eremitical foundations usually rejected it; decanus was common in the chapters of cathedrals.

The liturgical horary of the canons was by now indistinguishable from that of the monks; but of course they also did pastoral work, preaching, visiting the sick, burying the dead, and baptizing the newly born. They had a pronounced intellectual life: each canonical church had a capitular school, frequently dependent on a famous master, such as Gerbert of Rheims, Anselm of Laon, Bernard Sylvestris at Tours, or Bernard of Chartres. Paris could boast two such schools: Notre Dame and La Montagne Sainte Geneviève. With the coming of the universities they took second place and disappeared altogether with the founding of the seminaries.

So far we have hardly touched on the true orders of regular canons emanating from the Gregorian reform. The reform saw a renewal of the abbeys of canons inspired by the new white monasticism of the Olivetans, Camaldoli, Citeaux, and Chartreux. The institutes of canons regular stressed not only common life but also the renunciation of personal property and the need for a mortified life. In their desire for a perfect life the new canons were often more austere than the monks. The Congregation of St. Victor at Paris, for instance, was modelled on the Carta caritatis of the most ascetic of coenobites; the Cistercians. Some formed groups of hermits with a ministry to travellers and pilgrims, as in the hospice of the Great St. Bernard seated eight thousand feet high on a saddle of the Swiss Alps.

Hitherto Augustine had been considered simply one patron among many of the canonical order. Now he came to the fore. In 1126 Honorius II specified that the Premonstratensian canons are established "according to blessed Augustine's Rule." In 1135 Innocent II placed the canons of Grenoble cathedral under the same Rule, and did the same for all communities that sought his approval. It was in this pontificate that the canonical order became par excellence the Augustinian order, whose authoritative Rule, as the work of so eminent a Father was comparable only to that of St Benedict.

So defined, the canonical order prepared the way for the mendicant friars by popularizing the notion that the cult and common life could be combined with the cura animarum. With the friars there is a definite theory, prepared by the earlier debate between canons and monks, of the "mixed life," a life synthesizing contemplative and active elements. The earlier polemic had produced the idea of a religious life where the religious would not be confined to his cloister but would make periodic sorties to serve neighboring Christian communities. The first treatise on the mixed life was that of the regular canon Ansehn of Havelberg, who argued that the supreme model of religious life, Christ, practiced contemplation and action equally.

When we turn to the hermits and the White Monks, we are dealing with religious who restrict their life to its contemplative dimension. What characterized the new orders of monks and hermits founded at the close of the eleventh century and the opening of the twelfth (Citeaux, Fontevrault, Tiron, Grandmont, Chartreux) was a greater sensitivity to the spiritual and social demands of evangelical poverty. According to William of St. Thierry, the distinctive ideal of Clairvaux was life in paupertate spiritus. Roger of Byland, one of the early English Cistercians, could write to a prospective postulant:

"Poor we follow the poor Christ, so that we may learn to serve him with minds that are free. We work, we fast, we keep vigil, we pray; Christ does not ask for gold and silver from us only that we love him with a pure heart and body"[13]

The first Cistercians embraced poverty (both physical and spiritual) not because of some abstract ascetical necessity, but, as with the Franciscans and the holy fools of the Christian East, because of their understanding of Christ's demands on his disciples and of his proclamation of good news to the poor. The original aim of the founders of the Cistercian order was to become really one of the anawim, one of the poor, voluntarily stripped of everything. As Dom Jean Leclercq has put it, the first Cistercians felt themselves called "not only to be poor, but to feel it, to experience it. Like the saloi, the "fools for Christ's sake," they felt they had to know the poverty and nakedness of Christ in their inmost being, in the depths of their hearts, and trust in God alone. Cistercian spirituality sees the monk's physical poverty as a sign of that total dispossession, that death of the acquisitive ego, which Jesus tells us is the only way to eternal life. It is a "letting go" of every security, including the security of the wisdom of this world. Bernard's denunciations of the humanism of later Cluny, the quest for the simplest decoration of churches and of liturgy, the undyed clothes, and the mystique of poverty all belong together. At the same time, there was a desire to return to primitive forms (somewhat idealized). The memory of fourth-century Egypt produced a tendency toward "collective eremitism": a life together in eremo unites the advantages of the common and the eremitical lives. It was not forgotten that Benedict had given as his own sources, apart from Basil, the sayings and lives of the Desert Fathers. Bernard goes behind Benedict to appeal to the Desert Fathers as the standard of a more integral and authentic monasticism; the same is true of William of St. Thierry, when speaking both of the early Cistercians and of the Carthusians. In the Exordium Magnum Cisterciense, Conrad of Eberback gives us the "desert myth" in its full form: starting with the "Do penance!" of Jesus and the Baptist, he traces this spirit through the Egyptian desert and via Benedict to the West, all in the service of a new fervor in asceticism and simplicity, stressing manual labor, poverty, and austerity. John Gualbert and Romuald also saw their hermit foundations in this light; the Vita antiquior of Bruno, founder of the Grande Chartreuse, agreed.

Since the founding of the Carthusian Order ("never reformed because never deformed"), the hermit life has been held in the highest regard in the Catholic Church. Aquinas declares its solitude to be a more powerful instrument of contemplative perfection than community life on condition that the person entering it has already acquired a considerable degree of perfection, normally thanks to sharing in some kind of community or at least social life. In the hermit life, Aquinas continues, two of the essential means to perfection in the religious life (poverty and chastity) are carried to an extreme pitch, while the third (obedience) is radically altered. Actual obedience is no longer necessary: the solitary is led by the Holy Spirit. However, he or she has perfect obedience in a readiness of mind to obey God. The difference marking out the hermit life lies in this characteristic of liberty of spirit which alone is essential. To it the elements of solitude, simplicity of life, extreme asceticism, and humility must be judged secondary.

Such solitude can take many forms: the traditional "desert" of lonely places, whether on sand, or in woods or mountains; the anonymity of life in a great city; or some abandoned and despised state of life as with the beggar's existence of Benedict Joseph Labre. In Britain, hermit saints have hallowed all the terrains of our landscape. One thinks of Gwyddfarch on the summit of his solitary, steep-sided hill above the Vyrnwy Valley (near Welshpool); or the hidden valley near Bala preferred by the hermitess Mellangell, one of numerous Welsh women hermits who established cells in remote corners of the country in the mid-seventh century; or the marshy fens of East Anglia where in the eighth century Guthlac paddled his way to the "island" of Crowland, site of the later abbey of that name; and of course there were hermit-denizens of true islands, like Cadfan on Bardsey Island, off the Lleyn peninsula of North Wales, or the many hermit saints of Caldey Island, off Tenby, in South Wales: owing to the swift and dangerous currents that separated these islands from the mainland they could be true "deserts," unlike those other islands that, in an age of sea-borne communication, were crossroads and emporia of trade.

Pope John Paul II, writing to the minister-general of Chartreux for its ninth centenary in 1984, drew out the theme of the help given by hermits to the rest of the Church and the world.

Faced with the acceleration of the rhythm of life which marks our contemporaries, you must return without cease to the original spirit of your Order and remain unshakable in your holy calling. Our epoch indeed seems to need your example and service: minds are between different opinions, very often they are perturbed and run great spiritual dangers under the pressure of the many writings which appear without discernment, and above all of the means of social communication, endowed as these are with a great power to influence hearts, while opposing themselves at times to Christian truth and morality. Men experience therefore a need to be in search of the Absolute and to see it in some sense guaranteed by a lived testimony. Your function is precisely to let them perceive it. For their part, the sons and daughters of the Church who are consecrated to apostolate in the world, at the mercy as they are of a perpetual mobility and evolution, need to rest on the stability of God and his love. This stability they contemplate manifestly in you who have shared it more specially than the rest here below. [14]

Indeed the Second Vatican Council spoke of solitaries as following more closely the Christ who contemplated on the mountain, and it saw their lifestyle as a secret source of fecundity for the Church.

With the Carmelites, however, we touch on yet a different synthesis: here eremitism and apostolate are combined. When the first Carmelites, who were solitaries living in a loosely connected group in caves and huts on the side of Mount Carmel, asked the patriarch of Jerusalem for a rule, they were given one that stressed solitude but also licensed a certain apostolate. In the words of the early Carmelite Nicholas the Frenchman:

Conscious of their imperfection, the hermits of Carmel persevered for a long time in the solitude of the desert, but as they intended to be of service to their neighbor, in order not to be guilty of infidelity in their way, they went sometimes, but rarely, down from their hermitage. That which they had harvested with the sickle of contemplation, in solitude, they went to thresh on the threshing floor of preaching, and to show abroad on all sides. [15]

Hermits living on Carmel near the "springs of Elias," where the prophet had prayed alone and "sons of the prophets" had a "school," sought to express the prophetic spirit concretized in Elijah. A prophet is one who lives in direct submission to the Holy Spirit, so that by his life, actions, and words, he may at all times be a sign of God in the human world. The author of the fourteenth-century Carmelite Institution of the First Fathers describes the spirit of Carmelite contemplation by interpreting Elijah's hiding at the torrent of Carith as an embracing of the ascetic life, leading to the perfection of the love of God, and the drinking of that torrent as a reception of the light of contemplation from God, so as to be transformed inwardly by his wisdom:

To taste, in a certain manner, in our heart, and to experience in our spirit, the power of the divine presence, and the sweetness of the glory from on high, not only after death but even in this mortal life. That is what is really meant by drinking from the torrent of the joy of God. . . . It is in order to accomplish this twofold end [asceticism and contemplation] that the monk must enter upon the eremitical way, according to the testimony of the prophet, "In a desert land where there is no way and no water, so in the sanctuary have I come before thee, to thy power and thy glory."[16]

The Carmelites, men and women, therefore see themselves in succession to the prophets as witnesses to the desert vocation of Israel. More specifically, by their witness and (in the case of men) preaching they aim to lead others in the ways of prayer, contemplation, and solitude. Carmel's is a contemplative apostolate to other potential contemplatives. As such its supreme model is not Elijah so much as Mary, "Our Lady of Mount Carmel," whose spiritual life if it embodied her metaphor of handmaidship was simple, unassuming, without drama and exaltation. Thus the mysticism of Teresa is rooted in an ordinary, commonsensical life, accepting all human life as it is; that of John of the Cross dispenses with everything that savors of display in favor of "dark faith"; the "little way" of Thérèse of Lisieux is a Marian way of humility, candor, and simplicity.

The spirit and practice of the desert tradition continued to exercise its influence-for instance in seventeenth-century France; among not only the solitaries of Port-Royal but also at La Trappe, the center of the strict observance reform of the Cistercians. The masterpieces of the desert life notably Cassian's writings and the Ladder of Divine Ascent by John Climacus revolutionized the tepid life of Armand Rance, who when reading them still retained a number of (abusive) titular' abbacies in commendam.[17] The chapels he had built, in honor of Climacus and Mary of Egypt, suggest the Trappist aim of creating an ascetic context within which an intense mystical life, under the direct influence of the Holy Spirit, could grow and flourish.

The developed Byzantine monasticism of the Middle Ages, and its organic continuation in the Catholic and (to a more marked degree) Orthodox East today, show the stamp of the sources we have looked at. The two main strains, the eremitical or Antonian, and the cenobitic or Basilian, continued, and indeed complemented each other to some extent. The coenobium could serve as the training ground for those called to solitude, or it might send out colonies of experienced contemplatives to live in cells or lavras of their own (even Basil did this). The abbot of a monastery might retire into seclusion, delegating communal affairs to an elder. On the other hand, a great anchorite and hesychast like Athanasios of the Meteora could find himself the center of so large a group of disciples that he had to found a coenobium to cater for their needs.

The vigor of the eremitical tradition is shown in the development, beginning in the ninth century, of Mount Athos, that verdant protrusion into the Northern Aegean, and the fourteenth-century founding of the Meteora, monasteries of the air, perched on rocky outcrops of the Pindus mountains, as, with the waning Middle Ages, the ties linking the Byzantine Church to Rome grew ever weaker. But cenobitic communities were also clamoring for recognition in the hermit territories; and even the hermits themselves recognized the need for better organization, especially on Athos. In 963 the Byzantine emperor Nicephorus Phocas founded the Athonite coenobium still called, misleadingly, the Great Lavra (for the lavras were definitely loose collections of hermits). The struggle for supremacy between eremites and cenobites was reenacted at Meteora in the fifteenth century, when the abbots of the Great Meteoron began to claim the functions of the of the anchorites.

The competing prestige of the cenobitic idea in the Byzantine Church and her daughters in the Slavonic world was due especially to the work of Theodore the Studite. The immaturity of many of the hermits of the late patristic period led that great Churchman to essay in an urban setting (not so unusual as might be thought, either in Constantinople or at Rome) a major cenobitic foundation of a strict kind and preach not only apatheia but also fraternal charity as the goal of the ascetic life. Taking further the programs of Pachomius and Basil for the common life, he regulated the devotions and daily lives of monks under his care to a hitherto unheard-of degree. The spirit of his or "testament," Catechisms, and the Studite Constitutions was at the opposite pole to the idiorhythmic temper of the hermits of the holy mountains of Byzantium.

What the Christian East, in the period of its full sacramental communion with Catholicism, and indeed much later, showed no sign of developing was the specialized apostolates which became so common in the Western Church with the reform of the sixteenth century: the communities, congregations, and orders devoted to such differentiated activities as nursing or teaching. Though some sisterhoods of this sort appear in the Orthodox world of the later nineteenth century, the concept of such functionally determined religious foundatiops (which has spread somewhat invasively to the Eastern Catholic churches in modern times) remains au fond a peculiarity of Western Catholicism. As this survey may have suggested, if it is to remain in touch with the historic sources of the religious life, it is important that such professionally "apostolic" religious retain a firm hold on the common basics of the monastic institution in the Church however adapted to meet particular pastoral demands.[18]

A Theology of the Religious Life

The root of the religious life is the monastic movement, and the numerous religious orders, congregations, institutes, and communities of Catholicism represent the branching and leafing of the tree that grows from this root. Although modern religious take on many works in the service of the Church that would have surprised the monks and nuns of the patristic age, they are well advised to keep close in spirit to their ancient source.

As a sign of the holy Church, the Church that already lives with the life of the city of God in heaven, religious are called to witness to the unity of Christ's mystical body, because the salvation the Church is both offered and given is a sharing of the divine life in solidarity with each other. As Augustine sums up the goal of Christ's mediating work in his De Trinitate:

It was God's will that we be justified by being made one in the one just Man; that we would not lose hope of rising in the flesh itself when we saw how the One Head had preceded us, his many members. By this Mediator we are being cleansed by faith at the present time, but later on we will be renewed by vision and reconciled to God. Then we shall adhere to the One, enjoy the One and remain one for ever.[19]

If the hermit testifies to the unity of the mystical body in its invisible aspect, the cenobitic religious witnesses to the unity of that body in its visible sacramental form on earth. Each religious community is a micro-Church, the most intense or concentrated form of the Church as communion that there is: more so than the diocese, more so than the parish. Only the family as the "domestic Church" can rival it, but the family church is essentially a cell of the parish. This means two things: first, that the family is not called on in its own right to embody the total mystery of the Church; and second, its task is in this world, it has what the Second Vatican Council called an indolis saecularis, a "secular project," to transform little by little the environment around it. It is not intended, like the religious community, to point beyond this world to the world to come.

The fact that the religious community is, in its own right, an embodiment of the mystery of the Church, and that it is so specifically as an expression of the Church as the sacrament of the future, the glory of the age to come, means that its life is centered on the sacred liturgy. The liturgy is the source and summit of the Church's life; as the Second Vatican Council expresses it; it is the most inward form of her covenant response to God in Christ, and it is the anticipation of the life of heaven. The rationale of such worship (apart from the glory of God) is the upbuilding of the community in faith, hope, and charity, because these are, as Aquinas says, the specifically theological virtues, the ones that relate us to the God of glory himself.

It follows from what I have said that even a purely contemplative community lives the apostolic life, understood as a replication of the life of the Jerusalem Church in the Acts of the Apostles. A community of "mixed" life reduplicates this by living out also the apostolic mission in some one or other of its modalities. Active religious, or indeed contemplative religious when they accept active works in certain times and places, have done historically a great variety of things. How can we understand these theologically? To be authentic, the work of the active Church, and so the religious as active, must be a legitimate expression of the ministry or ongoing work of the Savior who, in his achieved work, salvation, is the center of the contemplative Church, the focus of the religious as contemplative. Christ was a healer, so there can be religious devoted to nursing; Christ was a teacher, so there can be religious engaged in education; Christ was, for the inspired theology of the New Testament writers, a priest and a king, so there can be religious who are ministerially ordained, and who are indeed actively involved in pastoral work, the shepherding or ruling office of Christ in his Church. But in each case, in order to correspond to the source of the religious life in a celibacy in honor of the Lord, pursued normatively with others in a communal liturgical setting, such active works must always return to rest in the contemplation that forms the primary basis of the monastic state.           

Because the religious life is, in the ways I have been describing, an expression of the mystery of the Church, it follows that the hierarchical Church, the pope and bishops as the Church's supreme pastors (the pope for the universal Church, the bishop for his local Church), ordained as these are to oversee the welfare or proper functioning of the Church as a whole, have a right and proper interest in the modus operandi of the religious life. The hierarchical Church does not originate the religious life, which has always been understood as a free gift to the Church by the Holy Spirit. Yet the hierarchical Church has the duty to exercise its own charism of discernment, and once it has discerned the charism of a particular religious founder as authentic, to welcome it by what Lumen gentium calls a "willing response to the movements of the Holy Spirit." By the official sanction which it gives to a particular religious Rule or constitutions, to the authority of religious superiors, and to the personal commitment of individual religious, the hierarchical Church admits the embodiment of a particular charism as a legitimate institution within her corporate life. Although this institution is not merely a canonical one but has for those involved in it the meaning and value of a special consecration to God, and so is, for them, as Perfectae caritatis puts it, a never-failing source of grace, the hierarchical Church has a proper role in the regulation of its life and self-expression.

Because the monastic community is a consecrated expression of the mystery of the Church, by its life only or by its life and mission, it has a relation both to the universal Church, its overall context, and to the particular Church, the locality where it is. It must both be rooted in the diocese, the local Church, and yet represent to the diocese some aspect of the wider, universal Church. It must both be content to be within the bosom of the local Church, exhibiting to that Church's members, in depth, the basic Christian life which they already share, and also offer to them something different, a monastic tradition which draws on a wider Christian experience than that of one place or one time and so helps to draw the local Church out of a bad particularity, out of too narrowing a confinement within its temporal and spatial limits, its present culture, and into a wider catholicity. Needless to say, a monastic community can only succeed in these ecclesiological functions if it is a micro-Church, a communion in the profoundest Christ- and God­centered sense, if in other words its members are engaged as whole­heartedly as possible on growth in holiness through Jesus Christ and his Spirit, who is the Spirit of the Father.

This is true both of the purely contemplative religious life and of that religious life where contemplation has been placed at the service of action. For in each case the vows, or the substance of the vows, are the same. The vows are three expressions of the Church as a mystery of configuration to Jesus Christ (perhaps the more natural symbolism for the male religious) or of union with him (perhaps the more appropriate for the female). For the final salvation assured to the Church by the Son was achieved by him only in the poverty, chastity, and obedience that is, the single-hearted service of the Father of the man Jesus, while, correspondingly, the grace of God achieves the Church's definitive sharing in that final salvation only by arousing in her a bridal response a desire to be similarly poor, chaste, and obedience, that is, single hearted-vis-à-vis the Son made man who is the human form of salvation, the Savior.

The religious life monasticism is a fact of comparative religion. The monastic systems of Buddhism resemble most closely those of Christianity, though one could add other examples both historic (e.g., pre-Christian Greece with its Cynic mendicant preachers; pre­Columbian America, with its "virgins of the Sun"; the Jewish Therapeutae of Egypt described by Philo) and contemporary (e.g., the Sufi Muslim communities which managed to eke out an existence in Communist Albania). The three elements of expropriation and common use of property, celibacy, and obedience to superiors are found as a fact of the religiosum, if not everywhere then in many places. The common element in their motivation is to foster a relationship with what is simply beyond the human being (variously thought of as the absolute, the transcendent, the ultimate reality, the world of spirits) or a personal God. Other subsidiary motives exist, but in Christian monasticism they are transformed, transposed, and reinterpreted in the light of the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

Though religious life has taken to itself motifs of non-Christian philosophy (and more recently, of political ethics, usually of a Socialist variety), and repristinated themes of the Hebrew Bible (e.g., the recovery of divine likeness, the restoration of the image of God, return to Eden, recreating the life-way of the ancient Israelite "schools of the prophets," preparing for final judgment, anticipating the life of the kingdom, living in fellowship with the angels), its predominant inspiration has always been evangelical.

People have wanted to "follow" Jesus as he invited them to: imitating him in his despoiling himself of earthly interests; his virginity and tender yet wholly exigent love of the Father; his submission to the Father's saving will. They have wanted to share in his mystery by uniting themselves especially to his cross, reproducing certain of his actions, such as his solitude in the desert, fasting, struggle against the evil powers, his lengthy praying and care for the sick, the poor, the stranger, as well as his urgent proclamation of his message-all of which constituted the concentrated preparation of his "hour." They have wanted to respond to his call for penitence, conversion, a change of life and outlook. They have wanted to embody more fully the commitment to him made at their baptism, to acquire his grace more abundantly and enter into that relationship of bride to bridegroom so frequently mentioned in the Gospels, the Pauline Letters, and the Revelation of John. And they have wanted to do all this so as to show they could serve, and suffer for, his Church as generously as did the earliest disciples.

In carrying out such inspirations the religious life stands as an incomparable icon of the mystery of the Church.



12. Benedict, The Rule 1.

13. C. H. Talbot, "A Letter of Roger, Abbot of Byland," Analecta Sacrae Ordinis Cisterciensis 7 (1951) 218-31.

14. 1984 Letter of Pope John Paul II to the prior of the Grand Chartreuse.

15. Ignea sagitta, in François de Sainte-Marie, Les plus vieux textes du Carmel (Paris, 1944) 173.

16. Ibid., 114, with an internal citation of Ps 63:1-2.

17. "A commendatory abbot (abbas in commendam) is any person, ecclesiastic or layman, entitled to draw the revenues of a monastery without any responsibility whatso­ever in regard to the discipline of the house" (A. J. Luddy, The Order of Citeaux [Dublin, 1932] 55-56).

18. This plea is powerfully echoed by Archimandrite Boniface Luykx, Premonstratensian canon and historian of the Liturgy, in Eastern Monasticism and the Future of the Church (Stamford, Conn., 1993).

19. Augustine, The Trinity 4.7.

©; 1996 by The Order of St. Benedict, Inc., Collegeville, Minnesota. All rights reserved.

This version: 6th February 2008

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Fr Aidan Nichols

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