Disclaimer: The series of letters entitled “Correspondence on the Monastic Vocation”, while based on the real questions of a number of men in various places and states of life, is entirely fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons, institutions, or places is purely coincidental.
Letter 16: Kyle
I am a regular reader of Vultus Christi. Monastic life has always fascinated me. In my mid–teens I was thinking seriously of joining an abbey, but it was an unsettling period in my life and, when the time came for me to follow through on my desire, I couldn't bring myself to do it. I am 49 years old now. Where have all the years gone?
In college I studied philosophy and languages. During that time I gave up going to Mass and pretty much stopped identifying myself as Catholic, but I didn't stop praying. By some strange and deeply rooted spiritual reflex, I used to surprise myself saying Hail Marys . . . even while living in sin. My life passed from light to shadows, and from shadows to light. I got caught up in all sorts of unsavory addictive behaviours. Occasionally the thought of going to Confession and to Mass would flash through my mind like a meteor, only to leave me in darkness. In spite of everything, the Hail Marys kept popping up.
After college, I went to work for a publishing house in New York. After a few years I returned to graduate school full time and finished with an M.A. I shared my life (and my apartments) with a crazy cast of characters, each one more comical, tragic, neurotic, endearing, or despairing than the next. My life was an emotional roller coaster. I wasn't really happy, but I kept myself amused. In 1996, I had an opportunity to live in Paris for a year, something I had always dreamed of doing. My French was reasonably good, allowing me to enjoy more of the City of Light than the typical American–in–Paris. One day I was wandering about my neighborhood and, out of curiosity, stumbled into a church. There was a statue of Mary above the altar. A lot of people were saying the rosary: Je vous salue Marie. It was the chapel of the Miraculous Medal in the rue du Bac. I listened to the rhythmic drone of the French Hail Marys and, after while, started joining in: Sainte Marie Mère de Dieu, priez pour nous pauvres pécheurs, etc.
I started slipping into the rue du Bac chapel several times a week, and then daily. After a while I bought a miraculous medal from an elderly Irish Sister who was selling them at a table in the courtyard outside the chapel. I asked a squeaky–clean young French priest to bless it for me, and I put it around my neck on a silver chain. The Irish Sister told me that I needed to say. "O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee". A light went on in my head when she said that. I must have heard the prayer before, probably as a little boy. I started to say it. I added "O Mary, conceived without sin" to my Hail Marys.
In the spring of 1997, I said au revoir to Paris and spent a month in Ireland. On my mother's side, I am the great–grandson of Sligo and Roscommon people. I met some relations of mine for drinks: very, very distant cousins. None of them seemed to practice the faith. I copped onto the fact that it was better not to mention things Catholic in their company. It either provoked a series of bad jokes about priests and nuns, or caused eyes to roll.
Back in The City (sorry, New York), I started another job as an editor and, more and more, found myself dropping into an open church for a few Hail Marys and some quiet time. I was living alone and actually finding it pleasant, going out less to bars, and reading Catholic books: Thomas Merton, The Imitation of Christ, Saint Thérèse, Dorothy Day, Saint Augustine (Confessions), and a book about the saints by a hip New York Jesuit whose name I cannot remember. In 2010 I went to confession for the first time in 33 years. I started going to daily Mass. I began saying the rosary. And then . . . the thought of devoting my life to God came back to me. I am still a very worldly guy. Could I be a monk? You will have to answer that question. I know that you have age restrictions. Even apart from my age, I may not fit the profile you are looking for. All the same, I thought I should write you and ask the question.
The letter you wrote me is a testimony to the life–changing grace that comes to one who, in spite of everything else that may be going on in his life, perseveres in calling upon Mary, full of grace. I was immediately reminded of Osee's consoling prophecy:
In their affliction they will rise early to me: Come, and let us return to the Lord: For he hath taken us, and he will heal us: he will strike, and he will cure us. He will revive us after two days: on the third day he will raise us up, and we shall live in his sight. We shall know, and we shall follow on, that we may know the Lord. His going forth is prepared as the morning light, and he will come to us as the early and the latter rain to the earth. (Osee 6:1-3)
Your stumbling into the chapel of the rue du Bac is a classic example of Our Lady's care for you. All those Hail Marys of yours did not go unheeded. The rest followed: the prayer "O Mary, conceived without sin", the miraculous medal and, ultimately, your return to the sacraments. I understand that now you find yourself wanting to revisit your old interest in monastic life. At bottom, it is a sign of your desire to give yourself entirely to God.
I would be inclined to "read" your revived interest in becoming a monk as the desire for God bubbling up from deep inside you. Back in the year 107, Saint Ignatius of Antioch experienced something like this:
Earthly longings have been crucified; in me there is left no spark of desire for mundane things, but only a murmur of living water that whispers within me, ‘Come to the Father’. There is no pleasure for me in any meats that perish, or in the delights of this life; I am fain for the bread of God, even the flesh of Jesus Christ, who is the seed of David; and for my drink I crave that blood of his which is love imperishable. (Letter to the Romans 4, 1-2; 6, 1-8, 3)
There is a sense, Kyle, in which every Christian is called to an interior monasticism, a monasticism of the heart. Saint John Chrysostom said, “Those who live in the world, even though married, ought to resemble the monks in everything else. You are entirely mistaken if you think that there are some things required of ordinary people, and others of monks… they will have the same account to render” (Homily on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 7, 41). A monk is a man who seeks to pray always. Ceaseless prayer is something that Our Lord addresses to all his disciples, not just to those who live in desert caves and cloisters. Saint Luke says, "And he spoke also a parable to them, that we ought always to pray, and not to faint" (Luke 18:1). And Saint Paul says, "Always rejoice. Pray without ceasing. In all things give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you all" (1 Thessalonians 5:16–18). Praying always can begin quite simply . . . even with Hail Marys murmured here and there.
It is easy to mistake the thirst for God and a desire to pray always (the call to a deeper interior life) for a monastic vocation. I have known several men who mistook a grace of conversion and the call to a deeper interior life for a monastic vocation. They had the notion that holiness was somehow incompatible with life in the world and could not wait to bury themselves in the cloister. When they got there, they discovered that the untidy reality of the daily monastic grind did not correspond to their cherished ideal. Each man had to find his own way of holiness in the world. Two of them joined Third Orders. One became active in the Legion of Mary. Another found his place in the Foyers of Charity founded by the French mystic, Marthe Robin.
How can one go about distinguishing the call to a deeper interior life from the call to become a monk? This is not something a man can do on his own, independently of a spiritual father. The first thing to do is to see if one's own profile lines up with what a given monastery requires of its candidates. I am referring to things like age, health, education, and skills. Some monasteries, for example, require that a man be able to sing . . . or at least to carry a tune! Other monasteries require that a candidate have some background in Latin; others require a practical skill.
At the end of the day, Kyle, a vocation is to a particular monastery. A Benedictine is always a monk of Silverstream, or Rushbottom, or Winkleshore, or another given place: the monastery of his profession. While all monks in the West (except for the Carthusians) make profession under the Rule of Saint Benedict, there are as many ways of living the Holy Rule as there are monasteries.
Once a man has a particular monastery in view, he must present himself honestly and truthfully to the Father charged with vocations who, in turn, will evaluate him in the light of the objective criteria set out in the monastery's Declarations or Constitutions. Our monastery, for example, will consider men between the ages of 18 and 35. The Prior can, using his discretion, extend the upper age limitation by 18 months, but he can do no more than this, being bound to uphold the Constitutions. Other monasteries may have an upper age limitation of 40, or even older. Some monasteries have a lower age limitation, such as 30.
One enters the monastery to die to one's old self, to become a new man in Christ, to be purified like gold in the crucible, to be reshaped like iron on the anvil. It is not a painless operation. After a certain age, and after having lived an independent life in the world, a man loses a measure of flexibility and it becomes more difficult for him to integrate new patterns of daily life. Entering a monastery is like going back to school. Saint Benedict calls the monastery " a school of the Lord's service" (Rule, Prologue). A man must ask himself if, in fact, content to sit in the last place and become a learner among learners, ready to listen to instruction and to accept correction.
For a man of your age and experience, if there is, in fact, a clear call to the Benedictine way, and this must be verified — as distinct from the way of Carmel, or of Saint Augustine, Saint Dominic, Saint Francis, or any other school of holiness — I would, I think, recommend the Oblate vocation. A Benedictine Oblate lives an interiorised monasticism in the world. There have been many saintly men and women who, after a career in the world, or even while raising a family, have chosen to live in proximity to a monastery, and to offer themselves to God as members of the extended monastic family. Some Oblates live at a distance from their monastery and can do no more than return to it from time to time for a retreat.
Oblates come from every walk of life: single and married and widowed, young and old. Some are the mothers and fathers of large families of little ones and not-so-little ones. There are farmers and cattle ranchers, housekeepers and cooks, teachers, doctors, lawyers, artists, nurses, and photographers. What do all Oblates have in common? They desire, while continuing in their own unique own state in life, to enroll themselves in the “school of the Lord’s service” (Rule, Prologue) established 1500 years ago by Saint Benedict, our father and teacher. Oblates of Silverstream Priory, moreover, in line with our special focus, desire to “persevere with one mind in prayer with Mary, the Mother of Jesus” (Acts 1:14); they are drawn to the adoration of the Eucharistic Face of Jesus, shining more brightly than the sun from the tabernacles of the Church, in this world’s dark night of faith.
There are, apart from the Benedictine way, and the various paths that derive from other great Orders in the Church, many other schools of holiness that are well–suited to life in the world. One thing emerges clearly from your letter, Kyle: the Mother of God has taken you into her care. Continue to say her rosary and to wear her miraculous medal. Take to heart what Saint Bernard says so beautifully:
If squalls of temptations arise, or thou fall upon the rocks of tribulation, look to the star, call upon Mary. If thou art tossed by the waves of pride or ambition, detraction or envy, look to the star, call upon Mary. If anger or avarice or the desires of the flesh dash against the ship of thy soul, turn thine eyes towards Mary. If, trouble by the enormity of thy crimes, ashamed of thy guilty conscience, terrified by dread of the judgment, thou beginnest to sink into the gulf of sadness or the abyss of despair, think of Mary. In dangers, in anguish, in doubt, think of Mary, call upon Mary. Let her be ever on thy lips, ever in thy heart; and the better to obtain the help of her prayers, imitate the example of her life. Following her, thou strayest not; invoking her, thou despairest not; thinking of her, thou wanderest not; upheld by her, thou fallest not; shielded by her, thou fearest not; guided by her, thou growest not weary; favoured by her, thou reachest the goal. (Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, Super Missus Est 2, 17)
Do not hesitate to write me again, Kyle.
In Our Lord and His Most Holy Mother, Father Prior