Correspondence on the Monastic Vocation 7

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 7: Padraic

Dear Father Prior,

I have wanted to write to you ever since my all–too–brief visit to Silverstream Priory. I regret that I wasn't able to stay at the priory long enough to experience your daily round of prayer and work. It's not easy for me to take time away from my job. Until the opportunity for another visit arises, I will, if you don't mind, put my questions to you in writing.

One of the things that really attracts me to monastic life is the security of the daily timetable. I'm not the best at holding to a schedule, but I know that I need one, especially if I am to pray with any regularity. There is no way I can say the full Divine Office the way you do at the monastery. I try, nonetheless, to say a wee part of the Divine Office in the morning — after a good strong coffee — and a wee part of it at night before I turn off the light. You recommended that I try praying parts of the Little Office of the B.V.M. I haven't been able to get a copy, but I intend to purchase one soon. (Do you carry the Little Office of the B.V.M. in the monastery bookstore?) For the moment, I'm reading what I can from the Monastic Diurnal that I picked up a few years ago at Farnborough. I don't always get the feasts and commemorations right, but God is indulgent with liturgical dimwits, right?

When I pray the Office, I try to follow your advice about not needing to get everything perfect. You told me that it is better to say one psalm in the morning, with the Canticle of Zechariah, the Our Father, and the Hail Mary than to work myself into a frenzy trying madly to find the right pages and fit everything in. I was sceptical, at first, about what you said. (Sorry, Father.) I was thinking, "What kind of monk is this? He seems awfully laid back about things". Since then, I've come to appreciate the wisdom of your advice. I was piling on the prayers and really stressed about getting everything in each day. I started to feel that the prayers had become a burden, and then I felt guilty when I couldn't get them all in. I became completely discouraged. For a time, I quit trying to say the Office . . . and even the rosary. I even stopped going to daily Mass. Only recently have I started praying again with any regularity, but I'm doing as you suggested: wee bits said well, one step at a time. I also like your idea of just saying Hail Marys in all my comings and goings . . . leaving it to my Guardian Angel to string them together into a rosary for the Blessed Mother.

Forgive the rambling on, Father. The point of this letter was to ask you if you would tell me a little more about the monastic timetable. I think that, in spite of the difficulties described above, I might want to try live some form of the monastic horarium at home, although with work, and travel, and all my commitments, it may be difficult. I just want to have a better understanding of what you do all day and see if I can get into the groove.

Give my greetings to the other monks. Tell Dom Finnian that he needs to fatten up those rescue chickens. Poor creatures! They look pathetic. Just joking, Father.

Padraic

Dear Padraic,

Lovely to hear from you. You have made grand progress in accepting your limitations. Bravo, Padraic! Yes, I have always counseled men not to "bind heavy and insupportable burdens, and lay them on their own shoulders". It is far wiser to have a minimal rule of prayer that you are capable of fulfilling faithfully than to have a maximal rule of prayer that, at first, feeds spiritual pride and, in the end, leads to guilt, discouragement, and the abandonment of prayer altogether.

The devil is a skilled psychologist. He has been observing human behaviour ever since he slithered up to the tree in the garden. The devil is particularly interested in pious lads who are beginning to pray. Learn to recognize his devious tactics. "Your man below", as dear Father David calls him, will encourage you to increase your rule of prayer until it becomes completely unmanageable. He will seduce you into a kind of compulsive piety — say this prayer, add this litany, increase your rosaries, read this meditation, say these psalms, make this novena, etc. — until you become ill with a spiritual indigestion. Then, the old enemy, sits back and, with a mocking sneer, laughs, "So, you thought you could pray? Pray, then. Have at it!"

One of the great over–arching principles of Benedictine life is moderation. Saint Benedict calls discretion the "mother of virtues": it is a calm sifting through of things that allows one to choose wisely, from a broad range of possibilities, the things most pleasing to God and most salutary for one's soul at a given moment. We Benedictines do not go in for feats of ascetical prowess, for excessive penances, constraining regulations, oppressive obligations, or debilitating spiritual exercises. The Benedictine tradition has long recognised the danger of taking on too much, of suffering "burn–out", and of falling prey to a sadness of soul that it is not easy to cure. In the Holy Rule, Saint Benedict is forever reminding the abbot to adjust, adapt, and measure things to the weakness of his flock.

Let him that hath been appointed Abbot always bear in mind what a burden he hath received, and to Whom he will have to give an account of his stewardship; and let him know that it beseemeth him more to profit his brethren than to preside over them. He must, therefore, be learned in the Law of God, that he may know whence to bring forth new things and old: he must be chaste, sober, merciful, ever preferring mercy to justice, that he himself may obtain mercy. Let him hate sin, and love the brethren. And even in his corrections, let him act with prudence, and not go too far, lest while he seeketh too eagerly to scrape off the rust, the vessel be broken. Let him keep his own frailty ever before his eyes, and remember that the bruised reed must not be broken. And by this we do not mean that he should suffer vices to grow up; but that prudently and with charity he should cut them off, in the way he shall see best for each, as we have already said; and let him study rather to be loved than feared. Let him not be violent nor over anxious, not exacting nor obstinate, not jealous nor prone to suspicion, or else he will never be at rest. In all his commands, whether concerning spiritual or temporal matters, let him be prudent and considerate. In the works which he imposeth, let him be discreet and moderate, bearing in mind the discretion of holy Jacob, when he said “If I cause my flocks to be overdriven, they will all perish in one day.” Taking, then, the testimonies, borne by these and the like words, to discretion, the mother of virtues, let him so temper all things, that the strong may have something to strive after, and the weak nothing at which to take alarm. And, especially, let him observe this present Rule in all things; so that, having faithfully fulfilled his stewardship, he may hear from the Lord what that good servant heard, who gave wheat to his fellow-servants in due season: “Amen, I say unto you, over all his goods shall he place him.” (Rule, Chapter 64)

Do not try to live as a monk, Padraic, until you are a monk. And even then, if you do enter at Silverstream, we will help you to see that becoming a monk is the labour of a lifetime requiring much patience, and that it is more God's labour in us than our labour for God.

For by grace you are saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, for it is the gift of God; Not of works, that no man may glory. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus in good works, which God hath prepared that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2: 8–10)

I once knew a fervent young Catholic, full of generosity, and eager to drink deeply of the wellspring of holy tradition. Let's call him Winston. Already, while in first year at university, Winston had decided that he would become a monk in a seriously traditional abbey. He buzzed his hair off to affect a more monastic look. He started wearing a black hoodie and sandals. He became so scrupulous that he hadn't a minute of interior rest. He read the lives of the saints, immersed himself in the study of the liturgy, attended conferences, sought out confessors with a reputation for holiness (but didn't follow their advice), visited the most traditional monasteries, went on pilgrimages, fasted, denied himself and, in the end, had a complete breakdown. What went wrong? Poor Winston was lacking in Benedictine "discretio". The poor chap was convinced that all his Catholic friends, and especially the priests from whom he sought counsel, were lax, infected with creeping modernism, and on the slippery slope to hell. Winston alone understood the gravity of things. He alone knew what had to be done and he was going to do it if it killed him. After all, God, he was convinced, wanted him to prove everyone else wrong!

I saw Winston shortly after his spectacular crash. He was a mere shadow of his former self. I remembered when, before falling into his hyper–ascetico–pietistic–rigorism, Winston had hair and wore colours; he laughed, he played Ultimate Frisbee, and he enjoyed a pint. Now he looked washed out. He was as thin as a rail. There was a look of fear in his eyes and his mouth was tight and unsmiling. Winston asked to speak with me. He was afraid that he had lost the faith altogether, and saw himself as a soul who had failed God. "Will I ever be able to become a monk?" he asked. "Winston", I said, "before you can become a monk, you need to become a man again, a man fully alive". He cried for a long time and then he said, "Will you help me, Father?" Winston was ready to listen and to obey.

Hearken, O my son, to the precepts of thy Master, and incline the ear of thine heart; willingly receive and faithfully fulfil the admonition of thy loving Father, that thou mayest return by the labour of obedience to Him from Whom thou hadst departed through the sloth of disobedience. (Rule, Prologue)

Winston had to begin by eating properly, by getting lots of rest, and by recovering some of his healthy non–religious interests . . . like Ultimate Frisbee. He had to agree to undertake no prayer, no devotion, no penance, and no reading without first obtaining my blessing, something that Saint Benedict prescribes in his Chapter on The Observance of Lent:

Let each one, however, make known to his Abbot what he offereth, and let it be done with his blessing and permission: because what is done without leave of the spiritual father shall be imputed to presumption and vain-glory, and merit no reward. Everything, therefore, is to be done with the approval of the Abbot. (Rule, Chapter 49)

I had to ease Winston into praying again, very gently, slowly, one step at a time. The smallest spiritual exertion risked throwing him back into complete exhaustion, a kind of extreme acedia. He began by saying in the morning, "O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall shew forth Thy praise"; by saying one Hail Mary at noon; and by saying in the evening, "Bless the Lord, O my soul: and let all that is within me bless his holy name". His daily ascetical practice — and he resisted this mightily at first, calling it a waste of time — was to take a walk in nature with his eyes, his ears, and his nostrils open to the sights, and sounds, and smells of God's creation. Apart from weekly confession, Holy Mass and Communion, this was Winston's rule of life for a month. The only fasting I allowed him was from reading certain alarming blogs on the internet!

After a month, I allowed Winston to say Psalm 62 in the morning (O God, my God, to thee do I watch at break of day), a decade of the rosary sometime during the day, and Psalm 102 (Bless the Lord, O my soul: and let all that is within me bless his holy name) in the evening. Another month went by, and I allowed Winston to add the reading of the Collect and Gospel of the Mass of the day. The daily walk in nature had become something he looked forward to doing. He began to find it pleasurable and restful. This is where things still stand, but Winston is a new man. He is smiling again. His weight is now appropriate to his height. He is eating well and enjoying the occasional pint. He no longer looks like one of Dom Finnian's rescue chickens. He is back to playing Ultimate Frisbee. Will he, in the end, become a monk? I wouldn't venture to predict anything, but I can say this: if Winston asks to begin the vocational journey now, I would be inclined to say, "Let's give it a try, very slowly, one step a time". I think that, in time, he just may have the makings of a good monk.

So, dear Padraic, my answer to you about trying to following the monastic horarium is "Don't even try it it at home". To live like a monk, one needs to live in a monastery, under a Rule and an Abbot, in obedience, humility, and discretion. To do otherwise is to court disaster. Just ask Winston.

With my blessing. Father Prior