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 8: Cólm
Dear Father Prior,
I've never written to to you before, but I do read Vultus Christi nearly every day. I'm very interested in learning more about Benedictine life at Silverstream. I am 24 years old. After my Leaving Cert, I worked for a few years in a garden centre. I enjoy getting my hands dirty and seeing things grow! My family owns a restaurant/pub and when my elder brother, who was working in the pub, married and moved to Cork with his new wife, I stepped into the business to take his place. It's hard work: late nights and an obligation to keep smiling at the customers, no matter what is going on behind the scenes. I don't think the pub will be my lifelong calling. I feel that God is asking something else of me. I joined the Legion of Mary in my local parish: the daily rosary and weekly apostolic work have been a great grace for me. Last year, a lad from the Legion asked if I wouldn't like to make a weekend retreat at a monastery. So I did, and it was the beginning of some serious soul searching.
I had never thought of a monastic vocation because, until last year, I didn't know that monks still exist. I knew about priests in parishes, I saw a Franciscan once, and I knew about missionary priests because my father's cousin was a Kiltegan Father in Nigeria, but I had never heard of monks. The weekend retreat in Crownrose Abbey started me thinking.
The same friend who invited me to the weekend retreat told me about Father Benedict's First Mass at Saint Kevin's, Harrington Street, and asked me if I wanted to attend it. I did. This was when I learned of the existence of Silverstream Priory. Father Benedict's First Mass was unlike anything I had ever experienced in my life. I started going occasionally to the Latin Mass, but I couldn't really follow it until a chap named Raphael, whom I met at Saint Kevin's, recommended that I get a Missal and showed me how to use it. On my most days I succeed in finding the different parts of the Mass and follow along in my Missal. I have been reflecting that if I ever become monk, it will have to be in a monastery that has the traditional Latin Mass. I'm not finding the words to express what I mean, but I think that the Latin Mass leads a man more deeply into what is really going on at the altar. Just my own experience. Does this make any sense?
I never learned much in religion class in school. All that I know of my Catholic faith came through reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church and through my membership in the Legion of Mary. My past life has not been spotless. I fell into all the bad things that tempt lads in Ireland today: too much drink, too much internet, sexual stuff, and the rest. Since joining the Legion of Mary and saying the beads each day things have changed. I've pretty much cleaned up my act. I don't want to fall back into the bad behaviour of the past that never made me happy. I'm finding happiness, more and more, in praying and in learning about the Catholic faith. I can actually see myself as a monk, but I don't know if you can. We've never met, but I've told you my story. Just keep me in the prayers, and if you have time to write me, I will be grateful for some guidance. What should I do next? Thank you, Father. Cólm
Your letter made me very happy. Thank you for writing. It is a wonderful to thing to hear of the workings of grace in a soul. In your own story, as in so many, it was through Our Lady that things began to happen and that your life began to change. This is one of the great principles of the interior life, Cólm: all good things come to us through Mary. You will have read about this in the Legion of Mary handbook, I'm sure. The Servant of God, Frank Duff, had a clear understanding of Mary's role as the Mediatrix of All Graces. People often get bogged down in theological arguments about the "how" and "why" of Our Lady's unique role as Mediatrix, but those who experience it in their lives understand it very simply, almost intuitively. "I was in need of a particular life–changing grace", they will say "and it came to me in Our Lady's hands".
When a man says to Mary, "I am all thine, my Queen and my Mother, and all that I have is thine", everything changes; things impossible become possible; what is old becomes new; and what is new surpasses all that we deserve and desire. To give oneself to Mary is to give carte blanche to the Holy Ghost. To give oneself to Mary is to risk a stupendous adventure. To give oneself to Mary is to expose oneself, like Elijah on Mount Carmel, to a drenching rain. It is to open the doors and windows of one’s life to a mighty wind, like that of Pentecost. On May 11, 2007, at the canonisation of a Brazilian Franciscan, Pope Benedict XVI uttered a momentous sentence: "There is no fruit of grace in the history of salvation that does not have as its necessary instrument the mediation of Our Lady". Where Mary is present, Cólm, nothing will be lacking. Where Mary is sought first, all the rest will be given besides.
I like to invoke the Mother of God as "Our Lady of New Beginnings". In the mystery of the Annunciation, the Virgin Mary is the New Eve, consenting to a new creation, reversing by the "Yes" of her obedience what the first Eve had done by the "No" of her disobedience. I always counsel souls who come to me saying that they want to change their lives, to make a new beginning, a fresh start, to place themselves totally and irrevocably in Our Lady's keeping. The Mother of God protects and nurtures every new–beginning–in–grace, and every monastic vocation.
If you do have a monastic vocation — and that remains to be seen, Cólm — your work in the garden centre and your work in the pub are an excellent preparation for it! A monastery is not unlike a garden centre. It is a "garden enclosed", that is, a protected space in which new life sprouts, and grows, and blossoms, and bears fruit. Monks (and especially novices) are like new plants; they need to be tended. The father of the monastery is a kind of master gardener. The other fathers and brothers are the plants he tends and, at another level, as they grow up, they become his co–workers. The Rule of Saint Benedict prescribes enclosure (separation from the world) as the optimal environment for growth: the conditions of the monastic life correspond to the quality of the soil, nutrients, water, and warmth. Benedictine life is about balance: too much of anything can affect the plants adversely. The father of the monastery must see to it that all things are kept in balance.
Your work in the garden centre will have taught you patience, I should think. Plants cannot be forced to grow. The gardener must respect the mysteries of nature, and allow the organic development of new life to take its course, fostering it all the while, protecting it and nurturing it, without forcing anything to happen. This is the way I approach monastic vocations.
As for your work in the pub, it will have taught you one of the great principles of Benedictine life! The Rule of Saint Benedict begins with the words: "Hearken, O my son, to the precepts of thy Master, and incline the ear of thine heart". You will have done a lot of that, standing behind the bar in the pub: hearkening to your customers, and inclining your ear to their stories. Bartenders have to be great listeners, do they not? And your work in the pub will have taught you to be a servant, a real workman quick to obey. Customers do not like to be kept waiting. In Chapter 5 of the Holy Rule, Saint Benedict describes monastic obedience this way:
The first degree of humility is obedience without delay. This becometh those who hold nothing dearer to them than Christ, and who on account of the holy servitude which they have taken upon them, either for fear of hell or for the glory of life everlasting, as soon as anything is ordered by the superior, suffer no more delay in doing it than if it had been commanded by God Himself. It is of these that the Lord saith: “At the hearing of the ear he hath obeyed Me.” And again, to teachers He saith: “He that heareth you heareth Me.”
Such as these, therefore, leaving immediately their own occupations and forsaking their own will, with their hands disengaged, and leaving unfinished what they were about, with the speedy step of obedience follow by their deeds the voice of him who commands; and so as it were at the same instant the bidding of the master and the perfect fulfilment of the disciple are joined together in the swiftness of the fear of God by those who are moved with the desire of attaining eternal life. These, therefore, choose the narrow way, of which the Lord saith: “Narrow is the way which leadeth unto life”; so that living not by their own will, nor obeying their own desires and pleasures, but walking according to the judgment and command of another, and dwelling in community, they desire to have an Abbot over them. Such as these without doubt fulfil that saying of the Lord: “I came not to do Mine own will, but the will of Him Who sent Me.”
But this very obedience will then only be acceptable to God and sweet to men, if what is commanded be done not fearfully, tardily, nor coldly, nor with murmuring, nor with an answer shewing unwillingness; for the obedience which is given to superiors is given to God, since He Himself hath said: “He that heareth you, heareth Me.” And it ought to be given by disciples with a good will, because “God loveth a cheerful giver.” For if the disciple obey with ill-will, and murmur not only with his lips but even in his heart, although he fulfil the command, yet it will not be accepted by God, Who regardeth the heart of the murmurer. And for such an action he shall gain no reward; nay, rather, he shall incur the punishment due to murmurers, unless he amend and make satisfaction.
I find it amazing, Cólm, that you were present at Dom Benedict's First Solemn Mass in Saint Kevin's, Harrington Street. The ways of God's providence are unsearchable. Dom Benedict will be very happy to learn that you discovered the beauty of the traditional liturgy at his First Solemn Mass. Your friend Raphael did a great thing when he introduced you to the Missal. The Missal, completed by the Breviary, is a complete digest of Catholic piety, which is, at once biblical, liturgical, and patristic. It is the secure way, the way followed by the Doctors of the Church and by her greatest mystics. You will never exhaust the riches of the missal, even if you live to be a hundred years old!
What you write about your experience of the traditional Latin Mass makes eminent good sense. The Mass and the Divine Office are a work, a work that is, at once, divine and human. Saint Benedict speaks of the "Opus Dei", the Work of God. The Mass and the Divine Office are, before anything else, the work of God in us and, God, working in us by the secret operations of the Holy Ghost, makes us capable of becoming the co–workers of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
He that planteth, and he that watereth, are one. And every man shall receive his own reward, according to his own labour. For we are God' s coadjutors: you are God' s husbandry; you are God' s building". (1 Corinthians 3:8–9)
The traditional Latin Mass attracts numerous lads in their twenties and thirties, lads. The "Novus Ordo Missae" (the New Order of the Mass), on the other hand, with all its options, and with the freedom of expression many priests feel obliged to bring to it, fails to engage men in the same way. There is something altogether too impressionistic, subjective, and soft about it. It can be shaped and re–shaped to accommodate the personality of the priest celebrating it. The boggling number of options written into the "Novus Ordo Missae" can be manipulated by the celebrant. In the hands of the right celebrant, the work can get done decently; in the hands of the wrong person the work gets done, but with significant collateral damage and distortions.
The inimitable Father Blake (a English priest who writes a brilliant blog) wrote recently that "the Old Rite is a machine for praying in". I think Father Blake's observation goes to the heart of why men prefer the Old Rite: it is a divine–human machine, that it is, it is designed to work. What is the work it does? It is the very work we are singing about in an antiphon of the Office for September 14th:
O magnum pietátis opus: mors mortua tunc est, in ligno quando mortua Vita fuit. O what a work of love was that when Life and death died together upon the Tree.
The sanctuary is a "tremendous" place (in the sense of awe–inspiring and fearsome) and the altar is the place of a mighty work, of the greatest work ever wrought: the sacrifice of the Cross. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council speaks of the liturgy as a work (a very Benedictine notion) in these terms:
To accomplish so great a work, Christ is always present in His Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations. He is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of His minister, "the same now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered himself on the cross", but especially under the Eucharistic species. By His power He is present in the sacraments, so that when a man baptizes it is really Christ Himself who baptizes He is present in His word, since it is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church. He is present, lastly, when the Church prays and sings, for He promised: "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Matt. 18:20).
Christ indeed always associates the Church with Himself in this great work wherein God is perfectly glorified and men are sanctified. The Church is His beloved Bride who calls to her Lord, and through Him offers worship to the Eternal Father. (Sacrosanctum Concilium, article 7)
You write, Cólm, that you "never learned much in religion class in school". You're not alone, Cólm. There has been, over the past forty or fifty years, in Ireland (but not only in Ireland) a massive failure to transmit the Catholic faith to the rising generations. The positive side of the appraisal is that young people have been left with a thirst for something more. Sometimes they seek to quench this thirst in all the wrong places, but if they can be helped to see that the inner thirst that torments them is, in fact, a thirst for God, great things can happen.
O God, my God, to thee do I watch at break of day. For thee my soul hath thirsted; for thee my flesh, O how many ways! In a desert land, and where there is no way, and no water: so in the sanctuary have I come before thee, to see thy power and thy glory. For thy mercy is better than lives: thee my lips shall praise. Thus will I bless thee all my life long: and in thy name I will lift up my hands. Let my soul be filled as with marrow and fatness: and my mouth shall praise thee with joyful lips. (Psalm 62:2–6)
I thank God that you found the Legion of Mary, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the traditional Latin Mass, the missal, and the rosary. You say that you fell "into all the bad things that tempt lads in Ireland today: too much drink, too much internet, sexual stuff, and the rest". Cólm, Saint Paul says that, "where sin abounded, grace did more abound" (Romans 5:20). Remember the words of Christ to Saint Paul, when he complained about the painful pinch of a thorn in his side. It must have some kind of debilitating moral weakness or persistent temptation.
He said to me: My grace is sufficient for thee; for power is made perfect in infirmity. Gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. For which cause I please myself in my infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ. For when I am weak, then am I powerful. (2 Corinthians 12:9–10)
You write, Cólm, that you have "pretty much cleaned up your act". Good . . . but never stop praying with the penitent King David:
Create a clean heart in me, O God: and renew a right spirit within my bowels. Cast me not away from thy face; and take not thy holy spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation, and strengthen me with a perfect spirit. (Psalm 50:12–14)
We Benedictines pray this psalm every morning at Lauds. No one comes to the monastery with a spotless record, Cólm, and no one gets out of this mortal life with a spotless record. This why Saint Benedict enjoins his monks: "Never to despair of God’s mercy".
Cólm, there is nothing in what you wrote that would indicate a fundamental incompatibility with Benedictine life at Silverstream. Obviously, a vocation needs to be tested. Saint Benedict says:
To him that newly cometh to change his life, let not an easy entrance be granted, but, as the Apostle saith, “Try the spirits if they be of God.” If, therefore, he that cometh persevere in knocking, and after four or five days seem patiently to endure the wrongs done to him and the difficulty made about his coming in, and to persist in his petition, let entrance be granted him, and let him be in the guest-house for a few days.(Rule, Chapter 58)
Do come to Silverstream, Cólm. I would recommend a stay of two or three days for a first visit. This will give you an opportunity to experience the rhythm of our life and something of our prayer.
With my blessing, Father Prior