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 17: Bernard
I have long wanted to write you, but as you may remember, my health is up and down and, until today, I haven't been able to gather my thoughts and type them out. We last met about two years ago. At the time, I was visiting relations near Silverstream and we called at the gatehouse. You were kind enough to have chat with me and to give me a special blessing for my health.
I have had some good days, Father. There have been several weeks at a stretch when I have had energy and not felt too poorly. Most days, however, I'm obliged to lie low and to conserve my energy for the most essential things. I am 33 years old now. I was 25 when I was diagnosed with MS. I cannot always read because of blurred vision and fatigue. On my better days, I do read, and when I can't read I say the rosary or just look at my icon of Our Lady, and doze off, and then look at her some more.
My hope, even before falling ill, was always to enter a monastery. Originally I thought of Crownrose Abbey because Father Alban, my mother's uncle, was a monk there, and he would sometimes call at the house and talk to me about their life. It was Father Alban who introduced me to This Tremendous Lover by Dom Boylan, a book that helped me much. Father Alban knew Dom Boylan and had a grand supply of stories about the holy man. After I started falling and got my diagnosis, it dawned on me that I probably would not be allowed to enter a monastery. After all, who wants a man who can't be counted on to stand up!
When, with the new medicines, I started to have some improvement, I began to think again that perhaps I could become a monk after all. I am much, much better than I was six or seven years ago, but I have to face facts. As much as I want to be a monk, I don't think that God is going to open that door for me.
I am trying to be a monk at home . . . not by living the way you do. God knows I can't do that, but I have stopped watching television except for a few special programs, I stay away from the internet unless I'm desperate for some cheering up — then I watch a comedy on Youtube, "Mapp and Lucia" is my favourite — and I read Vultus Christi and one or two other Catholic blogs. I try to read the Mass every day and say a couple of psalms. Mostly I say the rosary and other prayers that I know by heart. My energy has to go into ordinary things like getting up, washing, dressing myself, eating, and keeping my clothes clean and sorted. I get to Mass on most Sundays, depending on how I am feeling, and, about once a month, Father O'Riordan brings me Holy Communion at home.
I suppose that I've decided to practice just the first word of St Benedict in Rule: Listen. I'm trying to become a good listener. I listen to God, I listen to nature through my open window as much as I can, and I listen to people. People are forever calling to talk to me. It's a strange thing, is it not, that before I was sick, people never called to see me and hadn't much time for me, whereas now, there isn't a day when someone doesn't call in for a cup of tea and a chat? My Mum makes the tea . . . and I do the listening. It leave me totally exhausted sometimes. I end up going to bed and having to sleep for hours.
Can't write any more today, Father. I just ask you to pray for me and for the vocation I wanted to have, and thought I had, but cannot have. Thank you, Father.
My dear Bernard,
There is more than one way of being a monk. The essence of being a monk is a total "Yes" to God. A "Yes" for what is, a "Yes" without regrets for what could have been and was not, a "Yes" to all that will be.
Bernard, there is great virtue in saying "Amen" to the Will of God. "Amen" is a great and powerful word. It is, in two syllables what Our Lady said to the Angel at the Annunciation: "Be it done unto me according to Thy Word". It is, in two syllables, what Our Lord prayed in Gethsemani: "Father, if thou wilt, remove this chalice from me: but yet not my will, but thine be done" (Luke 42:21).
Mother Mectilde de Bar, who is a great inspiration to us at Silverstream, a Benedictine "Teresa of Avila", wrote this about the "Amen":
In order to feel and realize his operations they need only be recollected, if possible, and assent in all simplicity to what the divine virtue and personality of Jesus Christ is accomplishing in their soul. If they cannot possess themselves in peace, reverence and attention, let them from their very heart repeat over and over again in union with the church, Amen. This word is full of mystery, it is the soul's acknowledgement of, and consent to, what God does in his Church and to what the Church does for God.
As immensely meaningful, and even heavenly, as "Amen" is, it seems to wait for another word to complete it. That word is "Alleluia". "Amen" is a "Yes" to God, an act of complete surrender, abandonment, and submission to His perfect Will. When one adds "Alleluia" to one's "Amen", one is saying, essentially, "O my God, I accept Thy Holy Will, I embrace it, I choose it, I submit to it with all my heart, but in so doing I want to make of my life a praise of Thy glory, I want my offering to be a canticle of joy, a sound of jubilation rising from this place on earth, in this hour, and in these conditions that Thou hast chosen for me".
The man who says "Amen, Alleluia" in his life such as it is, where it is, and moment by moment, is already living the perfection of the monastic ideal. "Amen, Alleluia" can supply for the whole Divine Office in choir! With your "Amen" you are saying, "I submit, and I adore", and with your "Alleluia" you are saying, "Nothing makes me happier than Thy Will, O God. I want to praise Thee as long as I have breath in me. I want to praise Thee with every heartbeat. I want to praise Thee in union with Our Lady assumed into heaven, in union with the Angels and with the Saints, in union with all who on earth sing Thy praises in great abbeys, in humble monastic choirs, and in the solitude of hermitages". Dear Bernard, make "Amen, Alleluia" your Opus Dei, make it your Divine Office, the work to which, following Saint Benedict, you will prefer nothing else.
You remind me, dear Bernard, in some ways, of the Italian man, Brother Immacolato (1922-1989), who was stricken with illness and bedridden, but lived the life of a Carmelite without leaving his bed. He was unfailingly joyful, forgetting himself, listening to others, and offering his sufferings for the sanctification of priests. I shall try to post something about him again on Vultus Christi for you to read. Just as Brother Immacolato was a Carmelite by saying "Yes" to the enclosure and penance and silence of illness, so too, Bernard, can you be a Benedictine by chanting "Amen, Alleluia", by day and by night, from within the perfect cloister of the Will of God.
Greetings to your Mum and Dad. I send you my blessing, dear Bernard, together with the affection and prayers of your brethren at Silverstream. Father Prior