Am I called to be a monk?
It may seem strange, but in ‘apparently’ not doing very much, in seeking the cloistered life, as Benedictine history reveals monks can do a very great deal indeed for the Church and the world.
Editor’s note: The following letter was originally posted by Dom Alcuin Reid, the founding Prior of the Monastère Saint-Benoît in the diocese of Fréjus-Toulon, France, on the Monastery’s website; it is reposted here with kind permission of the author.
Author’s note: In the light of the number of vocation enquiries arriving, we publish the following response to an enquirer to assist those considering whether Almighty God is calling them to a monastic vocation with us.
Thank you for your interest. It is a great sign of hope for the Church that young men and women in our day take the question of the possibility of a monastic vocation seriously. Almighty God will bless and reward you for so doing.
You ask what type of Benedictines we are. To be sure there are many types, and in recent decades some could be regarded, even in the broad sense, as quite astonishing interpretations of (or even, sadly, departures from) the Rule of St Benedict.
We seek to live a classical monastic life according to the Rule, centred around the solemn celebration of the opus Dei (the worship of Almighty God through the Divine Office, Holy Mass, the sacraments and other liturgical rites). We exist in order to live the liturgy, in the monastery church and through every element of our lives, to give glory to Almighty God and thereby to pray for the Church and the world. Like any monastery we provide hospitality for those who wish to share in something of our life. We promote liturgical study and celebration through practical formation, teaching and publications. So too, as much as we can, we live by the work of our hands, providing what food we can and taking daily care of the monastery ourselves.
We don’t seek to run parishes or schools, but a monastery. And there is more than enough to be getting on with in that. So too, there is a great deal that we can give to the Church and the world if our attentions and energies are given first and foremost to the worship of Almighty God. It may seem strange, but in ‘apparently’ not doing very much, in seeking the cloistered life, as Benedictine history reveals monks can do a very great deal indeed for the Church and the world.
We are “monk-monks” if you want. Or of you must, “Benedictines of the Sacred Liturgy” (which, of course, for classical monasticism is pure tautology). Some monastic communities do have a particular charism or devotion which defines them. Apart from the classical living of the Rule of the St Benedict in the circumstances in which God’s Providence places us, we do not.
Are we “traditionalists”? Well, no. We are Catholics. And we are monks following the Rule of Saint Benedict in its classical observance. But that, of course, places us in the very heart of Catholic Tradition. A monk lives from the Church’s living Tradition, from her Sacred Liturgy and the Word of God alive and acting in it, from the Fathers, the teaching of the Councils, etc., not as a museum curator, but as one drawing ever new from these great riches in attending to the daily duty of the further conversion of his own life, in addressing the circumstances and times in which his monastery finds itself, and in providing the contribution God’s Providence has in store for it in the Church and in the world.
But your question may well have been prompted by the common use of the term the “traditional Mass” or by people who self-identify as “traditionalist” Catholics, or similar. To be sure we celebrate the older forms of the Roman and Monastic rites, in Latin with Gregorian chant. We have received the Holy See’s permission to use the pre-Pius XII form of Holy Week and of the Pentecost Vigil. The use of these great riches of the Church’s Tradition is not a political statement, however. It is a conviction, certainly, which we will not compromise, that their full and integral celebration best sustains and nourishes monastic life, that they go hand in hand as it were. This is nothing at all extraordinary, but something quite natural and life-giving.
Of course, these rites have their place in the wider Church. They must not be confined to monasteries. Thanks be to Almighty God they are becoming more widely known and available. In 2007 Pope Benedict XVI wrote “It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place.” What better place to do this fully, beautifully and fruitfully on a daily basis than in a monastery?
Whatever of the use of the term “traditionalist”, we are not interested in placing ourselves in a box or in building a ghetto — that tendency can be rather sad and limiting. Rather, we seek to take our rightful place as a faithful Benedictine monastery in the local Church in hierarchical communion with the diocesan Bishop and through him with the Bishop of Rome, as must any Catholic of any age.
How do you know if you should apply? In truth, initially that is probably something impossible to know. If in your heart and soul there is some interest in the monastic life, and what you know about us seems to confirm or enhance that interest (please do look at the news page on our website, and download the PDF files of our newsletters, or scroll back through our Facebook page), then you should probably find out more. Writing to us, as you have, is a good first step. You may have questions arising from your own life, situation and discernment to date to discuss. We can do that. At an appropriate stage you can come and spend some time living with us, praying with us and working with us. One doesn’t usually “apply” to a monastery and then wait for a letter of acceptance or refusal by return as one might with employment or a programme of study. Rather, one grows into a monastic family gradually, indeed naturally, so that the application letters and references, etc., whilst necessary, should be more of a formality by the time they need to be done.
Of course, knowledge of the Rule of Saint Benedict, of the life of St Benedict written by St Gregory the Great, and of other monastic literature, would be good. We can give you some suggestions for reading. So too, your practice of the basics of Catholic life – participation in Holy Mass and the worthy reception of Holy Communion as frequently as possible, regular confession, daily prayer (if possible, from the Divine Office), is essential if you are to be open to the promptings of God’s grace in respect of a possible monastic vocation.
Our formation? It is fairly standard in respect of monastic life. Men accepted for formation spend at least three months as a postulant before clothing as a novice. Noviciate is a minimum of one year but may be extended as necessary up to two. At least three years are spent in simple vows before solemn profession.
Novices study of the Rule of Saint Benedict, the Psalms, monastic history, Gregorian chant, Latin, English and French as necessary according to the candidate and their education to date and learn appropriate practical skills. After simple profession the junior monk will continue his formation and studies according to his abilities and the monastery’s needs, some commencing philosophical and theological studies with a view to ordination, others in more specialised areas. Our community is open to men who have the desire and ability to become monk-priests and to those who seek the monastic life without ordination. Solemnly professed monks are encouraged to continue appropriate study and formation.
Whilst this is a basic structure – which certainly includes essential elements of formation laid down by the law of the Church – it is not a contract. If you join us there will be prayer, work, the practice of fraternal charity, and much more besides. God’s Providence will fill out the details. Perseverance in the daily generous and faithful living of the monastic life alongside your brethren is the best and most essential formation. If you are able to commit to the daily exigencies of that the formal stages or steps in monastic formation will occur naturally, in their proper context, in God’s good time.
Of course, entering monastic formation involves the renunciation of many freedoms (real or apparent) that one has in the world. Postulants and novices must put aside any internet or social media presence and whilst they are free to write to family and friends, or telephone family occasionally on greater feasts, their first duty is to grow into their new family in the monastery. Appropriate contact is possible, and family can visit – though not every week! It’s a question of stepping back sufficiently even from some good things, breaking bad habits where they exist (particularly in respect of the internet), using the space that this affords to grow in one’s monastic vocation, and then in due course of reengaging from the perspective and with the discipline of a monk. Our professed monks can visit their families when this is appropriate, and it always a joy to welcome their families to the monastery.
Qualifications necessary? It’s probably better to speak of dispositions than qualifications. The basic spiritual dispositions were mentioned above, and one needs to be in good health. If one reads the Prologue of the Rule of Saint Benedict it is clear that the monastic vocation is a call to return to the faithful and fruitful living of the Christian life. It is about the conversion of my life in the disciplined “school of the Lord’s service”, as Saint Benedict describes the monastery. This is perhaps the most fundamental qualification: my desire and will to leave behind my sloth, my sins – small or large – and to learn through my observance of the Rule and perseverance in charity how to “run with unspeakable sweetness of love in the way of God’s commandments.”
To be sure Benedictine monks are literate, intelligent disciples and a good education is helpful. An openness to, indeed a thirst for, further learning is important. But monastic history teaches us that many a monk who may never have been able to author a learned tome was nothing less than an accomplished professor in the school of the Lord’s service. Generosity of heart and soul, humility, good will and indeed good humour are all necessary for the monk—and we must all learn them. Indeed, we must come to have all those things which contribute to a tangible fraternal charity which truly loves and respects our brethren as we seek that conversion of our lives to which we are called.
What work do we do? For the monk the first work is that of prayer – to pray the Sacred Liturgy as fully and as efficaciously as he is able, day in day out, for the salvation of his own soul and for the good of the Church and the world, from early morning until night. That may sound daunting, but in fact it is the most natural and life-giving thing in the world for one with a monastic vocation. Rising at a ‘ridiculously’ early hour (we sing matins at 03h30) to worship God is natural for a monk (we do have a siesta after none each afternoon). So too, the precious time between matins and lauds (06h00) in which we engage in Lectio Divina – that divine reading in which we listen to, digest and contemplate the voice of God in the words of his inspired and privileged friends – sustains us. And in this space and silence as the night ends and the dawn breaks, as the world busies itself for another day, we are able to pray for all those who seek our prayers, whose vocations are elsewhere, who need our intercession to sustain their good and rightful activities in the world. This is a most beautiful element – and apostolate – of monastic life.
Our ‘day jobs’, which commence with the office of prime (07h30) and are permeated by the ‘little hours’ of terce, sext and none, vary between manual, intellectual and even monastic pastoral work. Every monastery has guests, and their care practically and pastorally as necessary, occupies us. The brethren work at their studies at whatever level, usually in the mornings. We encourage higher studies where appropriate of course, but one’s first task when entering a monastery is to become a monk—once that is the case all that we do, from doctorates to dishes, must be in harmony with the new man, clothed in the habit of Saint Benedict. Work away from the monastery can only be justified in that context for duly proportionate reasons.
Different brethren work in beekeeping, raising poultry for eggs and meat (we abstain from the flesh of quadrupeds, according to St Benedict’s Rule, apart from the great feasts), cultivating the land at our disposal (olives, lemons, herbs, vegetables, etc.), we have begun a small publishing house (see the Editions Pax inter Spinas page of our website), and the international Sacra Liturgia conferences and summer schools are coordinated from the monastery – the summer schools are hosted by us. We tend towards manual work in the afternoons before vespers (18h00), though this varies according to seasons and needs. We take turns in cooking and in the normal household chores. Compline (20h00) sees us end our day and, under the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary and cleaned with the sprinkling of holy water by the Father of our monastic family, we retire into the great silence of the night until matins.
Each new member of our monastic family brings with him gifts and talents – and opens himself to the opportunity of developing more as a monk – which augment what, as a monastery, we can do for the glory of Almighty God. So long as that activity does not eclipse, but arises from, what we are called to be – monks seeking ever to be more faithful to the Rule of St Benedict in our day – we can do very much indeed.
How to proceed with your discernment? Well, be careful not to become caught up in the popular pelagian “discernment” process where what “I” am looking for is at the centre, rather than an openness to discovering what God may be calling me to become (there’s an article on this in our Advent 2018 newsletter – PDF on the news page of our website). “I” am not at the centre of my vocational discernment. Rather, in following the prompting that Almighty God may want me to serve Him in a particular way, I must place myself and my will at His disposition and be prepared to go and become and do that which He calls me to be where He wills. If you seek His Will with these dispositions, and are truly ready to abandon your own, you shall not go wrong: his grace will sustain you (cf. 2 Cor. 12:7-10). Indeed, you will begin to be able to respond to and realise the challenges and possibilities He has in store for you.
You will know what Almighty God is calling to do when you sense – and test appropriately over time in the different stages of formation – that thirst, that excitement, that romance even, for a monastic ideal that with God’s grace seems somehow realisable in you, and through your own cooperation with God’s call, with this or that particular group of people. It is not unlikely that the sensation of this possibility will come as a quite a surprise: it will not come as the product of a ‘safe’ or calculated discernment, but will be a prompting of God’s grace in your heart and soul that is indeed pure grace. Its working out over time may well be very different from what you imagine at the beginning, and will certainly not be without difficulties and real challenges, but as you grow and mature in your vocation, its authenticity will be clear, and perseverance in fidelity to it will bring you salvation (cf. Mt 24:13).
Concluding his insightful survey of Benedictine history, The Benedictine Idea, Dom Hubert Van Zeller asserts the essentials of “silence, enclosure, the opus Dei carefully performed in choir, corporate and personal poverty” and the eschewing of activism for the success of Benedictine life. If we add to that familiar fraternal charity, you have the basics of what we have to offer. If we live that as faithfully as we are able, Almighty God will do much in us and through us and we shall help to build up something true and beautiful and good at a time when much in the Church and the world seems to be anything but. By all means come and see if Almighty God wishes to do just that through you, here, with us. There is nothing to be lost in finding out. Indeed, there is everything, not the least your salvation, to be gained. Be assured of our prayers.
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About Dom Alcuin Reid 5 ArticlesDom Alcuin Reid is the founding Prior of the Monastère Saint-Benoît in the diocese of Fréjus-Toulon, France, and a liturgical scholar of international renown. His principal work, The Organic Development of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press, 2005) carries a preface by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.