Posts Tagged ‘Monasticism’

Feast of St Benedict

July 11, 2018

Listen carefully, my child, on this festive day, to the sons of St Benedict at Pluscarden Abbey:

(Tonsure-tip: Sacred Miscellany)

The Benedictines of San Benedetto

October 21, 2014

Rod Dreher recently made a trip to Italy — research for a book on Dante, I believe — and along the way he stopped at the Monastery of San Benedetto, an abbey built on the birthplace of Sts. Benedict and Scholastica. He was taken by surprise:

The monks of Norcia are Benedictines who pray the old mass, and who chant the hours in Latin. To be in their basilica during mass or the hours is like stepping into another century. To describe it as aesthetically rich and spiritually nourishing hardly does the experience justice.

But to really understand what’s happening in at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Norcia, you have to talk with the monks. Except for the prior, Fr. Cassian, they are all young men. And they are easygoing, gentle, and luminous. They radiate joy. Casella and I could hardly believe that a monastery like this exists. To talk with them about their lives as Benedictines, and how and why they came to embrace the monastic calling, was a profound grace…

I kept thinking: Anybody who despairs of the Church, or of their spiritual lives, should come to Norcia. This monastery and basilica glows with peace and joy. It is, as I said yesterday, both a lighthouse and a stronghold. More people should know about this monastery. I don’t know what exactly they are doing, but the spiritual fruits of their community are palpable. They are gaining so many vocations that they are outgrowing their small quarters. We read and hear about so many defeats for the Church these days, but in the mountains of Umbria, the faith is winning.

You need to go see this place for yourself. If you can, make a retreat there. Casella and I hated to come down off the mountain today, but we have a plane to catch in the morning. Tonight we walked around Rome and visited some of the great churches of Christendom, but all we could think about was the monks of Norcia, and wishing we were back there with them.

Read the whole thing. It’s nice to see Dreher, who has had a troubled relationship with Catholicism, to say the least, responding so positively to these Catholic monastics.

When I think of St. Benedict, I usually think of Montecassino. I admit I’d never heard of San Benedetto, which is situated near Spoleto, not all that far from Assisi, and less than 200 km from Rome. I’d love to go there one day.

Singing sisters

October 30, 2012

A week or two ago I noted that several brothers from the Monastery of Christ in the Desert had paid a visit to The Today Show on MSNBC to sing some chant, and I remarked on the fact that the music, because it was solemn and beautiful and glorious, clashed rather strongly with the whole ambience of the television programme.

Here, on the other hand, are two clips of Benedictine sisters singing the chant in its proper context. The first is a group of sisters from Abbaye Notre-Dame de l’Annonciation, near Avignon. The delicacy and ethereal beauty of this singing is simply marvellous:

The second video is from the Priory of Our Lady of Ephesus in Missouri. It’s a promotional video for a CD the sisters have recorded, with short musical clips interspersed with interviews, and it successfully conveys not only the beauty of the music, but also something of the warmth and sanity of this way of life:

A professional choir is all very well, but for this music I love to hear it sung by people for whom it is their daily prayer. (Best of all, of course, is to sing it oneself!) May God bless us with many more singing sisters.

They do make them like they used to

March 30, 2012

Here is a fascinating project: an attempt to build a monastery using the tools and techniques of the 9th century —

Beginning in 2013, a Carolingian monastery town will be built here using only the materials and techniques of the 9th century. From the mortar to the walls, the rain jackets to the menu, every aspect of the operation will be carried out as just as it was in the days of Charlemagne. “We want to work as authentically as possible,” says Geurten.

The building contractor from the Rhineland region has long dreamt of carrying out his plan. When he was a teenager, the now 62-year-old was inspired by a model of the St. Gallen monastery plan in an exhibition in his home city of Aachen.

The photos accompanying the story are well worth seeing. The project is expected to take about 35 years to complete, with contributions from scholars, contractors, and volunteers. I would love to give a few weeks of my time to help with a project like this, but, my handyman skills being what they are, I’m afraid I’d ruin the whole thing.

Here’s hoping they can find some monks to move in when they’re done.

Fermor: A Time to Keep Silence

March 19, 2012

A Time to Keep Silence
Patrick Leigh Fermor
(Penguin, 1988) [1957]
95 p.

When Patrick Leigh Fermor arrived at Fontenelle Abbey, it was not his first encounter with Christian monastics; we infer from his sun-drenched memories of “pouring out raki, cracking walnuts, singing mountain songs, stripping and assembling pistols…” that he had previously sojourned among monks of the Eastern tradition. Those earlier experiences set him up for a rough surprise that first evening, for he discovered a rather different ambiance: the monks filing into the chapel for Vespers were, he wrote, “exact echoes of Mrs Radcliffe’s villainous monastics and of the miscreants of Protestant anti-popish literature.” He sat back in a kind of dumbfounded disappointment:

As I sat at Vespers watching them, now cowled, now uncovered, according to the progress of the liturgy, they appeared preternaturally pale, some of them nearly green. The bone-structure of their faces lay nearly always close beneath the surface… [Here,] in the Abbey’s boreal shadows, there was never a smile or a frown. No seismic shock of hilarity or anger or fear could ever, I felt, have disturbed the tranquil geography of those monastic features. Their eyelids were always downcast; and, if now and then they were raised, no treacherous glint appeared, nothing but a sedulously cultivated calmness, withdrawal and mansuetude and occasionally an expression of remote and burned-out melancholy… I had a sensation of the temperature of life falling to zero.

Fermor retreated to his simple room that night in the monastery’s guest house with a sense of dismay bordering on disgust. And there, in the great silence, alone with his thoughts, he “suffered what Pascal declared to be the cause of all human evils”. It was a difficult beginning.

Yet is was only a beginning, and a good deal of the pleasure of this fine book is in seeing these first impressions slowly overturned, greater familiarity breeding respect, understanding, and admiration. Fermor was and remained — so far as I know, and for the purposes of this book — an unbeliever, and so in a real and significant sense he could see and experience monasticism only from the outside. This was a limitation. Yet, as observers go, one could look long and fail to find one as perceptive and generous.

The book is divided into three sections, the first devoted to his experiences at Fontenelle Abbey (as above), the second with his journey from the great Benedictine house of Solesmes to the Trappist motherhouse at La Grande Trappe, and the third with his explorations of the abandoned rock monasteries of Cappadocia, in modern Turkey. (Of these last I knew nothing prior to reading this book, and I was fascinated. Scrambling to learn more, I made the sad but predictable discovery that these wild outposts of ancient monastic life have today been converted into tourist sites.) The narrative is a mixture of history, personal observations, portraits of individual monks, and reflections upon the monastic way of life. Fermor came to admire certain aspects of monasticism: its practical self-sufficiency, its integrity, its total commitment to an ideal, its sheer durability. But mostly, I felt, his good opinion was due to his regard for individual monks whom he came to know well. They were men who could look him in the eye, with all that that entails. With the passing of time, he quietly reversed his original judgment, so that he could write, from the deep silence of La Grande Trappe:

All — and I profoundly believe this to be true — is quiet and peaceful, and the privacy of the individual silences is bridged by an authentic and brotherly love.

Fermor is regarded by some as one of our great prose writers, and there is much in this slim volume to support such a judgment. Even those of us who already know and love monastics and monasticism can enjoy the book for its literary beauty. For those who have not been exposed to monasticism, on the other hand, or for those for whom it seems especially strange or foreign, this book would make a fine introduction. It compares favourably with books which, arguably, serve a similar purpose, such as Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain or Kathleen Norris’ The Cloister Walk.


Their values have remained stable while those of the world have passed through kaleidoscopic changes. It is curious to hear, from the outside world in the throes of its yearly metamorphoses, cries of derision levelled at the monastic life. How shallow, whatever views may be held concerning the fundamental truth or falsity of the Christian religion, are these accusations of hypocrisy, sloth, selfishness and escapism! The life of monks passes in a state of white-hot conviction and striving to which there is never a holiday; and no living man, after all, is in a position to declare their premises true or false. They have foresworn the pleasures and rewards of a world whose values they consider meaningless; and they alone have as a body confronted the terrifying problem of eternity, abandoning everything to help their fellow-men and themselves to meet it.

[Spiritual warfare]
In mediaeval traditions, abbeys and convents were always considered to be inexpungable centres of revolt against infernal dominion on earth. They became, accordingly, especial targets. Satan, issuing orders at nightfall to his foul precurrers, was rumoured to dispatch to capital cities only one junior fiend. This solitary demon, the legend continues, sleeps at his post. There is no work for him; the battle was long ago won. But monasteries, those scattered danger points, become the chief objectives of nocturnal flight; the sky fills with the beat of sable wings as phalanx after phalanx streams to the attack, and the darkness crepitates with the splintering of a myriad lances against the masonry of asceticism. Piety has always been singled out for the hardest onslaught of hellish aggression. The empty slopes of the wilderness became the lists for an unprecedented single combat, lasting forty days and nights, between the leaders of either faction; when the Thebaid filled up with hermits, their presence at once attracted a detachment of demons, and round the solitary pillar of St. Symeon the Stylite, the Powers of Darkness assembled and spun like swarming wasps.

Godden: In This House of Brede

June 16, 2011

In This House of Brede
Rumer Godden
(Loyola Classics, 2005) [1969]

668 p.

Novels about the cloistered religious life are not very common. There have been books enough written with a cloistered setting — Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and the whole of the Brother Cadfael series come to mind immediately — but these are not really about religious life, not about the spiritual ethos of monasticism. The only other example that I can think of — other than In This House of Brede — is Fernand Pouillon’s novel about the building of a medieval Cistercian monastery, The Stones of the Abbey, which is a fine book, though not well known. Are there others?

In This House of Brede is about a community of Benedictine nuns in the English countryside, and it has the very considerable merit of taking the Benedictine way of life seriously on its own terms, with no need for sensational drama thrown in. The substance of the story is drawn from the day to day life of prayer, work, and song that these women have chosen. The religious life, like any life, has drama enough, if one pays attention.

Godden has written a remarkably down to earth story. Were I to set pen to paper on a novel about religious life I would be tempted to turn out a novel of ideas, a clash of orthodoxies pitting the contemplative and Catholic against the worldly and weary, a cross between The Magic Mountain and The Temptation of St. Anthony. Rumer Godden has taken the opposite tack. Her women are quite ordinary, with ordinary concerns about their responsibilities to the community, worries about their health and families, and gratitude for friendship. Their religious life is woven into the fabric of each day, taken almost for granted as something so basic as not to require a great deal of attention. Even here, in the lives of those living the hidden life, the life of grace lies hidden deeper still. But it is there, and one of the chief pleasures of the book is seeing how grace illuminates and transforms the lives of those — not all, but some — who give themselves up to it.

Rumer Godden lived for several years in the gatehouse of a Benedictine abbey before she wrote this book, and I imagine that the frank, unromantic view of the religious life that she presents reflects what she observed at that time. The novel was published in 1969, which means that it was written while Vatican II was in session. The sisters in the story betray no knowledge of the Council, but they do from time to time discuss amongst themselves matters about which the Council deliberated. Godden is even-handed, almost to a fault: each perspective gets a voice thrown into the mix, and none is allowed to conquer the others.

If there is one point on which the psychological and spiritual realism of the book must be challenged, it is this: one has the impression, throughout, that the religious life itself — the Rule and the way of life built upon it — is stable and steady, like a quiet river that will flow forever. There are women in this story who are outside the cloister and want in, but there is no-one who is inside and wants out. Yet we know that in the wake of the Council, in the years immediately after this book was published, the religious orders of the Church began to hemorrhage members at a terrible rate. No hint of that looming catastrophe appears in these pages, and, in retrospect, this puts an unfortunate but undeniable blot on the portrait Godden painted.

Of Gods and Men, and monks

April 27, 2011

I finally had opportunity to see the recent French film Des Hommes et Des Dieux (translated, and transposed, into English as Of Gods and Men). I noted this film a few weeks ago when it first appeared in theatres. It tells the true story of a small group of Cistercian monks who were killed in Algeria by jihadists in 1996.

It is an extraordinary film from start to finish, and it has justly been winning praise from all quarters. The film is focused on the period in which jihadist violence was increasing in Algeria, and on the monks’ earnest and sometimes agonizing deliberations about whether to stay or to leave the country. The screenwriter has allowed not only considerations of safety and human solidarity to complicate the decision, but the monks also wrestle with the nature of the monastic vocation and the demands of Christian discipleship. Indeed, I cannot think of another film in which sound and serious Christian theology has been integrated so naturally into an intensely dramatic and emotionally compelling story, without any trace of didacticism. The screenplay had to navigate a minefield of political correctness and oversimplification; that it succeeded as well as it did is something of a miracle. There were a few bold decisions made by the director, especially in one crucial scene, that might divide opinion, but personally I thought they worked. The actors do full justice to the material. In short, it is a film of high moral beauty (and cinematic beauty too, not incidentally).

A few years ago I wrote some notes about a book, The Monks of Tibhirine, by John W. Kiser, that tells the same story as this film. (The linked post includes spoilers.)


A documentary about monks has recently been made by Salt + Light Television, the Catholic television station in Canada. This film, called This Side of Eden, is about the lives of the monks of Westminster Abbey in Mission, British Columbia. I have been to this monastery myself, many years ago. (In fact, it was the first monastery that I ever visited.) I have not seen the film myself, though I would like to do so. Fr. Raymond de Souza saw an advance screening, and he liked it. Apparently it has recently aired (or will soon air) on both Salt + Light and EWTN. Has anyone here seen it?

This is the trailer. It is nice to see so many young monks.


Finally, on Easter Sunday the programme 60 Minutes aired a segment about the monasteries of Mount Athos in Greece. Television cameras are generally not allowed on the island – it has been twenty years since the last crew was invited – so this was a rare glimpse into the spiritual heartland of Orthodox Christianity. I found it fascinating, quite respectful, and, as is often the case with 60 Minutes, candid. There were perhaps a few moments in which the “Golly gee” attitude that marred, for instance, Oprah’s forays into religious life was evident, but for the most part the interviews were well done, with a not inappropriate element of delighted curiosity.

Here is the first half of the segment. A higher resolution video can be seen at the 60 Minutes site. Part 2 is here.


April 8, 2011

A brother said to Abbot Pastor: If I give one of my brothers a little bread or something of the sort, the demons spoil everything and it seems to me that I have acted only to please men. The elder said to him: Even if your good work was done to please, we must still give to our brothers what they need. And he told him this story. Two farmers lived in a village. One of them sowed his field and reaped only a small and wretched crop. The other neglected to sow anything at all, and so he reaped nothing. Which of the two will survive, if there is famine? The brother replied: The first one, even though his crop is small and wretched. The elder said to him: Let us also sow, even though our sowing is small and wretched, lest we die in the time of hunger.

(From Thomas Merton — The Wisdom of the Desert)


April 1, 2011

A certain brother came, once, to Abbot Theodore of Pherne, and spent three days begging him to let him hear a word. The Abbot however did not answer him, and he went off sad. So a disciple said to Abbot Theodore: Father, why did you not speak to him? Now he has gone off sad! The elder replied: Believe me, I spoke no word to him because he is a trader in words, and seeks to glory in the words of another.

(From Thomas Merton — The Wisdom of the Desert)


March 13, 2011

Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not be totally changed into fire?

(From Thomas Merton: The Wisdom of the Desert)