Dear Friends in Christ,
It has been many years since I have been a regular teacher in the formation program at our monastery, but as abbot I am doing it once again. In the past, I mostly taught classes to the postulants and novices on the Books of Psalms, the Rule of Saint Benedict and monastic history. I usually did not have an exam at the end of a course, as monastic formation classes are not for academic credit.
One time, though, many years ago, for my class on monastic history, I prepared a multiple-choice examination of twenty or twenty-five questions for the brothers in the class. I also mailed the exam to my mom in Portland, Oregon (this was of course before the days of email and PDFs), and guess who got a higher grade than the brothers who actually took the class? That’s right, my dear mom! As one of my friends would say: go figure!
These days I now meet for forty-five minutes each week with the three formation groups in the monastery. On Mondays I teach the junior professed, that is, those who have made first or temporary vows. Wednesdays I meet with the novices, brothers who are in their canonical or official year of preparation for making first or simple vows. Saturdays I instruct the observers and postulants, those getting a first glimpse into monastic life and discerning if they wish to become novices.
Because of the different ages, nationalities and temperaments of each of the three groups that I teach here, I have selected, for the time being, articles that I hope will hold some interest for the brothers and as springboards for my own reflections during the classes. I also try to leave time for questions and answers. The articles are photocopied so that we all have a copy to read through together.
Each of the three groups is slowly working with some excellent articles that will ultimately, I hope, be signposts for the various stages of their monastic formation. For the observers and postulants, currently numbering six, we have completed an article on Lectio Divina (that is, sacred, meditative reading of the Bible each day), and have now begun an article on the Book of Psalms, sometimes called “the prayer book of the monk,” as it is the main part of the Bible that we chant together in church each day.
The nine novices are studying a lengthy article entitled, “Early Christian Community in the Acts of the Apostles and the Monastic Community,” by a dear friend of our monastery and a respected abbot of our Benedictine Confederation, Father John Kurichianil, OSB, of the Abbey of Saint Thomas the Apostle, at Kappadu, Kerala, India.
Abbot John’s monastery of nearly one hundred monks belongs to the international Annunciation Benedictine Congregation. Now in his 70s, Abbot John is a prolific author of excellent books and articles on topics related to Sacred Scripture and monastic life, and we are gaining much, I believe, from the insights and wisdom of Abbot John of Kappadu.
The ten junior, or simply professed, are studying another fine article by Abbot John Kurichianil, called, “Benedictine Identity.” It was originally presented to the hundreds of Benedictine Abbots of the world at their Congress in Rome in 2012, and is a thoughtful presentation of the vows that we Benedictines profess, namely, obedience, stability and conversion of life. Abbot John’s article also discusses various monastic values, including the seeking of God in prayer, work, renunciation, as well as the monk’s pursuit of peace, good zeal and purity of heart.
Since I fully realize that some of the brothers enjoy studies more than others, I try to keep the overall mood of the classes friendly and light, trying to smile regularly, asking questions to be sure all are on board, and throw in a little humor. Our Pope Francis has suggested that we Christians should smile more and never lose a sense of humor. It is valuable advice and worthy of imitation, I believe.
I tend to presume that the most important part of the gatherings each week is the content of the material we are working through. More than likely, though, for the monks attending the classes, what the abbot (myself) says is perhaps what is most remembered. This is not because of what I say, but as the one who is saying it, the elected father and main teacher of the monastery. For that I seek the prayers of those who read this, that I may indeed impart worthwhile teachings.
I have to keep reminding myself that being sincere, simple, straightforward and patient are paramount in the teaching process, be it by an abbot or really anyone entrusted with teaching. I try to remember my own many years in the classroom, twelve years before I became a monk, then in the monastery over the past forty-eight years. I want to do my best to impart some useful information, hopefully convey a little wisdom and be a voice of experience, even if at times I may not feel precisely like I possess a ton of wisdom!
Abbot Chrisrtian Leisy, OSB