The monastic life requires a spirit of sacrifice at the beginning, but really throughout the entire journey to God. What is sacrifice? At its root are the words: “to make holy.” In ancient pagan practice, sacrifice meant offering incense, food, possessions, animals, even human beings, as a gift to the gods. Over the course of time, in the Judeo-Christian context, offerings or sacrifices were and are still made to the One God, normally done as an act of worship, not with animals or humans, but by prayers, ritual gestures, such as burning incense and lifting of hands, as well as good works and words.
To give up something for a better cause is another way to express the idea of sacrifice. Think of parents giving up precious sleep in order to tend to their child or children in need. In the wider Christian context, the Great High Priest, Jesus Christ, gave up his life once and for all, to bear the sins of all God’s people and to bestow the gift of eternal life on the human race. (see the Letter to the Hebrews, chapter 10 verses 10-18).
Ardent faith in Jesus Christ is what gives monastic sacrifice and discipline its specific character, undertaken by those who, in Saint Benedict’s terms, “prefer nothing whatever to Christ” (Rule of Saint Benedict, chapter 72, verse 11). That is the meaning of being a disciple of Jesus Christ, either as a monk or not. All followers of Christ are asked to give the gift of self and all that one has, not simply to achieve inner tranquility or “self-fulfillment,” but in order to be and remain united to Christ, every day, through thick and thin. The desire to give to the Lord undivided attention inspires Benedictine monks to constantly pursue the will of God, greatly assisted by making and fulfilling vows of obedience, stability and conversion of life.
By a life of sacrifice, best expressed by self-forgetfulness and service, all who embrace the Gospel message come to know and experience the interior living-presence of Christ, in his or her own life, and usually within the context of community life in some form: family, parish, religious community. Jesus spoke these words which should comfort all who feel the weight of sacrifice in their lives: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them” (Gospel of John 14:23).
The Rule of Saint Benedict, which we monks follow, is simply an application of the Gospel teachings and commands to a specific way of life, what is now called “monastic.” The Benedictine Rule in no way replaces the Gospels or other Sacred Scripture, but is a way of putting into practice more intentionally all that Jesus taught, counseled and commanded.
By living in the monastery, monks believe they have found the means of seeking God and arriving at the end of the journey, to the threshold of God’s House, what we usually call Heaven. There is no guarantee of this, however, since all people are endowed with God’s gift of free will, and can choose to ignore or disobey God’s daily call, but the hope is that souls will be on fire to embrace the things of God and reject what is contrary to God.
Monks are expected to submit freely, intelligently and with fervor to the discipline of monastic sacrifice, “which have been found effective for centuries and which have formed many saints” (Thomas Merton, in “Come to the Mountain.” See text at: snowmassmonks.com). We are here because we want to be and anyone not wanting to be in such a life should be free to leave. Expressed another way, the monastic life is a vocation and an option, but not a compulsion.
It might be argued that external regulations and customs, whether in the context of a monastery or not, are simply trivial matters, and that interior intentions are enough to go to God and to live in peace. However, something as simple as “who takes out the garbage?” in the monastery or in a family is an important question. As we are made up of body and soul, not just one or the other, our devotion to God needs to be expressed with one’s whole being, not just a part of it. Thus, the external expressions of life have an important function. First, they help to get things done, and secondly, they communicate to others the focus of our lives, directed to God and neighbor, and not to self.
This is how Thomas Merton expresses it in the booklet, “Come to the Mountain,” when he says, “The monastic life is not to be a mere tissue of gestures and formalities executed blindly.” Rather, what we do is intentional and intended to be actions which sanctify, that is, “make holy,” which express the state of our interior life, as truly belonging to God and others.
Moderation and balance are hallmarks of the Benedictine way, and the same holds true for any who live according to the Gospel teachings. A simple, healthy and sane existence is not meant as an end in itself for the follower of Christ, but as a means “to remain constantly in the presence of God,” as Merton describes it (“Come to the Mountain’). This is what living in a spirit of faith, hope and love, the “theological virtues,” as they are called, is all about.
None of us is called to be in a state of perpetual tension and stress, but rather, called to live “at ease” in the loving presence of God. Of course this is easier said than done, when the world is in chaos or turned upside down, as is now the case in many sectors of society, but a life of peace and confidence should characterize our lives. Thus our very being can be not only a remedy to the sadness many are feeling now, but also a wonderful example that we wish to live as Jesus did, serving rather than be served.
The vows of obedience, stability and conversion of manners which monks profess, are meant to be the foundation for self-sacrificing love, which should characterize Christ’s disciples. In the Gospel of Saint John, chapter 13, verse 35, we find these words of Jesus: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
The Benedictine vows are also intended to prepare and sustain the monk for contemplation, whereby one rests in God alone, even amidst the turmoil of life and whatever one may have to face. Spiritual nourishment is another definition of contemplation, which can be experienced in communal or solitary prayer, participation in the Sacraments of the Church, especially the Holy Eucharist and Confession of sins, as well as meditating on God’s Word in Sacred Scripture, the Holy Bible.
Things monks hold dear, such as silence, some separation from the ways of the world, a spirit of prayer, austerity, sacrifice and solitude, are what comprise a “contemplative stance.” Simplicity and humility are part of the mix as well. While a monk clings to these elements, they should not be unfamiliar to all those who seek Christ in this day and age, and perhaps now more than ever.
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB