Wednesday, August 8, 2012

On Not Having a Charism

 I wrote this piece a few years ago on the feast of St. Dominic when I was a monk.  While it speaks to religious orders, I think it may also have something to say to ISM communities who give a lot of thought to their particular charism or mission.

At Vigils this morning as we celebrated St. Dominic, it occurred to me once again that Cistercians are blessed by having neither founder nor charism.

As an order, we have no one founder. We generally recognize three founders, but in practice have four: St. Robert was the inspiration; St. Alberic was our first real leader; St. Stephen got us organized; and then St. Bernard came along to market us. Any of these four would have said that that they were merely trying to live out the Rule of St. Benedict, who in turn would have said that he was only writing up what monks had been doing for several centuries and that even this should be adapted to local needs.

In short, we have no charism. We're not practicing the spirituality of X while doing work Y and wearing the habit of Z. We have no distinct spirituality, though it can sometimes look as if we do since we have maintained the office while it has gone by the wayside to varying degrees elsewhere. We have no manuals or exercises. We have no distinctive apostolate. We wear a basic habit free of distinctive trinkets. In 1500 years the Benedictine family has produced preachers, teachers, mystics, and theologians, but the first task was always simply to seek God and try to try to save our own souls. A Benedictine monastery is just a place to try to live out the Christian life. It ultimately has no other purpose or mission.

At their best, Benedictines are free of enthusiasms. Long experience teaches that fashions in both heresy and piety come and go. We're not above learning new tricks, but they do not define us. Evangelization, reparation, adoration, bi-location, and even flagellation all have their place and some are needed more in some epochs than in others, but none is the sum total of the gospel. In short, monks don't believe in killer aps for the spiritual life. Instead, we mostly believe that the things that worked in the deserts of Egypt, at the court of Charlemagne, and in the monastic revival of the 19th Century still work. Like Tolkein's ents, Benedictines want nothing that's too hasty.

We read the rule of St. Benedict each day in chapter, but do not feel any great anxiety about whether we're remaining true to the spirit of our founder, who after all said he was only writing "a little rule for beginners." We can go into our libraries and find thousands of books on Benedictine subjects, but none loom over us in the way that the writings of St. Thomas, St. Ignatius Loyola, or St. Vincent de Paul do over their orders. We have saints by the hundred, and this very fact keeps us from putting all of our eggs in one ascetic or theological basket.

We pray for our own ongoing conversions and growth in compunction. We sing the psalms, read the fathers, and assist at Mass. Monks and nuns are generally not given to dramatic revelations and those who are generally don't blab about them. Most of our superiors would probably agree with a famous 20th Century abbot who, when asked what he would do if he had a mystic in his house, said he'd drive him out. When asked what if the visions were genuine, he said that then he'd be sure to drive him out. Monks and nuns aren't given to the sudden and the novel. Our forebears generally believed that this suspicion of extremes of sensation is one of the most important ways of breaking ourselves of worldly attachments.

We do fight particular our own particular demons-sloth or acedia being the best known when routine gives way to listlessness. We can become too comfortable--we've all seen the merry paintings of monks drinking beer and playing cards. (Not that there's anything wrong with recreation provided that the monastery doesn't become one never-ending house party.) It is also easy to become focused on one's own thoughts and preoccupations rather than on reaching out to God.

Periodically, someone comes along to reform a house or a congregation that's fallen into one of these or some other rut. And that's a good thing, provided the reforms of the reformer don't then become some new overriding raison d'etre. At times a particular house or congregation develops a particular expertise. At Solesmes they sing, at Zirc they teach, and at Marienkron they give massages, but all would say that's ancillary. Our historical experience agrees with Richard Weaver who tells us that unchecked specialization can all too easily lead to fragmentation and obsession.

In summary, if you're looking for a rather pedestrian life, don't mind a boring outfit, think repetition is cool, and can't keep up with trends, the Benedictine charism may be just the ting for you.

(With apologies to St. Dominic.)