January 11, 2013

2013 Religious Vocations Supplement

Monks of varying ages help each other grow in holiness

Benedictine Monks of Saint Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad process into their Archabbey Church of Our Lady of Einsiedeln on Aug. 6, 2012, just before praying Evening Prayer. (Photo courtesy of Saint Meinrad Archabbey)

Benedictine Monks of Saint Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad process into their Archabbey Church of Our Lady of Einsiedeln on Aug. 6, 2012, just before praying Evening Prayer. (Photo courtesy of Saint Meinrad Archabbey)

By Br. Francis Wagner, O.S.B. (Special to The Criterion)

“Do not aspire to be called holy before you really are,” advised St. Benedict in his Rule for monks that he wrote some 1,500 years ago. “First be holy, that you may more truly be called so.”

Benedict’s wisdom, which seeks holiness in ordinary life, has guided those seeking God as Benedictine monks and nuns throughout the Western world since the sixth century.

“God touches our lives through the very human dynamics of our everyday patterns and relationships,” says Benedictine Archabbot Justin DuVall of Saint Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad, a Benedictine monastery that is home to 90 monks.

Few, if any of them, aspire to be called holy. However, each monk has been called by God from different places, backgrounds and generations to Saint Meinrad to become holy through a common life of prayer and work based on the Rule of St. Benedict. Striving for holiness as a monk for them is a lifelong process.

“People have been drawn to Benedictine monasticism over many years because it works,” says Benedictine Father Eugene Hensell, 70. “It enables people to become the persons God has called them to become.”

This is accomplished together day after day, in ordinary circumstances, among a group of men with differing places of birth, personalities, temperaments, interests, education levels and life experiences. They’re also diverse in their ages. The oldest monk is 94, while the youngest is 29.

All monks are called by the Gospel and the Rule to love one another as brothers. Each monk, as Benedictine Father Rupert Ostdick, 91, points out, chooses to “live in a religious community patterned on a family mode of living under an abbot and among brethren who likewise are pursuing union with God.”

As with any family, living together in a monastery presents challenges that are opportunities for growth in holiness.

“The fact that we have all ended up together in this place, and that so many different people have persevered for decades in our house, convinces me that God has called us here,” says Benedictine Father Thomas Gricoski, 32. “Only God could be creative enough and trusting enough to bring us all together. Thus, I believe that each of my brothers has something to teach me, if only I am humble enough to listen and observe with a generous heart.”

In all of their diversity, each Benedictine monk is called to a particular monastery to seek God with the other monks living there. Holiness means being attentive to God and striving for conversion of heart over the course of a lifetime, a process that is inextricably linked with the rest of the community.

Monks from across a broad range of ages said the same thing, albeit in different ways, about seeking sanctity. For them, holiness is honed through the diversity of his confreres, each one of whom is at a different point on the path of conversion.

As former novice master, Benedictine Father Harry Hagan, 65, put it, “There is not just one way to live as a monk, whether young or old. Moreover, everyone must seek to be holy as is appropriate for their time in life. Holiness is not just one thing.”

Benedictine Father Raymond Studzinski, 69, who has researched and written about living in an intergenerational community, concurs.

“Holiness is not an end state so much as a process of gradually letting go and letting God direct and transform us,” he says. “Seeking God and pursuing holiness are not things you focus on as individual projects, but really you see them as shared community endeavors to which we all contribute in different ways. My growth and development impacts the community, as the growth and development of confreres impacts me.”

Benedictine Father Adrian Burke, 48, ties the common life of seeking God in prayer and work to growth in acceptance, compassion and service. “Living with others whom we did not choose but ‘found here’ demands more in terms of charity than living alone, or living with the ‘one we’ve chosen,’ and a ready openness to receive those others as they are.”

Committing to such a process can be difficult, but it is also immensely rewarding, says Father Raymond. It is a sentiment echoed by a number of monks. The monastery, they say, offers an advantage rarely found in the contemporary Western world—the opportunity to live under one roof with a larger number of people of a variety of ages.

Such a mode of living “shows us our past, future and present,” says Benedictine Brother Peduru Fonseka, 30. “We challenge each other to grow in holiness. The community is a mirror, and I see myself through this mirror for who I am. Some of what I see, I wouldn’t have noticed if I didn’t choose this life.”

“The benefit of living in an intergenerational community is the wisdom that the older monks can offer the younger monks,” says Benedictine Father Meinrad Brune, 78. “At the same time, the younger monks bring new ideas, energy and openness to the community.”

Benedictine Novice Matthew Sprauer, 29, says, “I have gained new insight and respect into my parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Additionally, I am blessed every day to help the older generations with various tasks throughout the day. This is a blessing I would not have experienced without joining the monastery.”

Benedict in his Rule seems to recognize the importance of monks of varying ages living together. He exhorts younger monks to respect the seniors and the elders to love the juniors.

Community rank is determined by date of entry into the community, and not by age. Superiors are to seek counsel not only from the elder monks but also from the younger ones, because “the Lord often reveals what is better to the younger.” In addition, the monks are to reverence Christ by caring for the sick and elderly.

Perhaps most importantly, the monks are to practice obedience “not only to the abbot, but also to one another,” showing respect to one another, “supporting with greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another.”

Such a way of life, Archabbot Justin notes, provides “a wonderful reality check” for the monk on the path to holiness. “The different personalities and stages of monastic conversion help the individual monks to remember the two great truths of life—there is a God, and I am not God,” he says.

Benedictine Brother Matthew Mattingly says the experience of a community of monks of different ages all seeking holiness together offers a special witness to the world.

“Our culture is in denial about the fact of life, of aging and ultimately of dying,” he says. “In most traditional societies, aging is associated with wisdom. The diminishment of physical ability is accompanied by a growth in spiritual ability. In the ancient monastic tradition, those who aspired to be monks always sought out an elder to be their guide.

“From my perspective, it is a great opportunity to live in an ‘aging’ community and be able to learn from the wisdom and experience of those who have gone before, particularly the art of aging and dying with grace instead of resistance.”

(For more information about Saint Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad, log on to www.saintmeinrad.org.)

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