To What Holiness?… Monasticism and the Church Today.




Monasticism is seen in some quarters today as a panacea for what ails our culture.  Many have unlocked the treasures of the monastic tradition and brought out meditation  practices, concepts and attitudes that have helped the people of our time cope with the myriad brutal aspects of present day existence.  My concern in this essay, however, is how to set in order the treasure house itself, as it relates to the Church.  Many of the valuable items inside have become devalued or have gone out of taste in the changing climate of today’s Church.  I speak of authentic separation from the world, radical silence and effective control of the appetites. We have been the beneficiaries of magnificent scholarship which has made us aware of the challenge of updating our monastic thinking.   Perhaps we need to introduce some new treasure into our house to make better sense of the old.


In particular, we need to address what is spiritually distinctive, or theologically cogent, in a church of persons that remove themselves to a “deserted” place in order to pray, when all of the Church is concerned about the youth, vocations to ministry and religious life, re-evangelization, etc. We are no longer are talked about or admired, or even known in  many parishes, expect by caricature and/or hearsay.  The Church, while caring for us, does not promote us in a way in which it once did, when priests, and religious brothers and sisters talked fervently about the contemplative monks and nuns. The universal call to holiness, beautifully enunciated in the document, “Lumen Gentium”, of Vatican II, puts religious all the way back at Chapter Six, and insists, quite rightly, that they enjoy  “…a special gift of grace in the life of the Church and may contribute, each in his own way, to the saving mission of the Church (“Lumen Gentium” c. 6, n. 43).  Yet, the Council document, and other further legislative documents in its wake, seem intent on placing religious, without bothering to speak directly or particularly to contemplative monasteries, in a broad category of those professing the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience.  These are not the ancient monastic vows of obedience, stability and conversion of life.  Nor do these documents explain what is unique about the contemplative, monastic tradition, source of so much of the prayer spirituality of the Church.  Neither do they posit a clear place for this tradition in the new structure of the Church seen as the Pilgrim People of God. 


The task of redefining our place in the Church must come from us and from our lived experience before it can pass into ecclesiastical documents and legislation.  The Council, by its call for the renewal of religious life, invited us to do this work.  Monastics have responded generously by reflecting on their lives in the light of the monastic scholarship mentioned above.  Our new OCSO Constitutions (1990) represent a thorough going elaboration of our Cistercian tradition as we are called to live it in our time.  Yet, what is still lacking in such a successful document is a clear indication of our place in the Church in the light of the universal call to holiness.  Our tradition, as part of its renewal and thrust into the future, needs to reflect on and articulate its own ecclesiology. 


The foundations for our place in the Church are going to have to be (re?)discovered from our own lived experience, which may then feed academic and theological reflection.  In this essay, our own practice of “Lectio Divina,” that is, prayer with the Scriptures, will be the locus for new ways of holiness, which then flow into a proposed new ecclesiology.  But while we are making our way there, we see immediately that any monastic holiness is really a universal holiness that is valid everywhere because it comes from the Gospel. Monastics may use unusual ways to get there, such as withdrawal from the world, celibacy, etc., Yet the only possible difference between a monastic holiness and a universal holiness is that we take the same holiness to the very heart of the Scriptures, which is where every holiness is ordered and where every holiness finds its source.  From the heart of the Scriptures, therefore, the monastic church offers to the universal church an eternally and refreshingly new insight into the Christian mystery.  Monks do this in response to a direct gift from the Holy Spirit.  Thus the unity of the holiness of the Church will be revealed in all its manifestations, high and low, far and wide, as well as the real, true and eternally valid place of the monastic tradition or its equivalent in the Church.


This essay is elaborated from a thorough reading of the Scriptures in “Lectio Divina.” It  makes no pretense at theological sophistication. It comes from one monk’s prayer experience with the Word of God.


As a beginning, I propose four ways of holiness:  1) the courteous and prophetic living out of the oneness of the Church according to the Baptismal grace, which, as a font, overrides all other differences, hierarchies, or vocations; 2) conversion of life as the pre-eminent model for the Pilgrim People of God; 3) suffering, or the Cross of Christ, as the inevitable but faith-based yoke of the Lord, which he makes to be easy and light through love of him; 4) the vision of the eternal value of all things in a renewed creation made possible by Christ’s ministry of reconciliation which he shares with us.  Each of these ways is particularly addressed by the monastic tradition.  Each way depends on the other three, and, altogether, continue the reflection and introductory work of the Council when it called the whole People of God to holiness. 


In this essay, only the second mark will be included, the call to conversion life.  The others will be written up in future essays.  We must first make clear the concept for the baptized faithful, and then show how the monastic tradition may illuminate it.  Then we can delve further into the Gospel roots of the concept and there discover the foundational aspects of conversion of life for the spiritual structure of the Church.  We are then in a position to suggest the ever ancient and ever new place of the monastic Church in the universal Church.                  


The Concept of Conversion

We work out our salvation in fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12).  In other words, we work out our baptismal grace in a continuous way.  Baptism starts a dynamic process in the individual that ends, or, one should say, is consummated, in death. All through one’s life, daily we hear the call of the Lord to follow him further up and into his own journey to the Father in the Spirit.


Great and sudden conversions play a part in this process of the baptismal grace, but they are no substitute for it.  They must be seen as turning points, pivotal events, perhaps, that lead us to more subtle conversions as we continue to work out our salvation until the end.  Dramatic conversions, tumultuous changes, even ideological ones, where we want to turn our backs on former positions we have held so dear, still must be seen in function of one grace, one offered salvation, guided by God’s merciful hand.


Newman’s quote rings as a clarion call for this idea of conversion. “Growth is the only evidence of life (“Apologia pro Vita Sua” [1864]”). We work out our salvation in time, in salvation history in which as individuals we seem to play such a small and anonymous part.  Yet the long line of individuals and God’s way with them is what constitutes salvation history.  God wants a relationship with me personally.  He is not accessed by old pieties in new circumstances.  He had already explained the danger of putting fidelity to him, a living, breathing presence in our lives, into old practices where he may have been in the past, but is no longer (See Mt. 9:16-17).  We cannot access him by cultural freezing, as if rigidity and mere conformism to the past can substitute for the inspiration of his live-giving Spirit here and now.  Of course, like scribes, we bring forth from the Church’s treasure house, things both new and old, but we do this from the storeroom of the myriad traditions of the Church, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit (See Mt.13:52).  Blessed by God, the old things we bring out or retain, carefully and with discretion, reinforce and illumine the one Tradition of the Church to be discerned all through salvation history even in so may and varied guises and appearances. 


Ideas, practices, self-identities, however, are not easily abandoned, nor should they be.  Yet, the Christian life, and its baptismal grace unique to each life, calls us to follow on the road after the Savior and in his intimate company where the Kingdom of God breaks out like so many wildflowers along the roadside in spring.  We travel light, in the sense that our ideas of ourselves are apt to be challenged and cleansed of their delusions rather frequently.  And a readiness to follow the law of love and selflessness, especially when it comes to dealing with abusive and abrasive people (enemies) is demanded. Jesus put it succinctly:   “Repent (or change), and believe in the good news (Mk 1:15).”   And this conversion will be called out of us, not just once, but repeatedly, until it finds the fertile soil deep within our hearts.  Conversion is not a happening, so much as a way of life.


The concept of salvation history can help us here. Some may think that it is the narrative history of God’s holy people of Israel and fulfilled in the Church, the People of God. But the far truer understanding of the concept is the way of God with his People.  The form of narrative history gives way, in the eyes of faith, to a description, no matter how poor or inadequate in our human language, of God’s thoughts, directions, and saving power in his ultimate care for his people.  The Bible always takes God’s perspective, never Israel’s,  so that the sacred writer can lament Israel’s stubbornness and stiff necked attitude, yet never defend Israel’s behavior over against God.  As salvation history moves out of the Old Covenant and into the Christ event, the Church is seen as the definitive move of God toward us in Christ Jesus under the ever-present aegis of the Holy Spirit.  Here, all wrong doing, sin and guilt melt away under the overwhelming and purifying light of God’s mercy on us in the Paschal Mystery of Jesus.  Narratives of infidelity, punishment and lamentation over the loss of God’s presence in the Old Testament, are superceded by God’s continuing presence in the New Testament when Jesus goes to his Father and sends the Spirit among us. 


Our personal salvation history follows the course of our baptismal grace as it directs us through our development of learning right from wrong, suffering the consequences of our wrong doing, to the acceptance, sometimes soon, sometimes not, of Christ as a living, intimate presence in our lives, and our vigilant and repentant response to him throughout our lives.  The baptismal grace can be seen most clearly when it leads us to re-interpret constantly our sinful, and /or confused, or abused lives in the light of God’s mercy and forgiveness.  Even and especially the misfortunes we have lived through may become revelatory of God’s constant providential care in this temporal and woeful world.  The baptismal grace always leads to a deeper understanding of God in our lives, and this by means of our constant turning to him in moments of grace.  Instead of considering our lives as righteous or not before God, we can turn and consider his ways with us, and celebrate him in his goodness.


Some Characteristics

The Christian people have discerned certain guideposts or roadmaps in the process of living out our baptismal grace that are valid for all times.  We begin to notice a certain pliancy toward our neighbor.  The imperiousness of a strong ego-intellect, so often a characteristic of youth, gives way to a tolerance and even deference to the opinions and judgments of others.  Far from relinquishing our own ideas, we learn from others to modify our positions wisely for the sake of a richer attitude and a more universal stance. 


There are no shortcuts through or detours around the process of the baptismal grace. No matter what our station in the Church, no matter how many gifts of the Spirit we may seem to enjoy, we cannot depend on these to arrive at an automatic holiness.  They provide us with a way and a means to holiness.  The grace bestowed, however, presupposes a “disponibility” to receive it at depth so that within our vocation or state of life one may continually turn toward God in whatever journey the Spirit suggests in an ever-deeper purification of one’s life.


Continual conversion implies also a growing capacity to “understand” and accept, according to the will of God, all the events of life, especially those which go contrary to personal ambitions, desires or perceived destinies.  Glibly we pray in the Our Father, “Thy will be done.”  But only the grace of holiness can begin to lead us through the  temptation of personal delusion and self glory, past the great trials of life, to a full acceptance of God’s will for us throughout our lives. 


Our personal history is the place where the baptismal grace is located. Chronic or terminal illness, the death of loved ones, opportunities almost grasped, then lost, may sour us and leave us discouraged.  God uses these means not as punishments, but as opportunities for us to rethink our program in the light of God’s Word, and in the light of the passing nature of this world.  If our misfortunes were punishments, how do we account for reversals in the lives of those we believe to be good?  Or should we ascribe our calamities to God, who wills to punish us?  How would our relationship with God proceed beyond fear of a malevolent and implacable authority? The answer to these questions lies in the passing away of all temporal things, in the angst, pain and revulsion toward it, which the Scriptures tell us is the product of sin and moral corruption which we see and experience in the world.  This is not God’s doing, but ours, insofar as we share in the collective human sin.  Only with time and repeated conversions of our point of view, can we own our part in this tragedy.


The Monastic Response  

Having briefly examined the process of conversion in anyone’s life, we must now consider the monastic response to the same holiness. The Cistercian contemplative tradition identifies stages in the life of conversion.  With the basic monastic ascesis in place, that is separation from the world, silence, control of the appetites, etc., we begin the notice the peeling back of accumulated layers of a false identity, a “persona,” which we show to the world, but which hides from ourselves the unpleasant aspects of who we really are.  And there stands revealed, especially to ourselves, a vulnerable, often frightened person prone to sin.  In the strength of God’s grace, that new-skinned person is more free to love the Gospel, to follow along the road after the Master, and to be more pliant to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.  According to St. Bernard, in his first published treatise, “The Steps of Humility and Pride”, the immediate effect of a serious dose of self-knowledge is a compassion and understanding of our neighbor in all their foibles and imperfections.  Self-knowledge levels off our own false high self-esteem to the point where we see ourselves equal to our neighbor.  St. Paul would recommend seeing ourselves lower than our neighbor and counting others better than ourselves (Phil 2:3).  This Pauline doctrine bases itself not on a poor self-image produced by a wounded personality, but on the touch of God, who, as he approaches the human person, burns away pride and ambition.  The purified one automatically sees others in a noble light, perhaps even as God sees them, as his precious children.


Obviously, one undergoes many such conversions before arriving at a humility in the continual presence of God.  Cleansed from sin and vice, and loving, as if naturally,  Christ and his Body, the Church, the penitent approaches the source of all Truth, God himself, by the power of the Holy Spirit. 


With God in sight at all times, one faces the reversals and misfortunes of life with new eyes.  Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ, neither cancers, nor death, nor hurricanes, nor earthquakes, nor betrayals in the community.  In fact, these “bad” things can become good things, or, if not good, then blessings, if they lead us to plumb further the depths of God’s love.  This new vision defines more clearly what it is to be a contingent being in the palm of God’s hand, and it qualifies life in this temporal world, by letting us see that it is no longer and end in itself, but the gateway, and the only one at that, to God and his heavenly Kingdom.


As a conclusion to this presentation of the concept of conversion, both along its general lines and with monastic precision, we may say the reconstruction of the human person in the Risen Christ constitutes the very essence of the Christian life when viewed in its ultimate and eschatological perspective.  The constant call of the Savior’s voice, through the faithful celebration of the sacraments and adherence to the Gospel teaching, awakens a faith in the human person which goes deep enough into the will to rehabilitate it and allow it to follow the Savior through every suffering, every trial, even unto death.  This conversion is to begin to live eternal life even in the here and now of this world.  It invites the human person to become  “spiritual”, in the Pauline sense of the word, to put on Christ, to be mature in him, to leave behind childish ways of the flesh, that is, an understanding of Christ according to a human point of view (See 2 Cor 5:16), and to “press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus (See Phil. 3:14).   


Given Jesus’ call to conversion, growth in the spiritual life, and how the monastic tradition views both, we must ask the question, which way from here?  Is conversion better to be seen as a means to the Kingdom of God, along which we discover other ways, such as continual prayer, acceptance of suffering, control of the appetites? Or does it describe something more fundamental about the human person before God?  Is it perhaps a structure of being which we all adopt as God approaches us and we approach God in the Paschal Mystery of Jesus? And if this is so, shall we not find evidence for it in the Scriptures themselves, and especially Jesus’ teaching and experience in the Gospels?  And if we shall adopt it, shall it not appear in the Church, and in the Church’s self-understanding?  It remains for us to examine the Gospels and to trace the lines of conversion in the lives of those who interacted with Jesus, heard his preaching, and “vowed” to be with him to the end. As we do so, we shall discover, as if never before, where the particular emphasis of conversion in the life of a monk came from and why monastic life can be understood fully only in the light of this particular holiness.  From here, we can also see how conversion to Christ, with monasticism close by, lies at the heart of the Church.


The Models of Conversion

The encounter between Jesus and the penitent woman in the Gospel of Luke (Lk. 7:37-50) serves as a model for repentance in the Christian Church.  It shines as a grand and sudden conversion such as we see in the life of St. Paul and many others in the history of the Church.  But though it is sudden, it was perhaps prepared for a long time.  In such great hearted souls, where there may have been a strong and long standing refusal to a call from God, we see the anatomy of grace. God eventually topples their refusal, and once freed from their blindness, there love for God proves stronger than their former iron resistance. What seems to be a dramatic and immediate turnaround could have hidden a bitter struggle between the person and God.


In her great act of repentance, the sinful woman behaves nobly and courageously by boldly coming to Jesus and disregarding the religious laws and social customs surrounding that encounter.  Her love, based on God’s forgiveness, overcame all obstacles and won for her the object of her spiritual desire. Henceforward, in the  Christian church, the heroic conversion of the great sinner become the great saint serves a paradigm for repentance and a reminder that with God, all things are possible.


An even more probing example, and one that introduces us into the very Paschal Mystery of Jesus is the behavior of the Apostles in the Synoptic Gospels, but especially in the Gospel of Mark. 


In the first written Gospel, the Apostles exhibit a slowness to understand Jesus’ mission and person.  Time and again, Jesus finds them incredulous, self-absorbed, or cowardly.  In the end, they abandon him.  The other Synoptic accounts, that of Matthew and Luke, soften the failure of the Apostles, and in the Gospel of John, Jesus himself excuses them.  But in the Gospel of Mark, and, indeed, in all of the Gospels, nothing except the death and Resurrection of Jesus alters the pattern of the Apostles’ behavior.


Signs and wonders do not soften the hearts of the Apostles to believe that Jesus is God.  Having multiplied the loaves and fishes for the five thousand, Jesus dismissed the crowed, and bade his disciples to get into a boat and go ahead of him to the other side.  An adverse wind had them straining at the oars.  He came to them walking on the sea.  They took him to be an apparition and cried out in terror.  He spoke to them to comfort them and got into the boat with them and the wind ceased.  The Gospel text tells us at this point that “they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened (Mk. 6:51-52).”                   


Jesus’ power over the elements, a sure sign of his divinity, terrifies the Apostles but leaves them perplexed. They recognize the power just demonstrated before them, but their hearts are too thick with materialism and tradition for them to confess Jesus as Lord.  They cannot yet believe that this teacher in front of them, who looks like them and befriends them as a fellow human being, is also the God of heaven and earth.  After all, the Scriptures are full of the majesty and power that surround God, either in his theophanies at Sinai, for example, or in the sanctity and ritual that surrounds his presence in the Temple at Jerusalem.  The God of heavenly glory they would recognize, the humble teacher in front of them belongs to this world.  He is one of them, even though he performs signs.  The Holy Spirit cannot yet break through their hardness and coarseness of heart.  Their tradition blinds their eyes to the truth of what they are seeing.  They do not yet understand that God’s omnipotence allows him to come among us, to hide his divinity, and, from time to time, to break forth in glory by exercising his authority.  Nor do they allow that God in all his majesty, surrounded by celestial powers “with cloud and darkness as his raiment (Ps. 97:2)”, would ever be interested in them and in their petty concerns on the lake of Galilee. 


The Kingdom of Heaven as the intimate presence and action of God offered by the Teacher in the here and now seems to be Jesus’ point as he tries to convince the Apostles after the second multiplication of the loaves.  Knowing that they had only one loaf of bread with them in the boat, that is, not enough for a meal, Jesus cautions them against “the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.”  But they confuse his image of the yeast with concern for their supper.  Jesus then becomes explicit.  “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive and understand?  Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear?  And do you not remember?  When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?….. Do you not yet understand (Mk. 8:14-21)?”


The Apostles do not yet understand, presumably, because they still are permeated with the yeast of the Pharisees, that is, a trust in religious observances and ritual instead of trust in God.  The yeast of Herod, too, that is, a materialism which blocks religious faith, keeps them from believing in the Kingdom of Heaven present and acting in Jesus.  In his company, they need not worry about their lack of bread.  They need attend only to one thing, his presence among them.  Everything else, including their daily bread, will be seen to by God.  The trust in God’s intimate and providential care in one’s daily life is what is offered by Jesus in his signs and in his presence.  Yet, the Apostles keep lapsing back into a religious safety net, the yeast of the Pharisees, where God is distant and accessed only by ritual deeds.   In this vacuum, a materialism based on what I can get for myself, the yeast of Herod, substitutes for God’s saving presence in the physical and temporal world.


The lessons imparted to the “wicked and perverse generation” of the Apostles continue when he comes upon them in the embarrassing act of their argument about who was the greater.  He calls them aside and teaches them the unforgettable doctrine:

“Whoever wants to be first must be the last of all and the servant of all (Mk: 9:35).”


To demonstrate his teaching, Jesus calls to himself a little child whom he takes up in his arms as the least and the most vulnerable.  To be last must mean to go with the last, to be with them and minister to them.  Likewise, any who are ill, possessed or thought to be unacceptable, are the objects of the ministry of Christ’s disciples.  For as he did, so must we.  While others may argue about who is the greater, or may spend their time and energy looking to be acceptable and “appointable” by powers of the age, the Christian minister must be fervently seeking the last place where Christ is to be found with his friends, the poor and the outcast. 


The most confounding failure of the Apostles in the Gospel of Mark occurs when, having just celebrated the Passover meal, they go out with Jesus to the Mount of Olives and abandon him there as he is arrested by the crowd sent by the chief priests, the scribes and the elders.  This desertion comes after and on top of their protests that they wound never abandon him.  Peter, himself, asserts that though every one else may desert him, he will not.  Jesus replies with the terrible prediction that Peter will deny him three times before the cock crows twice on that very night (See Mk.14:30-31). 


This enervating and deplorable action by the Apostles is couched in the starkest terms by the evangelist to highlight the extreme contrast between the paucity of human merit and the abundance of divine mystery.  That we are dealing with the will of God, even in the failure of the Apostles, becomes evident when Jesus quotes the Prophet Zechariah, “I will strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered (Mk. 14:27 [Zech. 13:7]).”  God wills that divine power should be made most manifest in human weakness, and not in human strength, which when puffed up in the human heart over against God, is an abomination to him. 


This prediction of the Apostles’ failure by the prophet lies in direct continuity with God’s way with his people.  He leads the Israelites on a circuitous route so as to allow the Egyptians to catch up to them.  Thus, when God acts at the Red sea, the people could never conclude that it was their speed, their strength or their cleverness that saved them from the Egyptians, but God alone (See Ex. 13:17-22). At the failure and the death of Saul and the crushing defeat of the Israelites by the Philistines (1 Sam. 31:1-13), it is the bravery of David, an insignificant youth but inspired by the Holy Spirit, that turns the tide of victory for the Israelites against their enemies.  Not Saul’s stature, nor his anointing as king, could make his heart right with God.  Only the coming of the Holy Spirit upon David could change the military situation of Israel (2 Sam. 5:17-22).  God’s power is made obvious and glorious in human weakness and failure.    


The evangelist dramatizes the failure of the Apostles by underscoring in sublime detail


the denials of Jesus by Peter, the appointed head of their circle.  Peter it was who led the


protest against Jesus’ assertion that they would all become “deserters.” Peter said “Even


though all become deserters, I will not. “And when Jesus retorts that on that very night


before the cock crows twice, Peter will have denied him three times, Peter vehemently


insists that, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.  And all the Apostles


said the same the same thing (Mk 14: 27-31).”



The scene is set for the Evangelist’s careful and effective intertwining of the narrative of


Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemani, his arrest and “trial” by the high priest and the chief


priests, with Peter’s denial of Jesus, the last and lowest of the long list of sad behaviors of


Jesus’ intimate circle.  When a servant girl of the high priest spotted Peter in the


Courtyard warming himself as Jesus’ trial proceeds, she stared at him and said, “You also


were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth.” Peter denied it and went on to deny again that


he was on of Jesus’ followers, until, a third time, “He began to curse, and he swore and


oath, I do not know this man you are talking about (Mk.14:71).”



Peter curses and swears not just against Jesus, but against himself, and all the Apostles


whose leader he is.  In the anatomy of his relationship with Jesus, i.e. his vehement and


impetuous declaration of love for Jesus (“…I will never deny you [Mk.14:31]”),


contrasted with this loud cursing and swearing that the did not even know him, we see to


the bottom of the human heart, not just of Peter’s, not only of the Apostles’, but of


everyone’s.  We see our utter inability to do what we want to do, because of a previous commitment made to


Satan, shrouded in the mists of time and dismissed by the mind as untrue or unfair.  Yet,


our world, broken by war, violence, and greed bespeaks the bitter truth.  The mess we see


is our doing.  It is Satan’s miserable victory over us, stretching from the Garden until


now.  Yet his victory is not final.  And this is where we need to keep reading in the


Passion Narratives to see what happens to the Apostles once Jesus rises from the dead.



As the Apostles scatter in fear, Jesus tells them that he will rise from the dead and go


before them into Galilee (Mk.16:7).  His saving victory over sin and death will


reconstruct their broken loyalty and their intimate circle and absolutely nothing else will. 


The striking of the Shepherd and his resurrection alone will reunite the scattered sheep,


so that it may be made clear that no human virtue or strength remained loyal to Christ,


only God’s power and mercy constitutes the new community of the Apostles around his


risen body. 



Conversion at the Heart of the Scriptures


What we see in the Synoptic tradition and the Acts, but especially highlighted in the


Gospel of Mark, is a model of repentance as the response to God’s mercy in the Christ


Event.  We see individuals fall and come to repentance, such as Peter, but we see them


living out their forgiveness in a community who holds them in God’s forgiveness.  The


early Church’s experience of human weakness in the face of persecution and memory of


the failure of the Apostles, guaranteed that the Good News of Jesus Christ would be


preached only around the saving power of his Resurrection.  Thus, the Christian


community would be based not on human merit but on absolute faith in that Resurrection


in a continual move toward greater and deeper repentance.    



The Post Resurrection Perspective

The Apostles were gathered in prayer “with certain women, including Mary, the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers (Acts 1:14).  What was their thought as they prayed in that space between the Ascension and Pentecost?   Surely, they reflected on the miracle that the risen Jesus had re-constituted them as his circle.  He had appeared to them through forty days, interrupting their attempts to return to a normal life, that is, a life without him.  But we would not let them alone.  And now, they were gathered at his bidding, waiting to be clothed with power from on high.  Before the event of Pentecost, or, perhaps because of it, their conviction about the risen Christ was cemented.  But part of that foundation had to be an eternal memory of their weakness. After all, they had abandoned him, and they had experienced the nothingness of their own power.  They were now ready to sing with the psalmist, “Not to us, Lord, not to us, but to your name give the glory (Ps.113 [115:1]:9).”


One cannot help but notice the juxtaposition of Mary and the gathering of the Apostles.  A broken community, reconstituted by the power of Christ, is prayed for by one who never abandoned the grace of the angel, but bore her mysterious son and saw him through his awful fate, all by the power of the Holy Spirit.  What she had learned about openness to God, and the concomitant humility that goes with it (“He looked on the lowliness of his handmaid, Lk.1:48”), she now prays may be the Apostles’ joy as well.  As she had given birth to Christ and presented him to the world at the meeting of Simeon and Anna in the Temple (See Lk.2:25-38), so now the Apostles would give birth to Christ in their hearts in a new configuration of their own persons. Open to his Spirit, they would present him to the world in all its languages. 


The Monastic Connection

The early monks, separated from this event of prayer in the Acts by several hundred years, nevertheless, intuited that they were in direct imitation of the Apostolic circle.  Not that they were the Church.  Not that their way of life was the only way to be a Christian.  But, rather, in the conviction that what the Spirit was calling them to do by renunciation, was in direct communion with the Apostles’ experience of the risen Christ, that is, the passage from considering Christ from a human point of view, to a life permeated by his Spirit.   


When the monastic tradition applies the Apostles’ experience to itself,  it does so in learning steps.  Whereas the cataclysmic even to Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection was stamped forever on the Apostles’ minds and hearts, nevertheless, they learned from his intermittent appearance and the corroborating testimony of others, to fashion fully in their beings the conviction of his saving power and merciful forgiveness.  The monks, in imitation of the fifty days in the Lucan story of waiting for the Spirit (See Acts 1:12-14), adopted a similar mode of construction.  Step by step, and grace by grace, they learned to admit the saving word, a two-edged sword into their flesh ( See Heb. 4:12), so that it could work its purifying task.  For the monks, the Apostles’ fifty days might be fifty years, but lived in the same enthusiasm and urgency.  For with the Spirit, there is no wasting of time or vagueness of purpose.   We see, therefore, a lifetime spent in the formation of the Risen Christ in the heart of a monk.  The Paschal Mystery of Christ becomes the monk’s own journey.  The monk suffers and dies with Christ so as to be raised with him in the full power of the Holy Spirit.  Only the Spirit knows, and only the Spirit can direct those actions and experiences which lead a person through the great trial in imitation of the Lord Jesus.  One passes from interpreting one’s life more and more according to a Christ perspective as conversion occurs, to turning the corner in one’s life in a definitive move by the Holy Spirit.  Then, one considers Christ no longer from a human point of view.  Rather, one can say with St. Paul, “forgetting what lies behind, and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ in Jesus (Phil.3:13-14).”


 Steps of humility, stages of conversion, levels of self-knowledge, all conspire as so many graces to invite the Spirit to confer on the monk the crowning grace of passage to life in Christ Jesus. 


 The Monastic Church

The monastic ecclesia lives in the hope that each of its members will make this passage to live in Christ Jesus.  Not all the members are granted it, not all are ultimately called to it.  Not all answer when it is given, “for many are called, but few are chosen (Mt. 22:14).”  Nevertheless, at the center of the monastic Church, because of the gift of the Spirit which calls that ecclesia together, lies the memory of sin and repentance, that is, the desire and zeal to return to God and to keep turning toward him in the countless ways he asks us to follow.  The memory begins with Jesus himself who stands before the throne of God as the Lamb once slain, or with the marks of slaughter still on him (Rev. 5:6).  From that eternal memory of what he suffered for us, and what he achieved for us by his passion and death, their flows another memory into those who repent of the rebellion that sent Jesus to his death.  The memory of his suffering illuminates and activates our memory of sin and repentance, so that, as we are drawn closer to him in his heavenly glory, our repentance and our continuing conversion grow brighter and warmer.  Like one magnet to another we race along this journey, now not out of our own volition or energy, though that is active, but by a spiritual attraction to the Truth, overwhelming in its purpose and passion. 


This is what makes the monastery the place of holy challenge that it is.  Not because of the holiness of the monks who live there, not because the ground is made more sacred by the footsteps of their holy persons.  For many of them may not be very holy.  But because of the hope that lies in the heart of the community, in that hope, the action of the Holy Spirit causes gifts of conversion, self-knowledge, humility and so many more, to flow back and forth until, and, if only, a single person lights up with the memory of the wounds of Christ in his heart and the consequent stance of repentance.  This hope is what gives the monastery the élan and the spiritual peace it enjoys in the minds and experiences of visitors.  With no means to explain what they sense, they nevertheless intuit that God is active here. After all, it is God alone who is holy.  We but share in his holiness. 


  The monastic ecclesia holds up this hope of bringing people to the memory of Christ as if it were a single ray of light, warming and illuminating the whole Church from within.  As St. Benedict was given the vision of the whole world caught up in a single ray of light, so the monastic Church, governed by his Rule, holds aloft the grace of the Holy Spirit for the whole Church.  Every other gift looks back to it as if to its source, for it is the source, insofar as it is the Apostles’ testimony to the Risen Lord. Every inspiration in the Church breathes from this one maternal breath, this primordial grace which went to the heart of Peter at Jesus’ three questions of love, or to the heart of Paul, when, knocked to the ground and blinded by the light of the risen Christ, was forever converted. The monastic Church is called apart from all other gifts and missions of the Church, so that this light of Christ which it guards, proclaims, and lives by, may guide the Church on its way of return through all its manifold activities.  


The Church: One Body, Many Members, Gifts and Missions

 The baptismal grace at the heart of believers calls them to many different positions in the Church: to preach, to teach, to heal, to serve, to govern, to prophecy.  Yet each of these missions is not an end in itself.  Each is an avenue for the individuals to find the way of return in ever deeper levels of their being.  The Spirit will accomplish through them what it wills to do for the Church.  The Spirit will not fail, however, to offer the workers in the vineyard their own contemplative rest which is based on constant repentance and conversion.  What is offered every baptized person is the call to follow after the Lord to the point of gratitude for the gift of life, self-knowledge and repentance for sins and for the greatest sin, that of crucifying Christ.  We all share in that greatest sin. 


Yet, in the great demands made by the missions of the Church, the narrow way of living the Gospel, as if in the intimate circle around Our Lord, gets lost.  The Church has become endlessly complex in keeping with her mandate to go to all the world and preach the Gospel (See Mt. 28:19; Mk. 16:15; Lk. 24:27).  We should never think that, in her missions, the Church grows thin, extended or attenuated.  The same baptismal grace is as full of the seed of hope in the African infant as it is the Deacon in Rome, or the monk in his cell.  But each is called to repentance in many different ways.  What the Church keeps forgetting, inevitably because of its weakness, is that holiness of life must follow the way of constant conversion leading to a humble repentance. 


The Mystery of the Church    

The Monastic ecclesia supports the wide net of the Church to which many are called.  It throbs with the missionary heart of the Church in all its varied works.  It commiserates with Bishops as they carry the weight of pastoral anxiety.  But with all of this outward activity, in which there is always the call to holiness due to the Baptismal grace, the monastic Church keeps a light of memory on the way of return to the heavenly glory.  It keeps alive the structure of the Church as both the wide net and the narrow way.  It does so by taking the same holiness to which all are called, to the heart of the Scriptures from which the holiness emanated.  If there was no monastic Church, the Spirit would have to go and get one (And, indeed, that is the reason behind the capacity of the monastic ecclesia to reform itself after the example of the early monks).  Only in such a way could the Church be completely itself – a mystery in this world but not of it.  Broad and welcoming in its preaching and pastoral zeal, yet not flinching from the deep truth about our sinfulness and the narrow way of return by repentance and obedience, the Church can never be one or the other, but both as it proclaims a universal holiness wherever the Spirit is at work. 


A Universal yet Monastic Holiness

The church was born into this human reality as Christ lay dying on the cross.  The monastic church keeps alive the memory of that day, and its glorious counterpart, the Resurrection. At the foot of the Cross, and in the heart of monastic church, the confines, rules and safety of this world begin to give way to a raw contingency, a radical dependence on God where the kingdom of heaven begins to break through to this temporal world.  Hidden to all but spiritual observers, the monastic church appears to make no sense, to be a collection of weaklings and losers, who have thrown away their lives in a useless round of monotonous and unrewarding prayers.  But to God, and to those who see with the eyes of God, it is where his light begins to shine on this temporal darkness, where his strength shoulders human weakness, where human weakness is so known, tasted and accepted, that his power can be admitted where human pride had previously shut it out. 


The Church makes no spiritual sense without this hidden gift of total surrender to Christ and constant conversion to him.  It is the Church’s wedding garment which it only partially wears when it forgets the monastic way.  The Church is not it’s complete spiritual self without this total abandon to the love of God, this total joy of the freedom of the children of God, this total sacrifice which is held up as a single ray of light, made up of all the other rays of light, which is the mystery of the Church. 


Thankless, rootless, without a home here, unknown or derided, thought foolish and  meaningless, the monks look out on the eastern horizon for Christ the Bridegroom of the  Church, in a world still too busy with itself, still too taken up wit its own seriousness.  The monks keep the Church on its toes in vigilant waiting for the Savior.  The monks hold aloft the light of the mystery of the Church, still in this world, but well on its way to full communion with the mysterious God.  The light shines on, but in a fog where only the intently gazing can see it.    


Francis Kline

Mepkin Abbey

Exaltation of the Holy Cross 2005