March 22, 2018 by lucieromarin
Yesterday, on the Feast of St Benedict, the slackest Benedictine in the world received the latest copy of In Coenaculo from the Benedictine Monks of Perpetual Adoration at Silverstream Priory. This morning, she read it, with a cup of tea in the morning hush, and wondered why she, a person who identifies her life experience with spiritual abuse, felt so uplifted by reading monastic news rather than oppressed. I didn’t even feel annoyed by odd bits of pious language.
I kept seeing the word ‘love’. The Prior was free to speak openly to the young men about the choice that they had made for love. And then I thought about how rare it is for men to be allowed either to make such a choice, or to express that choice in those terms. And he wasn’t talking about love as a temporary obsession, a rush of hormones, or a desire to possess another person as an object.
Systems – both sacred and secular – do encourage men to pursue sex, money, and power, and to be defined by their conquests in each field. (Yes, even in the Church, there is such a thing as a celebrity priest, or addiction to power.) Is there any chance at all that part of the reason monks are so happy, and so likeable in a way that celebrity priests are not, is not because they’ve conquered the system, but because they’ve removed themselves from it, and have let themselves pursue love, change of self, hospitality, community instead? Love, chastity, hospitality, nurturing, community – these are sometimes treated as virtues particular to women. Sometimes they’re even reduced to something like ‘sheilas’ work.’ (Let the ladies give their hearts over to love, cooking and little artworks. Men have empires to build!). The sons of St Benedict have chosen not to try to beat the system, but to renounce it. As a consequence of that renunciation, they are free; they are free to grow into that identity and virtue that the system forbids.
In so doing, the monks make it possible for other men to ask for help. When I read their Priory Chronicle and see how many priests visit the monastery for retreats, I remember that not every man in the system gets to play it to his advantage. They don’t all think they know everything, and they’re not all addicted to control. Many good men in the system are just alone, hard-working and tired. The monks make it possible for them, too, to step outside it for a time.
I wonder, too, if it is that stepping-outside that gives them their characteristic, gentle, expansiveness of vision. They practice a public devotion to Mother Yvonne-Aimee de Jesus of Malestroit (Yvonne Beauvais), a woman who was raped by a priest, and later became a mystic and a mentor of priests. They seem not to be afraid of stories in which Catholics are hurt by other Catholics. Their choice is to hold those suffering persons in love.
Life is horrible. It’s horrible for everyone. I happen to blog about my own experience of horrible, but everyone else has their own; things break, wear out, get stolen, or die. Homes burn, children are murdered, spouses betray each other, wars break out, leases expire, cars break down in the middle of the highway, and the delicious cup of coffee comes to an end at last. (Yes, I did just go from wars to coffee.) So, the monks see how much we need something stable and unchanging to hold fast to in the midst of those changes over which we have no control, and so they devote their lives to making that thing for us. The monastic commitment to stability of life is a prophetic countermeasure to all this horrible. It is hope.
For me, monastic spirituality comes as something of a soul-soul saver. My days of giving money to the Archdiocese, reading its publications, marching in its parades, signing its petitions, or attending its ceremonies are over. Thanks to the Benedictines, this doesn’t mean my interior life has to shrivel up and die. I see men devoted to converting themselves before they covert others; this is a powerful testimony. I remember that I’m part of a family both wider and older than my diocese, peopled with more saints, enriched with its own culture and customs, and full of nice monks who have no interest in any of the abuses to which I was once accustomed. I am reminded that I, too, don’t know everything, that there are experiences in the Church other than mine, and men in the Church other than the ones I write usually about. They model the value of honesty-with-self and commitment to change rather than blame, either of self or of others. It is true that some injustices must be fought and remedied within the system, but the Benedictines tell me that personal spirituality does not depend on my success with those battles. Part of the reason it’s so hard to cure myself of my director’s influence is that his training was so very much of a system which has validated that training by protecting him. When one man’s abuse of power is protected by other powerful persons, where does that leave me? The Benedictines remind me that I have a choice. I, too, can step outside the system, because in unobserved prayer, in the folding of laundry, or the serving of a plate, there is a presence worth my attention, and it doesn’t need fifty thousand ‘likes’ to be true. They don’t force their message upon me. But I can choose to listen, and to hear.