Part of the genius of the Rule of St Benedict, which quickly surpassed other, earlier rules in the western Church to become the pre-eminent monastic rule [to head off any potential pedants at the pass, the Rule of St Augustine is not, strictly speaking, monastic, nor is it as comprehensive as St Benedict’s], is that it is moderate and balanced. It does not depict monastic life as a spiritual utopia, nor monks as Christian supermen. St Benedict knows well the humanity of monks, their first fervour and later laxity, their aptness to cut corners if even from the best of motives, their capacity to annoy each other and their tendency to value more highly what they want to what they need. He imposes a healthy discipline and allows for it to be modified, though this perhaps is also its weakness: it has ever after been modified in the name of holy pragmatism. He places a high value on a demanding formation that begins with strictness in order to make the life sweeter to live in the long term (and indulgence of novices’ preferences and weaknesses has been a perpetual source of trouble for monasteries, not least today when we are so desperate not to lose our few candidates whatever their faults). Continue reading “A monastic workplace, a commercial success”
In the latest issue of the Tablet there is a brief article covering the recent Extraordinary General Chapter of the English Benedictine Congregation (EBC), which was held hard on the heels of the first ever EBC Forum, of over 30 EBC monks and nuns aged under 55 elected by all 13 communities. Representing Douai Abbey were myself and Fr Paul Gunter, who is Vice-President of the Pontifical Liturgical Institute in Rome. The article (see below – click the picture to make it larger) has an alarming headline but is largely fair in its content.
By way of background, Continue reading “The Future of the English Benedictines”
This week the quadrennial Congress of Benedictine Abbots concluded in Rome. Not much has filtered back to us in the ranks thus far, other than that the Abbot Primate, Notker Wolf, was re-elected to serve a third term in office.
The Catholic News Service has produced a short video made during the congress. It deals with vocations to the order, highlighting the attraction that tradition has for the young men today who are discerning vocation. Though not a Benedictine in the sense of being a black monk, Michael Casey, a wise Australian monk and spiritual guide from the Trappist Cistercian abbey of Tarrawarra, who also follow the Rule of St Benedict, offers some insightful reflection on today’s vocation discerners.
Fr Michael baulks at the label “conservative” usually attached to them (among some more barbed ones!). Instead he says that this generation is not as conservative as many make them out to be. He calls them “adventurous”, people who are “looking for something which they weren’t finding in the world that the previous generation constructed”. They have, he says, “gone up into the attic” and “discovered new ways of doing things”, such as Eucharistic devotion, pilgrimages, confession, things which are “very exciting for them, and they think they have discovered them” (said with a wry smile). All this, he says, does not reflect “a kind of grim return to the past … but a very light and joyful discovery that here’s something that’s been lying, gathering the dust for so many years, and it still has a value to us”.
He seems to have read the signs of the times, and he highlights that far from being a generation of “young fogeys”, the discerners of today have made the wonderful discovery that what satisfies their souls and their ideals was to be found all the time in the treasury of the Church’s tradition and teaching. Thank God they have found it; forgive us, Lord, that we have allowed it to be hidden for so long. The vocations prayer of any monastery, indeed any congregation or diocese, should seek not only new vocations to be sent to them, but that they might deserve those vocations.
Almighty God, who called St Benedict from the midst of an inconstant world to hold fast to You in the school of Your service through prayer and work; mercifully grant that we might be worthy to welcome more young men and women to learn, under St Benedict’s instruction, to prefer nothing to the work of God in the service of the Church, that You might be glorified and the world sanctified. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
On 23 March this year the two men who were then our novices, Br Damian and Br Gabriel, professed their simple vows of obedience, stability and conversatio morum, which will last for three years. After professing the vows they received the monastic cowl, a sign of membership in the community and of their desire to clothe themselves even more in monastic virtue.
Obedience is fairly obvious in its significance, and by that vow the newly professed pledges his obedience to the current abbot and any successors that might be elected in the coming three years. The vow is a recognition that Christ works through the abbot for the ultimate good of the monk (even if that is not immediately apparent!). Stability is intimately related to obedience and involves a commitment not so much to the monastery as a place, but to the monastery as a community, one that lives under a rule and an abbot. Through this vow the monk commits himself not to flee when the going gets tough, as the Rule of St Benedict (RB) tells him it is bound to do (RB 58). By committing to stability the monk is allowing grace the time to work in him, through the various personalities of the community and its works, that he might grow in holiness. Both these vows are, in effect, an act of faith that in the monastery, the school of the Lord’s service (RB Prologue:45), the monk will find all that he needs to grow in grace by following Christ’s way of obedience and self-sacrificial love for others.
The third vow, conversatio morum or (loosely translated) “conversion of life”, is a broad vow that encompasses the two vows you were probably thinking were suspiciously absent if you are not familiar with the Benedictine tradition – poverty and chastity. This vow does not isolate these two elements of the religious vocation, but integrates them into the monk’s basic and general commitment to journey to salvation along the narrow way (cf Matt 7:14) of monastic life. Detachment from possessions and the sacrifice of intimate relationships with others are indispensable for the monastic journey. They are part of the larger category of “good deeds” (RB Prologue:22) necessary to dwell in God’s Kingdom. The vow involves a twofold conversion: a turning away from the ways of the world, and a turning to the ways of the monastic life and discipline. In the 16th-century prayerbook known as Lidley’s Prayers we find a prayer that could have come from the mouth of St Benedict himself, so well does it capture what the Benedictine monk asks of God in professing the vows:
Lord, for thy tender mercy’s sake, lay not our sins to our charge, but forgive that which is past, and give us grace to amend our sinful lives, to decline from sin and incline to virtue, that we may walk in a perfect heart before thee, now and evermore.
Of course, this is every Christian’s prayer! Perhaps we could say that the monk prays it with greater urgency as he grows in awareness of his neediness before God.
With Br Gabriel having been a teacher, and Br Damian having a MA in philosophy, our newly professed are well equipped for the next stage of their monastic journey as Junior monks. At present they are studying theology and philosophy with the Dominicans at Blackfriars, one of the Permanent Private Halls of Oxford University, as preparation for possible future ordination to the priesthood. When not studying they are often busy taming the gardens and wilds surrounding the monastery. Please pray for them as they continue their journey to the “loftier summits” (RB 73:9) to which God calls them.
When (the novice) is to be received he promises before all in the oratory stability, fidelity to monastic life and obedience…
Of this promise of his let him draw up a document in the name of the saints whose relics are there and of the abbot who is present…
let him place it with his own hand upon the altar… And from that day forward let him be counted as one of the community.
[Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 58, vv.17, 19, 23]
As you can see, things are at an early stage here. In case you know little about St Benedict and his Rule you can find here a couple of links that will get you oriented. You can read an online version of the Rule of St Benedict so you can see for yourself what he teaches, but remember he wrote about 1500 years ago. A former Abbot Primate of the Benedictine Order, Jerome Theisen, has written a useful basic introduction to the Rule here. Abbot Jerome also has written a brief introduction to St Benedict himself. This should get you started …
Douai Abbey is a monastery of monks belonging to the English Benedictine Congregation (EBC), which is the oldest congregation in the confederation of the Benedictine order, being established initially in 1216. The monastery itself, dedicated to St Edmund, King and Martyr (feast day 20 November), was founded in 1615 in Paris by exiled English monks scattered abroad in the wake of the Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries in England. One of the founding monks was St Alban Roe ( feast day 31 January). Another founding monk was Gabriel Gifford, who later was elevated to be Archbishop of Rheims, the primatial see of France.
In Paris the monastery, the buildings of which still stand on the rue St Jacques, was a home for those English monks studying at the Sorbonne. It was also a centre for other English exiles, especially, after the (in-)Glorious Revolution of 1688, for the Stuart royal family. The exiled King James II, after his death in 1701, was buried in the monastery church, though his remains were desecrated and scattered during the French Revolution. The monastery has always a maintained a strong Jacobite tradition.
As for the French Church in general, the French revolution brought hard times on the monastery and the monks had to leave their home in Paris. Reduced to a mere handful, in 1823 they finally resettled north-west of Paris, in Douai. There they occupied the buildings vacated by the monks of St Gregory’s, now at Downside. The monastery is still known by the name of this town, which had long been a centre for exiled English Catholics. In Douai the monks ran a boys school, mainly for English Catholics and many of whom became either monks or priests. This work was combined with the traditional EBC work after the Reformation, that of sending monks as missioners to England to keep the Faith alive. In the 1840s, a chapel was built designed by A W Pugin. Happily, in 2005, the monastery returned to its home at the invitation of the local parish, and currently one of our monks lives in the Maison St Benoît in the centre of the town of Douai.
I say returned, because more turmoil came upon the monastery at the end of the 19th century, as it did upon all the religious orders in France. The enacting in 1901 of the Law of Associations by the French government, which was aimed at reducing the independence and influence of religious orders, forced the community yet again to leave its home, and reluctantly it returned to England in 1903, settling at Woolhampton in the diocese of Portsmouth, whose bishop made over the small college of St Mary to the community. Here the community settled and has remained. The community reached its zenith in the 1940s and 1950s, numbering close to 100 monks and caring for 30-odd parishes, as well as running its small public school. Economic imperatives forced the closure of the school in 1999, but some monks still serve in parishes in the dioceses of Portsmouth, Clifton, Birmingham and Liverpool.
Having used the parish church as an abbey church, the community decided by the 1920s that a purpose-built abbey church was needed. Construction was halted in the early 1930s due to lack of funds. The abbey church was only completed in 1993, and is a mixture of old and new. The interior is full of light, and austere in decoration, almost Cistercian. The acoustic is superb and the church hosts concerts from time to time. It is well used each day for worship. Mass and all the offices are sung, with Vespers being from the old pre-conciliar books, sung in Latin plainchant.
The community has regained a stronger sense of its monastic identity since the closure of the school. It receives many guests, and holds retreats and hosts courses and seminars for outside groups. In the first decade of this century a programme of building was undertaken after our school was sold off. The community built new refectories and guest rooms, and just two weeks ago a new library building was opened. Its construction completes a fully enclosed cloister. Some of the monks spend time maintaining the gardens and vegetable plots. We also keep a small flock of sheep. Study has remained a part of the life of many monks, as is appropriate for Benedictines, and some also teach in seminaries.
At present the community numbers 28 monks, including two juniors and one novice. Not all the monks are resident, as we serve 7 parishes, and the sprawling parish centred on the monastery. One monk lives in Douai, France, while another monk is acting as administrator at Quarr Abbey. We are also represented in Rome, where our Fr Edmund is abbot of the monastery of the Basilica of St Paul’s-outside-the-Walls in Rome, and Fr Paul teaches liturgy at the Pontifical Liturgical Institute based at Collegio Sant’Anselmo.
This potted history is adequate only to giving you a mere feel for the community. There is nothing like visiting us to get a better sense of the monastery. If you want to read more on the history of the community you can read the online version of the history compiled for our centenary back in England in 2003 here.