Friday, March 31, 2006

New Benedictine Monastery in Nursia

Here is the website for the Monastery of Saint Benedict, Community of Maria Sedes Sapientiæ (Mary Seat of Wisdom), in Nursia, Italy: In the year 2000, the monks returned to the birthplace of the holy twins, Saints Benedict and Scholastica. The walls of their crypt date back to a first century basilica.

Benedict and Scholastica were born in A.D. 480, just after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, and were born into a wealthy, noble family. Benedict was well-educated and could have lived the life of Roman nobility, but he became dissatisfied with the dissolute and licentious behavior of his friends and himself, instead he wanted solitude and holiness. Fleeing Rome, Benedict became a monk, but the world, attracted to his holiness, would not leave him alone: he eventually founded numerous monasteries and schools, and became famous for writing his Rule of monastic life.

Benedict was inspired by John Cassian, one of the Desert Fathers, who lived among the monks and hermits in the deserts of Egypt and in Bethlehem. Benedict applied the lessons learned in the desert, in a manner more suitable for Europe. Solitude, he teaches, is best done by those who have spent much time living in community, and these communities better serve the majority of monks.

The monastery website above features a vocational video in English, and I am impressed at the education of these monks—who could otherwise have very successful worldly careers. It seems hardly possible that men, living in an isolated, self-contained community, that spends five hours a day in vocal prayer, could be thought of as cosmopolitan. But like their founder, Benedictines have a love of learning, and reading makes up a significant part of every day. In many monasteries, sacred reading is done in the early morning hours as a part of the prayer of Matins, and also in the monks' cells, while lectors will often read secular material during mealtimes. I've been told that the monks of Saint Louis Abbey are some of the smartest people you'll ever meet.

The Rule of Saint Benedict describes a constitutional monarchy, ruled by an Abbot, who is elected by all of the monks. Religion is to be the main defense against tyranny. The entire community engages in open debate on great matters, while a council of elders decides day-to-day matters. Deans are assigned to oversee young novices, while trustworthy monks are assigned specific duties such as overseeing the kitchen, storeroom, and wine cellar. A good Abbot is essential for a good monastery, and many have failed due to poor governance.

The Rule is basically for a community of laymen living together in mutual charity. While there are ordained Benedictines, and sometimes Popes and bishops have tried to turn the Benedictines into something other than what the Rule demands— missionaries or parish staff, typically—the monastery is ultimately for the purpose of increasing personal holiness of the laity.

The Order of Saint Benedict (the initials O.S.B. are often used after member names) is not a religious order in the normal sense, with a central administration and hierarchy. Although abbeys can and do belong to greater fraternities of monasteries, many are independent and answer only to their local diocesan bishop, and otherwise are self-contained. The 'Order' in the Order of Saint Benedict instead comes from the Latin ordo, or rule in English. Monks do not take a vow of poverty, but instead take a vow to uphold the Rule. The Rule then states that all monks share property in common. Generally, a Benedictine will have a greater variety of clothing, food, wine, and common possessions than those belonging to mendicant orders.

Secularists who attempted to duplicate the Benedictine life without God have met with failure.

The two mainstays of monastic life are work and prayer, with prayer being called the Opus Dei or Work of God. Every monk is assigned various duties, within his ability, for the common benefit of the monastery, and every monk is required to join in community prayer, which takes anywhere from three to five hours a day.

The failure of monasteries is often due to great wealth or lack of prayer; or generally idleness. In the Middle Ages, some monasteries became so wealthy that monks were able to hire servants who did all of the manual labor for them. While this may be acceptable for other types of religious communities, especially for contemplatives or cathedral canons, it doesn't work well for Benedictines. Also since the 1960s the amount of prayer in some Benedictine communities has been reduced, or non-Christian prayers or spiritual practices were introduced, and this led to the dramatic decline and loss of large numbers of monasteries. However, the Rule of Saint Benedict does not multiply prayers, and only requires a reasonable amount of work, leaving some time for relaxation: it is not a strict order.

However, because the goal of the monastery is to increase sanctity and build virtue, it is not surprising that a monastery could eventually become wealthy. Benedictine monasteries in general aim to be givers, and not receivers, of alms.

The recovery of Latin and Gregorian chant is helping to strengthen the new Benedictine monasteries, and reverses the trend towards spoken vernacular prayer. Since the monastery noted above has members from all over the world, having a common language for prayer is a necessity, and Latin is well-suited as a liturgical, sung language. Gregorian chant has a noble simplicity that seemed to be nearly lost for the last several decades. Like the Divine Office itself, chant has roots that go back to ancient Israel. The current edition of the Divine Office for the Latin Rite, the Liturgy of the Hours, is notorious for its pop tunes, timidity, and reduction of the amount of prayer said during the week. The Benedictines however, have the right to use their own liturgy, so they can either improve upon or degrade the standard liturgy of the Latin Rite.

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