Desire for God. Longing to respond to Jesus Christ; fully, authentically, adequately; to his goodness, his love, his self gift. Desire to serve the Church; not just a bit, but with total commitment; even to the giving up of life itself. Desire to live the life of the Church; to live the Eucharist; to participate to the fullest extent possible in the mystery of the Church. Yearning for prayer: for more prayer; for deeper prayer; for prayer without ceasing. The gnawing sense that nothing “out there” can ever be enough; nothing can ever fully satisfy: because only God suffices. An ever deepening and worsening sense of personal sinfulness; and along with that, a corresponding desire for holiness: for real conversion, even transformation, in order actually to become a Saint. At least a suspicion that there could be a divine personal call there somewhere: He looked at him and he loved him. Go, sell everything you have, and give the money to the poor, then come, follow me. Also: having encountered the monastery in some way, whether as a guest, or perhaps only at second hand, a certain delighted sense of recognition. At last: this fits! This, surely, is what I’ve been looking for all this time, if only I’d realised! Simply: this is for me.
How can anyone know that? Especially since, often enough, the person who experiences it actually knows almost nothing about the place, or the community, or its daily life? People commonly struggle to explain, or identify, where such an instinct, or attraction, comes from. But at least they can be confident that here, obviously, is prayer. Here is total dedication to God, to the Christian life, to the Church. Here is radical community without compromise. Here is good liturgy, which goes on all the time, filling every day: and is beautiful, and satisfying, and nourishing. Here too is wholesome work; and a simple life style; and wise governance; and nothing extreme or silly: because this is Benedictine, and St. Benedict knew human nature, and had common sense, and hard experience, and sound wisdom; and he has been leading souls to God through many many centuries. Here, finally, is a complete culture, clearly rooted in ancient tradition. That might seem anachronistic to some, but actually it remains completely relevant and alive today, and is needed by our Church and world now, surely more than ever before. Here, then, says the prospective monk, or at least maybe, I can feel at home, and breathe, and grow.
Often a young man considering a monastic vocation will have thought also of parish ministry, or missionary work, or religious life in one of the active and Apostolic Orders. Usually his friends and family, after urging him to forget the whole idea of vocation as ridiculous in his case, will have tried to push him along such lines. Anything, they say, other than monastic life! Such a waste! And so selfish! And also, as they say without quite noticing the contradiction here: so very hard; so penitential, so humanly unendurable! But our man doesn’t want to be a parish priest, or anything else actually. He just wants to be a monk. The only real reason he can give for this crazy idea, apart from the fact that he wants it, is that it must be God’s will for him. After many years in the monastery, this will remain the reason why he stays: because he believes, he knows, that this is God’s will for him.
No one could ever predict who will discern this call, this vocation. As no two monks are the same, so no two vocation stories are the same. People come to the monastery, seeking God, from the most varying backgrounds; varying also, increasingly nowadays, in nationality, ethnic origin, and age. Sometimes it’s perfectly obvious from the beginning that an applicant is quite unsuitable, and must be sent away. Sometimes a person thinks he is called by God to this way of life, but when he tries it, he finds that he was mistaken, so he leaves. Sometimes also a person seems the opposite of what one would imagine a monk should be: yet he is truly called. He enters, perhaps after a difficult process of discernment. Probably he has quite a hard time during his novitiate. But he stays, and he finds himself happy in his vocation, and he would rather die than renounce it.
Every monastic vocation is always ultimately a work of the Holy Spirit. Openness to the Holy Spirit, then, is necessary both for the candidate, and for the monastic authorities, whose task is to decide whether or not to receive him.
Benedictine monks have three vows, all of them highly counter-cultural. The vows may only be taken after long years of preparation, during which the door for departure is left always open. First is the vow of stability. The monk vows to belong to this community, and to live its life, looking nowhere else for his fulfilment or happiness, until he dies. Then there is the vow simply to live the monastic life, for which the Latin term, from St. Benedict’s Holy Rule, is “Conversatio morum”. Implicit in this vow are the usual religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Finally there is a special vow of obedience. Perhaps this is the hardest of all for the outsider to understand. But obedience was the way of Christ Jesus our Lord. According to St. Benedict, it is above all by this way of obedience that we truly come to God.
Article for “The Light of the North”, magazine of the Aberdeen Diocese: 14 June 2017