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History of Religious Life
The Rise and Growth of Western Monasticism: Part 1

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The Institute on Religious Life and the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence of Chicago bring you the fifth in a series of lectures given by Fr. John A. Hardon S.J. on the theme: The History of Religious Life. Father John Hardon is a Professor of Theology at St. Johnís University in New York. He is a well-known lecturer and consultant to various national, religious, and educational enterprises and is renowned as a retreat master and spiritual director. Father Hardon is the author of many articles and books including Holiness in the Church and The Catholic Catechism which has been strongly endorsed by Holy Mother Church. In the following lecture Fr. Hardon speaks on the subject: The Rise and Growth of Western Monasticism. Fr. Hardon.

As we look at monastic spirituality, I have here four principal aspects. First, monasticism conceived as conversion of life, then at greatest length its basic elements on which we will spend most of the time, then its continuous influence in the Church and then some permanent values for everyone, whether religious or not.

Monasticism as Conversion of Life

Letís look at monasticism as conversion of life. You notice what I am doing; I am not immediately concentrating on St. Benedict and that for two reasons. One is that everything that I have here is, in effect, the teaching of Benedict, though not all explicit because centuries have gone by since he composed his Rule and secondly, as weíve already seen, monasticism preceded Benedict. There were elements here before he came on the scene. Moreover, monasticism has continued, as is obvious, but since then other forms of religious life have developed on the monastic pattern. In other words, the monasticism Ė when it first reached, you might say, its fruition or at least reached its peak in Benedict Ė had pretty much a monopoly of the field. There were, indeed, hermits but, by and large, religious life was mainly cenobitic and to be specific, monastic. That is not true today where many religious institutes, in fact in terms of numbers, the majority who are not technically in the monastic rule of life. But monasticism is the single, most perduring structured or organized way of life for living out the counsels that the Church has. And consequently even though, say, we may not, as religious, been members of a monastic community: weíre talking about monasticism; weíre talking about the primary analogue, as we say, the primary norm both chronologically and logically. Hence, a study of monastic spirituality is not merely a dated, historical recollection of the past. It is that, but not only. It is the study of a constant given that enters into and somehow undergirds all forms of religious life whether not called monastic or not.

A Religious Is Constantly Being Converted

First, then, as conversion of life: I, moreover, inserted to bring out more clearly what Benedict and ever since those who followed in his spirit understood by religious life as conversion of life by saying it is a continuing conversion of life. There is none of the Billy Graham mentality in Benedict; this idea of receiving, somehow, a grace and announcing yourself as being converted. You know, thatís it. Oh no! Well, then youíd say thatís not it, thatís the just the beginning of it. Religious life is a continual Ė about three words are used that are almost the same in meaning, the Latin is less specific than the English: continual, continuing or continuous conversion, No matter what word you use, be sure you know that for Benedict, a religious is constantly being converted. Benedict had no starry or romantic ideas about human nature. He believed that religious enter as sinners and no matter what heights of sanctity they may reach; for Benedict, they are still sinners; a very healthy attitude.

Conversion: A Turning Towards

Conversion, as we know it, means a turning. Technically there are two verbs that derive from the same Ė verti, to turn. Now it may either be con or it can be a verti. When itís conversion, itís turning towards; when itís aversion it is, of course, a turning from.

Turn Away from Sin and Towards God

Benedict, while Iíll keep using his name, even though I do include more than just Benedict as the source of all that is on your chart; but Benedict understood that a person will turn away from sin and turn towards God. Clearly, this turning away from one or towards another is not some physical turning of the body or of the head. It is a turning of the will. I know that the language is symbolic; the reality is not symbolic at all. It means a turning of affection, of love, of attachment, of enjoyment, of things that are sinful Ė to God.

Regular or Daily Admission of Faults

Moreover, and this is well to know because of the present neglect of the Sacrament of Penance in such large quarters in the Catholic Church, while excluding not a few religious institutes. Benedict required, first of all regular, even daily, depending on the monastery, admission of oneís faults Ė the Chapter of Faults. Is that phrase familiar to you, Chapter of Faults? Began in the oldest monastic tradition, then when there was a priest in the monastery, or as later on more of the monks became priests; it was not only the admission of oneís faults, say in public, we used to have ours before dinner and the reader would always wait, start the reading until, depending how many culprits there were during the day, four, six, sometimes twenty, would kneel depending on what form of penance they would take or was assigned to them. We had three principal forms of penance: One for praying with hands outstretched, the other kissing the feet of some of the Community, or the third, the taking of oneís meal on oneís knees. I am sorry to report that the Society of Jesus no longer has those penances. As one who belongs to that least Society that I love so much; one of my hopes and prayers and efforts, too, is to bring some of that back!

In any case, it was not only that; it was, also, sacramental confession.† Indeed, most of the books you will read on the Sacrament of Penance give you a very one-sided view of that Sacrament. They will leave you with a distinct impression that, well, for how many years, seven hundred, a thousand years in the early Church, confession was very infrequent. Often we see it by a person only on their deathbed. But penances were so horrendous that few people would have the courage to go to Confession or if they did, theyíd have to spend years in doing penance before they got absolution and those penitential books have made the rounds, and the Protestants especially Columbia University has made sure theyíre widely circulated to give a totally distorted view of that Sacrament. Was that done? Yes. Everywhere? No. Universally? No. Was it generally approved by the Holy See? No!

Frequent Confession Goes Back to Earliest Centuries of Monasticism

One of the most famous heretics in the Church Ė whom we referred to last time,††††††† Tertullian Ė lost his faith and was excommunicated because he claimed the Church was too soft on sinners. Look at the number of absolutions the Church is giving! All right? Thatís good to hear! To find out what was the parallel tradition along with the abuses and you name it, weíve got to go to the earliest monastic practices where the religious went to Confession often. And as Iíve told you, I donít mind repeating it how many years ago when I learned that Pope Pius XII went every day. I found myself a Confessor; I went to Confession before I finished breakfast this morning.† You see, I not only teach the History of Religious Life, Iím trying to live it. Frequent Confession goes back to the earliest centuries of Monasticism. OK?

Vow to Overcome Sin and Work at Sanctity

Where was, as the monastic form of life understood profession of oneís vows was the sign, the public sign of a monk or a nun decided to permanently turn away from sin and to live a life of perfection. That did not mean (how could it) that there would not be further sins. But that the decision which, by the way, says something about the nature of the vows. Sometimes we can etherealize religious profession Ė we take the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. So we do. But come, come to grips with reality. What does it mean in plain English? In plain English, it means when you take your vows you vow for the rest of your life youíre going to overcome sin and work at sanctity. It is, if you wish, a vow to become holy.

Lifelong Conversion of Life

And by now I trust weíve seen enough to make sense of this statement: In large measure, our progress in sanctity is our struggle with sin and among the mistakes that we can make, no matter how many years we have been in the religious life, is to suppose there has been some mistake because after ten, fifteen, or twenty years I still have all kinds of irregularities to my character, all kinds of wrong desires, I have urges by now gosh! I should be rid of this by now. Well yes, you should be over the sin but rest assured you may still have the urge; the tendencies and the temptations will be there. So much for a kind of generic definition of religious life: As understood in the monastic tradition, itís a lifelong conversion, well this is an odd one, a lifelong conversion of life! Weíre always being tempted by the world, the flesh and the devil. If itís not the one, itís the other two. And at least the devil, by the way, the devil knows no cloister limits, if you havenít been told. He does not respect even papal cloister. He gets in everywhere.

What Are The Basic Elements of The Religious Life As Understood in The Monastic Tradition?

They are, and the words are familiar but the meaning is quite different to what we have come to attach to active life and contemplative life. The active life includes two kinds of activity. The first is with oneís self and the other is with others. Itís remarkable how many religious now a day, sometimes writing learned monographs on the subject, seem to forget that no matter how much you say in favor of the contemplative life which has to do with God, or how much emphasis you give to the apostolic life which refers to the neighbor: We better place first things first. What about the active life with myself? As you will notice the longest single treatment in all the Monastic Masters, especially Benedict, is on the spiritual combat that each person must wage inside of his own soul. How I wish we could spend at least, say, a month on this subject. It deserves it. I ask you to read carefully and try to prayerfully make sense and by the way a good thing to meditate on Scripture always, top priority, the teachings of the Church, top priority; also the writings of the great Saints, the great Masters of the Spiritual Life, your own Founder and Foundress and others too, especially those, as in this case, that somehow are our fathers in God; the men and women who preceded us and except for whom there wouldnít be an Institute Ė to whichever one we belong. Just necessarily a word about each; I wish it could be a lecture on each.

Begin the Spiritual Combat by Leaving the Crowd

This is Benedictís sequence: You begin the spiritual combat by leaving the crowd. That decision must be made. Weíve already talked about separateness remember way back in the early Church Ė those who were specially intent on following Christ had to settle for somehow separating themselves from others, even physically but always spiritually. Blessed Solitude Ė memorize the Latin if you havenít heard it: Beata Solituda. Thatís more than blessed Ė happy solitude, but it begins there; and either we decide and each one pretty much must do this for him or herself; to spend a certain amount of time alone with God or nothing else will happen.

Discernments of Spirits

Secondly, all of that solitude and I trust you saw some of† that in Antony Ė O I wish I could quote some of your passages on what you found or thought you found in Antony. It was delightful. Well, just for the record, no, Antony was not a psychopath (laughter). No doubt, no doubt some of our modern psychologists would put him down as such Ė so much the word, the words from modern psychologists. Itís true that anyone intent as St. Antony was of living alone, that the devil will realize what a powerful good he would become Ė would tempt him. So the second step is inevitable; you live alone, I donít mean, you know, living alone in your own apartment, but the kind of solitude that weíre talking about Ė The more you are alone with God and with your own thoughts, the more you will have to make all kinds of discernment of spirits because maybe for the first time in your life you will realize gosh! I never knew this Ė there are all kinds of different spirits. Some people donít even know Ė they are so little alone with their own mind; they donít even realize that their mind is being buffeted in one direction and the other. One thing you find out as youíre alone is that your mind is a marketplace for all kinds of wares. No bazaar of Naples or Calcutta has more unpredictable and indescribable wares than of the human mind. You name it, and we think it. And what you soon find out Ė you canít think too long about anything. Memorize this: You cannot for too long think anything without desiring it. It took me thirty years to learn that. If you want to stop desiring something, either make up your mind to get it off your mind or itís going to become a desire that you will not be able to master. You expose your mind to whatever ideas: Youíve got to take the consequences Ė those ideas are going to be on your mind. And either you get rid of them or they are going to become desires.

Discernment of spirits, therefore, and the plural is deliberate. It is plural for two reasons: both because as Benedict understood spirits, he first meant good and evil which is already plural; but also within the good spirits (they are plural) and the evil spirits as the Gospels tell us their number is legion: To distinguish, therefore, between the good and the bad, and then among the good which are the better, and which are just good.

Compunction Is the Basis for the Awareness of Sin

Then compunction for sin Ė in Benedictís vocabulary, and his vocabulary by the way,††

is very clear. The Latin, depending on which translation or version we follow, the Latin leaves no doubt as to what Benedict was talking about. Compunction is the basis for the awareness of sin. In other words, if Iím going to grow in the humility of which Benedict was the greatest master in the history of the Church Ė his twelve steps for arriving at humility even if others may have added a step or two, nobody has improved on Benedict. But if youíre going to arrive at humility, youíve got to start as weíve tried to do today at Mass Ė by looking into our own souls. Compunction is a combination of regret, concern, a desire to change, to amend, to correct but never, never sadness, never discouragement or worry. It is facing the facts of life and the facts of our lives are sinful facts, not only but weíre talking about this, then, the twelve steps of humility. Read them for yourselves. They are worth memorizing; trying to figure out where am I? Fifth step? Sixth step? And these are somehow sequential in that the first not merely precedes the one that follows but, somehow, is a condition for the next one.

Humility - Right Relationship with God

In general, as Benedict understood humility unlike, as many others, perhaps popularly conceive it, humility is mainly directed towards God. Our practice of humility as we shall see, will indeed involve our social life. But humility per se is, first, the right relationship towards God. Thatís the first step; a filial fear of God. This, of course, is not servile fear. It is the kind of fear that a child or anyone has not to offend someone you love. It is filial because it is the fear of a son or daughter, a filius or a filia; the fear not precisely that God will punish; but the fear that I will betray the one that has been so good to me.

Distrust of Self-Will: Trust in Godís Providence

Second, self distrust: Realizing how prone I am to sin, knowing that my own will is so weak, I distrust myself, but watch this Benedictine nuance, it is not only or even mainly, distrust of my will for being weak Ė that too, of course. It is mainly distrust of my will for being blind. Itís not just strength that I lack: itís light; itís knowledge, itís wisdom.† And if you re-read the Scriptures from these perspectives, itís remarkable how much men like Benedict and Francis and Dominic discovered in the Bible that the rest of us read too.

Obedience to the Superiorís Will

Third: If we are thus blind and therefore should distrust ourselves, evidently we must trust someone. Oh, thatís easy. Benedict would say thatís what Superiors are for. In other words, they are the ones who enlighten our admittedly Ė provided a person admits it Ė inadequate will. Blind and not being able to see and weak, even though it sees what should be done but as St. Paul so humbly admitted, but we tend to do what weíre not supposed to. Obedience, therefore, to the Superiors will. So distrust of self-will is the pre-condition for trusting Godís Providence; like he would not have allowed me, this is Benedictís thesis, God would not allow a sincere soul to entrust itself to another human being and then not have that other human being supply for what the person needs. And with the Churchís approval of that, we are, thereby, saying that the first condition for religious knowing what should be done is inquiring the Superiorís mind.† Those three go together and they are the first set, which are the steps toward humility on the interior level; the 8 to 12 will be the exterior ones.

Patience under Obedience

Fourth step; now heís got the religious under obedience, but obedience to the Superiorís will is not yet as high a degree as the next step is because itís all very well for me to trust the Superiorís will; itís something else, how shall I put it, to put up with the Superior: Patience under Obedience because itís not as though, once I resolve to be obedient, gee this is great! I thought life was difficult, all youíve got to do is to be obedient; trials, sufferings, the Cross Ė thatís all past history. Oh no! Because this Divine Providence somehow directing the docile soul through obedience is positively uncanny in the things that the one who had originally said Iím going to be obedient; Big me, Iím going to be obedient, come what may. Well, come what may! But, I didnít expect this. (laughter) Is this obedience too? Yeah, thatís obedience too.† There must be some mistake. No. In other words, thereís such a thing as being tried, under obedience, by all the manner of means that obedience can try us, sometimes a Superior, usually what weíre told to do.

Manifestation of Conscience

Fifth: In order for the soul of the religious that wants to give itself totally to God to be directed by obedience the way, well, obedience should direct. Since the Superior is not God: God knows what is on my mind before I tell Him. The Superior doesnít, itís just as well; (laughter) But if you could coin a phrase, obedience should be patient, but obedience should also be enlightened. In other words, I must have the humility to manifest myself to the one who is to direct me, sufficiently well, to enable that authority to be exercised the way it should so that I might not be told to do things, or forbidden to do others which, in one case, Iím not up to and the others that I should do.† It is not, therefore obedience to obey like an automat, and if I donít know what kind of automats you have, but in New York City many of them just donít work. You put your quarter in and well you put the quarter in, (and what Iíve done sometime I press the other to see if I can change back. But I watched one man (this is an automat on the train) he put in, whatever it was, fifty cents for a package of cigarettes, fifty cents, two quarters dropped in Ė no cigarettes. I was sitting just in front of him where the automat was.† He pressed, he pushed, he had to talk to the machine; since nothing happened; he began to kick. (laughter) So if even automats are not automatic, human beings cannot guide us unless they know whom they are guiding. As one who has guided religious most of my priestly life beginning with my Jesuits whom I was teaching Ė not many classes, nine hours at most a week, but Iíve stopped counting the number of hours they keep me in counseling Ė far into the night. One of the hardest things for some people is to manifest themselves. Well that doesnít mean telling everything because there are some things that maybe we shouldnít tell. Itís not just like a broken record, going over a lot of things, repeating them. Itís not bringing up all kinds of sordid details. It is to know what I am to manifest so the one who is directing me will know whom he or she is directing.

Fifth: On the Way of Christian Perfection by Way of Humility

So manifestation of conscience a prosaic phrase for a very important step to be exact, number five: On the Way of Christian Perfection by Way of Humility. Most of us like to keep and this we sometimes tell ourselves, well at least this is my own, at least I can keep my own thoughts. Well, not quite. Now clearly thereís a difference unless my Superior is a priest and the circumstances are such that I am to manifest myself as I wish; in the Society of Jesus we have the privilege of manifesting our consciences to our Priest- Superiors under the Seal of Confession.††

Compulsion Forbidden

Superiors or those that direct us do not have the right to in any way compel or coerce. And there are even Canons in Canon Law forbidding compulsion by whatever means; straightforward or devious. But if thatís the duty for the Superior, the religious has the corresponding duty Ė a religious is obliged to manifest as much of his or her conscience as before God they believe the one who is to do the direction should know, to be able to direct them as the life requires. In case of doubt a person could ask, say, a confessor to find out ďShould I say this?Ē ďDo I have to?Ē Well, my recommendation to religious has always been; rather say more than less. Iím talking to the religious understand, not the Superior. They are totally at the mercy of the individual. Right? In any case, manifestation of conscience.††

Sixth: Joy in Recognizing Oneís Own Worthlessness.

Sixth: worthlessness. Only the saints could talk this language. Joy in recognizing oneís own worthlessness. Now you say to yourself, Oh no! Joy we understand, Worthlessness we understand, but not joy in recognizing oneís worthlessness. So whatís the source of the joy? Clearly, it is not the being worthless not the being weak or sinful. Guess Ė it is that provided I humbly acknowledge that of myself I am nothing and I mean it before God; God will take over in my soul and give me every reason for rejoicing. If thereís any source of sadness we should have, it should be reliance on self. That doesnít mean we donít use our wills, it doesnít mean that we donít exercise our freedom. It does mean that we realize that of ourselves, except for the grace of God, we could not live up to the demands that he makes on our souls.

Conviction of Onesí Own Nothingness and Godís Majesty

Seventh: Let me finish this Ė Iím watching that clock carefully. You might say six is bad enough (laughter) but then he adds seven: Conviction of Oneís Own Nothingness and Godís Majesty. Where joy is in the will and emotions; conviction is in the mind. Those two phrases; oneís own nothingness and Godís Majesty are to be taken side by side. In other words, clearly we are not nothing; we are something. And, indeed, in Godís eyes, we are precious. But compared with God, thatís what we are Ė nothing. Now that really is the basis of humility, because man compared with God (writing on the board) God is Infinite. No matter what weíve got, we are finite. (writing on the board) And even that finitude such as it is a hundred twenty or thirty pounds of body that weíve got or whatever else there is to us; even that little which we call our own which we treasure so dearly; even that, except for the Will of God, wouldnít exist. In fact, we can change that subjunctive mood. Except for the Will of God not only would we not exist; we do not exist except for the Will of God. No contrasts our minds can show us between who God is and what we are would mirror the reality. We cannot be less nothing, then to depend on the Will of God even to be. He made up His Will to make us. He can make up His Will to unmake us. And thatís it! That constant realization Ė how many times Iíve had to tell myself especially when sometimes things get hard; God is behind it. Who am I to question His Providence? Doesnít make sense, the more, the grossest kind of injustice:† but who am I?

Eighth Step: Conformity to Rule, No Singularity

The last five of the twelve steps of humility are essentially of its external practice. The eighth step talks about conforming oneís self to the Rule and practicing the humility of universality. This is as I found out, is one of the hardest forms of humility to practice. We are all congenitally and understandably individuals. The menus in a restaurant, the womenís designs along 5th Avenue in New York; each one of us wants to be an individual even to the choice, for example of the dressing on your salad: What difference objectively, in the metaphysical order, does it make? (laughter) Whether it is French or Mayonnaise or Thousand Island or Iíve seen Green Goddess, Russian and other languages. We want to remain ourselves. Iíve lived with religious long enough; Iíve taught them for too many years not to know that the hardest thing, I donít say to shed; youíre not meant to shed our personalities but in Religious Life, and Benedict made it very plain the first of the steps that have to do with the practice of humility, to sacrifice; to sacrifice our individuality for the sake of universality. And his condition for, thus, sacrificing oneís personal, distinctive individuality is to keep the Rule because, by definition, the Rule is the same for all. When that bell rings in the morning, according to Rule, no two of us have exactly the same metabolism, have exactly down to the minute the same need of sleep; maybe just five or ten minutes more and youíre sure when that bell rings, we need more; the bell rings and we begin to sacrifice our individuality if we get up on time.† The uniform guard in a Religious Institute the going to meals at the same time and what no restaurant could survive, I would say for three weeks always, everyone gets the same. Now there are certain options, but not that many. In New York itís very simple; you can exercise your option but what you donít take Ė at least in a Jesuit House, somebody else will. They waste very little food. Thatís the 8th step: Conformity to Rule, no singularity. When on rare occasion the Lord visits us and we receive extraordinary gifts to embarrass us, as being specially gifted, if weíre going to be singular, let it be the Lord who makes us singular.

Taciturnity: Wise Silence or Silence That Is Thinking

Number Nine: A word that is not much used nowadays, taciturnity. What does that taciturnity mean? Somebody who has a grasp of her vocabulary; Iím seeing heads shaking Ė taciturnity oh yes! Yes? Being quiet, being quiet. All right. Iím building on the Latin; Benedict wrote his Rule in Latin. He spoke of tacere from which the English word taciturnity is derived. That is not quite the same as silare. You see the ancient Greeks and Romans had a lot of words for things that we pretty much doesnít matter to us what word you use. Well, not quite; being taciturn is a little different and more than just being silent. Silence is essentially negative. I just donít talk. Maybe I have nothing to say. Maybe I donít want to say it. Maybe I donít want to say it to this person or Iím just in, well, a silent mood. Taciturnity is no mere absence of speech. It is indeed silence, but with a purpose. A taciturn person is a person who does not speak because given the circumstances here and now, they either call for not saying anything, or saying just, say, twenty words and not twenty-five. A taciturn person does not necessarily not speak, but tries to adjust his or her speech to the purpose Ė for speaking. In other words, taciturnity is wise silence or silence that is thinking.

This concludes the first part of Father John Hardonís lecture on the Rise and Growth of Western Monasticism. Part two will be found on the next tape.

Conference transcription from a talk that Father Hardon gave to the
Institute on Religious Life

Institute on Religious Life, Inc.
P.O. Box 410007
Chicago, Illinois 60641

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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