According to the Rule of Saint Benedict, monks make a vow of conversatio morum. This Latin phrase is difficult to translate, but the essence of the vow is that we are committed to a complete change of life and change of heart, to act henceforth like a monk, like one training for the resurrection. This requires not only a renunciation of the world and death to oneself, but also ‘a new creation’, learning to be refashioned according to the gospel. That is to say that it requires formation. Much of our life is dedicated to this ongoing formation, which takes place not only in the novitiate and juniorate, but also throughout life. Thus initial formation is not only meant to prepare a monk for solemn profession, but also trains the monk for a lifetime of cooperation with grace to be completely remade in the image of Christ.
Central to our understanding is the ‘renewal of the mind’ [Romans 12: 2] and ‘mature manhood’ [Ephesians 4: 13]. This process begins with the battle against the vices and the striving for virtue, what the ancient monks called praktike or the ‘active’ life. Through ascetical practices of obedience, fasting, silence and others, we learn to cooperate with grace in healing the passions of the soul, freeing our wills to love God and neighbor. The second stage involves moving from ignorance to true knowledge, the proper ‘contemplative’ life, in which we learn anew how to read and understand the Scriptures, how to see God through the presence of the Divine Word (Logos) in all creation, and to pray.
The principal texts at the heart of this program include the Bible, the Rule of St. Benedict, the writings of the Fathers, especially St. Augustine, St. John Cassian, St. Evagrius of Pontus, the Cappadocian Fathers (Ss. Basil, Gregory Nazianzen and Gregory of Nyssa), The Life of Antony, by St. Athanasius, and St. Gregory the Great. We read these seminal theologians through the best representatives of ressourcement, particularly Henri de Lubac, Blessed John Henry Newman, Alexander Schmemann, Michael Casey, OSCO, and Jean LeClercq, OSB. Finally, philosophy, the true love of wisdom, is also central to the renewal of our minds, and so we pay close attention to the writings of Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Alasdair MacIntyre.
For a more in-depth reflection on the importance of formation, we include this article from the summer, 2014 edition of our newsletter, Polis, written by Prior Peter Funk:
What makes up a culture?
If you were an anthropologist from an exotic place far away, how would you describe American culture to those who know nothing about it? One might begin by describing typical family arrangements, styles of housing, the plans of cities and roads. One might alternatively begin with the English language. One might draw up a list of influential books by authors who capture American life and history. This list would likely include Hawthorne, Twain, Alcott, Steinbeck, Dickenson, Faulkner and Morrison. We might look at the foods that Americans eat, what they do in their free time, how they organize themselves politically, what their religious beliefs are, what holidays and observed and how, the style of dress, the forms of education, and the legal system. All of these and more go into making a culture.
We can learn a lot about culture by examining what happens when we try to change cultures. A week-long visit to Paris can be a lovely experience. Moving permanently to Paris can be disorienting after a short honeymoon. One longs to express oneself freely, but is hampered by the language gap. Foods are unfamiliar. Navigating the unspoken rules of etiquette is like walking through a mine field. Almost no one has heard of your favorite books. The music is different, no one watches baseball, and none of the streets run in a straight line. The long process of acclimating to this new culture is called ‘inculturation’. The hope is that one eventually thinks and acts like a Parisian rather than as a homesick American.
Jesus Christ opened the way to the kingdom of heaven. This is a new ‘place’, a new ‘culture’ with its own music (chant), organization (the Church), language (Greek and Latin, often translated into exilic
vernaculars), books (the Scriptures and the Fathers), holidays and celebrations (the liturgy). To enter into the kingdom requires us to die to ourselves and rise again as ‘Christians’ and no longer men and women of the world that is passing away.
Being conformed to this new culture can take time. Our post-baptismal lives are a long process of acquiring the habits and outlook of the life in Christ. We are assisted by the Holy Spirit’s guidance and the encouragement of fellow pilgrims to this new homeland. But this transformation is not without its difficulties, struggles and occasional failures.
A monastery is a place where Christians attempt to implant the new culture of the Kingdom as thoroughly as possible. We restrict our contact with the outside world in order to arrange everything within according to the Gospel. The result of this effort, which dates back to the earliest years of the Church, is a recognizable culture. Monks have special ways of dressing, eating, speaking, and organizing themselves. We read certain books, celebrate the liturgy in a certain way, and we love to read certain authors (e.g. St. Benedict, who himself recommends St. Basil the Great and St. John Cassian, among others). After many years in the monastery, our entire worldview changes. With the help of grace, we may even become saints—genuine citizens of the kingdom of heaven.
As is the case with any work of inculturation, this doesn’t happen automatically. It takes a lot of effort and good will, patience, humility and humor. We traditionally call this process of inculturation ‘formation’. Formation is not just about classes, though intellectual work is of central importance. Helping a young man make the transition from the world to the cloister involves teaching him to regulate his time differently, to speak and act different in nearly every facet of life. This is why Canon Law specifies that the novice master (who, for St. Benedict, should be skilled in the ‘art of winning souls’) should have no work besides that of caring for the novices. This is also why we now expect ‘initial’ formation to last at least five years (usually a year of ‘postulancy’, a second year for the ‘novitiate’ and three years in ‘simple vows’), whereas in St. Benedict’s sixth century, a one-year probation was considered sufficient. In fact, we increasingly recognize today that formation is life-long, a dynamic process of pilgrimage to the Kingdom. When God is the goal, we can never arrive at a place where formation is ‘complete’.
Viewed in this way, formation is the central work of the monk, and the superior’s main role is that of encouragement. Brothers can frequently find it difficult to keep on changing, year after years, maybe over many decades. Often, it can feel as if we’ve made little to no progress at all. This feeling might itself be an indication of progress, since our deepest desire is that Christ live in us and we receive life from Him rather than engineering our own sanctity. A loving, challenging, but accepting community gives the brothers the support needed to endure these times of dryness and disappointment.
All of this requires the allotment of many different types of resources. We have been very blessed over the years with the financial support of many benefactors who have taken an interest in formation especially. I would like to note here the number of priests who typically respond enthusiastically to our appeals for help in formation. As you will see elsewhere in this issue of Polis (click link for info. on signing up for our newsletter), we are making plans to expand our formation program to invite qualified teachers from outside the monastery to bolster the classwork going on within. The ultimate goal is not simply the growth of the monk. When monasteries are healthy centers of holiness and liturgical strength, the whole Church benefits from monks’ efforts. Monasteries become centers of Catholic Christian culture and bulwarks against the encroachments of secularism under which we are suffering as a Church today. Thank you for your support of the Monastery of the Holy Cross, and we hope that we reward this support by our own sacrifices for the sake of God’s glorious kingdom!