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.
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. 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. We thank all of those who have supported us in our mission and hope that we reward this support by our own sacrifices for the sake of God’s glorious kingdom!