Monastic Virtues and Ecumencial Hopes
The Archbishop of Canterbury’s
address at San Gregorio al Celio
11 March 2012: Lent 3 Monastic Virtues and Ecumenical Hops
Solitude and Communion
- The monastic reform movements of the eleventh century have in common the strong commitment to a return to the gospel. Stephen of Muret’s simple declaration that, for his community of ascetics, ‘our regula is the Gospel’ is typical of the widespread sense in that era that the Church in general and the monastic institution in particular needed to be refreshed from its primitive springs. In monastic terms that meant a movement away from the intensely organized corporate life of the great Benedictine houses, above all the family of Cluny, away from the close association of monasteries with the needs or demands of the ruling elites, and towards simplicity and solitude. It is significant that two of the most durable reforms that have their origins in this period – Camaldoli and the Carthusians – have always sought in their different ways to hold together the community life and the vocation to solitude.
- This search to hold together what seem like opposites is of course grounded in a deeply traditional Christian anthropology. Christian solitude is the way in which we allow God to challenge and overcome our individualism; in solitude, we are led to recognize the strength and resilience of our selfishness, and the need to let God dissolve the fantasies with which we protect ourselves. In the desert there is no-one to impress or persuade; there it is necessary to confront your own emptiness or be consumed by it. But such solitude is framed by the common life in which we have begun to learn the basic habits of selflessness through mutual service, and in which we are enabled to serve more radically and completely, to be more profoundly in the heart of common life in Christ’s Body, because we have had our private myths and defensive strategies stripped away by God in silence.
- Monastic practice is, therefore, at its root, a living out of the fundamental Christian doctrine of human nature as restored in Christ. And in the committed mutual service and mutual listening that the Rule of St Benedict enjoins, we can see fleshed out the belief that, in Tertullian’s words, ‘no Christian is a Christian alone’ (unus christianus nullus christianus); that we are never healed without the healing of the neighbour also. ‘Our life and our death is with our neighbour’ is one of the best known sayings of St Antony, after all. And in this we begin to see something of how the monastic life, especially as it includes solitude as a dimension of community, speaks to the entire world of Christian diversity. One of the hardest yet most important lessons the different Christian communities today have to learn is that they cannot live without each other and that no single one of them in isolation possesses the entirety of the Gospel. God has used the often tragic divisions of Christian history in such a way that each community has been permitted to discover new depths in this or that particular emphasis in doctrine or devotion. And the challenge of the Lord of the Church is that we should recognize this diversity of providential discovery in one another. The enforced ‘solitude’ of a Christian community, cut off from others by doctrinal dispute, is from one point of view a disaster, in that it takes all Christians that little bit further away from the fullness of truth. But God’s providence has also ordered things so that diverse and separated communities are able to go deeper into diverse aspects of discipleship and orthodoxy. Who could deny, for example, that the historic ‘peace churches’ of the Anabaptist tradition have been for the older ecclesial communions a sign of judgement, a way in which God has called all the churches to recover their abhorrence of violence in his name?
A new creation: the Community of the Word
- The life of solitude and communion together, then, is itself a matter of ecumenical significance. Thinking about our divisions in the light of this allows us both to repent for whatever has divided the churches as a result of sheer human pride or perversity, and also to thank God that in our enforced ‘solitude’ we have been shown treasures that we now have to share with one another. But there is another lesson that monastic practice has to show to the ecumenical world by its attempt to return to the Gospel. It was once customary to speak of the religious life as a response to the ‘evangelical counsels’; then, in the light of the twentieth century renewal of the sense of the radical calling of the whole people of God, such language became something of an embarrassment. Yet it still has some real significance. The call that Jesus utters in the pages of the Gospels is undoubtedly a call into a community in which other kinds of human belonging together are cast into shadow. It is a call into a community that finds its deepest unity in God, and not in the simple natural affinities of the world around. It stands alongside all these forms of belonging – ethnic, political, linguistic, familial – and says that the Body of Christ is a new nation, a new polis or city, a new language taught by the spirit, a new family.
- What would a church life look like that saw itself as shaped primarily by the Word in such a way that the relation to God’s call was the single determining factor in holding a community together? It is possible to read the history of monasticism as a continuing wrestling with this question. The monastic community did not depend on race, family, natural affinity; it is striking how ‘international’ the monastic world of the fourth and fifth centuries is, in the sense of the number of people who find their vocation in settings alien to their class and upbringing. Think of the presence together in Scetis of the Ethiopian peasant Moses and the cosmopolitan Arsenius or Evagrius. The language of this new community is not simply one of the dialects of local society but the language of the Word. It coheres around the divine Word, both in listening and in speaking. The community listens to the Scriptures, but it also speaks Scripture. When monastic communities recited the Psalter, they were not repeating texts form a human hymnbook, but – on the prevailing understanding of the psalms – joining in the words that Christ himself was speaking on behalf of his Body. It is a theme that finds its strongest and most beautiful articulation in Augustine, but it is not unique to him: the psalms are the place where Christ makes our speech his own; and so when we recite the psalms, we are deliberately putting ourselves in the context of this speech that is both divine and human, the dialect of the incarnation. In the psalms, our passion and questionings are touched and lifted and transfigured by Christ.
- To be a community of the Word, then, is to be assembled by the authority of Christ’s call and, in response, to speak Christ’s own language. This is what is utterly new and distinct about the Church, and in this sense monasticism is a reminder of the Church’s newness, its perpetual recovery of what makes it different from any other human gathering. Of course the Church in history is frequently a body that slips towards identification with kin and nation and class. St Teresa had to struggle in sixteenth century Avila to prevent convents being flooded with indigent relatives of the sisters in search of a comfortable life. Some monasteries have an ambiguous record, not least in the twentieth century, of passionate identification with nationalist causes, because of a long and often generous and positive sense of being at the heart of local communities. Many houses have imperceptibly restricted themselves to a certain class of postulant (Teresa has much to say about this too). Every serious monastic reform has to tackle at least one of these issues.
- And the willingness to undertake such self-critical reform is one of the reasons for the wider Church to celebrate the monastic life and to learn from it. Christian communions can become wedded to nation, class and family (either literally, or in the shape of a comfortable middle-class attitude to ‘family values’); they need to be recalled to the truth that it is the Word—the free outpouring of God the Father in the eternal reality of God the Son—that creates the Church: creatura verbi, in the old terminology. We are sisters and brothers in the Church not because we naturally and instinctively belong together, agree, or speak the same language; but because we are summoned to be together in our strangeness to each other, and to be faithful to each other in that strangeness – not because we naturally like one another and would be loyal to one another anyway!
- The monastic ideal is thus something that stands in opposition to anything that looks like a ‘tribal’ Church. It tells us that the hope of a truly universal reconciliation is only to be found in a Church that is able to look beyond natural affinity and to sustain bonds that are in their way as strong as those of kinship or marriage – a bold aspiration indeed. How many or how few are the monastic communities which really embody this, the important truth is that it is possible and that the Church at large needs monastic community life as almost a sacrament of its dependence on the Word. If we want to speak about the ecumenical significance of monasticism, this, I believe, is the heart of the matter: the monastery shows a Church that is unified simply in the divine Word, spoken and heard.
- But this ecumenical significance is not, therefore, a question of monasticism somehow being able to resolve conflicts by sheer human charity or fraternity; it is in its plain appeal to the roots of distinctively Christian identity in the summons that Jesus addresses to every human identity – city, nation or family. Natural affinities are not by any means evil or to be destroyed; they may well be used positively in their diversity, as are the diversities of Christian belonging. But they do not themselves embody the newness of the Gospel, which is seen in the holding together, in one language of prayer and praise, of different identities, Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female. Whenever we are tempted to take refuge in confessionalism, in an over-seriousness about our particular historic identity over against other Christian communities, we are going to need communities, whether conventional monastic communities or the less conventional communities that have arisen in recent decades as well (Iona, Sant’ Egidio and so on). to hold us to the radicality of the Gospel’s promise to make a holy nation, a new city and a universal kindred out of strangers.
Prayer, hospitality and simplicity
- Enzo Bianchi, in a seminal meditation on ‘Monastic Life and the Ecumenical Dialogue’ (Monasterio di Bose, 2000, p.15), speaks of monastic life as ‘truly an epiclesis in action’, an invoking of the Holy Spirit who creates unity in plurality at Pentecost. One of the aspects of the way the New Testament talks about the Holy Spirit is that this Spirit is both the power that creates the explosion of diversity at Pentecost and the power that creates in us the one devastatingly simple utterance in which we express our identity in Christ – ‘Abba, Father’. That prayer, as it is understood by St Paul in Romans and Galatians, is about both maturity and absolute dependence; it speaks of our growing out of fear and out of the state of mindless servitude, and equally of our sense of a new identity that is simply given by grace. Praying such a prayer, we are at one and the same time as totally dependent as a newborn child and as authoritatively free as an adult. The prayer tells us that a kinship is now established with the eternal Word, who enables us to say what he says to the Father; and that this kinship is open to all, capable of being shared with all. This is the heart of our belonging together – the Spirit’s gift of saying what the eternal Word says.
- And so a community living out this ‘epiclesis in action’ is bound to be a hospitable community. Faced with the stranger, its first instinct is to listen for the Word spoken in them, because there is no ready-made assumption that we know what kind of person, what kind of visitor, will be more or less likely to speak God’s Word. The historic indiscriminateness of monastic hospitality reflects this listening expectancy. It is put with memorable and typical directness by Madleleine Delbrel in one of the aphorisms in her Alcide (translated as The Little Monk, New York, Crossroads, 2005, p.11); ‘When the phone rings, expect a call from God. (The little monk, upon receiving a phone call at 11.30 p.m.)’. And when it happens that a community or family of communities deliberately dedicates itself to engagement with the imaginative and intellectual life of a society, this is an extension of hospitality; the history of Camaldoli up to the present day shows many examples of what this might mean. We have seen many instances also of what may happen when this hospitality is extended to those of other faiths; it would need another full-length discussion to explore the importance of monastic families in interfaith encounter, but it is perhaps enough to recall that Thomas Merton’s last address was given in just such a context. Once again, this is about the readiness to listen for the Word in the stranger, even if they have no familiar vocabulary for articulating that Word. Always, the stripping and simplicity of authentic monastic life makes the monastic alert to the simplicity of the Word’s utterance – those plain words of intimacy, dependence and confidence, ‘Abba, Father.’
The whole People of God
- Perhaps this is indeed what monastic asceticism is ultimately all about – a simplification of life and language, so that this one utterance can be spoken and heard as clearly as possible, the taking away of both chatter and rhetoric, both in life and in liturgy, so that no-one should be prevented from recognizing the Word either by any indulgent elaboration, or any borrowing of the ways in which the world at large (or for that matter the Church at large) declares the presence of power or advantage. This is not to say that something like early Cistercian Puritanism is the only aesthetic for a true monastic environment, only that there needs to be a basic simplicity of structure in building, art and liturgy so that the plain centrality of the Word spoken and heard can be seen to shape the whole community enterprise. This connects with the ancient insistence that monasticism is first and foremost a lay movement, and that those whom Benedict calls ‘the priests of the community’ are simply the servants of the brothers or sisters, not automatically a group with privileges or powers within the community. And the importance of the lay character of monasticism is another significant contribution to the ecumenical encounter. So much of the detail of ecumenical debate seems to focus compulsively on issues that affect the understanding of ordained ministry. These are not trivial, by any means, and we are not absolved from thinking them through. But the Church is the whole People of God, the assembly convened by the Word; the clergy are there to repeat—in some sense to embody—that call, but the common experience of the laity in every Christian community is to be called. To the extent that the monastic community steps aside from simply replicating clerical modes of power or privilege it is at once recognizable as a place where the Word is heard, as it is by laypeople of every confession.
- The importance of monastic life to the ecumenical conversation is thus not simply in the undoubted fact that monks and nuns of different confession are able to relate to one another freely and appreciatively, significant and creative as that undoubtedly is. I have been suggesting that there are aspects of monasticism as such that enable us to understand more fully some things about ecumenism, and that make monastic communities crucial partners in all ecumenical encounter.
- The first point is to do with the general understanding of Christian personhood: there is no solitary self-definition for the Christian person, and so there cannot be for the Christian confessional group. If we are divided, if we live in a sort of imposed ‘solitude’ and separation from each other, we must ask what gifts God has allowed us to develop in that ‘solitude’ so that we may learn to give them afresh to each other. In this respect, the experience especially of those communities that seek to balance solitude and community life is of special interest.
- The second point is about how the monastic community models the Christian life as one in which the ultimate determining agency is the Word of God. Decisively, what makes the Church the Church is not any kind of contingent affinity or planned strategy of alliance but the single fact of the Word, heard in worship and echoed in worship (in a very particular sense in the psalms understood as the prayer of Christ, our language being taken up into his). Since the Church always needs signs and reminders of its nature when it is tempted to slip into the tribalism of race or class or ‘agenda’, the dependence of the monastic community simply on the Word is a gift to the Church’s self-critical energy.
- And third, the understanding of the monastic life as epiclesis means that it prays for the Spirit not only to create diversity in plurality but to focus life and prayer on the one ‘word’ in which we express our growing-up into Christ and our dependence on his indwelling. Monastic simplicity is one of the ways in which we are recalled to this central reality. And when we begin again from there, we are liberated for hospitality at a profound level. Standing ‘at an angle’ to the Christian conventions of hierarchy, the monastic community represents straightforwardly the people of God, the laos, in a way that allows a real commonalty of experience to create unexpected relationships of understanding and sympathy.
- Of course monastic communities will embody all this in very uneven ways. The rich dialectic of solitude and community can break down into a polarity of conformist and regimented common life and the longing to escape from it. Read Thomas Merton’s journals, and you can see how hard it is (how hard it was for him) to discern what was a matter of an authentic vocation to solitude and what was conditioned by reaction to just such a regimented common life. Again, as we noted earlier, monastic reform happens because even monastic families are liable to ‘tribalize’ community life in one way or another and to obscure the basic singleness of the call of God’s Word. Monastic communities like all other Christian families may become defensive and anxious, surrounding the essence of their life with various more or less elaborate ‘subcultures’, or reproducing power relations that belong elsewhere. But the history of monasticism is a history of rediscovery and reconstruction, of continuous self-questioning as to whether the simplicity of the Word’s calling has been overlaid. From Romuald, Bruno and Bernard to Teresa to Roger Schutz the same impetus has been at work. And in that constant return to poverty, the refusal of anything that suggests we depend on anything but the Word, there is a word of profound challenge to the whole Church.
- In its struggle for fidelity to this vision, the monastic community always calls the church to reformation; and one thing we have discovered in the last century is how deeply that re-formation demands of us a re-discovery of one another in our confessional diversity and a search for how we may become able to serve one another more freely in Christ’s Body – in the profound hope that we shall be together once more at Christ’s table, where he ‘speaks himself’ into our lives in the speaking of his words over us, and his gifts of bread and wine, and where we become, by his Spirit, a new creation.