The Monastic Vocation: A Pilgrimage through Redeemed Time

by Elizabeth Cameron Galbraith

Moderator’s note: For today’s Solemnity of Saint Benedict, as Novice Cassian Hunter makes his first vows as a Benedictine monk of Saint John’s Abbey, we offer this reflection on the monastic vocation and profession.


According to Columba Stewart in “Times and Seasons of Benedictine Life” Benedict believed ‘time had been redeemed, and that it led somewhere.’ That somewhere is the object of this post: the monastic vocation, particularly the paschal mystery that sustains its core. A monastic’s journey has timely milestones along the way, of call, novitiate, monastic profession and death. We shall examine the rituals associated with these meaning laden milestones in detail, paying attention in particular to what they reveal about the monastic vocation. Doing so will inevitably take us into the past, the present, and occasionally into projections about the future of monastic vocation, noting what we have learned, and might occasionally like to unlearn along the way.

Though the Rule of Saint Benedict [RB] is not a program of monastic formation or a chronological map of the monastic life (Stewart 107), ‘Benedict’s ample conception of the monastic vocation’ (Stewart 106) is contained therein. As the Prologue to the Rule notes with its biblical call, ‘it is high time for us to arise from sleep (Rom 13:11)’, and ‘if we wish to reach eternal life’, then ‘while there is still time, while we are in this body and have time to accomplish all these things by the light of life – we must run and do now what will profit us forever’ (RB 80, Prol. 44). Having received the call, it is time for the journey to commence, ‘clothed then with faith and the performance of good works, let us set out on this way, with the Gospel for our guide, that we may deserve to see him who has called us to his kingdom’ (1 Thess 2:12; RB 80, Prol. 21). The ‘way’ is the monastic way, and it continues with a brief time (four or five days) of ‘testing the spirits to see if they are from God’ (1 John 4:1; RB 58:1) before monks and nuns can enter the novitiate. St. Benedict’s ‘four or five days’ has morphed in our own time into a trial period of several months and up to a year. St. Benedict did, however, require a full year’s formation, a practice that has become the norm for novitiates in the Western Church. The novitiate is both a place and a process (Stewart (107). As place it is where the novitiates study, sleep and eat, with a senior monk, one ‘with skill in winning souls’, to supervise them (RB 58.5). As process, the novitiate means deepening the novice’s familiarity with both Rule and community (Stewart 107). The novice’s spiritual program: eagerness for the Work of God, for obedience and for trials (RB 58.7)!

‘Let nothing be preferred to the Work of God’ St. Benedict tells us (RB 43.3). This first aspect of the novice’s spiritual program, the Work of God, has and should continue to have primacy of place in Benedictine monasticism. (The primacy of the Opus Dei was called into question by some monastics in the turmoil of the 1960’s. See Renew and Create: A Statement on the American-Cassinese Benedictine Monastic Life Thirty-Sixth General Chapter Second Session, June 1969, 49.) According to the Directory for the Celebration of the Work of God [hereafter Directory) ‘in as much as it is the celebration of the mystery of Christ, the Work of God embraces the mystery of salvation in its totality; that is to say it includes the announcement of salvation, its fulfilment in Christ, and the prolongation of this fulfilment in the Church until it attains its plenitude at the end of time’ (Directory, 11). Yet monastics have, since the fourth century also celebrated this totality in time, and at set times of the day. By the time of Saint Benedict there were eight hours (see RB 80, chapters 8-20), encapsulating in their entirety the biblical impulse to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess. 5, 16-18). Though not all monastic institutions pray all of the hours today (three is the minimum requirement – see Directive Norms for the Celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours, 5), still a qualitative ministry of prayer is rightly considered the special charism of monastics (Directory, 14).

A world in need of redemption is a world with individuals who lack the ability to commit fully, to surrender entirely, their wills to God as the novice is called upon to do through the second aspect of the novitiate’s spiritual program: the promise of obedience. Furthermore, the monastic submits to the will of her or his superior ‘for the love of God’ (RB 80, 7.34) because, as the Rule instructs, she or he is ‘believed to hold the place of Christ in the monastery’ (RB 80, 2.2). (Blessing rites that withhold Christ and shepherding symbolism from prioresses suffer, in my view, from the theological distortion of clericalizing what it means to live in imitatio Dei.) Such obedience is a call for costly grace, the scandal of the cross (Rippinger 107) and the daily sacrificing of self, and while practically alien to our twenty first century culture, all the more necessary precisely in its counter culturalism. The Divine office, with its hinges of Lauds (symbolic of resurrection) and Vespers (symbolic of crucifixion), help remind monastics of this continual dying to self and rising in obedience to, and with Christ.

The third aspect of the novice’s spiritual regimen is trials in humility (RB 80, 448). A superficial reading of chapter seven of the Rule, which focuses entirely upon a rigorous ‘humility’ regime, can conjure fears of abusive rituals of humiliation and egregious self-abnegation. It would be unrealistic to pretend such abuses did not occur in monastic history (as did corporal punishment and the ‘calling out’ of proclamatio (Knowles, 111‑113) but the point for Benedict is that the heights of heaven are reached, paradoxically, through humility rather than exalted pride (RB 80, 7.2, fn), a lesson as appropriate – and perhaps even more so in today’s pride-obsessed culture.

As the novitiate year drew to a close St. Benedict wanted the candidate, who had succeeded sufficiently at prayer, obedience and trials in humility (see RB 80, 448), including presumably the psychological trials that inevitably accompany any major transition in life, to be ready to accept that he was “no longer free to leave the monastery, nor to shake from his neck the yoke of the rule” (RB 80, 58.15-16), in other words, ready for the permanency of monastic profession.

There has been constructive evolution in our understanding of the time appropriate to transition from novitiate to monastic profession. Whereas in the Middle Ages St. Benedict’s year was often shortened, to as little as a month or less at Cluny, modern practice suggests that more rather than less time is needed before so great an undertaking as monastic profession. The introduction of a three year period of ‘temporary vows’ before final profession has thus lengthened the probationary period. Roman Catholic Canon Law even allows the period of temporary profession to extend up to nine years!

In the Rule the rite for monastic profession consists of four main and fairly succinct elements, though each reveals profound Benedictine values. First the promissio, the candidate’s formal promise to live his entire life prescribed by the Rule, a life specified, but not exclusively, by obedience, perseverance in stability (RB 80, 58.9) of place and life (RB 80, 464-465), and conversatio morum suorum. These three promises, which have morphed into vows in current parlance, remind monastics at the outset that their profession is both a one-time ritual and a continuous, eschatological even, commitment, symbolic of ‘that singular covenant relationship of the Lord and his chosen’ (Rippinger 105). Stability, a vow potentially more challenging even for monastics in increasingly ‘mobile’ cultures, nevertheless remains crucial to Benedictine monasticism, Stability adds to obedience the element of perseverance in it, as well as connoting the cenobitic context and specific place in which that obedience is normally to be rendered (RB 80, 465). The monastic is to live out her or his obedience in the context of their own coenobium, persevering in that obedience in this same place and with this same community, following its observances, for life (RB 80, 466. See Prol.50; 58.15-16).

The third monastic promise, conversatio morum suorum, is a much debated vow (see RB 80, 459-463); one of the many ways of referring to it today is as ‘fidelity to the monastic way of life’. As such it requires a life of virtue, one ascending toward charity (see RB 80, 7.67), and metanoia, for ‘the monastic vocation is fundamentally conversion: Repent and believe the Good News (Matt 1.15)’ (Directory 15). According to Rippinger, ‘there are moments in this journey when the paschal core of our monastic profession slams us between the eyes and allows us to see the most important thing and perhaps the only thing we need to do is maintain our monastic fidelity: to remain faithful to our individual commitment to seek God alone even as we endure its imperfections… to remain faithful to a community of fellow ‘plodders’ whose pilgrimage at times encumbers and at times supports our own pilgrimage to the kingdom’. Like obedience and stability, the third and last of the Rule’s promissio vows, conversatio morum suorum has and I project will continue to stand the test of time.

After the promissio, the second element of profession recorded in chapter 58 of the Rule: petitio, occurs. At this point in the ritual the monastic places a written document on the altar of the oratory (where the profession ceremony takes place) in an act of covenant (Stewart 108), attesting to the donation (RB 58.20) of all property to the poor or the monastery (58.24), but crucially also symbolically including, in imitatio Dei, the monastic’s free gift of him or herself to the service of God. This self-donation is followed swiftly, symbolically conjoined, with the third part of the rite of profession, the oratio, in which the monk prays that his offering of self may be acceptable, using the words of Ps 118 (199): 116, “Receive me, Lord, as you have promised, and I shall live; do not disappoint me in my hope” and then asks in turn for the prayers of the monastic community. The Suscipe (“Receive me”), based upon Psalm 118, a psalm in the same breath movingly existential and eschatological, is just one example of why ‘the psalms constitute the fundamental law of prayer’ for monastics. This psalm symbolizes today as much as it did in St. Benedict’s time ‘the heart of Benedictine commitment’ and of God’s fidelity as the monastic completes each stage in his or her monastic journey (Monastic Rites of Passage, 21). Thus, in praying the psalms, whether according to the cursus set out in the Rule or according to post conciliar modifications (Directory 19 & 25) one becomes ‘the very embodiment of God’s story of salvation’ (Harmon, 87).

It is most unfortunate that subsequent Benedictine tradition found St. Benedict’s simple, and in my view elegant oratio too ‘jejune’ (RB 80, 454). Significant medieval accretions included baptismal imagery and the consecratio monachi, (“consecration of the monk”) each of which might have proven acceptable had they been kept within bounds (RB 80, 455), but they were not. In the Middle Ages the oratio evolved to include problematic ‘second baptism’ symbolism that has since been corrected with entirely appropriate ‘renewal of baptism’ imagery in most rites of profession. Monastic profession does, after all, mirror the paschal nature of the baptismal commitment, just as it mirrors the entire monastic vocation. The introduction of the consecratio monachi into the profession rite brought with it deliberate ‘ordination’ connotations (RB 80, 454-5; Stewart 109) that have proven much more challenging to correct than baptismal distortions, due to the clericalization of monasticism in the Middle Ages and well beyond. The opening of a canonical distinction between ‘solemn vows’ and ‘simple perpetual vows’ (a distinction that lasted until the 1960’s in male monasteries – Stewart, 110-111) meant not only symbolic but also very real status distinctions between choir monks, who were ordained to the priesthood and took solemn vows, and unordained lay brothers and lay sisters (nuns who did not take solemn vows), neither of whom had chapter rights or the privilege of voting on majority community matters, such as the election of their superiors. The clericalization of monasticism undeniably brought with it pastoral and educational benefits (See Renew and Create, 50), but it has also led to a skewed, and at times even detrimental (to female and lay monastics in particular) view of monastic vocation, tending toward an assimilation of Benedictine life to clerical life within the hierarchical structure of the Church, to the neglect of the distinctly monastic charism. Serious work will still need to be done (lay abbots to consider just one example) in the future to recapture St. Benedict’s conception of a decidedly non-clerical and egalitarian monastic vocation, but since Vatican II there has been progress in disentangling monastic formation from preparation for the priesthood (Stewart 111), as well as a return to the simplicity of Benedict’s oratio in modern profession rites.

Tradition prior to St. Benedict separated profession and investiture rites. In the Rule they are combined, with investiture becoming the fourth and final step in the ritual of monastic profession. Joining the community through profession means giving away everything one had before entering ‘without keeping any of it for oneself, knowing well that from that day forward one no longer has authority over even one’s own body’ (RB 58.24-5; cf. 33.4.). This gesture, in imitation of Luke 22.9, ‘this is my body, which is given up for you,’ dramatically communicates a definitive change of life (Stewart 108). The monastic is ‘stripped of everything of his own that he is wearing and clothed in what belongs to the monastery’ (RB 58.26) as a symbol of dispossession (RB 456) and final commitment to a particular community (Stewart, 110). The point is to renounce all that in the past was one’s own and to put on the things of the monastery, symbolized by the habit.

As Stewart suggests, Benedict’s concept of renunciation could not be stronger (108). Rippinger reminds that as renunciation embraced in order to follow Christ (Rippinger 110, RB 4.10) it is witness not only in the eschatological sense, but also in the fully ecclesial sense of reflecting a living sign of the paschal mystery for our times just as much as for the times of St. Benedict. There have, without doubt, been distorted conceptions of renunciation, ones that have ‘visited untold harm on the development of a healthy spirituality of monastic life’ (Rippinger 109) but a monastic vocation without renunciation risks cheap grace in my view. Of interest is the fact that post -Vatican II rites of monastic profession removed references to renunciation only to have them reappear in later versions of the rite (as attested to me by a Benedictine sister).

On the one hand there has been very little evolution in the habit as symbol of monastic renunciation and vocation (if not holiness – see RB 80, 456), as Sr. Maria Boulding could still affirm in 1980, ‘monastic life is supposed to be an eschatological sign, and the habit is a sign of monasticism’ (123). Most male Benedictine orders retain the habit, one little changed from the time of St. Benedict. On the other hand, many 20th century female monastic institutions had already (in the fallout from the Second Vatican Council) abandoned the habit prior to 1980 when Sr. Maria Boulding claimed the habit as ‘sign of monasticism.’ The historical record contains some clues as to why this abandonment has occurred. As was the case for the oratio, there were also evolutions in the ritual for investiture during the Middle Ages. For women, there was a ceremonial betrothal to Christ, sometimes symbolized by wearing a wedding dress which was then exchanged during the ceremony for the habit and veil of a novice. This also involved a haircut, a dramatic gesture in days when women outside of religious life never wore short hair. At profession the hood or a different veil and the full choir robe worn over the habit were conferred. Nuptial imagery for both men and women was not considered problematic in the Middle Ages, when marriage connoted something very different, (including women as subjugated property) from today. Today much of the bridal imagery has been discarded, and along with it for many female monastic communities has gone the habit, replaced effectively by the ring as a sign of permanent commitment (Stewart 109-110). A long history of female subjugation likely contributed to the abandonment of the habit in most female monasteries, a sorry consequence of a disappointing gender inequity in monastic (as in most of all) history. What in my view is lost in this historical mixing, is the radical and most appropriate monastic symbol of renunciation. Reconsideration of a time and circumstances appropriate habit (together potentially with the demise of the ring) would make for a worthy contribution to the female monastic future.

Investiture was the fourth and final aspect of monastic profession for St. Benedict, except that is, for ‘from that day the monastic is to be counted as one of the community (RB 58.23)’, a phrase which comes prior to the completion of monastic profession in the Rule (a vestige of the earlier separation between admission and investiture – RB 80, 457) but actually provides a most fitting conclusion to the rite. As Rippinger notes, still today, the normative context of monastic profession is life within the community (Rippinger, 107). The communitarian dimension of profession bears witness to the way in which the cenobitic monastic vocation, just as salvation, has, is and always shall be essentially a communal endeavor (cf. Matt 18.20). The dying to self which is required by the monastic vocation in fidelity to Christ is catalyst for rising in community.

‘Never swerving from God’s instructions, then, but faithfully observing God’s teaching in the monastery until death, we shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in the eternal presence’ (RB Prol.50, wording taken from the Prologue of the Rule as quoted in ‘Monastic Funeral Rite,’ Monastic Rites of Passage: Guidelines for American Benedictine Women, Federation of St. Scholastica, May 1991, 23). Monastic funerals today celebrate the fullness of baptism, the culmination of monastic profession (with lighting of paschal candle) and the union of the deceased with the Benedictine saints who have preceded her or him (Monastic Rites of Passage, 22). It is typical to sing the Suscipe in a Vigil service that includes elements of the Liturgy of the Hours, and to place copies of the Rule and the deceased’s monastic vows in the coffin. Explicitly recalling the beginning of the deceased monastic’s journey, this culminating rite is meant to signal closure to membership in the monastic community, and a sending forth of the deceased on the next stage of their journey, now fully eschatological. How fitting, that rituals and sacred symbols the monastic has encountered along her or his monastic journey return in this rite, and that some of them carry her or him beyond death itself into the great communion of saints.

Over the centuries a few Benedictine monastic rituals evolved for the better, others to the detriment of the tradition, but what has emerged through this written pilgrimage from the call to the culmination of monastic vocation and has become perspicacious in the monastic funeral rite, is that much of St. Benedict’s conception of the monastic vocation has remained constant, permanent if you will, in the last 1500 years. St. Benedict, in his humility, would surely attribute that success story to the power and the glory of God as revealed to him through the paschal mystery, but the sixth century saint and his remarkable Rule surely bear some of the credit as well.

Elizabeth Cameron Galbraith is a resident of Collegeville who is currently pursuing the Monastic Studies program at Saint John’s School of Theology and Seminary. This essay was written for the 2016 course Monastic Liturgy.

Works Cited

Maria Boulding, “Background to a Theology of the Monastic Habit,” The Downside Review 98:331 (April 1980): 110-123.

Anne Field, Editor, The Monastic Hours: Directory for the Celebration of the Work of God and Directive Norms for the Celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours, Liturgical Press, 2000.

Timothy Fry, ed., Rule of Saint Benedict 80 [RB 80], Liturgical Press, 1981.

Kathleen Harmon, Becoming the Psalms, Liturgical Press, 2015.

David Knowles, ed., The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc: Medieval Classics, Literary Licensing, LLC, 2013.

Sister Lynn Elisabeth Meadows, OSB, comment in class discussion, April, 2016.

Monastic Rites of Passage: Guidelines for American Benedictine Women, Federation of St. Scholastica, May 1991

Adrien Nocent, “Monastic Rites and Religious Profession,” in A.-G. Martimourt, et al., The Church at Prayer (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1987) 285-300.

Adrien Nocent, “The Blessing of an Abbot,” Church at Prayer 300 – 309.

Renew and Create: A Statement on the American-Cassinese Benedictine Monastic Life Thirty Sixth General Chapter Second Session, 1969.

Joel Rippinger, ‘Monastic Profession and its role in Benedictine Spirituality,’ American Benedictine Review 39 (1988) 102-112.

Columba Stewart, ‘Times and Seasons of Benedictine Life,’ in Prayer and Community: The Benedictine Tradition, 104-115, Orbis, 1998.

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