Evangelizing Monasticism

The Nashville Dominicans’ spirit of evangelization permeates their life, which in some respects appears fairly traditional.

In 2017, the General Chapter of the Trappists took as their theme the vision of a monastic future for the order. There Dom Erik Varden, of Mount St. Bernard in England, gave a talk concerning his vision of the order for the twenty-first century (see Alliance for International Monasticism Monastic Bulletin, no. 114). He spoke of how when he arrived in 2002, his community was hesitant to embrace any change. After years of upheaval in the wake of Vatican II, they were tired of change and did not want to open wounds caused by the hard-won status quo. While he could appreciate many of the good things that had come from the community’s updating, it was hard to know which elements were permanent and which were to be more passing kinds of changes. How was the received tradition to be interpreted today when it was based on “an unsharable experience: on having been there at the time”? In order to continue to pass on the heritage to a new generation, he posited, “we latter-born” must find a way to “make our return ad fontes.”

It seems to me that many U.S. monastic houses have struggled with this issue as well. How do we transition from one generation to another, allowing each to make its own updating for the day by returning to the sources of the tradition? How can facilitating this process be undertaken not as a repudiation of the wisdom of our elders, nor of the guidance of the Council itself, but as a natural, ongoing form of aggiornamento indeed called for by Church documents concerning consecrated life?

As I ponder what such a process might look like today, evangelization emerges as a key theme that responds to today’s signs of the times. In a world of increasing secularization, evangelization makes sense. No longer a new theme in Church life, evangelization and the idea of “missionary discipleship” seem to have permeated most parishes, if not every parishioner’s consciousness. Monasteries, however, seem to be a little slower to see how this connects with their life.  In 2014, at St. John’s Monastic Institute, I gave two talks on how monasteries could embrace evangelization; the following year the Institute as a whole took the theme “Monasticism: Soul of the New Evangelization.” While some attendees may have taken some of the ideas gleaned from these gatherings and applied them at their own monasteries, I don’t get the impression that evangelization is permeating monasteries the way it is permeating youth ministry.

In short, I think evangelization is the lens by which we are called to do aggiornamento today. However prayerful and reflective a monastery might be, however cloistered, living the life with a spirit of evangelization protects a community from becoming too turned in on itself. Our communities must exist to serve the Church and the world. How can we best proclaim to the world the worthiness and beauty of devoting one’s life to Jesus? Our life should stand as a witness that invites others to come to know and deepen their own relationship with the Lord, both in personal prayer and the experience of community life.

When we do the ressourcement that should accompany such an endeavor of updating for today, we may find that in the roots of our tradition we have resources and practices that can help us to evangelize: exquisite beauty in liturgy and music, liturgical sacred art that amplifies the action taking place, a rich visual culture marked by processions, eye-catching vestments, flowing habits. Our tradition of working with a spiritual elder could provide a model for how we might provide mentorship and spiritual direction to those who are searching for their own path. St. Benedict’s call for hospitality could invite us to consider how we meet our guests and how we can help them meet Christ when they come to us. In an age when relativism tends to hold more sway than steady principles, traditional concepts of obedience, stability, and fidelity to the monastic way of life become countercultural and meaningful in a whole new way.

In other words, used with a spirit of evangelization, some things that may look traditional now can be used in a way that is fresh, not anachronistic. Something like a habit could be chosen not for the sake of nostalgia, but for the sake of helping the faith of rising generations, who must sift through more data than they know what to do with and who need quick visual cues as to who and what we are. Concepts of community life that in the past might have been seen to be overly constrictive now may offer stability and structure where there has been none. We are living in a different time, and order is calming in a disordered world. Through the lens of evangelization, such moves must constantly include reaching out to those who do not yet know the fullness of the joy of the Gospel. It’s not about fighting old culture wars. This is no return to the Church of 1952. It’s about being who we say we are, unapologetically, and pointing to Christ, in the most effective ways possible.

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