Ecclesial Customs and Memory

postulants play ball 1944
Postulants play ball below the monastery in 1944.

I’ve been doing some research lately on monastic customaries. These are documents created to supplement a community’s rule, dealing with monastic practices ranging from particulars of how liturgies are done to policies regarding postage. Some customaries are drawn up with broad strokes, presenting the spiritual aspirations of a community; others give a description of current organizational practices; others are more a list of normative policies.

As historical documents, Benedictine customaries have been around since the late eighth century, so they provide fascinating snapshots of community life as practiced in different places at different points in time. Some issues to be dealt with are timeless: even the Memoriale qualiter, the earliest known Benedictine customary, addresses how monks are to handle hacking and coughing at choir! Other customaries deal with particular issues facing a community at a particular moment.

I looked into our monastery archives at customaries from 1957, 1964, and 1968, and found them a remarkable expression of the massive changes our Church has experienced over the last 50-60 years. The 1957 customary reads like a tightly wound mechanism, layer upon layer of particular ways of doing everything from unfolding one’s napkin to accusing oneself of faults. It is riddled with themes of communication kept under tight control. It holds a tension between observation of a multitude of picayune practices of cloistered monastic life while also expecting sisters to teach in schools, often away from the monastery. While their work clearly has them serving the world, they are prohibited from entering into it too much: stopping for ice cream while out on doctor visits is prohibited, as is eating with “seculars” elsewhere. Reading even the newspaper is strictly controlled. One senses clearly this is what anti-modernism looked like in the Church before Vatican II opened up a conversation about how to be in relationship with the modern world.

The 1964 customary shows an emerging openness to what the Council was doing. While still exhibiting many limitations most of us would consider overly strict, this edition clearly moderates some earlier practices. No longer do sisters have to make up missed hours of prayer. Fewer details are given about kneeling and bowing. Sisters now are encouraged to attend PTA meetings.

By 1968, we see almost a whiplash, as the community aimed to counteract some of the earlier excesses with an opposite extreme. “Play clothes” are permitted. Sisters are allowed to stop by to visit family and friends while out walking. Where earlier, humiliations might have been part of amending for faults, now individual dignity is prized: at culpa chapter, only positive resolutions are to be shared.

For those of us born after all of this history, knowing how things were is extremely helpful. In talking with some elder sisters who lived through the customs of the earlier time, we were able to marvel together at how they survived such a distorted version of Christianity. I suddenly understood why the community so loves to stop for Dairy Queen: they still relish their freedom to do so!

At the same time, conversations around some of these historical practices has revealed how memory tends to lump together all the associations connected with trauma. While any individual monastic practice may be good, bad, or indifferent in relation to expressing the deeper Christian tradition, a constellation of practices may or may not reflect that truth. Distortions of emphasis and focus in the life can express an anthropology far removed from genuine Christian beliefs about the dignity of the human person. Thus when some sisters feel pressure to wear a habit, for instance, they immediately remember all the inhumane policies that once surrounded the practice, and connect such a thought with all the other distorted practices that once made life painful. The use of more precise visuals at rituals may trigger a similar association with all the overly regulated controls they used to experience in their movements and personal expression.

Younger people need to be aware of this baggage. In our wider Church, we face various cultural divides between what appears to be “conservative” or “liberal,” between those concerned with being observant of practices that cultivate reverence for God and those concerned with protecting the dignity and conscience of individual persons. Both are important. Both are part of being Church. For those who have lived through distorted versions of Christianity, though, the signs and symbols that some love can trigger memories of trauma.

What is the solution? I think we need to be able to talk to each other. While monasteries may have customaries in our archives to help facilitate such a window into the past, it may be helpful for those at parishes also to explore the lived experience of those who have been faithful through this momentous historical period. Those of us latter-born can’t intuitively understand what some of our elders endured, unless someone shares the context. Those who have lived through “the bad old days” can’t intuitively understand a newer generation’s desires for clearer outward markers of Catholic identity. Perhaps it could be helpful to offer multi-generational listening sessions.

Yves Congar, OP, writes about tradition as a thing that unfolds over time, developing and growing, but always remaining faithful to its truest roots. Vatican II provided space to prune away some customs that were out of accord with the deeper tradition. In the decades since then, some have aimed to reclaim customs that they believe do reflect the deeper tradition. Our practices matter, be they in the monastery or in parish life. Let’s talk.


    1. While a lot of customaries would be in monastery archives, a couple current customaries seem to be available on the web:

      A number of ancient customaries are in the mostly-Latin Consuetudines Benedictinae, edited by Kassius Hallinger in 1963. Matthew Mattingly did a translation of the Memoriale qualiter in American Benedictine Review 60:1 (March 2009).

      In terms of other scholarship, you might check out:
      – Clark Maines and Carolyn Marino Malone, eds., Consuetudines et regulae : sources for monastic life in the Middle Ages and the early modern period (2014). Includes fantastic essays in English and French (and German, I think). See especially Isabelle Cochelin “Customaries as Inspirational Sources.”
      – Bruno Albers O.S.B., Consuetudines monasticae
      – Susan Boynton has done some excellent work on the customaries of Cluny, particularly concerning how child oblates were trained for liturgical music. She has a chapter “Oral Transmission of Liturgical Practice in the Eleventh-Century Customaries of Cluny” in Understanding Monastic Practices of Oral Communications (Ed. Stephen Vanderputten, 2011). In Studia Liturgica 28 (1998), she has “The Liturgical Role of Children in Monastic Customaries from the Central Middle Ages.”
      – Susan Boynton and Isabelle Cochelin also edited a collection of essays in From Dead of Night to End of Day: The Medieval Customs of Cluny (2005).

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