Photographs by Brother Paul
Photographs by Brother Paul
The concept of monasticism is ancient and is found in many religions and philosophies. In the centuries immediately before Christ, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism all developed alternative styles of life which involved renouncing the world in some ways, in order to seek liberation or purification or union with God, sometimes as a solitary ascetic, sometimes in community.
Early Christian monasticism drew its inspiration from the examples of the Prophet Elijah and John the Baptist, who both lived alone in the desert, and above all from the story of Jesus’ time in solitary struggle with Satan in the desert, before his public ministry.
St. Anthony the Great (ca. 251-356) was the first well-known Christian to withdraw to the desert. While the earliest Desert Fathers lived as hermits, they were rarely completely isolated, but often lived in proximity to one another, and soon loose-knit communities began to form in such places as the Desert of Nitria and the Desert of Skete. The progression from hermit (“anchorite”) to monk (“cenobite”) living in community under one abbot, came quickly, when in 346 St Pachomius established in Egypt the first cenobitic Christian monastery.
The Eastern monastic teachings were brought to the western church by Saint John Cassian (ca. 360 – ca. 435). Cassian founded a monastery of monks and probably also one of nuns near Marseilles, and partly to counter what he felt were the abuses he found in Western monasticism, he wrote two long works, the Institutes and Conferences. In these books he not only transmitted his Egyptian experience (they are perhaps the oldest written record of the thought of the Desert Fathers), but he also gave Christian monasticism a profound evangelical and theological basis.
Cassian’s influence was enormous and lasted for centuries – even the smallest monastic library in Europe’s Dark Ages would have its copy of Cassian. Furthermore, St. Benedict incorporated Cassian’s thought into his monastic Rule, and recommended that his monks read Cassian’s works. Since the Rule of St Benedict is still used by Benedictine, Cistercian, and Trappist monastics, the thought of John Cassian, and the desert tradition behind him, still guides the spiritual lives of thousands of men and women in the Catholic Church.
Source: O.C.S.O. Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance – http://www.ocso.org/
From the very beginning agriculture has been an integral part of our Cistercian monasteries. The monks of New Melleray have always lived close to the land. While today we lease our crop land to local farmers, we still can enjoy the rich experience of growing food for our own table and for the guesthouse dining room. In recent years work in our expansive organic vegetable garden has been an especially rich experience for the contemplative mind.
Immersing your hands in the soil, you are immersed in the beauty of God’s creation. Garden work strengthens your solidarity with the earth and with all earth’s peoples. You are in solidarity with all of Adam’s race as you battle thorns and thistles and raise your food by the sweat of your brow, yet you need only to look up to experience the divine in eastern Iowa’s awesome blue sky, listen to the beauty of a bird’s song, or perhaps see an eagle soaring overhead. The work of your hands combined with God’s gift of our rich Iowa soil produce the simple pleasures of summer sweet corn, sweet home grown tomatoes, and fresh green lettuce. Knowing who grew the food and where it came from makes the prayer of thanksgiving before the meal all the more meaningful.
Source – New Melleray Abbey – https://newmelleray.org/
St. Benedict’s Rule for Monasteries (RB) was not the only monastic Rule available in the sixth century, but it was the most livable for people of ordinary strength. From his own experience and from the tradition of Egyptian monasticism, Benedict absorbed the authentic monastic spirit of seeking God in community. He was able to articulate his vision in a Rule that is notable both for its Christo-centric spirituality and its practical organization.
None of this would have made St Benedict the Father of Western Monasticism if it had not been for Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor, and his son Louis the Pious in the ninth century. They established Benedictine monasteries throughout their empire so as to benefit from the civilizing and unifying energy generated by these monasteries.
The RB provides a satisfying balance of prayer and work (ora et labora) that is amazingly productive. Benedictines cleared and farmed the land. In their libraries they copied and preserved manuscripts. By their prayers they helped convert and pacify the barbarians. As a result of his influence, St. Benedict is honored as the co-patron of Europe.
In our time, not only monks and nuns but also lay people have discovered the wisdom contained in the RB and are trying to live accordingly. They adapt to their own situation what the RB says about serving others, especially the infirm, about showing hospitality even to strangers, about maintaining a balance in one’s daily schedule, about reverencing Christ and his word. They are improving the quality of their life and becoming more fully and perfectly human.
Source – Trappists.org