When most people today think of a monastery, they envision a romantic, bordering on ethereal scene of hooded hermits floating around a dimly lit corridor toward a stoney church, preparing to chant eerily beautiful hymns to a hidden deity resting somewhere in the clouds.
But the Middle Ages have passed, and real life monks have had adapt their centuries old traditions to the context of contemporary society. The landscape of postmodern geography make this work of aggiornamento a taxing task to say the least. Today people live in urban cities, the suburbs, and rural regions (and some dwelling somewhere in between). The earliest monks, on the other hand, retreated from urban cities to secluded deserts—not so much for the sake of escaping “the world”, but more so to stand apart…or above the world.
St. Anthony is the earliest recorded monk in history to have taken up this daring vocation. Subjecting himself to austere mortification, his holiness soon began to attract visitors who were in need of blessings or spiritual renewal. The buzz grew so much that young men and women started moving into the deserts with solitary hermits like Anthony. It wasn’t until long that monasticism took on more of a communal structure, inspiring the monks and nuns to move out of the desert and closer to the outskirts of the city.
Monks managed to live lives distinct from those who worked in the world, while still offering both spiritual and practical services to the world. From education, to brewing beer, and offering up mortifications for the salvation of souls, everyday lay people could depend on the support of their “separated” brethren in the monasteries.
I have the privilege of working in a very modern monastery, located in the center of one of New Jersey’s most bustling cities. The Benedictine Abbey of Newark has had a history of serving central Newark’s immigrant population for over 150 years now. St. Benedict’s Prep, the school on the abbey grounds, began serving Germans, Irish, and Italians when it first opened, and now serves its mostly African, black American, Latino, and Brazilian neighbors.
One may wonder how it’s possible for Benedictine monks to live in obedience to millennium and a half old monastic rule in the middle of an urban city. I often wonder that too, even after working with the monks for four years now. But as our headmaster repeatedly reminds us, “it works.”
I recently had the opportunity to visit another Benedictine monastery located in a rather different environment, to say the least. Ampleforth Abbey, located in the quiet and secluded region of York, traces its roots back to pre-Reformation England. Though the both communities share the monastic tradition of St. Benedict, I expected to encounter a new and unfamiliar form of monasticism. British monks living in rural England can’t have much with American monks in a city with one of the highest murder rates in the nation. But to my surprise, I couldn’t help but feel at home. The familiarity of their lifestyle brought to my attention some aspects of Benedictine spirituality that are universal, no matter where it’s lived.
First is the vow of stability. Benedict required his monks to stay put in the first community they enter. This vow proved to be a dramatic challenge for the monks in Newark after the race riots in the late 60s. Should we stay put and find ways to serve our new (black American) neighbors, or should we move to a community where our way of life can be lived more comfortably? Unfortunately this decision split the community, half of the monks staying behind in Newark and the rest moving to the suburbs. Soon after the riots ended, the monks reopened the school, drastically adjusting its structures to respond to the needs of their neighbors.
The monks at Ampleforth also know what it means to plant their roots deep into their community. Many of them entered monastic life immediately after graduating from the high school that’s on the Abbey grounds. The oldest of the monks have been on the grounds for nearly 70 years. The connections that the monks forge with each other and their neighbours gives way to a strong network of love and solidarity. In a society where people have to move around from place to place due to job changes, economic issues, or just for commitment issues, that sense of rootedness in a network is both an anomaly and a light of hope.
The monks’ rootedness in their locales allows them to offer important services to their neighbors. Though the surrounding populations are distinct from each other, they find ways to respond to the needs of their respective communities. As I already mentioned, both monasteries serve the local youth through their high schools. St. Benedict’s Prep’s service to its students is especially powerful, considering the tumultuous state that most of Newark’s public schools find themselves. The school also provides financial aid to at least 85% of its students, many of whom receive full scholarships. In addition to running Ampleforth College (high school), the monks in York offer retreats to lay people, harvest produce in their orchards—using much of what they grow to make fruit preserves, as well as making honey, cider, and brandy.
Lastly, both communities dedicate themselves to the cultivation of the skill of listening. Though this skill is somewhat countercultural in our day, St. Benedict starts off the prologue of his rule with the word “listen.” In order to listen well to the quiet voice of God, it’s important for the monks to establish spaces of silence. The spaciousness of Ampleforth’s grounds is littered with spots where all one can hear is the chirping of birds and the rustling of tree branches. The Abbey church, built in the medieval gothic style, provides a quiet and aesthetically appealing space conducive to meditating on the ways God weaves his words into the tapestry of the monk’s daily experiences.
The exhortation to listen is not as easy for the monks across the pond. Between the police sirens, reggaeton blasting from car windows, and adolescent boys screaming in the hallways, finding quiet in Newark can seem to be an impossible feat. But once you step into the cloister, it’s as if you forget that you’re in the heart of what some call the Manhattan of New Jersey. The monk’s living quarters carve out a pocket of space reserved for reverent attentiveness to God’s voice, which mysteriously intertwines itself with the chaos of the school and the city.
It’s worth adding that the call to listen includes not just the voice of God, but the voices of their fellow monks, students, and other neighbors…or better the voice of God working through the voices of those that surround them. This requires that the monks cultivate an attitude of humility along with the skill of listening, looking to learn something from each person they encounter. It is perhaps in this regard that the monks offer their most significant contribution to the contemporary world which is drowning in the perpetual noises of shouting matches, commercialism, and general distractedness from reality.
As I prepare to return to St. Benedict’s, I am filled with gratitude for having gotten caught up in the countercultural world of monasticism. This ancient way of life still has the capacity to thrive in the wide array of environments and cultures that monastic communities find themselves today. In a “liquid society” like ours where constancy is hard to come by, the examples of such men and women is deeply needed.