A twenty-minute novitiate

Six hallmarks of Benedictine spirituality
by Fr. Harry Hagan, OSB

My part in this little show began as a description of the novitiate and how it brings new people from exclusion to inclusion, from fascination to identification, and from dependence to belonging. As time went on we decided that we needed a clear focus on the values. So we came up with a list of six distinguishing features of Benedictine monasticism. In the language of Benedict these six hallmarks of community are: regula et traditiostabilitasconversatioobedientiaora et labora; and hospitalitas. I focus my discussion now in the form of a “Twenty Minute Novitiate,” which is basically a commentary on these six points.

Regula et Traditio

The list begins with regula et traditio. The Rule of Benedict is a written document, and most communities have a written statement that defines their identity and purpose and order. Nations have constitutions. Religions have scriptures. Many institutions today have mission statements. The written document typically defines the core values and processes for the group. The tradition is the living memory of how the written document has been interpreted and adapted over time to different situations. Often the tradition is captured by stories. Both the written document and the living memory are needed for the ongoing life of a community. One can neither understand nor create a monastic community only by reading the Rule, the written document. Every book needs a community of interpreters to understand and live the written text. Without a text, a community is left to the whim of the present. Both the written text and the tradition embodied in a living community are necessary.

The next three marks are simply the vows which the novice takes: stabilitas, conversatio, and obedientia.

Stabilitas

Stabilitas we defined as commitment to a particular community. Monasticism is not just a commitment to a way of life, but to a way of life in a particular monastery: to the place, to the people, to its tradition and culture. Stability is sometimes presented as a state of mind, but we have emphasized the importance of stability in the concrete and literal sense. A person identifies with the particular community by participating in its common life: that is, its common prayer, its common table, its community work, one’s service to the community, and its common recreation. Other common elements can contribute to this identification, such as common dress, a special monastic vocabulary (e.g., refectory, choir, prioress), the delineation of spaces (e.g., cloister), as well as schedule and rank. The Rule also calls us to certain community virtues such as the precedence of the common good, respect and love for the individual, and care of the sick. There are community sins as well: anger, murmuratio, and acedia (that is, the temptation to abandon the commitment). Finally Benedict creates an elaborate system for the correction of faults. While few monasteries follow his processes exactly; still every community must have some way of acknowledging faults and reconciling members. For individuals to be stable members of a community, they must be able to support with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior.

Conversatio

Conversatio has been a hot topic among scholars who have been anxious to distinguish it from conversio = conversion. RB 1980 translates the term as “fidelity to the monastic way of life.” However, in our presentation we have contrasted conversatio with stabilitas and emphasized the sense of change and becoming which lies at the root of the word convertere which means “to turn,” “to turn with.” If stabilitas means standing still, conversatio is about movement and change, about becoming, about giving oneself more and more to the monastic vocation. We point to humility as the foundation of change because humility is the ability to acknowledge and face the truth about oneself and the truth about others. By doing so, one is able to climb the way of humility which leads to that love which casts out fear. The other side of changing oneself is letting others change. Too often we need others to remain as they are, and so we become obstacles to their changing.

Obedientia

Like humility, obedientia, the third vow, is a dangerous but necessary virtue. It is dangerous because it can be easily misused to manipulate others. It is necessary because obedientia is grounded in listening, and we must listen to know whether we should stand still or change. The relationship between listening and obedience transcends cultures. In Hebrew the word šamac can mean both “hear” and “obey.” In Latin obedientia has its root in hearing: ob+audire. Obedience is not just passive listening. If you truly listen, then you will know how to respond. To obey is to respond to what one hears. The sense of autonomy in our culture makes this virtue difficult, yet there is no real learning without obedience and humility. In the Rule of Benedict, these virtues are bound up particularly with the master disciple relationship. The Rule calls for the disciple to give the self over to the magister, to the Teacher: the abba or amma. The gift of the self becomes possible because of what Benedict demands of the Teacher. To my mind the genius of the Rule shows itself most clearly in Chapter 64 on the qualities of this Teacher. I would call him a wisdom figure. Benedict’s prescriptions point to a person of discretion who holds together both justice and mercy, and if necessary grants precedence to mercy. The vertical relationship of master and disciple is not the only demand for obedientia. Chapter 71 calls for mutual obedience which is perhaps more difficult.

Ora et Labora

For our fifth hallmark, we take the great Benedictine motto “Ora et Labora.” Perhaps in another context one would hold up prayer, particularly liturgical prayer, as a value in and of itself. We have used the motto to stress the unity of life. The motto does not present two discreet things but holds prayer and work together. The chapel becomes the place for the Work of God (Opus Dei), but the work of God does not end at the chapel door. God continues to work where we work. The monastic cell is the place of solitude, but this is not a refuge from the common life. There must be time and place for both. For the individual there must be a unity of the inner life and the outer life. As Psalm 19 says: “May the spoken words of my mouth [the outside] and the thoughts of my heart [the inside] win favor in your sight, O Lord.”

A favorite quote from John Cassian also speaks powerfully to this integration of ones life:

When all love, all desire, all zeal, all impulse, our every thought, all that we live, that we speak, that we breathe, will be God, then that unity the Father now has with the Son and the Son with the Father will fill our feelings and our understanding. Just as God has loved us with a sincere and pure and unbreakable love, so may we also be joined to God with an unending and inseparable love. Then we shall be united to this same God in such a way that whatever we breathe, whatever we think, whatever we speak may be God. [Conferences, 10.7.2]

Hospitalitas

Our final hallmark is hospitalitas. Benedict identifies three groups with Christ: the Abbot, the sick, and the guests. In my opinion he does this because all three are trouble. Everyone knows that a superior is trouble. So Benedict calls them Christ. Moreover these people must be taken care of. The sick are unable to do for themselves, and so their demands are constant. Guests come at odd hours with their expectations for food and sleep. The Master in his rule is very leery of these travelers as he is of the sick, but Benedict demands vulnerability to these wayfarers who come as Christ because they are in need of service. Hospitalitas means taking care of others.

However, the guests also bring something. They bring the outside world; they bring a different experience and perspective. They bring critique. Such inward looking communities as monasteries can insulate themselves from critique, yet this is the gift of the guests. They bring the possibility of newness just as the junior member of the chapter may bring insight (quia saepe juniori Dominus revelat quod melius est). Hospitalitas is the opposite of defensiveness. It is openness and vulnerability-openness to Christ who was nailed to a cross.

To begin the monastic life, one need not achieve all of these hallmarks, for this way is a way of conversatio, a way of continuing to seek God. To begin one must only commit to the project as part of a particular community, but to commit is to give oneself.

As Br. James told us in our novitiate retreat: We don’t expect you to turn thorns into roses in just one year. We’re just looking for a little better grade of thistle.

So ends the Twenty-Minute Novitiate.

American Benedictine Academy
St. Meinrad, IN
August, 2000


“A Twenty-Minute Novitiate” is posted here with permission of Fr. Harry Hagan, OSB, of St. Meinrad Archabby