Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Monastic life at Nunraw Abbey 2 - Abbot Mark

Autumn Ivy & Rowan harvest

Roots are the firm foundation for our lives,
and for our Faith.
ABBOT MARK CAIRA of NUNRAW writes in this week’s SCO spirituality section.

It’s common enough nowadays to want to go back to our family roots, to see where we came from.  We need to feel that we belong to someone or we like to become identified with something.   We want to get to the truth of our history.  So much of what we believe about ourselves and our past may have become oversimplified and maybe distorted.  The truth can often be more interesting than what we first believed.  It would be surprising if some of our personal history or anything that we are associated with did not have a degree of fiction about it.  However, we are told that the truth will set us free.  To be someone we don’t have to be larger than life, like some of the mega stars in today’s world.

Like all religious Orders, Cistercians have been looking at their early history.  Contrary to a popular belief, St Bernard was not their founder.  That popular assumption may have arisen because Bernard wrote so much about the life and times of the Order, or perhaps from the influence he undoubtedly had in his own lifetime.  Before he appeared on the scene, it was a small group of monks who founded the monastery of Cîteaux in 1098 in northern France. This was the seed that grew into the Cistercian Order.  

This little band of monks was led by Sts Robert, Alberic and Stephen Harding, an Englishman.  Each one of them no doubt had their own strengths and weaknesses of personality.  But together they put down their roots in the wooded area of Cîteaux.  There they set about creating a suitable environment in which they could continue their search for God.  There are different reasons given as to why they left their monastery to make this new foundation.  The one that lies nearest the truth is that they wanted to live the Rule of St Benedict more strictly according to what they believed St Benedict intended when he wrote his rule for monks in the sixth century.
It used to be claimed that these first Cistercians were reacting against a decadent monasticism.  That is far from the truth.  The eleventh and twelfth centuries were periods of enormous change in Church and society.  People were being challenged with new ideas and ways of doing things.  There were obvious risks involved but peoples’ lives did become more meaningful.
In the Church itself at this time, men and women were being drawn by charismatic and holy figures who were setting up new forms of community life.  What they were offering was different from what went before. This upsurge of interest threw up new forms of monastic life some of which still exist today.  Perhaps the best known of these are the Carthusians under the inspiration of St Bruno.
The Benedictine monks of this period were themselves far from decadent.  One accusation against them was that they were lax or had lost their vision.  But it wasn’t entirely a case of White Monks (Cistercians) rejecting the loose living of Black Monks (Benedictines).  Around this time, for example, there were the Benedictine monks of Cluny who lived edifying lives.   These were headed by a number of very holy abbots over a period of 200 years.  The feast day of these Holy Abbots of Cluny is kept on 11 May.

Then and Now
Robert, Alberic and Stephen and their companions left their original monastery because they sought to live more simply and strictly than their monastery allowed.  They didn’t leave to follow some charismatic figure.  With St Robert and his companions it was a matter of doing things together.  When Robert was asked to return to his previous monastery, Alberic was elected Cîteaux’s next abbot and when he died Stephen was chosen to replace him.
It was only later that the first monks of Cîteaux began to develop and organise their lifestyle so that their first spirit would be protected for the future.  They adapted to the times.  Because of that they became the most influential and popular of the new monastic groups of the twelfth century.
These early Cistercians were responding to changed times in which uncertainty and experiment were part of the spirit of the time.  God was still calling people to leave their ordinary ways of life but the manner was different.  The characteristics of the Cistercian way were the call to simplicity and authenticity, without giving up beauty in their liturgy or pleasing forms to their buildings. 
Religious communities today are facing reduced numbers.  This does not necessarily mean that the days of religious communities are over.  But we do need to be more alert in today’s world to what God is asking of us.  People are still searching for God, seeking how to tune into his wavelength.  It is the vocation of everyone to make time and space in their lives to receive the message God is sending out.  Not all of us are good at this but we can all pray that those who do have this gift from God may help us become more attuned to it.
The men and women of the eleventh and twelfth centuries were called to serve God in the new ways that their society both offered and needed.  God didn’t stop calling them to give themselves to the needs of the Church and society then.  It’s not likely that he has stopped doing that now. 
Through the ages every religious order has had to take stock of itself.  Everyone in fact needs to do that.  Those who do this well will find peace in their lives.  Those who do not are likely to wither.  It is the old call of the Gospel for renewal and transformation.  When we let God into our lives we get to know what the love of God is.  If we don’t make an effort to do this or simply ignore God, it doesn’t mean that he will leave us alone – just that it will take God a little longer to show us what is best for us.

+ + +

Monastic life at Nunraw Abbey - Abbot Mark

Jesus lies at the heart of spiritual life and prayer
In the first article of a new series on spirituality, ABBOT MARK CAIRA from Nunraw Abbey explains the many benefits of monastic life.

The general reader may be forgiven for wondering what the monastic life has to offer them.  They probably see that there is a place for the monastic life in the Church and that monasteries may even be somewhere they may want to go to visit and perhaps even stay for a few days to unwind and recharge their batteries. But monasteries seem to have no immediate link with ordinary life in the world.  Monks and nuns, after all, are people who ‘leave the world’ to follow their vocation.  They live a life that is totally different from the rest of mankind and they should be left alone to get on with it.  - Is it as simple as that?

The Church is, in the main, immersed in ordinary society.  Christians are meant to live out their calling from God and to make the world a better place for their being a part of it.  It is true that we all don’t always live up to our calling. but Christ’s call is not to give up.  When we do fall down we need to see ourselves as we are, get up after each failure and walk more humbly before God.  Whatever befalls us we are called to continue anew following the Gospel through all the twists and turns of our lives.  That applies to monks and nuns as well as the rest of the Church and society.

We are all human.  We all receive the gift of life in Christ through our baptism.  Monks and nuns have a great deal in common with the rest of the Church for they bleed like the rest of mankind.  They get tired and hungry like everyone else.  And, as with everyone else, they have a need to know and love God.  It is good to remember these basic truths in this time of renewal in the Church as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Vatican II.  Pope Francis has also been encouraging us in these months after his election to take up the challenge offered us by Christ and to joyfully engage in the life he offers us.


What is the point then of going to live in a monastery when God can be loved and served in ordinary everyday life in the Church and society?
One way of answering that question, perhaps, is take a closer look at the makeup of society in general.  In everyday life people choose to live in different ways.  They take different jobs, they make different choices in how and where they live.  They choose to marry one person and not another or they may decide to live singly.  We who believe that God is present in all of our lives know that he actively helps us to decide where our greater happiness in life lies.  
Everyone has a vocation be it to marriage or the single life.  Within either state of life they may feel called to other things as well, like nursing or teaching.  The monastic life in its various forms is one such option that some feel God is calling them to follow.  As in other vocations it needs prayer and enough time and space to discover if that is what God is really asking of them.
Being a priest or a religious has often been described as being a ‘higher’, or ‘better’, vocation than others.  The natural temptation was to seek this ‘higher’ vocation, according to that way of thinking, rather than what it was that God was offering. 
The understanding of Martha and Mary in the gospel gives a good insight into the question of vocation.  We are often told quite clearly that, to quote the Gospel, ‘Mary had chosen the better part’.  That seems to put Martha in her place.  But, it is interesting to note that in the calendar of saints, on the 29 July, the feast of St Martha, the Cistercian Order celebrates not just Martha but also that of her sister, Mary, and Lazarus her brother.  In a commentary on this feast, St Bernard tells us that a monastic community can profitably learn from all three of these saints and not just from the ‘contemplative’ Mary.  In a monastery monks need to work and they suffer illness, as much as to pray and to do other things that are necessary for the normal organising of life lived together..
There are many God-given vocations in the Church.  The only perfect one for us is the one that God calls us to live.  Often we find it difficult to find out what that means for ourselves. 

Life in a monastery is different from what most would regard as normal.  And yet, when you put aside the fact that monks live mostly within the confines of the monastery and with a set pattern to their life, what they do from day to day is what most people already do outside the monastery.   Besides their time for prayer, they work and rest.  There is the daily upkeep and cleaning of the abbey to be seen to; there are meals to be prepared.  Newcomers to the community need training into the spirit and understanding of this life they have chosen and to be shown when necessary the practical day to day organising of the community life.  There are also the physical needs of those who are unwell and the elderly to be taken care of.  So, monks may be ‘out of the world’ in one sense but they are very much grounded in the needs and realities of everyday life. 
The early Cistercians, in the twelfth century used their energies and talents to build their monasteries and set about reclaiming the uncultivated land around them.  Their ingenuity was put to good use in all of this.  Their lives were very much rooted in the world that God created.  Their minds and hearts were centred on God.  But it was Jesus, the Word made man, that lay at the heart of their lives and prayer.  That is the lifestyle that has been handed down to the present day Cistercians.  Perhaps we can consider that in some detail at a future date.

 + + +