FRIDAY SEPTEMBER 6 2013
SCOTTISH CATHOLIC OBSERVER
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.
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