My first visit to St Augustine’s theological college was exciting for many reasons, but none more than the presence of a community of Benedictine sisters. Real-life nuns who lived and worshiped quietly and beautifully – and right where I was going to study.
I couldn’t be a nun – as my husband helpfully whispered to me as the nuns walked by, reminding me that he and our children may prevent that from happening – but my fascination with their way of life was blooming. Religious vocation is extremely different from most of our daily lives, and whether it be a monk, friar or nun; the vows and commitment may seem other worldly and mysterious to those of us looking in from the outside.
Since then, I’ve spent time studying monastic life, its everyday rhythms and routines. I wanted to wake up in the morning and try and emulate what it would be like as a nun, what it felt like to do the same thing every day (lockdown has offered more experience of this than I ever thought I’d get!) and even what it was like to eat in silence the simple diet of Benedictines. Through this, and with the help of my master’s degree, I’ve discovered that there is potential for monastic practices to be brought into ‘normal’ life.
Bringing each day to Jesus
When we consider monks and nuns, many of us focus wholly upon celibacy, their clothes and their lives in a monastery or abbey. If we can look beyond that, though, we can see a formation of life that can be imitated. The charism of the Benedictine life is encapsulated in the vows that they make: obedience to their abbot or abbess, stability in their commitment to one another and conversion of life, the utter transformation of everything they do and are towards God and towards the good of the community.
We find ourselves in the middle of an international pandemic, slowly emerging from lockdown, where we have spent extensive time with our families or in isolation from others. We can find comfort in the practices of Benedictines, who vow a life of stability, to remain with their community for the duration of their life. They stay in the same place and with the same people. They become one another’s family. It’s not dissimilar to marriage vows and the implicit commitment of raising children.
Despite daily strife and relentless monotony, the vows of community say that we will stay and see that as our vocation and calling from God. The same-ness of daily life with these people is not boring but an indication of the relentless love of God who never changes. When we put up with the annoying habits of others, the same conversation as last week, the dinner we’ve already had two nights in a row – we demonstrate stability, a lifestyle that Benedictines embrace. Living a small, quiet life and enduring others is key, and not necessarily for public ‘success’ or by the world’s standards, but by faith.
In lockdown times, stability may make your home feel like a prison. Being unable to leave home for a significant amount of time and seeing my children constantly when they are usually at school forced me to confront these feelings head on. Instead of enduring the stability, how could we flourish? How can we use the ups and downs to educate my family about persistence and grace? For us, it’s been those small monastic-like practices of bringing each small, monotonous day to Jesus and saying: “We’re doing it for you, in your service and for your glory, even if it’s just worksheets and tidying up.”
It’s the same principle in your daily ‘work’, which for Benedictine communities is divided into two: the work of God and community work. The work of God is a daily routine of scheduled prayer, which can happen up to seven times a day at the same time every day. It’s likely your family follows routines: bath time has to happen or bedtime won’t, the TV goes on and off at the same time each day for the same duration, breakfast with that particular bowl, school run at exactly 8.22am.
Prayer can be placed in amongst this naturally. Regular, predictable moments of the day can give order to our spiritual life and help us to focus our eyes on God. For families with children, this could be around meals – and transitions from one activity to another can be punctuated with a way to remember God at that moment.
Freedom from possessions
St Benedict had strong opinions on property. He believed that owning anything was a route to sinfulness. Today, desire and want, commercialism and purchasing power can lead us to distracted and competitive mindsets. When we value possessing over giving, we orientate ourselves away from thinking about the good that others need and instead prioritise ourselves. But this is tricky, because unlike in a monastic setting, it is awkward for us not to own anything personally.
For example, I’m writing this on my laptop that if I didn’t own, I’d struggle to do my job. However, in lockdown, I have given it over to many pieces of homework and online learning for my children, at the expense of my own agenda. Although I still own it, I am trying to hold it lightly (though I still get cross when they drive toy cars over the top of it!).
The freedom from desiring possessions is a monastic principle that is important for all Christians to practice. The community in Acts held all things in common so that there was no need amongst them. We can mimic that even when the law today requires that ultimately someone owns all things. As a church, we have practiced ‘grace tables’ where goods for babies and children are placed on the table to be taken for no charge by those who need them. Visitors have been amazed by the generosity and ease with which we have done this and welcomed others to do it too. It takes practice for people to receive freely that which they have not earned. What a wonderful practical metaphor for God’s gift of grace to us!
Similarly, Benedict also advised that what was owned by a community was treated reverentially. It should be cared for and treated well. Instead of wasting it, repair it. Treat all possessions as if they are the very cup of communion wine or the plate upon which the bread rests.
Be intentional and moderate
Recently, the daily discipline of exercise outside has helped us make our bodies useful and has given me a new understanding of being intentional with my days, using my time wisely. Intentional use of time in a monastic practice, not necessarily to achieve many things or to be productive in a measurable way, but to acknowledge that we stand ever before our God who has numbered our days and gifted them to us. It is our response in worship to consider how we make use of them. That does not mean business, but worshipfulness.
We can be intentional in our homes by making careful provisions for ourselves and our children depending on our needs, like Benedict. He recognised that we have different needs and should make allowances. For the case of the young boys being raised in the monastery, it may be eating more frequently, or leniency on those who were sick. Benedict was not strict for strictness’ sake. The rules that we require our children to follow, which differ in every family, should be carefully considered for the good of the children, but also the family as a whole. Some critics of modern life say that parents today are too child-centric, that children become little kings or queens of their families. Conversely some parents may be too strong and thus risk breaking their children’s spirits. Moderation in all things and thoughtfulness is Benedict’s counsel.
It’s key, however, to remember that we should be walking pace of the slowest member. This means that value is given to the person who might think that they are ‘the least of these’. We slow down and are meditative over the importance of care and compassion for someone who is differently able to us. This is extremely frustrating when you have a six-year-old who eats very, very meditatively! Yet staying with him rather than running off to wash up or disappearing into a phone is valuing him and the time spent with him. It is deliberately slowing down to the pace of the other.
Monastic practices at home should be neither prescriptive nor cumbersome, they should give life to your family rather than restrict and become another task to complete. Benedict’s aim was to moderate the stricter rules already in existence because they were hard and difficult to follow. He wanted his followers to learn to meet God and live their lives in service to him. We can add into our lives little activities that turn our attention back to him as we go continue our usual lives be it at work, school, home or church.