Br Stuart

Br Stuart on vocation

Br Stuart on his vocation & monastic life

This text originally appeared in Frank Monaco’s Brothers and Sisters: Glimpses of the Cloistered Life (2001). The unimaginative headings are our own. 

On first contacts

As a child I loved to play in the sandstone ruins of Lanercost Priory in Cumbria, visualizing processions of cowled monks singing their haunting chant, imagining habited brothers round every corner, busy about their tasks. I had no thought that there might still be monks; nuns, yes, because one saw them about from time to time, but never associated them with medieval ruins.

Only years later did I discover the existence of the large number of living monastic communities: Roman Catholic, Anglican (Episcopalian), Orthodox, and even a small number within the churches of the Reformation. Most of today’s communities are smaller and without the high profile of the great medieval monasteries, but very much alive with the same life, and vibrantly so.

On my first visit to a monastic community I was surprised to find that, while some of the monks were as old as my grandfather, there were others of my own age, already looking settled and very much at home in the habit and this strangely quiet, ordered way of life. I was struck by the gentle courtesy of the monks, the twinkle of humour that momentarily lit up the otherwise serious faces – but that was before I got to know them! As I did, I discovered an amazing variety of human beings, all with very different personalities, temperaments, talents…and limitations, but all with a great sense of humour.

Where had they come from, these black-robed men who at first sight had seemed so alike? What had been their occupations? Mechanic, banker, shop assistant, librarian, doctor, teacher, waiter, pathologist, clerical administrator, research chemist, factory worker, concert pianist, soldier, computer analyst, opera singer…and even a bishop.

On motives and motivation

What was it made them, and eventually me, ring the monastery doorbell and ask to test our vocation to the monastic life?

The motives are as varied as the people, but behind them all is a lurking sense of unfulfilment, of skating on the surface of life and of who we are. We long for authenticity – to become truly who God has created us to be, as human beings, as Christians. We desire to engage with the Gospel-life “for real”. We have an overwhelming sense of being nudged towards the monastic way as the way God has in mind for us; nothing heroic or romantic, just that this is the next step on the journey.

The novice master is very clear: “Novices come and novices go, and mostly they go!” I want to insist that I am different and that I know I have come for life. The wisdom of over 1500 years does not allow anyone to rush into commitment. Moving from one culture, one way of life, to another is a slow process, and there is a lifetime’s work ahead. Is the novice really seeking God and not the fulfilment of a fantasy?

There is no ‘quick fix’ in the monastery, but a gradual building up of enough trust to begin the risky process of removing the masks and habits that have hitherto formed our persona and our coping mechanisms. Slowly the person inside begins to emerge: vulnerable, angular, unsure, and yet usually surprisingly resilient, strong and gifted in unsuspected ways. This journey of self-discovery is often painful, the moreso when one is living at very close quarters with the same small group of people day in, day out, month after month, year after year. It can be hard to hold onto the belief that God knew what he was doing when he invited each of the others as well as oneself to be part of the same community.

There is a story told of a murder in a monastery. When the detective arrived on the scene he asked the abbot whether anyone might possibly have a motive for committing the murder. “In a monastery you’d be hard put to find anyone who didn’t have a motive!” the abbot replied with a mischievous twinkle.

When we see in others things we can’t yet acknowledge or accept in ourselves, a very strong reaction can easily be provoked. Hence the need to create an atmosphere of great tolerance which will encourage the individual’s journey while at the same time safe-guarding the corporate life of the community. “Support with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behaviour, earnestly competing in obedience to one another,” says St Benedict.

On the life

The context in which this becomes possible is a culture of quiet gentleness and acceptance with a strong and purposeful rhythm. Silence in order to be able to listen, to be alert, alone and with the others. A gradual stilling and quietening of the mind in order to hear: the psalms recited over and over again, articulating the whole gamut of human experience; the reading and pondering of the Scriptures, telling of God’s dealings with his creation…and the living as part of that creation, noticing with wonder the delicacy, intricacy and interdependence of the life that shares the world with us. All this supported by the steady rhythm of worship and work, of community and solitude, of rest and recreation.

A guest (and ‘guests are never lacking in a monastery’) once asked an old monk, “What do you do all day?” “We fall down and we get up. We fall down and get up, again and again.” The guest’s curiosity was disappointed, but the old monk had gone to the heart of the life: the readiness to begin over and over again.

“What do you seek?” the abbot will ask before a monk takes his vows, “The mercy of God,” he answers. That is true of every monk and nun. The life is a constant discovering that God’s mercy can cope with every inadequacy and failure, and this truth is reflected in the quality of the mercy and the love which the members of the community are able to show each other.

Monastics are far from perfect, far from complete, but to know this gentle acceptance of the truth of who we are releases a huge amount of quiet, joyful energy that finds its expression in praise and service. The monastic life costs not less than everything, but the God who calls us promises the hundredfold and life with a capital ‘L’!