Social Justice in Miniature: The Life of a Benedictine Monastery

Last week, I returned to the Lord’s Day, which celebrates the beginning of the new creation in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the inbreaking of his grace and salvation into this world of time, through which man returns to God, as the foundation of right order in human society. The chief activity of the Lord’s Day is the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

We can consider, in miniature, an order built around the Mass and the Lords’ Day in the life of a contemplative Benedictine monastery. I had the privilege of residing for about 9 months at the Abbey of Notre Dame de Fontgombault in France. The monastery was originally founded in 1091 but was suppressed in 1791 during the time of the French Revolution. It was refounded in 1948 as a daughter house of St. Peter of Solesmes. The Abbey of Fontgombault has since established other monasteries (daughter houses) including one in Clear Creek, Oklahoma.

I have a vivid memory of standing in the ancient Romanesque Abbey church as the bells for Lauds were ringing and watching the monks process in to chant the praises of God, just as they had done for centuries, apart from the interruption of about 150 years that was a result of a rebellion against God.

The monks live for God and for eternity, not for this world. Their day is structured around the fixed hours of prayer. At Fontgombault, the conventual Mass followed the hour of Terce, chanted at 10am. The priests would also each celebrate private Masses early in the morning. Everything is built on the Holy Sacrifice, everything is ordered to the Holy Sacrifice, everything flows from the Holy Sacrifice. Surrounding the Holy Sacrifice as a crown, or as the setting of the jewel, are the hours of the Divine Office, sanctifying the times of the day. There is Vigils (in the wee hours of the morning), Lauds, Prime (the first hour), Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline.

The well-known rhythm of Benedictine life is “Ora et Labora”, pray and work. All activity outside the hours of Mass and the Divine Office have to fit into the schedule of prayer. Preparation of meals, work in the garden, or the vineyard, or the forest, cleaning, laundry, maintenance work, as well as the study and teaching that is part of the monastic life, are all structured around the hours of prayer.

So also community recreation. On a few occasions I had the privilege of joining the monastic community for their ‘recreation’ when they sat together and chatted. The conversation was lively, but when the bell rang for office it was as though someone turned off the volume.

That is the Rule of St. Benedict: “Let nothing be preferred to the Work of God.” (Ch. 43)

The monastery, according to St. Benedict, is to be a school of the Lord’s service (Prologue to the Rule) so everything in the life is structured that the monks might remember God continually, do his will, and give him praise.

Because everything is structured around the hours of prayer all the other activities, from cleaning bathrooms, to plowing fields, to cooking, to studying philosophy and theology, sustain, in one way or another, the common life of the monks, the community of divine praise, and are thereby taken up into the life of praise and ennobled thereby.

When a monk who is cleaning a bathroom hears the bell ring for prayer, lays down his scrub brush, washes his hands, and goes to the church to join the song of praise, the scrub brush, the toilet, and the sweat of his brow, all rise up to God with that chorus of praise. When he returns to the bathroom 15 minutes later, he returns, we could say, with the light and love of God to fill and transform his humble work of service.

In the monastery we see clearly the ultimate purpose of all human activity in this world, from the simplest and most mundane to the most elevated and sophisticated.

All the prayer and work of the monks is also characterized by gratuitousness. The monks are all there because they have freely chosen to be there, they have freely consecrated themselves, their whole lives to the service of God in the monastery. Their gift of themselves in the monastic vows is itself a response to the recognition of God’s gift, the gift of creation, the gift of redemption, the gift of grace. Everything in life, in the order of nature and supernature, is a pure gift of God. The monk recognizes that fundamental truth and tries to respond to it with the return of his own gift of praise, with a whole life of praise.

Pope Benedict XVI in his social justice encyclical “Caritas in Veritate” wrote: “Because it is a gift received by everyone, charity in truth is a force that builds community, it brings all people together without imposing barriers or limits. … economic, social and political development, if it is to be authentically human, needs to make room for the principle of gratuitousness as an expression of fraternity.” (34)

The activity of the monks provides both for the material sustenance of the monastery and makes an economic contribution to the larger human community, but that is not the purpose or motive of the monks activity, merely a result. Underlying their whole activity is the gratuitous gift of love and life, received and given.

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.