Sylvestrine Monastic Life
-The Sylvestrine Congregation, O.S.B, initially called “The Order of St. Benedict of Montefano”, is a monastic order under the Rule of St.Benedict founded by St. Sylvester Guzzolini and approved by Pope Innocent IV with the apostolic Letter “Religiosam Vitam” of June 27, 1248.
-The Sylvetrine Congregation is a member of the Confederation of the Monastic Congregations, O.S.B., according to the “Lex Propria” of the said Confederation.
-The monks hae the following of Christ proposed by the Gospels as the supreme norm of life. Therefore the proper law of the Congregation, which has its object the following Christ, is to be faithfully observed by all the monks.
-The Sylvestrine Congregation proposes a monastic life that takes into account the aims of its Founder, its own traditions and the needs of the present times. It affords to its members in its monastic communities the appropriate means to live fully the monastic life and thus attain to the perfection of charity.
-The Sylvestrine monastic life disposes the monk to seek God in the monastic community that he may bear witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who is the way to the Father and is present in the paschal mystery, in the sacraments and in the fellowship of the brethren.
-The monk comes to the monastery to be initiated in a special way towards that goal assiduously and effectively assisted in its attainment. The ultimate end of the monastery, then, is to help the individual monk realize his personal vocation. The same goal must be safeguarded and fostered by every monastic house.
-Since the monastic profession is made in the Church and is received by the Church, the following of Christ means also service to His Church, both through prayer and through the diverse forms of apostolate. Each monastery in its own way, and in a way compatible with monastic life, takes an earnest part in the activity and mission of the local church to which it belongs, and tries to meet its needs according to its capabilities.
-One becomes a monk and a member of the Congregation by the monastic profession freely made. By his profession the monk freely embraces the cenobitic life according to the Rule of St. Benedict and the Constitution of the Sylvestrine Congregation.
-Basically the Sylvestrine cenobitic life calls for the observance of the three traditional Benedictine Vows: Stability, Conversion of Manners (which includes chastity and poverty) and Obedience, and is nourished by prayer and work.
Sylvestrine Monastic Vows
Having, therefore, a distinctive Sylvestrine heritage, a faithful living of it requires a consecration of oneself to God, in the Church, through the monastic profession of Stability, Conversatio Morum, Obedience.
The vow of stability… is the will persevere … in the holy resolution of monastic life … in the same community of brothers. By this vow, in fact, the monk expresses his connectedness to a place, to self and to the other. He is ascribed to the conventual priory, with all its virtues and defects, needs and aspirations, present situations and future developments. The monastery is, for the monk, “the house of God” and “school of the Lord’s service” and “the workshop where the tools of spiritual craft” are diligently put to use. Formation in the vow of stability needs to emphasize the aspect of being connected to place with a sense of responsibility for the environment and ecology, to self with proper attention to needs of the body and disciplines of self-knowledge and finally to others with care and compassion and with a spirit of adaptation and hospitality. The monastery is thus the locus where the monks find meaning in his relationships to the world, the self and to the other, that is to the totality of God’s creation. Thus new candidates are to be taught that, if spouses in a marriage are called upon to be faithful in “good times and in bad”, it is all the more required from those who are to follow the Bridegroom of the Church, the One who, without quitting and coming down from the Cross, persevered and made it the throne of His glory. They are to imitate Mary, the Mother of Jesus, who from the manger to the tomb followed her Son and Saviour with utmost trust and faithfulness. She, with the beloved disciple, stood at the foot of the Cross courageously and faithfully, full of hope in Him who is “Beautiful on earth…, beautiful in his miracles.., beautiful in his sufferings.., beautiful in laying down his life and taking it up again; he is beautiful on the cross, beautiful in the tomb, beautiful in heaven…and let not the weakness of the flesh distract your eyes from the splendour of his beauty” (Vita Consecrata, 24). Formed in this way, candidates may be able to embrace the cross when it appears in their lives: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it” (Lk 9, 23-24). The Cross can come in many different forms. It could well be an experience of the “dark night”: sickness, loneliness, old age and the like. Heat, cold, poverty, hunger and an oppressive climate also take their toll. A different type of dark night comes from being misunderstood, from false accusation, from frustrations and personal struggles, from contradictions and from the ingratitude of people for whom one has done much. Being let down by friends, being misjudged by authorities, experiencing friction in community or personal depression etc – all these could be times when we should “pattern [our] life on the mystery of the Lord’s cross” (From the Rite of Ordination). The experience of the dark night, and the presence of the cross, are not signs that something is wrong with our vocation or priesthood, but rather that something is right with it. For the believer, all “dark night” experiences can be purifying experiences, for each experience gives its gifts, leaving us freer than we were before, more available, more responsive, and more grateful.
Conversatio morum which is at the very heart of our dedication expresses the character of continual conversion (metanoia). It prompts the monk to abandon the ways of the world and to acquire the ways proper to the life of a monk. By this vow he allows himself to be on a journey mapped out in RB 7 on humility and in the “Royal Way” described in the Prologue to the Life of St. Sylvester. It is the journey of seeking God which, when stopped, the monk ceases to grow and an ongoing transformation leading to purity of heart, the praktike or vita actualis as Cassian calls it, echoing the teaching of Evagrius. This purity of heart, in turn, creates clarity of vision and enables one to love unreservedly. It involves a constant attention to thoughts, good or bad, that determine the direction of our lives and to attitudes behind patterns of behaviour, feelings that determine the attitudes and the motivations that inspire the feelings, as echoed in contemporary psychology. Forming ourselves to live this vow requires paying close attention to the process of behavioural change, running from fear to love. It is a decisive commitment to the spiritual life and a readiness to be mentored by others. It means committing to a way of life that involves a journey from fear to love, marked by genuine self-knowledge (humility) and involves formative patterns of behaviour (ascetical discipline) and movements of the soul (prayer) leading to purity of heart and perfect love. Loving the monastic habit and its use, according to the statutes of the conventual priory, is also a part of this formation. It highlights as well the values of faithful attendance at community meetings, family chapters, conventual chapters, etc., plus observance of the monastic enclosure. Probably one of the most important, early indications of “conversatio morum” is the willingness to listen and to accept one’s weaknesses, without trying to justify oneself, or being hard-hearted and obstinate. Formation programmes will not be effective for those who manifest extreme inflexibility and stubbornness. The first sentence of the Rule contains the entire Benedictine life programme in a nutshell: “Listen, my son, to your master’s precepts, and incline the ear of your heart. Receive willingly and carry out effectively your father’s advice, that by the labour of obedience you may return to Him from whom you had departed by the sloth of disobedience” (RB Prologue). Benedictine spirituality has no room for arrogance elevated to the level of inspiration. To cultivate a monastic mentality, we must seek counsel, take advice, listen to others. The listener can always learn, and turn, and begin again. The one who is open to others can always be filled. But once the monk becomes his own message, there is nothing else to hear, no way to grow and no chance for change. There is nothing but an echo of his own voice.
The evangelical counsel of chastity is not an explicit object of a vow of monastic profession and yet RB recommends love of chastity. The monk’s chaste life flows from his commitment to daily reform of his life (conversation morum) and from his single-minded devotion to seeking God, preferring nothing to the love of Christ. The monk is a lover, not only interiorly and spiritually, but also exteriorly and juridically. His chaste/celibate life derives from his absolute love for God and from his pure love of brothers. Living chastely in body and spirit, following the example of Christ and of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the monk makes his own the pure love of Christ and is able to attain more rapidly the perfection of charity.
Once again, the evangelical counsel of poverty is an explicit object of monastic profession. In his profession of the vow of conversatio morum, the monk chooses to live poorly as an expression of his interior surrender to the transcendent, self-forgetful love proposed by God. The RB insists that a monk must possess nothing as his own, as possessions can undermine his search for God. By embracing a poor life “in fact and in spirit”, the monk frees himself from obstacles that could lead him away from the fervour of charity and becomes a sign of eschatological life. True to the Benedictine Sylvestrine tradition, the monk opts to be content with the lowest and the meanest, considering himself a poor and worthless workman, desirous of living in monasteries that do not show pomp and luxury.
The vow of obedience immerses the monk in the mystery of Christ, who made the Father’s will his food, and learned obedience through what he suffered, to the point of death on the cross. Embraced in love, it obliges him to accept the Father’s will as his daily nourishment by submitting his will to that of lawful superiors. In a culture that exalts freedom and autonomy, the choice of obedience opens the path to the conquest of true freedom. For an adequate formation in this vow, one should be careful lest the service of obedience and authority be considered a mere juridical requirement, rather than an experience of the Fatherhood of God, after the example of Jesus. It should aim at accepting and respecting the person, using the pedagogy of love and reconciliation, from which results the gift of obedience. It persuades the candidate to consider obedience given to Superiors as obedience given to God and as a true choice of freedom. In this sense what is important is not the person to whom it is offered but Him for whose sake it is offered. In particular, this formation should enable the candidate to see the abbot general as the father of all the monks and the successor of St. Sylvester. It should also highlight the need for examples of obedience in the community, which is always far more formative than theoretical considerations. At the same time, obedience to the legitimate orders of Superiors, according to the Constitutions, is to be taught as a serious obligation, and this as a result of the holy service one has professed. Recognition of the Magisterium, RB, our Proper Law and the directions of the Superiors as human mediations of the will of God is part of this formation. This will lead the monk to love and reverence the Supreme Pontiff, the Abbot and all who take the place of Christ in the monastery. Inculcating the capacity to dialogue with Superiors and to accept their final decision in a spirit of courage, love and faith, as well as to appreciate fraternal life as the privileged place in which to discern God’s will, and to walk together with one mind and heart are all further aspects of this formation. Humility and obedience go hand in hand. Benedict dedicates the whole of a very long chapter (chapter 7) to speak about humility. Pride is the destruction of humility. Pride, according to Benedict, is the desire to control. Self-love is destructive of self. There has always been a trace of narcissism in religious life. It has been there because of the tension between total destruction of the person by suppression and total destruction of the person by selfishness. It is the maintaining of these two poles in balance that is the essence of the chapter on humility. Therefore the candidate should be made to understand and learn that an unwarranted, unlimited kind of self-concern and self-importance leads to destruction of the self in its spiritual dimension as well as in its psychic dimension.
Opus Dei, Lectio Divina and Opus Manuum are the Benedictine triplet. One cannot imagine a life in a Benedictine monastery without integrating these three elements into its life and organization. The monk should consecrate each day by celebrating the Opus Dei, by applying himself faithfully to Lectio Divina and by sharing in the community’s Opus Manuum (or equivalent tasks). Thus ora et labora shape the rhythm of life within the monastery.
Among these triple elements, Opus Dei occupies the primary position. Fidelity to community (and personal) prayer, or its gradual abandonment, is almost the paradigm for the fervour or decline of any religious institute. In a Benedictine monastery the pre-eminent place is reserved for the Opus Dei, for it constitutes the principal task of the monks, to which “nothing is to be preferred.” It therefore still determines to a considerable extent the structure and time-table of our monasteries. The “synaxis” of the brethren that celebrates the Opus Dei thereby builds up its fraternal communion and gives life to its apostolic works. The Eucharistic Mystery, which holds the first place in the Opus Dei of the monastery, plus the daily psalmody, canticles and readings, are simply indispensable for the spirituality and mission of each and every monastery.
Lectio Divina is the seeking of God in the written Word. The divine word reaches the monk by means of reading, meditating upon and praying the Sacred Scriptures, as well as (although to a lesser extent) the works of the early Fathers and the teachings of the saints. The monk, who faithfully applies himself to lectio divina, gradually and imperceptibly becomes a “man of God”, filled with the spirit of wisdom, fervent in charity towards the brethren, and well-equipped to celebrate and live the eucharistic communion.
The monk is subject, like all men, to the common law of work. By his labour, the monk cooperates with God in carrying out His designs in this world. By manual labour he avoids the danger of idleness, purifies himself by the sacrifice of daily labour, develops his faculties and capabilities, provides what is necessary for himself and his brethren and, at the same time, finds a way to assist the poor in their needs. Any form of work – manual, intellectual or ministerial – which, under the circumstance of place and time, is compatible with the demands of monastic community life, can be undertaken legitimately by Sylvestrine monks. Sylvestrine labour, in accordance with the sound tradition of the Congregation, includes the care of souls in parishes attached to the monastery, hospitality, the education of the youth and manual work.
Life in the Sylvestrine Monastery
The Role of the Abbot of the Monastery
The role of the abbot, as described in RB, is to be the shepherd, father, teacher and representative of Christ in the monastery. He governs the monastery with a double doctrine of word and example, and in a spirit of service that consolidates and develops the priory, and fosters fraternal communion among the brethren. One of his important tasks, as the person responsible for the ‘School of the Lord’s Service’, is to oversee the formation of the younger monks. As the representative of Christ, he mediates the will of God to individuals and to the community, engaging in a respectful dialogue. In our structure of government, of course, the figure of the abbot in RB is equivalent to that of the conventual prior. In fact, the entire organization of the priory depends on him and he must govern it in a spirit of service, imitating Christ whom he represents. He should respect the human dignity of each of the brothers, appreciating and coordinating their initiatives, and prompting a willing, active and responsible obedience.
Fraternal life, rooted and founded in Christ’s love, should be the mark of a Sylvestrine monastery. The community in the RB is described as a fraternity on the battle-field, a flock and a human body. The monastery is a ‘house of God’ and a ‘school of charity’. These images evoke the bonds of a monastic community and, at the same time, the threats that can imperil it. The underlying unity to which these images refer does not exclude a diversity of persons who are more gifted, or more humble or less needful, etc., but it is achieved through the living out of a common monastic vision. The community that plans and looks ahead through its regular “family” gatherings, “family” and conventual chapters, grows in communion and clarifies its both monastic and apostolic orientation. The community can become “light and salt of the Gospel” to its younger members by the respect, mutual obedience and service of the brethren that it displays. It is no surprise, then, that the late Pope John Paul II repeatedly emphasized the following saying: “all the fruitfulness of religious life depends on the quality of community life”. Indeed, the monastic community is what its members make it.
Solitude and Silence
Observance of solitude and silence is an aspect which particularly characterizes monasticism among all other forms of consecrated life. Solitude and silence can help the monk become acutely sensitive to the presence of God, and to the monastery as a house of prayer. RB insists that the monk cultivate a spirit of silence at all times, and show a genuine love for it. This exterior silence, besides manifesting the sacramental character of the monastery as “house of God”, can help the monk develop an interior silence, in which he might listen to God’s voice.
Ascesis / Renunciation
Monastic ascesis should be an insertion into the paschal mystery of the cross and resurrection of Christ. The Rule of Benedict highlights this daily renunciation of self-will, and the loving acceptance of suffering and hardship that are an essential part of any monastic vocation. The monk should be content with what is rough and simple in daily life. The Rule is equally insistent on personal prayer, praying with tears of compunction, fasting and penance. The life of St. Sylvester is likewise an admirable example of this monastic ascesis, which battles constantly against the devil and all evil tendencies, and stresses detachment from worldly goods. Therefore, let those who aspire to follow the monastic way be convinced that they cannot follow the Lord, unless they are willing to “take up their cross daily” in some form of asceticism, self-denial and simplicity of life. Let them learn not to be afraid of bearing their own “share of hardship for the gospel, with the strength that comes from God” (2 Tim 1,8) since without some degree of renunciation no true spiritual fruitfulness is possible within the Church.