Chapter Talk – Fr. Michael Casagram – Monasteries and Hospitality today 10/24/21


In last Sunday’s talk, Fr Elias shared some reflections on chapter 53 of the Rule on the Reception of Guests, pointing out the  two sections of this St Benedict’s thinking on the matter. I thought to stay with this theme this morning, drawing on a talk Fr Elias gave us four years ago. The talk he gave then was after he had read a 700 page book in French by a Daniele Hervieu-Leger called Monks’ Time, Enclosure and Hospitality

Our Br Frederic brought this talk of Fr Elias to my attention recently and though excellent, I did not remember its content and would like to present some of its content just in case your own memories need to be refreshed. The book of Hervieu-Leger, a sociologist, was written after she had visited many Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries in France. It was summarized in a few sentences by Fr Elias as seeing enclosure either as a threshold or as a fortification. Viewing enclosure as a fortification:

“emphasizes the timeless nature of monastic life, makes strong claims of continuity with the past, which is most powerfully expressed in an unchanging liturgy, and is determined to keep out harmful influences from contemporary society.”

This viewpoint down plays the ecclesiology of Vatican II and may even be critical of it, seeing “monastic life as a corrective for where the Church has gone wrong.” As many of you are aware this kind of thinking is not far from that of many in the Church today, a feeling that we need to go back to the Latin or Tridentine Mass and have much less participation by the laity in the Liturgy.

On the other hand, viewing monastic enclosure as a threshold takes on a very different view, one:

“based on claims of continuity with the past, but with a greater willingness to adapt to changing times and circumstances. In this view, enclosure is seen more as guardian of community discipline than as a protection from outside influence. The Liturgy may also be rooted in the past, but it keeps step with the universal Church and is accessible to visitors. Hospitality is open, ecumenical and perhaps even interreligious, makes minimal demands on guests, and receives them without seeking to influence them in any particular way. Monasteries with this vision are accepting of Vatican II ecclesiology, and while witnessing to traditional Christian values, do not espouse any particular political or social agenda.”

For many of us who entered before or during the Second Vatican Council, it is easy to recall the shifts that took place in our experience of enclosure. Some of us still recall how Gethsemani was considered a “powerhouse of prayer,” very special in the Church and separated from the rest of society. As Fr Elias further summarizes Leger’s book:

“…In an increasingly secular society, the traditional reasons for enclosed existence are no longer compelling, and this kind of religious status seems marginal and irrelevant. Even within the Church, which now emphasizes the universal call to holiness, monastic separation can seem more like isolation, and monks can be seen as exotic reminders of the past rather than experts or models for the present.”

One or the results of this new approach to enclosure is that we have come to experience our vocation in a whole new light. Our “approach is to stay in relationship with the changing cultural context and to acknowledge its positive elements, all the while remaining attached to tradition… Where a monastery’s liturgy falls on this continuum is probably a good indicator of its approach to this fundamental question of how it lives out its tradition in relation with modernity.”

Gethsemani has made an extra effort to include our guests in its celebration even in the face of Covid. Our show of hospitality is not without some risks but isn’t this what the Rule of St Benedict would have us do if we are going to see our neighbor’s needs as those of Christ! As Fr Elias asked four years ago, when the model of enclosure as threshold makes our life suffer from a loss of uniqueness, “what makes monastic life so compelling when its purposes can be met by people in all walks of life?”

He sees Hervieu-Leger answering this very question as she “makes some astute observations on a deeper level.” She speaks of monks following a kind of “little way” which immediately made me think of St Therese of Lisieux who has had such a profound influence on the contemplative life. As Fr Elias goes on to describe this fresh approach to enclosure:

“The monks do not aspire to be or to be perceived as charismatic athletes of faith. They accept their minority status in the religious landscape. They do not experience a dichotomy between their grounding in tradition (as expressed by enclosure) and a willingness to relate to the world as it is (as expressed by hospitality”.

Hervieu-Leger then  pointed out, and I will end with this quote from Fr Elias’ talk:

“the significant impact the abduction and execution of the monks of Tibhirine had made on the monastic world. In a sense, the Atlas brothers embodied in an extreme way the basic choices at issue here… They chose to exercise an exceptional kind of hospitality that excluded no one, friend or foe, refusing to compromise their practice in this regard, even at the risk of their lives. The questions they dealt with in dramatic, high stakes circumstances are the same fundamental issues that all monasteries need to face.”