The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Friday, March 14, 2014

How do monks evangelize?

For our Lenten table reading this year in the monastery refectory (dining room), we are listening to Pope Francis' recent apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, or The Joy of the Gospel. The Holy Father offers many points of reflection, often challenging Christians (both lay people and religious) to sharpen their focus on the Christ-given ministry of evangelization and to express the joy that is inherent in genuinely receiving and sharing the Good News--which is what Gospel means.

Last evening during dinner, as I listened to the reading, a question came to mind that is often asked of monks and monasteries. Many people who come to Saint Meinrad for the first time, or who learn that I am a Benedictine monk, often ask this question. It typically goes something like this: "How does a monastery--which is "separated" from the world and seemingly disengaged from it, contribute to the Christian mission of evangelization? How can monks or nuns who stay in one place spread the Good News?"

That is a good question, and there are many ways to answer it. Primarily, I would say that there are many different methods and messengers of evangelization. The Church is big and varied. Each member of the Church fulfills his or her ministry in a different way within the circumstances of their lives. Some are married couples and families. Some are single; others widowed. Some are priests or religious. Many of these do "go out" into the world to minister and evangelize. But others are called to spread the Gospel right where they are. There is room for everybody. To borrow St. Paul's analogy, not everyone has to be a foot. Some are hands, others are eyes and ears, etc. We, though, many, are one body -- the Body of Christ.

In Catholic religious life, it is the same. Benedictines, Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites, Jesuits, various missionary orders, and many, many others, all strive to live and share Gospel values. However, each order has its own distinct charism. They live out this singluar vision of following Christ in different ways. All of them contribute to the building up of the Kingdom of God, just as teachers, laborers, farmers, and many, many other professions each have a different role to play in building up society.

Specifically, the Benedictine monks of Saint Meinrad Archabbey evangelize in numerous ways. Some are teachers and/or administrators in our seminary and school of theology, helping to educate and form young men and women for priesthood or lay ministry. Some monks are pastors in nearby areas. We have monks who work with prisoners, youth, and military personnel. Many monks give retreats and conferences--right here at Saint Meinrad, where many people come to visit, and across the country. Others are involved with health services, or minister to the poor in the surrounding area. I view my own ministry and evangelization through the lens of my writing and spiritual direction. There are many other works performed here as well.

However, important as all these various works are, they are not our primary means of evangelization as monks. We don't necessarily have to be monks to do any of those things. Rather, Benedictines have a very unique charism, in that our witness to the world is intimately bound up with our liturgical prayer and common life together. We pray for the Church and the world in a special way, and we live a Gospel life together according to the vows of obedience, stability, and conversion of life. This is our special charism as Benedictines, one that for centuries has drawn countless guests and pilgrims to monasteries all over the world. These visitors, in turn, carry forward into their own lives in the world what they experience at the monastery. In addition, all the other tasks and ministries we engage in as monks spring forth from this special charism, and are seasoned by it. It is the one thing that makes us monks. (Incidentally, Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., speaks insightfully about this special charism in his "Throne of God" address from some years ago. He suggests that monasteries contribute uniquely to the mission of evangelization by creating "open spaces" for God to be encountered in our world. It's worth a read, if you have the time.)

Our own Br. William Sprauer, O.S.B., has an interesting perspective on all this as well. He calls monks "lighthouse evangelists," because we stay in one place to help guide and draw others by the light of Christ. I hadn't thought of it that way before, but it is a good analogy. Read his reflection on Lighthouse Evangelization by clicking on the link.

And may the Light of Christ "bring us all together to everlasting life" (Rule of St. Benedict 72:11).

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