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Epiphany Seen through Monastic Eyes

We all know the central theme for Epiphanytide is the manifestation of Christ to the world, which leads to the obvious exhortation that every Christian is called to repent and believe in the gospel. And that then usually leads to an exhortation to preach the gospel. After all, that’s what evangelize means, right? How do we apply it to a monastic call today?

I have been recently reading some pastoral letters of Denis Huerre, who was abbot president of the Benedictine Congregation of Subiaco from 1980 to 1988. In Epiphanytide 1982 he wrote the brethren on the theme the Benedictine vow of conversio morum, which is, in essence, the theme of the manifestation of Christ in his words, “Repent and believe the gospel” (Mark1:15).

Frankly, what Abbot Denis has to say is true for every Christian climbing the mountain of healing and transfiguration to become the person God is calling each one of us to become. He believes that purification and illumination are two aspects of one reality. “By ‘illumination’ I mean what happens when we realize that an appeal is being made to us, and when we become aware that we need to make some sort of response. In Mark 1:15, the appeal is phrased metanoeite, ‘convert yourselves.’”[1] The English translation of metanoeite as repent obscures the sense of conversion, the change of direction that the original Greek intended.

Following Abbot Denis’s thought on metanoeite, there are three aspects of monastic conversion that I want to share here, perhaps to give us all a new understanding of how the monastic life witnesses to the Church and the world.

First, we monastics begin a process upon entering a convent or monastery in which the rhythm or pace of our progress is always slow. My sisters always chuckle when a new visitor to our convent comments on our pace of reciting the psalms in morning and evening prayer. My reply is always: “What’s your hurry?” We are here to be “worked on” by God through the Scriptures, and that takes time because God is merciful and always speaks in ways we can hear. “Since a lasting friendship needs to be developed slowly, the monk’s friendship with God is one of the elements that contribute most to the slowing down of the rhythm of his life; though this is so only if he has the courage of his convictions. Otherwise, before long, he shall not find the time to read Scripture at all. … Only by slowness can the monk achieve his aim of becoming the fruitful celebrant of a word that he not only has grasped by study, but that actually lives in him.”[2]

Now let’s think about how we approach the Eucharist. For every time when we actually felt joy in receiving Communion, how many more times has it been an intellectual puzzle (How can bread and wine be the body and blood of Christ?) or just one more routine, external community observance? Abbot Denis would explain this eschatologically as the slowness of passing centuries of Christian practice faced with the urging of God’s kingdom. When we monastics say that the Eucharist is the center of our life from which we continue worshiping God during the day in the Divine Office, we are following Benedict’s conviction that the Eucharist embraces the most hidden inner depths of monastic conversion and the future glory of our perpetual worship of God in Christ.

Second, we accept certain “discontinuities” of life. Only by accepting paradox as “truth which we do not yet understand” can we progress to hearing God at deeper levels in our life. There is always a mystery behind the slowness of our life. Ask a sister if she remembers the day she entered the convent or perhaps the day when she realized that she was never going back to her old life outside the convent. She will tell you about the joy of coming home. “People who haven’t experienced what it means to live that particular moment in the love of Christ always seem to imagine it as some sort of leap into the unknown.”[3]

Subsequent disenchantments with community life or other sisters’ quirks do not rob our memory of that “aha” moment of understanding the paradox of losing one’s life to save it or the slave of Christ who is the freest person of all. Paul expresses this wisdom of God’s kingdom in saying that “in whatever state each was called, there let him remain with God” (1 Cor 7:24). So we have come to accept paradox and discontinuities in our life.

Lastly, “we are led beyond the narrow boundaries of logic and reason.”[4] Abbot Denis takes us one step farther to demonstrate the immensity of God and his love for us.

By human standards there is something extraordinary in the life of Christ and, however far we are from imitating him, this has to be a fundamental characteristic of our Christian life. Christ, after all, lived his life on human terms (even to the point of dying a human death); and to claim, as we do, that his life paid for every sin and moral imperfection, is clearly to make an assertion that goes beyond ordinary reason. Another way of grasping this element of the excessive in Christ’s life is to perceive that he was obliged to include within his brief life span every single thing that God needs in order to express himself. In the same way it appears exorbitant that the poverty expected of our own selves before we can start sharing in divine glory must be total and absolute.[5]

Most folks would tacitly agree with Abbot Denis and then return to their comfortable existence. Isn’t it going a bit irrational and extreme to believe that Jesus the poor man from Galilee was the Word of God and the Messiah? But that is our Christian faith and conviction, and monastics are the crazy folks who join the ranks of those who believe its total and absolute truth. However, even the seasoned monastic must go through multiple conversions to understand this with the mind in the heart. When we are at peace with this understanding beyond logic and rationality, we will have learned that the way of obedience is following the way Christ himself followed, and that he in turn called Peter and Andrew, James and John to follow on that first day Mark tells us of Jesus’ active ministry.

So, every one of us has three metanoias or conversions in our life. Receiving the sacrament of baptism transforms us into disciples of Christ in Name. Maturity in the life of a Christian is a continual transformation or metanoia, always looking to the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (Heb 12:2) until finally the last metanoia will be a mutual turning between Christ and ourselves, seeing Christ face to face. My prayer is that you meet a monastic who will remind you of these things just at the moment you are looking for illumination and want to see a way of response.


[1] Denis Huerre, Letters to My Brothers and Sisters: Living by the Rule of St. Benedict (Liturgical Press, 1994), p. 11.

[2] Ibid., p. 13.

[3] Huerre, p. 15.

[4] Huerre, p. 12.

[5] Huerre., p. 16.


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