The prophet says: “Seven times daily I have sung your praises… I arose at midnight to confess to You.”
There seems to me to be a distinction in ministry between those who are apostolic and those who are monastic. These two distinctions traditionally make up the balance of the Church’s mission in the world; ‘to go and tell the world’ and ‘to watch and pray’. These two calls on the Church make up the heart of the New Monastic Movement, ‘contemplative action’. The Northumbria Community speak of this as their call to being ‘Alone Together’.
As a Community we’ve always understood the need to balance ‘a prayer that is quiet and contemplative with a faith that is active and contagious’, in expressing our way for living.
St. Benedict, in this chapter, gives reasons for the Divine Offices by quoting Psalm 118 (119),
I arose at midnight to confess to you… Seven times a day have I sung your praises.
Therefore, in Benedictine communities, they pray at eight set times a day: Matins (midnight) and then, Lauds (before sunrise), Prime (6am), Terce (9am), Sext (midday), None (3pm), Vespers (evening/6pm) and Compline (bedtime/9pm). This rigorous pattern of prayer just emphasises again the centrality of the call of such monastic communities to prayer and contemplation. Thomas Merton finishes off his wonderful book ‘Contemplative Prayer’ with these words,
Without contemplation and interior prayer the Church cannot fulfil her mission to transform and save mankind. Without contemplation, she will be reduced to being servant of cynical and worldly powers, no matter how hard her faithful may protest that they are fighting for the Kingdom of God. (Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer (London: Darton, Longmann and Todd, 2010) p.144)
I quote Merton here because in this book and his other work ‘Seeds of Contemplation’, dedicated to the practice of contemplation, he continually links it to the mission and practical action of the Church in society. For this spiritual writer, famed for his call to the hermitage, the life of a monastic is intrinsically linked to the missional and apostolic work of the Body of Christ. Without one you cannot have the other.
Monastic Apostles/Apostolic Monks
Monastic comes from the Greek word, monastikos (from the root: monos – alone). Monastikos means ‘to live alone’ and was used to describe the hermits and Desert Fathers and Mothers of the early Church. These hermits became teachers of this solitary life and gathered around them a community of ‘novices’. This, over time became the basis and foundations of the monastic communities we see across the world. All of them owe their tradition to St. Anthony and the many other Desert Fathers and Mothers (Abbas and Ammas) who went out from society to dedicate their life to communion with God without any distractions of life. The monastic call, therefore, is to the dedication to watch and pray.
The apostolic call, I would suggest, is to take on the Great Commission given by Christ at his ascension,
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19-20a)
Apostolic comes from the Greek word, apostolikos (from the roots: apo – away from and stello – to place, set in order). Apostolikos means ‘to send away’ or ‘to be sent’ and was used to describe those whom Jesus sent to witness to his Kingdom and Resurrection in the Gospels. These Apostles also became teachers and in Acts it is said that the Church,
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:42)
It is useful, at this point, to draw our attention to a story in Mark’s gospel which illustrates this balance between being alone with God in contemplation and reflection and to be sent out to do his work in mission.
Starting at Mark 6:6b we read,
Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
They become ‘apostles’, sent out to build and spread the Kingdom. Then, after the death of John the Baptist, we meet the ‘apostles’ again.
The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.
Now they are being called to be alone, solitary, in a deserted place; they become ‘monastics’, alone with Jesus. But the story does not finish there.
Now many saw them going and recognised them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.”
The disciples, wanting to be alone with Jesus see the need of the society in which they find themselves and they want to remain faithful to that monastic call so they ask to send the crowd away. Jesus, however, calls them to enter again into ministry and give them food. They don’t achieve that much needed ‘monastic’ time.
After the crowd are feed and Jesus reveals the Kingdom of God amongst them, he dismisses the disciples to a remote place and he himself goes to be alone with God.
The Divine offices in the monastic community are to remind the members to pray throughout the day. It is to call them back to their specific call to prayer and contemplation but, as we shall see later this year the community is not to disregard the call to mission and action. I am aware now that, St. Benedict has structured his Rule like that of a house; he begins with the foundations of character (humility and obedience), then comes the basis of prayer and contemplation, after which we shall explore community and relationships, then we look at the place of work.
It seems that there is a need for both the monastic and the apostolic
Like all personal and specific calls from God to a particular ministry, we must be careful to hold them within the context of the wider call of all disciples. It is not right, although many preach this approach, to ‘specialise’ in a ministry to the detriment to the call to the basics of all disciples. For those of us who are more inclined to the prayerful contemplation, we must remind ourselves that to be transformed into the likeness of Christ is to be missional; sent people. For those of us who are more inclined to the evangelistic action, we must remind ourselves that to be transformed into the likeness of Christ is to be prayerful; alone with God.
Although I feel a strong call to the monastic life, I am also aware of the apostolic charge given to me by God. We are all to witness to the resurrection in our lives, to help all people that we meet to encounter the risen Lord. None are exempt from this work! The Kingdom of God is a collaboration between Christ and his bride, the Church, that is all of us who are baptised into his Body. Likewise non of us are exempt from the call to watch and pray with Christ and we return to the Merton quote above which identifies, helpfully, the need for contemplation, reflection, a deep listening prayer to be the basis of all missional activity; without it we will be building our own empires of sand.
Missional God, who calls us to solitary places to watch and pray with you, call us all to the life of contemplative action where, rooted in your grace, and will we may obediently follow you to feed the hungry, heal the sick and to make disciples. Where we have been lax in prayer and contemplation give us strength. Where we have been faithless in our witness to others may you give us courage and in all things may we have faith hope and love to serve you.
Come, Lord Jesus