I was honoured to be asked, personally, to attend this momentous occasion for Catholics in Australia, and Tasmania in particular, by Fr. Pius Mary Noonan, the Monk who came from America via 30 plus years in a Monastery in France to establish the first Catholic, Benedictine monastic community here in a long, long time. And he has been busy recruiting fine and eager men to join him.
|I arrived nice and early.|
So I trekked the 60 kilometres or so, on Tuesday 21st, taking my neighbour hermit Nun and a fine, old and Holy Priest, my occasional Confessor, along with me. A tiny Church in deepest Tasmanian country, very like Burgundy - so claims Fr. Pius - was the venue for their Robing and it was full to overflowing. The Archbishop, Julian Porteous attended too. There was a fine supper afterwards at the home of Dr Daintree and his wife Elizabeth. An astonishing crowd of Good people.
The 'Rule' for you layfolk, according to Wiki..... The Rule of Saint Benedict - Latin: Regula Benedicti- is a book of precepts written by Benedict of Nursia ( c. AD 480–550) for monks living communally under the authority of an abbot.
The spirit of Saint Benedict's Rule is summed up in the motto of the Benedictine Confederation: pax ("peace") and the traditional ora et labora ("pray and work"). Compared to other precepts, the Rule provides a moderate path between individual zeal and formulaic institutionalism; because of this middle ground it has been widely popular. Benedict's concerns were the needs of monks in a community environment: namely, to establish due order, to foster an understanding of the relational nature of human beings, and to provide a spiritual father to support and strengthen the individual's ascetic effort and the spiritual growth that is required for the fulfillment of the human vocation, theosis.
The Rule of Saint Benedict has been used by Benedictines for fifteen centuries,
...and thus St. Benedict is sometimes regarded as the founder of Western monasticism.
There is, however, no evidence to suggest that Benedict intended to found a religious order in the modern sense and it was not until the later Middle Ages that mention was made of an "Order of Saint Benedict". His Rule was written as a guide for individual, autonomous communities, and to this day all Benedictine Houses (and the Congregations in which they have grouped themselves) remain self-governing. Advantages seen in retaining this unique Benedictine emphasis on autonomy include cultivating models of tightly bonded communities and contemplative lifestyles. Perceived disadvantages comprise geographical isolation from important activities in adjacent communities. Other perceived losses include inefficiency and lack of mobility in the service of others, and insufficient appeal to potential members. These different emphases emerged within the framework of the Rule in the course of history and are to some extent present within the Benedictine Confederation and the Cistercian Orders of the Common and the Strict Observance.
This new community is firmly embedded within the Diocese of Hobart and while retaining all aspects of 'the Life', will get a great deal of support from many fine Catholics in the region.
Greg Sheridan was privy to some detail before hand which he published a few days ago in the Australian Weekend magazine. Some of it I put here.
Who’d be a monk today?Australia’s newest and most remarkable monastery is already looking to expand. What attracts young men to a life of poverty and obedience?Three young men attend to the business — a ceremony, really — of washing my hands. They look fit, they’re lean,heads shaved. One holds a basin under my hands, one pours water over them and one offers me a towel to dry them. All this is done in silence as an older man supervises.
Then we proceed to the next room for lunch: lasagne, fruit, cheese and surprisingly, a glass of red wine. A young man reads aloud while the rest of us eat in silence. All of this silence suggests a life as radically countercultural as you will find anywhere.
In many ways it is a rebuke to today’s culture, a challenge to it. I am visiting the Notre Dame Priory in Hobart, the newest and most remarkable Benedictine monastery in Australia.The washing of the hands proceeds from Chapter 53 of the Rule of St Benedict. Written some 1500 years ago, it states: “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.” It mandates washing the guest’s hands.Here is a group of young Australian men — smart as you like, mostly university graduates in their 20s, with all manner of life and possibility before them — choosing to follow this ancient monastic rule.
The Notre Dame Priory opened its doors in February. The prior, Father Pius Mary Noonan, 50, an American, spent more than 30 years in a Benedictine monastery in France. A slightly built, learned, straightforward man, Pius looks a little like Father Mulcahy in M*A*S*H, and has a strangely similar accent.
How does he come to be in Australia,leading this monastery?A decade ago, an Australian woman arrived at the office of his French monastery and, because he could speak English, Pius was sent to talk to her.
In his small, book-lined study, Pius takes up the story: “She had been touring French Benedictine monasteries to find one which would found an institution in Australia. We couldn’t do that for her, but she did find one that would come to Australia to give retreats.”
Retreats are an old Christian custom where for a day or more you step out of your routine life and turn your mindto God, under the direction of a priest, nun or other spiritual guide. Pius started coming to Australia every secondyear to hold retreats in Brisbane, Wollongong and Parramatta.“I came to feel the Lord was calling us to do more in Australia than just give retreats every two years,” he says. “I tried to convince the Abbey [monastery] to do that. The Abbott didn’t want to create a foundation but he did agreeto let me go. I said to him there are young men in Australia who want to be monks and have nowhere to go, so welose vocations or they go overseas. So he said you can go and see if there’s a bishop who will do it.
Hobart’s Archbishop Julian Porteous, who has given strong leadership to Tasmania’s Catholics, was keen to host the Benedictines. The woman whose initiative brought the monks to Australia now comes in to help with practical tasks.Across the country there are probably fewer than half a dozen monasteries and convents that follow some form of the Benedictine rule. Like most Catholic orders of priests, brothers or nuns, the Benedictines and other contemplative orders have experienced a steady decline in numbers since about the late 1960s. For a new monastery to open with a swag of new recruits is momentous.
The priory occupies a small house, formerly a parish priest’s house or presbytery, in the bayside suburb of Lindisfarne. I miss the morning mass but join the monks as they chant the Divine Office — the recitation of certain prayers at fixed hours — at 11am in the tiny chapel, the nicest room by far in the bare house. Three monks, each in a white religious habit, are on one side and three on the other. In plaintive Gregorian chant, one side sings a verse in Latin then the other side responds. The verses come from the Book of Psalms in the Old Testament.
They celebrate mass, and all their liturgy, in Latin, which marks them as highly unusual in Australia.After lunch we enjoy a half-hour of recreation in the lounge, which is furnished with an old sofa and a few chairs.They take a vow of poverty, these monks, but they are also living that extra poverty that accompanies a new project built on faith and slender funds.The monks’ day is mostly spent in silent prayer and study, and in periods of work, but there are two recreation periods: half an hour after lunch, when they usually go for a brisk walk along pretty Lindisfarne Bay, and 20 minutes after dinner. Today they’re in the lounge so we can chat.
I want to know what led them to the Benedictine life. (These are private young men and I have agreed not to publish their names.) “It just seems the fastest way to heaven,” says one. Another says he had been struggling with the idea of a religious vocation and paid a couple of visits to a monastery in the US.
He describes great beauty witnessing the priests simultaneously saying their morning masses. “I was provisionally accepted there,” he recalls. “I had to come back to Australia and sort out some property and practical matters. Then I basically got cold feet. I was nervous about spending the rest of my life in America. I wanted to live this monastic life in Australia.”Another recalls a life-changing experience at one of the Australian Benedictine retreats: “I was looking for a quietfew days. I hadn’t expected to go there hung over and heartbroken.” The intense retreat experience, contemplating the things in life that stood between him and God, opened him to the idea of the religious life, the contemplative life.In a separate discussion, Pius offers his take on motivation:
“The reasons that bring people to monastic life are in their thousands, but there is only one reason you’ll stay — a great love of God.”Mostly, young men drawn to this life first undertake a retreat for some days. Then, after discussion with the prior or abbott, they may live in for a few weeks as an “aspirant”, joining in the prayers and community life. After deep consideration and only with agreement of the monastery, aspirants become a novice for at least a year with several more years of instruction in Latin, theology, church history and related subjects.
It might be seven years before a monk takes his final vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and stability (the latter means staying at the one community).I ask the four novices and one aspirant (who still wears civvies) how they feel about the small daily sacrifices ofmonastic life. One answers: “After a while you realise that things like not having a cup of tea any time you want it. during the day don’t really matter. It doesn’t really matter not following the detail of events. You still hear the big news — Australia has retained the Ashes or whatever.” Another likes the practice of communal reading at lunch and dinner: “You get to hear some wonderful books that you probably wouldn’t have read otherwise.”
He nods towards the prior. “Father,” he says, “you must have absorbed hundreds of books over the years.” The reading is not always religious; earlier they read an account of the French Revolution.Nonetheless, as Pius points out: “This life has high demands. You can’t marry and have kids, you can’t take time off to watch a movie, you can’t even look something up on the internet without permission. You could argue it’s good for your mental and physical health.
Monks traditionally live very long lives.
You don’t become a monk for that reason but it’s a life in accord with human nature. Everything is ordered around liturgy, prayer, silence — the ability to serve the Lord and try to become saints.”Pius readily testifies that he has been happy as a monk: “I have the conviction that my life is in the hands of someone who loves me and wants what is best for me. To discover God’s way is always best.
This is very countercultural.
Today’s culture says ‘make life what you like’. But life is best when you see it as a gift and give it back.”The monks rise at about 4.30am each day — earlier on Sundays — to be ready to chant their first Divine Office at 5am. Later, they will each have a brief, modest breakfast in silence. They chant the prayers known as the Office seven or eight times a day. The Office is mainly the Book of Psalms, and they work their way through the whole book in a couple of weeks. Sometimes they have other readings from scripture and every morning at 10am there is (Holy) Mass.
Some of the Offices are short, 10 or 15 minutes; some are perhaps an hour. Often they are followed by periods of private prayer, then time for spiritual reading. Books at first are recommended by the prior but later the monks choose their own reading (again, not all of it religious) in consultation with their spiritual director.As in most Benedictine monasteries there are also designated periods of physical work that provide exercise and humility. The most learned monk — and many go on to earn doctorates at Catholic universities — will do his fairshare of scrubbing floors, cleaning toilets and laundry.This house in Lindisfarne is full and the monastery has a bigger piece of land in the countryside where it hopes tobuild a larger facility. This is urgently needed because more young men want to join.
But you will have to ask Greg about that.In its way this is staggering.At a time when the Census reveals a precipitous decline in Christian belief, and most millennials are addicted to their screens, these young men want to embark on a life of quiet but exacting Benedictine rigour.I notice resting on the table in Pius’s study a book, Strangers to the City, by Michael Casey. A few days later I buy a copy in Melbourne’s Catholic bookshop. This astonishing and enthralling read leads me to my second monastic adventure.
What a busy week, and uplifting.
In this terrible age when Christianity is under severe attack and the only abstinance that seems apparant is of sense, and apathetic hedonism takes so many of our young folk, it is heartening to see some movement in the better direction.
Charge your glasses, tankards, cups and horns - Drink to these fine men.
Pax, ora et labora.
Now I have a bit of labora to do on the floor of the crypt.
Oh, PS... the old and Holy Priest I mentioned, offered to pay for the petrol of the journey. I told him to keep his money but to say a Holy Mass for my Daughter. He loves to offer Holy Mass for Special Intentions.