What is a Benedictine monk?
Simply put, a monk is one called to seek God.
St. Benedict of Nursia (480-540), who wrote the Rule which inspires Benedictine monastic life, described the life of a monk as both a journey and a “labor of obedience.” Led by the abbot, who is “believed to hold the place of Christ” in the community, the monks of Conception make a vow of “stability in this community, fidelity to the monastic way of life and obedience, according to the Rule of St. Benedict and the Constitution and Statutes of the Swiss American Congregation.” Freely embraced obedience, the monks believe, liberates them in their efforts to imitate Christ.
St. Benedict wrote: “As we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with inexpressible delight of love.”
The Rule of St. Benedict contains directions for almost every aspect of monastic life, including how monks pray, dress, eat, sleep and work. The Rule also defines the role of the abbot, who is elected to an indefinite term by the community, and explains how he is to keep discipline. But St. Benedict did not intend it as a harsh code of conduct. In fact, he called it a “little rule for beginners.”
Chastity and poverty are integral observances of monastic life. In fact, they are so necessary they are assumed and not vowed. St. Benedict saw private possession as a vice, and thus prescribed communal ownership of goods.
Benedict urged his monks to find Christ in every person they meet. This not only strengthens the spirit of their community, but also has resulted in a religious order known the world over for warmth and hospitality.
What do monks do?
The simple existence of a monk is succinctly defined in the order’s motto: Ora et Labora (“Pray and Work”).
The monks of Conception Abbey celebrate Mass daily. They eat together – often in silence – and they gather five times each day for the Liturgy of the Hours, services of prayer and Scripture reading. Individual “holy reading” or lectio divina – consisting of Scripture, theology and spiritual writings – is also a scheduled part of daily life.
As administrators and members of the faculty of Conception Seminary College, the Conception monks provide spiritual, character and academic formation for young men considering a priestly vocation. Through the Abbey Center for Prayer and Ministry the monks welcome guests to the Abbey and offer a wide array of retreats, tours and youth programs.
They provide pastoral care in hospitals, religious houses and parishes in Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and Wyoming.
The monks also tend the grounds of the abbey, care for 960 acres of farmland and orchards, work in development and finance and in the Abbey’s Printery House. They are historians, writers, scholars, teachers, musicians and artisans.
One Conception monk, the former Abbot Jerome Hanus, is now the Archbishop of Dubuque, Iowa.
Are all monks priests?
No. Many monks are ordained to the priesthood, which means they can celebrate Mass and administer the sacraments. They are addressed by the title of Father. But there are also many monks that while feeling called to a monastic life do not experience the call to priesthood. They are addressed by the title of Brother. Some brothers eventually become priests, but it is not uncommon for a monk to remain a brother for his entire religious life.
How does one become a monk?
Gaining acceptance into a monastic community is no easy task. It requires the approval of the entire community and the abbot and several letters of recommendation.
Then, a candidate becomes a postulant and must complete a probationary period that can last anywhere from a few weeks to a year, during which he lives and works with the community. And only then can he join the order’s novitiate, a year of intense training for monastic life.
Following that, the novice may ask to make his temporary profession – the initial vows – which last a minimum of three years, before the monk can make his final – “solemn and perpetual” – vows.
Abbey life is not romantic. It isn’t easy. But for the sincere monk, the rewards are endless.