I can’t really explain why, but of all the second millennium Western saints, Saint Dominic is among my favourites. So, to honour his feast today, I’m posting this extract from an article by his contemporary confrere.
The vocation that most radically brings to light that longest story is that of the contemplative monk or nun. Their lives have no meaning at all if they are not on the way to the Kingdom. Cardinal Basil Hume is the most respected Christian in England, and partly because he is a monk. And he wrote of monks: ‘We do not see ourselves as having any particular mission or function in the Church. We do not set out to change the course of history. We are just there almost by accident from a human point of view. And, happily, we go on ‘just being there’.’
Monks are just there, and so their lives have no meaning at all, except as pointing to the fulfilment of the ages, that meeting with God. They are like people waiting at a bus stop. Just being there points to the bus that must surely come. There is no provisional or lesser sense. No children, no career, no achievements, no promotion, no use. It is by absence of meaning that their lives point to a fullness of meaning that we cannot state. As the empty tomb points to the Resurrection, or as the wobble in the orbit of a star points to the invisible planet.
Western monasticism was born in a moment of crisis. It was when the Roman Empire was slowly dying before the assaults of the barbarians that Benedict went to Subiaco and founded a community of monks. When the story of humanity seemed to be going nowhere, then Benedict founded a community of people whose lives only had sense in pointing to that ultimate end, the Kingdom.
One might say that religious life forces us to live nakedly the crisis of modernity. Most people’s lives have a shape and a story which may hold the larger question at bay. A life may have its own meaning, from falling in love, marrying, having children and then grandchildren. Or someone’s story may find its meaning in a career, in rising up the ladder of promotion, in gaining wealth and even fame. There are so many stories that we may tell which give a provisional pattern and a meaning to our span of years. And that is good and right. But our vows do not give us that consolation. We have no marriage to offer a shape to our lives. We have no careers. We are naked before the question: `La vie humaine, quel sens?’
Timothy Radcliffe OP. “The Bear and the Nun. The Sense of Religious Life Today” in Religious Life Review, 38, July/August 1999. 199f.
I remember being struck by this text on first reading it in 1999. I typed it onto disk then and have come back to it several times since. It somehow encapsulated something of my own intimations about monastic life, which I did not properly understand, but which I resisted expressing in terms of any too-easily-given identities.
But I have recently been thinking about Father Radcliffe’s words in a slightly different light, as not so much as expressing what monasticism is about, as challenging all of us not to cling to our given projects and the various identities that constitute us. For, while monks are not generally able to do this on any grand scale, it now seems the height of naivety to suppose that we are free from this. I think that it was one of the Desert Fathers who said that monk can be just as attached to his needle as rich man to his castle. We all make sense of our lives by giving them provisional meanings. The challenge – it seems to me – is to learn to order these various patterns of meaning so that we become increasingly free, and increasingly naked, in expectation of the One who is Himself the end of history.
If anyone is interested the full text of Timothy Radcliffe’s article, along with other papers of his, can be found here.