Saint Benedict (born ca. 480, died ca. 540) studied the wisdom of his monastic forebears and added to it the fruits of his own experience. Even today we read the lives and sayings of the desert fathers and mothers of Egypt, who were the pioneers of the monastic life and distilled its essential points. To their wisdom Saint Benedict added what he had learned about following Christ in community with others, strengthening the individual pursuit of God with the support of other Christians on the same quest.
Inspired and directed by the teachings of the ancient monastic traditions, Saint Benedict's Rule for Monks is the accumulated and consolidated wisdom from centuries of men and women seeking perfection in God. The Rule of Saint Benedict guides the lives of monks: teaching stability of self and community, setting a model of holy life, and serving as a tool for spiritual growth.
The result was Benedict's Rule for Monks, a uniquely balanced charter for monastic living that eventually became standard for monks and nuns in Europe and around the world. Countless communities and congregations have interpreted and applied the Rule in many different ways to suit their particular needs and gifts, but its broader and deeper themes unite Benedictines across the globe and the Catholic Tradition.
The Call to the monastic life entails seeking God in, and fully being part of, a larger community which is, in turn, part of a 1,500-year Catholic monastic spiritual tradition, a part of the 2000-year Catholic Church. A Benedictine monk lives in a monastery with other monks; praying, working, and pursuing hobbies and interest, together as a continuous pursuit of God.
Benedictine candidates join this tradition for three months, living the monastic life to the fullest of their ability, learning from the discipline, growing in their spirituality, and advancing their discernment of God's Call to Holiness. Upon joining the novitiate, they are clothed in the monastic habit and begin an intensive one-year period of formation into the monastic way of life.
A part of this ancient Catholic spiritual tradition, Saint John's Abbey is a Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery established over a hundred and sixty years ago on some 3,000 acres in Central Minnesota. With 130 monks we are one of the larger Benedictine communities in the world. Here at Saint John's, we are known for work in education, liturgy, ecumenism, spirituality and environmental stewardship, as well as leadership in numerous ministries and professions.
A Faith Community
A Faith Community
Saint John’s is a unique and multifaceted place. From its early beginnings, it has been home to Saint John’s Abbey and University, and the Preparatory School. Over the years, Saint John’s has become home to a number of other renowned institutions, including the School of Theology and Seminary, the Liturgical Press, the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning, the Arboretum, a world-renowned indigenous pottery program, the first radio station in the Minnesota Public Radio network, an extraordinary rare book and art collection known as Arca Artium, and The Saint John’s Bible.
Located on a 3,000-acre tract of land the Saint John’s campus is remarkable in both its natural and architectural beauty. It includes an extensive pine and hardwood forest, and oak savanna, a restored prairie and wetlands and several lakes.
Arranged in a series of quadrangles and courtyards to the north of Lake Sagatagan, the buildings at Saint John’s date from the 1860s. At the center of the Saint John’s campus is the Abbey Church, one of 10 campus buildings designed by Marcel Breuer. With its towering bell banner and three-story wall of stained glass, the Abbey Church is among the most striking pieces of 20th-century architecture.
As Benedictine monks, naturally, we approach prayer in a distinctively monastic manner. We pray the Psalms, those ancient iron-age poems given to the Church by the people of Israel, at regular times each day. We come together to do this "work of God," and it is the glue that holds our community life together. We celebrate the Eucharist each day, and with special festivity on Sunday. All of our prayer flows to and from the Sunday Eucharist, recognizing both spiritually and theologically that Christian monastic life would not make any sense without the resurrection of Jesus.
The Psalms are a rich repository of human religious experience, at times pleading, cursing, hoping, despairing, grieving, resting, rejoicing, praising, always from a position of profound trust in the saving power of God. Over the centuries, praying monks learned quickly that some of the Psalms were better suited to the morning, some for the evening, and some for midday. They noted that some of them keyed to the mystery of the dying and rising of Jesus. So, our prayer as monks is largely biblical and liturgical, ever responsive to the rhythm of the day and season.
Throughout his novitiate year, a monk must give an account of his time. He must attend dressed in habit to all community prayer, often he serves as an acolyte or assisting the sacristan, or some other task in service of the community prayer life, all while he practices the ancient art of lectio divina, all overseen by the keen eye of the novice master. In the work of community prayer, the novice joins in a unified voice and service of God. He sees his brothers at their best, he sees them tired, frustrated, joyful, growing, and truly as his brothers in this community, and in the quest for God.
This time of strict spiritual discipline, oversight, and guidance may be challenging and exhausting – testing the spirits and redefining his understanding of prayer – but through it all, he truly becomes a monk. He learns to see newly again and again the important role monasticism serves in the Church: praying and working in service to Christ, the Church, and the world. Monks pray and work for our pastors and parishes, our teachers and students. Monks pray and work for our leaders, the many people on earth struggling with life, belief, sickness, loss, and loneliness. Every day together in community liturgy and in celebration of the Eucharist, monks pray for the souls of the living and dead, for enlightenment and wisdom, peace, and communion of the world. Monks pray for the coming of the Kingdom of God.
Images from The Saint John's Bible, a masterwork illumination of Holy Scripture in the monastic tradition
Among the oldest of Christian spiritual practices, a careful, prayerful reading of Scripture underlies the Benedictine spiritual practice. An art simple enough for anyone to practice, and subtle and sublime as to fulfill and entire life. The principles learned here, extend to help discover and reveal God's call and presence in visual arts (Visio Divina), audible arts, and the natural world.
Our individual and private prayer is also rooted in the Scriptures. From the earliest days of monastic life, monks have immersed themselves in the language, images, and narrative of the Bible. In the daily practice of lectio divina, reading a short passage of Scripture, pondering its meaning, and praying in and through the text, we continually rediscover the purpose and meaning for our lives and God's work in them.
Novice and junior monks are taught lectio divina by the Abbot, the formation director, and other senior monks. Surprisingly, for such a simple practice no one lesson or teacher, no one method is sufficient to form the novice in this subtle and profound prayer. Every exploration into the Word of God (or into the ancient teachings of the monastic masters of old, modern spiritual teachers, Church documents, and even daily life and work) may open new and deeper understanding of God's Call to Holiness. Such great potential often benefits from not only formation and guidance from experienced teachers but requires an openness to the direction of the Holy Spirit.
Another spiritual practice from the monastic tradition is centering prayer. Many times individuals find their prayer stymied and unfruitful because they conceive of prayer as just human beings "talking to God." Centering prayer rebalances this equation because in this practice we naturally sit in silence, in the presence of God, and let the Holy Spirit "work on us." Initially, because we are not speaking, our minds rush around grabbing and dwelling at everything around us, our plans for the day, our worries, etc. But with practice, we learn to let go of the mind's activity and to be in silence before God, who, as Saint Benedict teaches, is everywhere. In this prayer, we learn to set aside our demands of God, to forget what we want from God in favor of wanting God as He Is. In this prayer, we truly learn that while one cannot grasp God fully by the human mind, He can be fully joined in Love, and indeed invites us all just as he has given Himself in all, to Love Him in all.
For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead
For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead
Monks work. They understand work as a regular, creative expression of being alive as a human being. They do everything from pastoring to teaching, administrating, repairing and maintaining the monastery, and growing food for the table. Saint Benedict instructs his monks that they should not complain if they have to "do the harvest," thereby ensuring that later generations of monks would respect all honest labor.
A young monk, as with many of the lay faithful, may dream of an austere life of constant prayer: praying the Liturgy of the Hours, the Rosary, litanies, and devotions all with no thought to working and the concerns of daily life; a life finally committed to God, and the attainment of holiness. But to what end? Scripture tells us the "faith without works dead." Novice and junior monks are trained and guided into living their faith in good works. What is learned and gained in prayer, is expressed and realized in the community work and the good it serves in the Church.
The motto of the Benedictines is "Worship and Work." The conjunction "and" is significant because we are always striving to maintain the balance between the two, prayer and work. If we tip in either direction, we will begin to place created things, ideas, worries, ambitions, and the like between ourselves and God. Too much time in prayer can transform from devotion and pursuit of union with God, into a self-serving narcissism that is unaware of the needs of others and God's command to "go out." Too much work can easily lead one to rationalize being absent from prayer, Eucharist, holy reading, and the life of the community. Prayer and work, in balance, from the motto that expresses a distinctive element of Benedictine monastic spirituality.
The vows we profess as monks express the core elements of the Rule of Saint Benedict.
FIRST, we promise stability in this community. Meaning, that we promise to cast our lot with these monks, in this place, doing what monks do, living as monks live. For over 160 years in Minnesota, and over 1,500 years since Saint Benedict, monks have committed to their community, to their monastery, their home. While we may travel, we return. While we may spend time in solitude, retreat, and sabbatical, our community is there, still praying, still working. The oldest members of the community are here with the newest, each offering their wisdom and insight, brother helping brother, in conversion to love of God.
SECOND, we promise conversion according to a monastic manner of life, which translates just two Latin words, conversatio morum. They mean "changing behavior," but in the context of the religious life, they also mean something like "getting on with being a Christian." In a monastery, this requires simplicity of life and communal ownership of property, as well as living one's sexuality appropriately to monastic celibacy. "Conversatio morum" also includes the other practices that the monastic tradition has demonstrated essential for spiritual growth. Paramount among these, are gathering for common prayer several times a day, including a celebration of the Eucharist; reading and praying with Scripture; joining with one another at table to share food, edifying reading, and conversation; working to serve the church and to provide material support for our community and its various projects.
THIRD, we promise obedience. Obedience flows in many directions in a Benedictine monastery, for "obedience" entails "listening," paying attention to the varied ways that Christ calls us into a deeper relationship with Him and each other. As Benedictines, we obey—we pay attention to—our Abbot, the principal teacher in our monastery. We obey each other, for there is always something to learn from the example of our brothers in the community, and from the men and women we meet daily in our work. Ultimately, obedience means being accountable to someone other than ourselves—not just to God, but to the flesh and blood people we live with every day, for in them, too, we meet Christ.
Commitment, living as a Christian, and being accountable: Saint Benedict's common sense speaks to many who live other forms of Christian life. As a starting point, think about how each of those Benedictine themes expresses itself in your own life, and where you see a need for growth. With the Lord's help, and the support of others, may you grow deeper in union with Christ.
Novitiate and Juniorate formation continues the time of vocation discernment. While in formation (the entire period between candidacy and final vows), the monk receives an introduction to monasticism and the monastic way of life, with all of its challenges and opportunities. As Saint Benedict says, "...examine whether the novice is truly seeking God and whether he is zealous for the Work of God, for obedience and for trials. Let the novice be told all the hard and rugged ways by which the journey to God is made." -RB 58
Monks in formation often enter the Saint John's University undergraduate and graduate programs to study theology, church history, history of monasticism, liturgy, liturgical music, the Psalms, and the Rule of Saint Benedict, in addition to many other optional subjects. If interested in the possibility of priesthood studies, with permission from the Abbot and monastic community, monks may be in coursework as early as their second year of juniorate.
Formational education extends beyond an academic study of theology, however. The Rule of Benedict serves as a primary guide to daily life and spiritual practice. The Abbot leads lessons on the Rule of Saint Benedict, monasticism, and with the rest of the community, lessons on the practice and perfection of the monastic life are received each day through the Benedictine commitment to work, prayer, and community.
Within the monastic rhythm of work and prayer, within the challenges, support, and corrections of the community the tests and fruits of monasticism are revealed.
It is one thing to learn and respect the Benedictine values, and it is another thing to live out and strive for perfection of these values. As our Father Benedict teaches in the Prologue to the Rule, "…we are going to establish a school for the service of the Lord. […] For as we advance in the religious life and faith, our hearts expand, and we run the way of God's commandments with unspeakable sweetness of love." The monastic vocation invites men, inspired by these values, to test their calling and commitment under the guidance of an experienced community of brothers in Christ. Monasticism encourages men to push the limits of their Christian identity and to enter into a discipleship founded in an ancient tradition offering unique possibilities within the Christian community.
Historically, Benedictine abbeys around the world have established high schools, colleges, and universities, with the sponsoring monastic community members serving as staff, teachers and administration. Such a long tradition arguably lends itself to what has become almost a natural pursuit of higher education within nearly all Benedictine communities. Hosting the Saint John's Preparatory School, Saint John's University, the Graduate School of Theology and Seminary, the Liturgical Press, the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, and the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, the Saint John’s Abbey campus is steeped in intellectual and professional education, pursuit and accomplishment.
Since opening Minnesota's first Catholic institution of higher education in 1857, Saint John's has ministered to the Church and local community as educators. With the inauguration of the Seminary on the Rothkopp farm, Saint John's has led the intellectual, spiritual and professional formation and education of local Minnesotans, as well as scholars and religious from across American and around the world. Saint John's monks need not be scholars, but the environment of respect and support for higher learning encourages the continued education of many of our community and forms one of the leading traits of a Saint John's monk.
After solemn profession, monks at Saint John’s often attend other universities to pursue professional training or advanced degrees. Further education is not required for every member of the community, but if a brother so chooses, and receives permission from the Abbot, the community will support the pursuit of professional development as an extension of their shared monastic vocation.