Saturday, July 7, 2012
LEARNING FROM MISTAKES?
WHAT GOES AROUND…
This coming Tuesday, July 10, will mark exactly 50 years since I became a Benedictine novice. In 1962, although there were rumblings all around, the world was still a fairly stable and predictable place. Nowhere was this truer than in the Roman Catholic Church, and especially in the monastery. Monasticism was in its American heyday after Thomas Merton’s
about 15 or so novices with me for my abbey alone. Seven Story
Being a Catholic in 1962 included listening to sermons in which God was in the business of keeping score and punishing sins more than, say, encouraging and protecting. Bible reading was left to the Protestants, since we had the sacramental system. The mass was in Latin.When I was a novice we prayed the “Divine Office” in Latin, too, including the readings, blessings and orations. Things hadn’t changed for a thousand years, and it seemed that they would probably go on that way. Hardly anybody foresaw or could even imagine the upheaval that was about to burst on us.
Three months after I started novitiate the Second Vatican Council began. We novices had no access to radio, television or newspapers or other news media so we were pretty much isolated from all the excitement. If you lived in those days no description of them is needed, and if you didn’t live in those days no description is quite satisfactory, but for a bit of the flavor of the times you might want to click on this reminiscence of the start of Vatican II.
Near the end of my novitiate year, on 21 June 1963, our novice master, careful not to break silence unnecessarily, came into the novitiate study hall and wrote the news of the conclave on the blackboard: “Giovanni Montini: Pope Paul VI.” Paul VI, the successor of the charismatic John XXIII would be the pope under whom all the Council documents would get implemented. It was under him that the stable, “immutable” world of the Church suddenly started to come apart and old ways crumbled (for better or for worse, depending on your point of view).
I received a pretty good formation as a novice, I think, under the circumstances. Looking back, I believe that one major problem came from the observance of the externals. In the monastery ritual and custom were very important: When serving mass you folded your hands with the right thumb on top of the left, when bowing to the altar the palms of your hands had to cover your kneecaps, when walking down the hallway you folded your hands out of sight under your scapular. The ritual overlay was so thick that it was often hard or impossible for a newcomer to distinguish the underlying essentials of monasticism from all the incidentals. I was to find this out the hard way, as did many monks, when the externals suddenly stopped making sense.
I believe that lay Catholics had a similar confusing experience when the Church began changing certain practices such as eating meat on Friday and having the priest celebrate mass in English while facing the congregation. Wasn’t Latin central to our religion? And surely our identity as Catholics was intimately wrapped up with not eating meat on Friday, wasn’t it? Some folks still haven’t caught up with the rationale behind some of those changes.
... COMES AROUND
So here I am fifty years later in charge of a 23-year old postulant who will start novitiate in Newark Abbey, God willing, in mid-August. As someone who got caught in the disorienting days of post Vatican Two not knowing what was essential and what wasn’t, I’ll try to keep asking myself as I’m teaching this young man: "Am I offering just the surface stuff, or am I giving him the underlying essentials that will constitute monastic spirituality and monastic life no matter what changes monasticism will have to contend with in 2022, say, or 2062?”