Possibly since the beginning of time, men have imagined that it is in solitude and silence that they will find peace in their hearts. And they learned quickly that they could find something much better still : the Master of hearts and the Lord of peace, God himself.

This attraction for the treasures man seeks above all else led to monastic life and monasteries. Most religions have them. Of course, the Gospel had to have, and still has today, as a most natural consequence the attraction of certain men to a total and absolute search for God. Actually, it is to every man that God offers his love and his joy, and in response to such an offer, everyone should respond with an enthusiastic gift of themselves. There are several ways to make this gift, several vocations. Exactly what is the vocation of a monk? What is a monastery ?

Monks and monasteries are words that often make us think of somewhat mysterious buildings, surrounded by walls, inside which something serious, something religious, something close to God is happening, but we do not really understand what.

God is there! We feel it, though confusedly, and we come, sometimes en masse. We come close to God and that is good. We also hope that the monks, who live in His presence, will be able to give to their fellow men a little peace, a little joy, a little happiness. They are at the service of the Master of life and death, they must know better than anyone how to calm fears, how to solve problems, how to restore confidence in life at particularly difficult times.

We come full of hope. And God alone, who knows what is in the heart of every man, could say in each case if the hope was fulfilled or not.

The truth is that God offers Himself to everyone who seeks Him with a pure heart, but the difficulty lies there. It is with a pure heart, that is to say a heart free from any illegitimate love, that one must seek Him so that God may illuminate our hearts and transform our lives as He sees fit. He always wants what is best for us, our true happiness. Only those who have a pure heart are blessed by God. All the blessings in the world are useless if we do not give our hearts to God.

We can find God while visiting a monastery and we can find Him in innumerable other places and circumstances. The most important thing in any life is to find our Creator, our Saviour, our Father, our most faithful and most tender Friend, the One by whom and for whom we were made, without whom there is no happiness.

The monks, like everyone, seek happiness. One day, God led them to understand that happiness is being near Him, at His service, with other brothers, in a life where everything becomes prayer. This is the way that monks live. All men are not called to live this life because God’s children’s vocations, missions and ways of life are many and varied. But always, for a life to be filled with happiness (and let us not forget that man is created for happiness), it must be filled with God. So many people seek happiness where it is not. Scripture warns us that none of the false, man-made gods, such as money, power, or glory, can satisfy man’s aspirations, especially not when man deifies himself.

Who the monks are ?

A monastery is a school for the service of the Lord. In this school, monks learn to serve God, in other words, to live each day a little better, as the Gospel asks. In fact, this is the programme of all baptised people, of all Christians.

Indeed, monks have no other GOAL than that which they share with all Christians. To put it simply, they are called by God to use other MEANS to attain that goal.

What are these means? A life in a religious community, a rule which organises everything so that in work, in silence and especially in prayer, the world, with the help of the brothers, may meet God.

Monks sometimes live alone, in this case they are called hermits, but usually they live together in a community which becomes a real family for them. The life of this family is organised by a Rule and the Rule gives a good definition of what a monk is :

A MAN WHO IS TRULY SEEKING GOD.

It also tells the monk that he must remember each day that that is the reason he came to the monastery. He came for God, because he understood that God is so beautiful, so good, so worthy of our love, that, from now on, he can do nothing else but give himself entirely to Him. And he knows that by abandoning himself to God, he is not forgetting his brother man because he who gives himself to God aids the whole human family.

This ideal, as we can see, is grand and noble and for many centuries it has brought enthusiasm to the hearts of men of all ages, of all social classes and all nationalities. But the Rule wisely adds that it is a demanding ideal and that in order to achieve it, one needs God’s help. This is the message of Jesus Christ in the Gospel : Without me, you can do nothing. But, adds Saint Paul, with the help of He who is my strength, I can do anything! Monks come seeking God in the monastery, they come giving themselves wholly, and they know that it is in this generous and fecund gift that they will find true joy.

What the monks do ?

They pray, for their lives are above all lives of adoration, of praise, of thanksgiving, of requests, and of intimate and cordial conversation with God. Everything they do is done under the watchful eye of God, to please Him, to show Him his love, by meditating peacefully on his word. There are several Divine Offices, or prayer meetings, every day, the most important being mass, and at other times of the day each monk prays in a more personal way to the Lord.

To pray well, silence must reign in one’s life, outside as well as inside one’s heart and mind. Hearts and bodies must be wholly given over to God, not divided. That is why the Rule demands that all monks be poor, chaste and not found a family, that they be obedient and humble, seeing God Himself in the person of the Father of the monastery, in his brother monks and in the poor.

The monks have a deep respect for all forms of Christian life, lay people, religious order members, and clergy, but they know that God has other plans for them, a shorter, more direct road. It is also a road for which you must have a decided and persevering soul, because it is sometimes a very difficult one. Saint Benedict compared the monastery to a school in which one must learn and study things which are pleasing to God. He also says that the monastery is a militia, the army of Christ the King, and in this army one must battle, with joyous ardour, everything that is displeasing to God.

The monastery also has a solitary and secluded character, referred to as separation from the world. There is no monastic life without separation from the world. Yet, monasteries have done, and continue to do, much for civilisation. A certain presence in the world is necessary, such as a true solidarity with its suffering, its joys, its hopes and its needs. The monks do not neglect this presence and this solidarity, however, for them, it takes primarily the particular form of a constant and total presence with God. The monks stand before God not only for themselves, but for all of their brother men.

This life which is, according to Paul VI, a prelude to eternal beatitude, needs silence and solitude. The first monks settled most often outside of cities, in deserts, mountains or forests, and since then, monasteries are generally built far from populated centres, often on secluded sites, favourable to a life of prayer and the next most important aspect of the monks’ lives, work.

The work of the monks

First, the monks study and learn the word of God, through what the Rule calls Lectio Divina or the study of the things of God, a study which is both contemplative and prayerful, in which prayer is always present and which continues in a dialogue with God.

Travail au RucherThen, work, intellectual and manual, depending on the needs of the monastery and the aptitudes of each, is part of the life of each monk. One is truly monk, says Saint Benedict, if one lives by the work of one’s hands. A monk enjoys working, a job well done and, as the Rule says, avoids idleness. Nowadays, manual work is not the only way to earn a living, but it remains an important part of monastic life, where no one believes themselves above it. The Rule has even contributed more than once to making manual work more respectable at times when, in certain regions of the world, it was considered inferior.

People often ask if monks are priests. The answer is simply that they may be priests, but it is not an obligation. Indeed, monastic life is an ideal which is sufficient unto itself and which does not necessitate taking orders. It is the Father of the monastery who, if he deems it necessary, calls a monk to priesthood, in the Church’s name. In this case, those who are called must complete studies which are the equivalent of those offered in a seminary.

How do monks take part in the apostolic work of priests, missionaries, nuns, etc.? The answer is simple. Monks are acutely aware of their apostolic responsibility. While they are members of the Church, living through it and for it, they understand that they can not accomplish all the necessary work themselves. Exceptionally, they can participate in the pastoral ministry of the diocesan clergy, but it is not their usual task. On the other hand, the particular role of the monasteries, the one which no one else can accomplish if they do not, is primarily to offer, to those whom God calls, the possibility of giving himself wholly to the Lord, radically, fully and unconditionally, says Paul VI, in the conditions mentioned above, namely solitude, silence, prayer and penitence.

Then, for the whole Church (beginning with the local Church, the life of which they share in most particularly), monasteries must provide centres for prayer, intense conversation with God, the study of Godly things, contemplation, charity. They must be small cities where the Gospel reigns, where prayer is practically continuous and where everything is done in peace and therefore, in joy, which helps the hearts of the monks and their visitors to better find God. Not to mention the invisible action, the most important without a doubt, of these humble, hidden lives, given to the love of God and their brothers.

Monasteries attract visitors. They receive guests because hospitality is a monastic tradition. Until the end of the Middle Ages, their hostels provided lodging and security in secluded, often dangerous, areas where abbeys and priories were usually located. This function is no longer necessary. However, many people of all ages come to ask the monks to share a small part of their lives. The Gospel requests that we see the Lord Himself in each traveller. On this point, as on many others, the Rule says the same thing and asks that we see Christ in all those who come to the monastery : guests or the poor, visitors or pilgrims. They are all seeking God, sometimes without even knowing it, and the contact with the house of God allows them to find the roads that lead to Him, in their own time. Better still, it allows them to find Him and to find themselves in the light. Often God waits for those he loves in places unencumbered with noise and agitation, in places of silence and calm.

Calm, peace, order and joy, all of these things usually radiate from a monastery and, if it is truly the case, that is in itself an important contribution to the building of the Kingdom of God. The life of a monk is unquestionably beautiful and noble. The Rule also warns that it is difficult and harsh, that it can be compared to a narrow path which constantly climbs, and on this road one should be prepared to carry, with the One we are following, a cross. Trials exist in every life and a monk’s life is not exempt. The keenness and zeal of the beginning can not last forever. They must make room for a peaceful perseverance. He who endures, says the Rule, will know, little by little, as he approaches God, the ineffable joy of a heart swollen with love. Indeed, God will one day give back one-hundred fold what His children have given Him.

Monastic organisation

The Rule requests that it be possible to find almost everything the monastery needs to exist within the community so that the monks do not need to leave the monastery too often, which is not good for their souls, it adds.

When the terrain permits, the buildings are set up around a courtyard and a cloister. Each monk has a cell, that is to say a small bedroom. He can read and study there as well as rest at night. A certain number of other rooms are for the use of all : kitchen, refectory, library, etc.
Various workshops exist (woodworking, garage, engine shop, bookbinding, printing, etc.) within the monastery or near it.

Most monasteries also have a garden, an orchard and a farm which, in some cases, may be quite large.

The monks at the Mont-des-Oliviers monastery, in addition to a garden, an orchard and a few livestock and a few of the workshops mentioned above, keep honey bees and make candles.

However, the monastery’s most important building, often the most beautiful, and in any case its spiritual centre, is the church. It is there that the monks go before daybreak and several more times before nightfall, to sing the glory of God and to pray to Him, in the presence of Angels, as the Rule says. The church constantly reminds the monks that their primary mission is prayer and that their lives lose their meaning if they stop seeking God in all they do. Monastery churches were generally built in the style of their time and with the materials present in their countries, making for a wide variety of churches. Many are very beautiful because those who built them wanted them to be as worthy as possible of a God who is Beauty and Love.

Conclusion

Monks carry out, in the simple, secluded life of the monastery, a humble and noble service.
A noble service indeed because, constantly in the presence of God, the monks express, as best they can, the deepest desire of the Church, which is to meet the Lord. That is the reason the Church sings His glory, studies His words, suffers to repair evil and prays incessantly for all men. Monks do the same.

A humble service also because they who are called to the monastery know that God chose them freely, even though they were unworthy, and that if they have received much, they must give generously in return. In order to be generous every day, the monks know that they need God’s help as well as the prayers of the whole Church. When a monk sees something good in his own life, he does not take credit for it, but he gives praise to God who is responsible for that good.

Through these few words, the monks of Notre-Dame du Mont-des-Oliviers hope to respond to the questions of their friends and visitors. There are numerous people who make the pilgrimage to the Benedictines. May they leave the monastery blessed by God, stronger in their faith, more animated in hope and charity and praying that their brother monks may fulfil all that God calls them to do.