Friday, 15 May 2009

On why so many Benedictine monasteries are dying....

Benedictines have done so much for Church music, with the restoration of chant and much more. And a small but growing remnant have preserved the liturgical and other traditions of the Order in the face of considerable persecution. A couple of stories this week illustrate just what the traditional monasteries are up against.

Rock music...

First, the Musica Sacra forum carried an alert to this peculiar item: the Liturgical Press of St John's (Benedictine) Abbey, Minnesota are sponsoring a blog called Rock and Theology.

The blog 'explores the relationship between ’secular’ rock and ’sacred’ theology, and related matters of faith and culture today', and was apparently inspired by the example of the Benedictine Abbot Primate, Notker Wolf, who has his own rock band, called 'feedback'.

A commenter on the forum drew attention to a quote from the Pope's The Spirit of the Liturgy:

'“Rock”, on the other hand, is the expression of elemental passions, and at rock festivals it assumes a cultic character, a form of worship, in fact, in opposition to Christian worship. People are, so to speak, released from themselves by the experience of being part of a crowd and by the emotional shock of rhythm, noise, and special lighting effects. However, in the ecstasy of having all their defenses torn down, the participants sink, as it were, beneath the elemental force of the universe. The music of the Holy Spirit’s sober ine­briation seems to have little chance when self has become a prison, the mind is a shackle, and breaking out from both appears as a true promise of redemption that can be tasted at least for a few moments.'

Archbishop Weakland

And the damage caused by one of Dom Notker's immediate predecessors, Archbishop Rembert Weakland (Abbot Primate from 1967-1977) has also been in the news recently, with his public admission that he is a homosexual and promise of a tell-all book. It was during his reign as Abbot Primate that, inter alia, the Benedictines rejected the Divine Office as laid out in the Benedictine Rule in favour of assorted anaemic versions thereof. Aristotle of the Recovering Choir Director blog has a couple of posts up on his attacks on the liturgy in his time as a member of Vatican II liturgical committees, as an advisor to the American bishops, and as Archbishop (until his resignation in the context of a sex payment scandal), including his rejection of Gregorian chant as the product of a 'flawed theology' - do go have a read.


Matthias said...

This issue around worship is not confined just to the benedictines or the Catholic church. Last night I went to my church's Thursday night service. An excellent study on John's Gospel,a powerful session of prayer at the end But what i found disturbing was that the hymns (??) were sung over and over and over again.Good words,insipid presentation

The Sibyl said...


The Abbots Primate in recent years have indeed been less than desirable - we are however fortunate that the glory of the Benedictine order which is the complete autonomy of each abbey and it's dependants from another is as strong as ever - The Abbot Primate and the Confederation are late inventions, the product of a Roman policy of centralisation.

It is possible, therefore that Abbeys such as Le Barroux and others, develope and florish quite without any reference to the Abbot primate and the Confederation.

Put simply or perhaps in old fashioned terms;

1. The Lord Abbot/Lady Abbess has complete jurisdiction within the walls of his/her Monastery/Abbey.

2. The Abbot Primate is a nominal role - which has as much or as little power as the Lords Abbots and Lady Abbesses of the order collectively wish to endow it.

3. Even once endowed, every autonomous house may choose to adopt or ignore any proposition of the Confederation or Primas.

Thus the Confederation is loose at best and the Abbot Primate a nominal figure - a little like the Governor General.

Arguably then, it could be said that to ignore the Abbot Primate is in fact very Benedictine - since the very notion of such a confederation is antethetical to the Regula of St. Benedict wherein there is no mention of an order as such nor any confederation, but a monastery alone.


Terra said...

Sibyl - I'm not quite so convinced that the Confederation is essentially inconsistent with Benedictine tradition, notwithstanding its nineteenth century origins. According to St Gregory's Life, St Benedict himself acted as a sort of Abbot President to the group of 12 monasteries he established at Subiaco until he moved to Monte Cassino (from where he seems to have supervised several nearby monasteries as well). And at various times, such as under the era of Cluny the Order has been highly centralised. Even today, some Congregations within the Order have highly centralized systems of government.

Moreover, the power of (external) Congregational Abbot Presidents, Monastic Visitors and bishops (for example up until SP in prohibiting the use of the TLM to monasteries like Fontgambault and Jouques in the 1970s) can be immense.

The problem is that while the Abbot Primate does not have much formal power (except over the Benedictine University), he does have a lot of informal influence.

It is certainly true though that monasteries like Le Barroux have managed to survive and thrive no thanks to the Confederation (of which they were not members until last year), providing a continuity for a true revival of Benedictine religious life for which we can be duly grateful.

The Sibyl said...

I agree that the influence of the Abbot Primate is significant - my point leans more to juridical power which is vested in the Ordinaries i.e. Abbots.

The connection of St Benedict to which St Gregory Magnus refers, is, in my humble opinion, not really a paradigm for the Confederation - But has always been maintianed in the relationship between the "Mother house" and the other monasteries which have been founded from it.

Thus it can be seen in the relationship between Fontgombault and Clear Creak.

Once a monastery is raised to the rank of Abbey with its own jurisdiction it retains a strong relationship with the Abbey from which it sprung -ultimately generating a "Congregation".

Thus Fontgombault which was founded from Solesmes in the 1950's is part of the Solesmes Family - The Solesmes Congregation. (Indeed as a frequent visitor to Fongombault, I can tell you that it is a vision of Solesmes before the Council in many respects)

The Solesmes Congregation has many shared practices both liturgically and in terms of the way they observe the rule through the customs which surround their monastic life, many of which can be traced to their common Father - Dom Gaurange. (I understand that Dom Gaurange immitated both the Maurist and Cluniac traditions)

This model has was the only one which Benedictinism had known up until the French Revolution, which saw the devastation of countless monasteries.

The Benedictine Confederation is a hangover from the 19th Century obsession with centralisation - in practical terms this saw the establishment of numerous Generalates (HQs) in Rome - A problem needless to say for Benedictines whose ties were most definitely regional and only national by accident.
In many ways the vow of stability to one house itself miltates against modern notions of huge centralised religious orders.

Nevertheless in conformity with the 19th Century trend of centralisation in Rome, the Benedictine Confederation was formed so the Order might also be seen to have an equivalent presence in Rome like their more modern religious counterparts.

These Institutes incidently usually exercised their administration from Rome, where the General had residence.

Not so for the Benedictines the Jurisdiction of each Abbot within the walls of his own Monastery remained absolute and intact.

It is in my view that the reason that Benedictinism has had a revival, a renaissance if you like, precisely because it is not highly centralised and does not suffer from the deficiencies which afflict highly centralised orders such as the Jesuits.

Rather the Benedictine Order - represents one of the few truly ancient forms of ecclesial government - Each Priory, Monastery or Abbey is a paradigm of the Church without its walls - Like the Bishop in his diocese the Abbot exercises jurisdiction within the Abbey walls - a right established and protected by the Papacy for over a thousand years.

The growth within the Order is undoubtedly amoungst those who adhere to the TLM a fact which the Confederation and the Primate seem to blithely ignore. Let us be glad that it does not depend on them.

Terra said...

Sibyl -I'm not sure we can really talk about a 'renaissance' amongst Benedictines given that their numbers overall continue to fall sharply and that trend hasn't yet been offset by the growth in the trad monasteries!

Fontgambault and others as you say are wonderful places to visit. But mortality rates notwithstanding, they are still very much a minority overall - there were about 7,800 Benedictine monks within the Confederation in 2005; maybe 500 monks in the eight trad Benedictine monasteries in union with Rome(five of which as Solesmes Congregation foundations of Fontgambault were within the confed).

On the jurisdiction point, I'm not sure that we are really disagreeing. I certainly agree that the relative independence of the houses of the Order has allowed for some to be hold outs as the rest jumped over the cliff like lemmings!

As for St Gregory though - St Benedict according to the Dialogues shuffled monks between monasteries and appointed superiors (something provided for in the Rule, which doesn't mandate an internal election, but allows for the possibility of an outsider appointing the abbot). Sounds like jurisdictiont to me! And in the case of the Order of Cluny, the Prior of Cluny was the Ordinary for all of the many houses in the Order.

If you look at the list of Benedictine Congregations, when they were founded, and the extent to which the Abbot President of each has jurisdiction over individual houses, you will see it varies enormously from congregation to congregation. The Solesmes monks, as you note have a fair degree of autonomy (except where the new foundation is still a dependent priory as is the case for Clear Creek). But that isn't universally the case.

The Sibyl said...

As usual your comments are insightful - and indeed statistically you may well be correct. I suppose too, that our discussion about jurisdiction is worthy of a lot more attention and detail - time is the problem, now if I were a nun...

However, I think a case can be made for a revival, particularly if you examine the numbers in traditional houses or those of more traditional observance as opposed to those who are sailing with the tide and indeed the respective ages of the monks/nuns.

The notion of jurisdiction is not one that was so clearly defined in St B's time - The Cluniac revival is really the place where this idea starts to take on more recognisable form - The Charter of Cluny not only gave the territories to the monks but sought papal protection in perpetuity.

The Germans (Oh I do hate using simplified national Labels for such a complex idea - since the country itself is such a late invention)on the other hand with their emperial foundations have a very different outlook at things Benedictine.

Abbeys Nullius' were almost the norm and the Abbot had authority both civil and ecclesiastical over the territories given to him by Imperial mandate (Benedictines in Germany - by which I mean the former imperial territories, still enjoy enourmous privileges - granted centuries ago).

Terra, I am sure we could go on discussing the finer points of these issues ad nauseam - At bottom though, Like you I'm not sure that we disagree about the essentials, I suppose one final comment which is utterly subjective but must be to have any value is that I have been a Benedictine for 26 years, and I have watched the Order go through the terrible dim, dark years of the 70's 80's and 90's (Ground Zero). Yes there were more members but the monasteries were more rotten too. The fact that there are several houses including Cistercians who have returned to the Trad rite and observances - no matter how small their number - is a great sign of hope and must surely be seen as a turning of the corner - So from a time when there was nothing to a time where there are several it seems to me that we are on the move up from ground zero.

Best wishes
In Domino
The Sibyl

Terra said...

I certainly agree that these are positive times! The trad monasteries, and more traditionally oriented (such as Norcia, Christ in the Desert) are small but fervent and growing rapidly; and others are looking to them as a source of inspiration. As you suggest, the numbers would be much starker if one could disaggregate not only by 'pure' traddie, but more conversative vs modern, look at age etc.

But the reason I keep posting on the old guard is that I don't think they are going to go down without a fight...

I agree that there is probably a great Phd thesis or something in the jurisdiction issue for someone to do if there weren't so many other important topics!

I'd just note though that the earliest documented efforts for centralization (post Benedict himself!) can probably properly be attributed to Benedict of Aniane and the ninth century Carolingian legislation on monasticism - Cluny in many respects picked up and ran with what was already there. And Germany wasn't alone - some of the Spanish monasteries (including women's) had substantial quasi-episcopal jurisdiction in the early medieval period.

In any case, it is certainly good to live at a time when we can at least see the liberals who did so much damage exposed for what they are, and see hope in the new communities...