When I joined my religious order back in the 1970s, the first year was called the novitiate, and we eight young fellows were the ‘novices’. That first year was like no other year I have ever lived before or since, because we lived a monastic life. The years after the novitiate were different because the religious order I joined was termed ‘semi-contemplative’ which meant that the fully trained members, priests and brothers, spent time in the monastery but they also could spend time outside – not holidaying of course, but serving the people of God in a variety of different roles.
This year of novitiate was truly unique because we young men were living an entirely monastic life – what was called the ‘regular life’, as virtually every minute of our day was timetabled and accounted for. There was a set time for getting up (early!), and prayers, meals, even recreation and quiet time were scheduled. We even had a brief slot called ‘remission’ which was a kind of ‘at ease’ before we moved on to the next set task. And each and every day was largely the same, though again, during a typical week we had certain days for fasting and penance and another day for recreation, which included the possibility of a glass of beer! It also followed that I never saw my family for the full year, and managed one quick phone call home on a rare day out before my few coins ran out!
This strict and ordered life may seem somewhat like a prison camp, and for sure, we were dedicated to an ideal of service and self-denial, but – for someone like me who had never had much self-discipline – the experience of this monastic living was actually liberating. When discipline is imposed on you and – crucially – you accept it in the spirit in which it is lived, then this regular life gave you a powerful structure, a formal purpose, and removed much of the equivocation and procrastination that is all too common in daily life.
Obviously we were living as celibates and had no parental, family or outside responsibilities, so we could give ourselves to the pattern of this monastic life. The motto was “soli deus et studiis”, meaning “God alone and study”. This may actually sound like quite a selfish and insular way of life, and in some ways it was, but it was designed for a specific purpose, and within that parameter it provided a powerful dynamic that was wonderfully liberating.
It goes without saying that, for those of us who persevered through the novitiate and then went on to be students for the priesthood in a modern university setting, the regular life quickly ceased as we launched ourselves into the hubbub and excitement of student life. The regime in the ‘house of studies’ was much more relaxed and the support that the regular life had provided was promptly removed.
That year of novitiate was for me a taste of the full monastic life, and I think it gave me an appreciation of both the hard sacrifice and the amazing power of that ‘enclosed’ life that so many monks and nuns live. In their sacrifice and their liberation it would be a mistake to think that they had shrunk from a ‘normal’ life and were avoiding the ups and downs of family and societal living. Their dedication in prayer can actually make them more focussed on the joys and sufferings of others. From my vantage point of an older age and a family life I can see the immense beauty of such a life dedicated to God.
I suppose the challenge for us outside the monastery might be to find ways and structures that can, without being too restrictive, give us the kind of beneficial support that such a regular life can provide. What realistic time slots and schedules could I embrace that would counter a tendency to shilly-shally my way through each day? And what especially could I do to ensure that there is proper time for God in my day? A more structured and God-centred day would – I know – immensely improve my life, my loving and my whole being. I know the theory – can I do the practice?
In His love,