A Reflection on Monastic Vocation

By Fr. Maximilian Buonocore, O.S.B.

A religious vocation becomes truly missionary through the evangelical virtues. In Luke 10:38-42, we hear about Martha who is anxious and busy about the tasks of hospitality and serving, things that we know to be very good activities to engage in, and to which St. Benedict assigns great importance in his Rule. Then why does Jesus rebuke Martha, who wants to get her sister Mary, who is seated at the feet of Jesus, listening and not working, to get up and also become engaged in the tasks of hospitality and service? Well, it is for the same reason that St. Benedict says in his Rule, that for the monk, “nothing is to be preferred to the Work of God,” that is, the Divine Office, where the monk sits “at the feet of Jesus” attending to his Word with openness to his Spirit.

This passage reflects the classic tension between two essential features of human existence: action in the world and contemplation of the divine. Over the centuries there have been many people who have sought to deal with this tension by imposing some degree of separation between themselves and the world. A great example of this is St. Benedict of Nursia. He was born into a wealthy family of the stature of nobility. He was well educated and had the opportunity to become very engaged in civic and economic activities which would contribute to the political and economic life of the society in which he lived. He could have become engaged in the apostolic life of the Church as a priest, who, with his gifts, would have advanced to high positions of leadership and administrative authority in the Church. He was indeed a “Martha” character, very preoccupied with his roles and activities, but, at the bidding of Jesus, sought to live in solitude and prayer at the “feet of Jesus” as Mary did.

It may seem like Benedict was shifting away from an apostolic vocation to a contemplative vocation . . . as if there was indeed such a distinction: an apostolic versus a contemplative vocation. In fact, there is only one type of religious vocation: to be bound to Christ in a contemplation that flows into an apostolic mission. Every vocation is both contemplative and apostolic. It is contemplative first and apostolic second. It is the apostolic dimension that can have many forms. These forms are what gives the religious vocation its variations among individuals and groups. The types of religious people whom we normally refer to as apostolic tend to do work in ministries such as sacramental ministry, faith formation, etc. The religious whom we usually refer to as contemplative are engaged in works which do just as much to evangelize and draw souls to Christ, though these works do not necessarily involve a lot of direct contact with other people outside of the religious community. But the purpose of all religious vocations is to fulfill what we are designed to be: missionaries of the Holy Trinity – to reflect the life and love of the Holy Trinity in the world, and to be thereby evangelical persons. Every human being is called to be evangelical in a very real way, because every human being is made in the image and likeness of God in his Word, and has a calling by his or her very nature to transmit that Word; the Good News of Trinitarian life and love into the world.

I myself left my career as an engineer to join the monastery. Yes, I could indeed exercise my calling as a missionary of the Holy Trinity as an engineer. I was anxious about exercising my career for the good of society, using the money I made for the good of others, and volunteering to do good works, but I knew that, to live that calling to its fullest in this life, I needed to foster the Mary side of me to a higher degree in the context of the monastery. I heard those words of Jesus addressed to the “Martha” in me, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” What Jesus was conveying is that Mary has chosen the better part because she was engaged in the kind of contemplative attending which is necessary to make whatever activity that she may engage in an evangelical activity. An activity is truly evangelical when it flows from the Word of God in us – from the Spirit of God in us – as opposed to flowing from our own anxious efforts at accomplishing good things and fulfilling the roles that other people expect of us. It is not that it is not a good thing to fulfill those roles, but we want to bring those roles in line with the highest role that we have as human persons: that is, to be missionaries of the Holy Trinity – to be evangelical persons in the highest sense of the word.

Our vocation, both as individuals and as a community, becomes truly apostolic and truly missionary only when, both individually and together as a community, we become truly evangelical persons. If we are not becoming truly evangelical persons, we may be a community that provides great humanitarian services for those in need – we may provide quality education and health services; we may provide needed sacramental services: masses, confessions, baptisms, confirmations, anointing of the sick, etc. – but, if we are not truly evangelical persons, these services remain just that: services.

But if, through our community life in the cloister, we are seeking to become truly evangelical persons, those services will not be just services, they will become occasions of encounter: encounter with the joy of the Gospel, encounter with the mystery of the divine presence through truly loving encounter. The services that we render become occasions for others, through us, to get a glimpse of the mysterious reality of the Divine, whose threefold personal generativity and communion is made manifest in the threefold personal presence of faith, hope and love, which is a reflection of the great Trinitarian mystery of the Godhead. When services are rendered from the threefold personal evangelical virtues of faith, hope and love, these services are no longer mere services which satisfy natural and spiritual needs. They become occasions for the divine mysteries to be really experienced, even if only in a small way. This is my monastic mantra. It should be our mantra as a monastic community.

So let us examine ourselves daily to see if our activities and efforts at doing good are imbued with evangelical contemplation, or are they more imbued with the merely human anxiousness to accomplish some good or to fulfill some role. This is the biggest question that I ask myself every day: “Am I becoming a truly evangelical person?” That is the question that the Lord was asking Martha to ask herself. That is the question that the Lord is asking each of us to ask ourselves today and every day.