Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding.

I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop...
It was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.


Saturday, 1 November 2014

Monks and Marriage


Last Monday evening I went to a speaker meeting at the Oxford Oratory entitled, somewhat intriguingly, "Monks and Marriage"

It was deliverd in two parts by two monks on a flying visit from St Benedict's birthplace at Norcia (Nursia) in Umbria. The original abbey there was closed in 1810, but in 2000 was re-occupied by a confident young community which had been established on traditionalist lines in Rome in1998.

The community is multinational, but the majority of the monks are from the US. Of the community eleven are fully professed monks, living and working the Benedictine lifeand restoring the monastic presence in the birthplace of the western tradition.The buildings date from the first to the twentieth centuries. The Prior, Fr Cassian Folsom, is a tutor in liturgy at San'Anselmo in Rome.

Amongst their fundrasing activities is a brewery, which has been expanded five times since they moved in, and the latest extension was blessed by Cardinal George Pell on August 15th this year.

Recently they welcomed the Summorum Pontificum pilgrimage, and with them on that occasion was Cardinal Walter Brandmuller.

The monastery has a new website, which can be viewed here. There are also excellent introductory leaflets from the English friends of the community which set out the communal  work and vision. This includes quotations from Pope Benedict XVI about the importance of recapturing the vision which impelled St Benedict and his followers as part of the re-evangelisation, necessary for our times.

The second part of the evening was given over to Prior Cassian Folsom, who spoke about Monks and marriage: Stability in the modern age.

He began by pointing out that some European Benedictine houses are over a millennium old, with the stability that is implicit in that fact. He also spoke of the sense of stability that is central to John Cassian's account of Desert monasticism, and which was a major influence on St Benedict and later monastics until at least the sixteenth century.

Stability is to abide in God, not just in one specific place - monks have, for example, had to change location as new houses were created from old, or if they have had to move or indeed go into exile. Stability prevents you running away from temporary or local difficulties. It is also about how one lives with oneself. You may move, but, having moved there you are, as his first Abbot at St Meinrad in Indiana pointed out.

He then drew out the parallels with marriage. For St Augustine children, fidelity and the bond of stability were the keynotes of married life. Fr Cassian contrasted the first of these with the current low birthrate in Italy.

The bond cannot be dissolved, but modern ideas are inimical to the Augustinian ideal. He believes that stability in marriage leads to holiness for the couple involved. In an age of frequent marriage breakdown heroic virtue may be necessary to sustain the bond contracted. He cited devotion to the shrine of St Rita of Cascia, near to Norcia, who is the patron of fraught marriages and family life. As C.S.Lewis saw in The Four Loves relationships exist in differing ways.

He went on to tease out the similarities in monastic and married life.
So a couple do not choose the children they have, and nor does the monastic choose their confreres in a monastery.

The balance of solitude and togetherness in marriage and monastic life is not dissimilar.

Both involve establishing a new life, and for the monastery making that attractive to recruit new recruits.

The married couple and their family grow together as does a monastic community, ageing and recruiting new members as time goes on.

Couples and communities may, indeed will, face difficulties together, and diverse personalities will bring their own resources to the specific situations. Within their particular bonds they will promote forgiveness.

If in marriage there is an exclusive commitment to the other partner, in monasticism the Other is God.

A difference is that in the monastery the abbot and the role of a father in a family are not the same.

God is faithful to His covenant with His followers, and society needs both types of stability, those of the religious and the married. A monk, through his novitiate, does have, in effect, a five year long engagement to be sure his vocation is certain. Marriage needs preparation also, but necessarily needs flexibility, but he considered most contemporary marriage preperation was useless.

Amongst the points raised byb the audience after the talk was that Christain marriage was in itself both natural and supernatural, and that there were three in the union, with God as the third party. The point was made also that there is in one sense only one marriage, that of Christ and the Church, all others being copies of that unique relationship. Marriage was the one grace to survive the Flood, a thing from the very establishment of human society. Good marriage preparation courses could show up the fact people often do not know what they are getting into when the commit to matrimony.

As Fr Cassian concluded - to be called to either state gives impetus to the life of the individual, and the responsibility for that calling is with God.

An intersting and informative evening and one which gave food for thought about both how to support family life and this specific monastery.

Since hearing the talk I saw on Rorate Caeli a post about the monks' calendars, the sale of which benefits the community, and publicises their work. It can be seen at 2015 Calendar Season: 2 - The Monks of Norcia


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