Monday, February 20, 2012

Interview with Prior of Monastère Saint-Benoît, Diocese of Fréjus-Toulon

In December 2011 Mgr Dominique Rey, the Bishop of Fréjus-Toulon in the South of France, erected the Monastère Saint-Benoît, a new monastic community following the Rule of Saint Benedict and celebrating the Sacred Liturgy according to the older, classical forms of the Roman and monastic rites. The Superior, Dom Aidan, has given this interview -- which is, to my knowledge, the first such interview given by this monastic community.

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NLM: Father Prior, can you tell us about the origins of this monastery?

Our monastery’s origins lie in our longstanding desire to live the monastic life in accordance with the Rule of Saint Benedict. Some of us were previously formed and professed as Benedictine monks but found ourselves frustrated in living out our vocation by circumstances beyond our control. Others, too, experienced this difficulty but still wished to be monks. The resultant time away from the monastic life, painful though it was, concentrated our desire to live the traditional monastic life and each day to live its natural harmony with the classical liturgical rites and monastic office. Through circumstances that were truly Providential we were able to express this desire to Bishop Rey.

Bishop Rey received us as would a true father. Our enquiry initiated a period of discernment and of practical preparation which involved the Bishop’s own team, ourselves, my own bishop (who also showed great paternal solicitude, kindness and generosity) and the support and generosity of many friends – not to mention the warm welcome of the locals here in La Garde-Freinet. Somewhat to our own – rather happy – astonishment, it was possible to begin the full monastic horarium for the first Sunday of Advent and to celebrate our canonical erection at solemn first Vespers of the Immaculate Conception last December.

NLM: What support have you received from the Diocese of Fréjus-Toulon and its bishop?

The bishop and the diocese have been, and remain, utterly supportive. Bishop Rey’s approach is to always ask how he, as a bishop, can encourage and further the growth of the Church. He is willing to put his person and his diocese behind initiatives that he believes will further the Kingdom of God on earth. He looks for solutions, not problems. So too do his team – from the vicar general, his secretaries and canonists, his financial officer, etc. All work together in order to build up the Church – to be sure, on sound financial and canonical foundations also!

We have been given use of a very large presbytery (which already we are in the happy situation of worrying about being too small) next to the parish church. We have been given use of the church for all of our liturgical offices. The Curé, who has welcomed us warmly, lives in another village of which he is also Curé and celebrates three Masses here each week for the small, very committed, local parish. This ‘sharing’ of the church works well and provides the Mass and Office here each day in addition to the parish’s existing Masses.

The bishop has also generously given us some financial aid to us get started – the costs of health insurance alone in France are astronomical – but we need to work to become financially self-sufficient very quickly.

Practical and fraternal support has come from around the diocese and indeed from the local clergy and people, who as well as encouragement, have provided us with many of the material things necessary for this large house. A monastery is something different and new, but its arrival has been greeted with the hospitality and openness for which the local people and the clergy of this diocese are known.

NLM: Are you part of the worldwide Benedictine Confederation?

While two of us have completed valid Benedictine novitiates and have been professed monks in the Confederation, our community is established by the bishop and is of the diocese. That is not to say that we are isolated: many monks of the Confederation are good friends and we have been delighted to receive their fraternal encouragement and help. One friend, an Abbot, has accepted the bishop’s invitation to assist both ourselves and the bishop as we grow. We have asked the Abbot to be of particular assistance in the formation of novices. So whilst we are independent of the Confederation we maintain strong links with monks of it, and are very appreciative of their visits, their support and of the wisdom and experience they share with us.

NLM: Tell us about the horarium and the liturgical life of the monastery.

Our horarium is straightforward, commencing with matins at 4.00am and ending with compline at 8.00pm. It includes all the offices sung according to the Breviarium monasticum (1963) as well as conventual Mass according to the usus antiquior. The horarium is not a publicity gimmick or a fantasy – it is real – and it has to be said that, whilst it is demanding, it is a joy to live.

In our liturgical life we ‘dare to do as much as we can’ as St Thomas Aquinas would urge. Whilst we are small this is sometimes necessarily modest. But faithfully to sing all the monastic offices each day is no small endeavour. As we grow more becomes possible, and each new vocation is a gift of God’s Providence enabling the whole monastic family to praise God more fully in the sacred liturgy.

Of course the liturgical life is the life of the monastery. It is our raison d’être. We are here first and foremost to offer worship to God, to ‘put nothing before the work of God’ as Saint Benedict teaches. This gives us a clear identity and gives order to our day, and again, it is a joy. It is a particular joy that, thanks to our Holy Father’s vision and legislation (which is wholeheartedly shared, supported and promoted by Bishop Rey), the use of the older liturgical rites is not an issue. There is no controversy about our spending our days and nights singing God’s praises or offering the holy sacrifice of the Mass in the way monks have done for centuries, as indeed there should not be!

NLM: How so you foresee the monastery participating in and advocating Pope Benedict's desired new liturgical movement?

We are a small monastic community living the liturgical life as fully and as faithfully as we are able. We seek to give Almighty God the worship that is His due and in so doing to further our own conversion of life in conformity with His ways. So as we see it, the ‘new liturgical movement’ is about first becoming liturgical myself, about being steeped in the sacred liturgy, about letting it form whom I am and how I live, about allowing it to bring about that conversion of life that is at the heart of the Rule of Saint Benedict.

We have no pretentions to making any great contribution on a larger scale. But if each day we can faithfully and generously live the liturgical life, that itself will make its own little difference in the Church and in the world. In God’s Providence we will play our small part in furthering the new liturgical movement.

Certainly, we do offer a certain monastic and liturgical witness and this has its effect. Our inauguration was celebrated with solemn first vespers of the Immaculate Conception – sung entirely in chant according to the monastic rite. Friends, local clergy and parishioners and some who had not been inside a church for a long time, joined together in praying vespers – many for the first time – and they sang very well! The Church’s liturgy, resplendent in the fullness of its monastic tradition, touched many hearts that evening. If we can continue to do that – and we can – that too will make its contribution.

NLM: What could a man thinking about the monastic life expect if he asked about joining your community?

He would be welcome to visit for a short period in order to taste something of our life: talking is one thing, but experiencing the life first hand is what is necessary. After that a longer visit for further discernment would be appropriate – normally at least a month. If he then wished to apply to enter the monastery, the usual application procedures would take place followed in due course by postulancy (which is usually at least three months, but is flexible, and then the novitiate which is a year, or possibly a year and a half).

NLM: And what formation would follow?

During postulancy and novitiate formation centres on monastic life and prayer: the Rule, monastic history, the sacred liturgy and the psalms, etc. Latin and, given our location, French would also be studied. After simple profession formation would be according to the individual’s gifts and the monastery’s needs. Some will go on to studies for ordination whilst others will develop their skills in other areas – our monastic family has room for all those Almighty God sends, be they what used to be called “choir monks” or “lay brothers”. Higher studies are also something we wish to encourage where the individual has the necessary gifts and where these would serve the monastery and the Church.

But for all that, the greatest formation for any postulant or novice is striving to be faithful to the many demands of our daily life with its challenges and at times its real difficulties. Persevering through these enables those called to the monastic vocation to begin that conversion of life which is our vocation, and to taste something of the delights thereof, together with one’s brethren in an ordered fraternity, a ‘school of the Lord’s service’. It’s hard to explain, but for those called to it, it is real, sustaining, a true grace and privilege. As we sing at Sunday Prime, “Viam mandatorum tuorum cucurri, cum dilatasti cor meum.” (I have run the way of thy commandments, when thou didst enlarge my heart.) Ps. 118: 32.

NLM: Do you have novices at present?

At the moment we have not even had the time for a postulancy to run its course! We have two serious candidates for the novitiate and, God-willing, they could be clothed as novices later in the year. There are other candidates planning to make extended visits. It is important not to rush discernment and to allow each candidate the time, space and freedom necessary to take the right steps at the right time. We prefer not to talk too much about who and when and so on in order to protect this freedom: they – and also the monks – are entitled to their privacy.

NLM: Is the monastery exclusively English-speaking?

Not exclusively. Whilst we certainly speak English, each of us must each learn French. We are open to all whom God sends. Indeed, our bishop has recently entrusted to us the final formation of a seminarian and he is not an English-speaker – so our French is improving all the time! When we preach we use both French and English – many of the local people are native English speakers.

NLM: What work do members of the community do?

Our first work is prayer and our own conversion of life. Then there is the necessary work of discernment and formation of candidates. After that follow all the usual administrative and household tasks, from cooking to cleaning to answering correspondence and paying bills.

We also run a small shop and produce some of the things sold there ourselves, as well as print cards and other items. We hope to do a little publishing. We have the use of a little land to grow food. Sometimes we tutor people in liturgical or academic areas or do other intellectual work. We welcome guests and retreatants and provide some pastoral care for people in the older rites. From time to time we assist the bishop with different projects.

Apart from the basics, our work will be a response to the opportunities, talents and needs that God’s Providence sends, provided always that these do not eclipse the work of God.

NLM: Where are you situated? Is it possible for people to visit?

We are in a village high up in the midst of “the Maures” mountain range, between Fréjus and Toulon, in Provence. We are a little over ten kilometres from the Mediterranean sea, and are twenty kilometres north of Saint-Tropez. It is an exceptionally beautiful region, and our village enjoys the benefits of being small and quiet. It has splendid views, with extensive mountain walks – ideal for people on retreat. We have posted some pictures on our website.

Yes, visitors are always welcome, be that to attend the Office or Mass (all of which are open to the public), or for a few days of rest or retreat. Male guests who would like to stay in the monastery should always contact us in advance of course, but hospitality is an important part of our vocation.

Regarding getting here, there are some buses that come to the village – more on weekends and in the summer – and there is a major railway station (Les Arcs) not that far away. However car is the most convenient means of transport and there is a good road up here from the coast, and another from the major Provencal autoroute (A8). We are not thirty minutes drive from either.

NLM: How can people support the monastery?

Firstly I must record our gratitude for the many benefactions, small and large, we have received to date. We have been continually moved by the goodness of God’s Providence working through so many generous hearts. That we have been able to make a good start to our life here is in no small part due to the charity of these individuals – whose acts are known to Almighty God – and for whom we pray each day and offer Mass each month.

That said, as I said earlier, yes, we have need to become financially independent quickly. With the arrival of new vocations that need is not small. Support and benefactions are always welcome, and are a true blessing. Whilst our website mentions various ways of supporting us – from buying goods through our Amazon links, sending something from our wish list at Amazon (we do need to build up our library especially), purchasing from our monastery shop, making a donation, sending Mass offerings, etc. – we are also conscious that we must work hard and develop both industries and income ourselves. That requires both personnel and capital – but God’s Providence will not fail us so long as we are faithful to our monastic vocation.

NLM: Do you have an oblate programme?

Yes, and we had the joy of clothing our first oblate-novice, a diocesan priest and great friend of the monastery, shortly after our inauguration. Oblates are our extended family, as it were, and share in the spiritual fruits of our prayer as we benefit from their fraternity and support. Catholic men and women who are interested in oblature should consult our website.

NLM: Dom Aidan, what does the future hold for the Monastère Saint-Benoît?

It holds the next monastic office, the next opportunity to exercise fraternal charity amongst the brethren, the next occasion to endure suffering in faith and hope, the next opportunity to welcome as Christ the person who comes to the monastery who perhaps is not even aware of the need to search for God. And if I am faithful to what the Rule commands of me in each of these circumstances, the future holds – no, it promises – that God shall be praised and found, and that in this I shall be more conformed to Him.

Certainly, we have hopes and plans, but Providence will shuffle them and deal her own hand according to a greater Plan. We shall see what the future holds. But if this community can be faithful to the Rule and attentive to the voice of God, the future, whatever it brings, will be of God.

God bless you and all your readers!

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For more information on the monastery:

Monastère Saint-Benoît
2, rue de la Croix
83680 La Garde-Freinet


© Monastère Saint-Benoît 2012

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