Browse Our Articles & Podcasts

Norcia Monk to Catholics: On Prayer and Fasting, Don’t Be a Baby

Editor’s note: Julian Kwasniewski conducted this interview with Fr. Cassian Folsom, OSB of the Benedictines of Norcia at the Sacred Liturgy Conference in Salem, Oregon, June 27-30, 2018.

Julian Kwasniewski: In his Holy Rule, St. Benedict tells the monks to put the liturgy before all else. According to tradition, St. Benedict died just having received communion. How does the Eucharist become, in a particularly monastic way, the source and summit of a monk’s life?

Fr. Cassian: Well, that is a complicated question because St. Benedict is referring specifically to the Divine Office, and it was only later that daily celebration of Mass became a feature of monasteries. In the 6th century there may have been daily communion, but not daily Mass. But it’s not clear, and we don’t know very much about how Mass was integrated into the horarium the way it is today: right in the most important place, at 10 A.M., almost at the center of the day and the other hours of the office.

But let me come at the question from another angle. When the monk makes vows, it is always within the context of the Eucharist, and he places his vow chart on the altar, at the time of the Offertory. He is offering himself, with Our Lord, to the Father. That is the Eucharistic content of the monk’s life, that kind of self-offering with Our Lord in the Eucharist, to the Father. Now, around that core of the profession, there is all the beauty of the ritual, the chant, and the other texts – but that is all around this core of self-offering.

You mentioned the various rites surrounding the core of the profession. How do you think the spiritual and liturgical tradition of the Church enhances the monk’s union with Christ?

These things serve as a vehicle. You are right. There are many ways, but the way of the liturgy is primary for the monk. I would put it this way: I will use an analogy. Someone says “I would like to learn how to swim.” And you say, “Well, okay, let’s go down to the ocean,” and they just want to put their big toe in the water, and you say, “Well, that’s very nice, you got that a little bit wet, but you have not learned how to swim.” And they might say, “Oh, well then I’ll just wade,” and they wade by the beach, maybe up to their knees. “You got more wet,” you say, “but you still haven’t learned how to swim. Until you dive in and are surrounded by the water, you can’t swim.” I think that for the monk, liturgical prayer is like diving into the water, and you are surrounded by it on all sides. You do it over and over again, year after year after year, and so you become, by osmosis, almost impregnated by the water. Like a fish, that is the environment in which you live, and you can’t live without it, otherwise you will die. So I think that liturgical prayer acts like that in the life of the monk.

Fr. Cassian.

In chapter 32 of the Holy Rule, St. Benedict enjoins the humble cellerar to treat all the tools of the monastery as if they were the sacred vessels of the altar. How should this inform our celebration of the Eucharist? Why does St. Benedict transmit this very high level of respect down to the simplest things?

Well – I love that passage, by the way – it shows what the sacramental economy is about. That is a fancy way of saying it, but the material world speaks to us of the immaterial world. Matter communicates the spirit in some way. That’s what sacraments do. St. Benedict, in this admonition to the cellerar, is saying that. We can see very clearly in the liturgy, in the Eucharist in particular, that the material elements are transformed and bring us into the spiritual realm. “But,” St. Benedict is saying, “it’s not just restricted to the liturgy. It is every aspect of our life.” And so, in this particular case of the tools of the monastery, those things, instruments, communicate spiritual realities to us. The monk has to learn how to read the material elements to see the spiritual reality. That translates into a whole attitude, where you take care of things. It should manifest itself in the way you set the table, for example, with things lined up properly, or that you clean your tools after using them – whatever it might be. Creation tells us about the Creator, and material things made by man also communicate to us the Creator. It is a sacramental principle that is pretty fundamental.

Why do Benedictines take vows of obedience, stability, and conversion of manners? Can you explain how they are different from and yet united to the vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience?

This is a controverted question, but there is a simple answer! I don’t mean to be facetious, but when the monk makes vows, it is “a package deal.” St. Benedict did not intend three separate objects of our vows: it’s monastic life. He became a monk when Romanus put the habit on him. Later tradition makes that the object of three separate vows, but in the Rule itself, they are synonymous; they are all talking about the same thing. The monk lives in a monastery, under an abbot: well, that’s stability and obedience, and conversatio morum just means the monastic way of life. In a juridical model, how can you “vow” a way of life? Usually, the vow is of some particular object. So that’s why I say it is a package deal.

In the 13th century, with the arrival of the mendicant orders, that triple synthesis of poverty, chastity, and obedience becomes very popular…the so-called “evangelical counsels,” because in the Gospels, Our Lord speaks about those aspects of those who would be perfect. “If you want to be perfect, sell all you have and follow me.” But the Gospels never talk about those three things in the same breath; it is a [later] synthesis.

But because those three vows became even canonically regulated, even in monastic law we have to say in our statutes that the monastic vows include what the Church intends by poverty, chastity, and obedience.

It seems like one of the things that characterizes the Church in the 21st century is a loss of faith in the power of prayer. Could you elaborate on how this especially manifests itself in the loss of contemplative vocations and the loss of an understanding of their value and even purpose?

We live in an activist society, not just now, but for centuries. The Church oftentimes absorbs the values of the world, and so the Church tends to be very activist also. You are supposed to do something for God. And to use Mother Teresa’s expression, to do something for God is a glorious thing. But…maybe God should do something beautiful for you. And you should receive that first! So I think that the fundamental issue is, as the Scriptures say, “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.” So God takes the initiative, then we respond. In a life of prayer, so-called “contemplative” vocations, the primary actor is God, not we. The world doesn’t understand that and doesn’t believe it. And, since the Church is often very worldly, the Church doesn’t understand it or believe it, either! The fundamental thing is that God takes the initiative, and we receive that…so how can you give what you have not received?

What might be one little thing a layman reading this might be able to do to become less activistic?

I think lots of people say they want to pray, but this usually does not translate itself into anything concrete because we don’t make for ourselves a rule of prayer. That is, “I will get up at a certain time in the morning, and I will dedicate a certain amount of time to prayer.” To put it in a nutshell, everyone needs a rule of prayer. You can’t just leave it up to your good intentions or how you happen to feel that day.

This Sacred Liturgy Conference’s theme is transfiguration in the Eucharist. What would you say is the primary thing that must be transformed when a monk enters the monastery?

The old Adam. The “old man” must die. And that’s very, very difficult. One of the collects that I mentioned in my talk today used the phrase “de die in diem”: day by day. This dying to self takes place day by day; it’s not once and for all. When we talk about “conversion” – that the goal of the monk’s life is to convert himself – that means to put on the New Man, Christ, and to let the old man die. That’s baptismal language, you know, nothing new. But because of original sin, and actual sin as well, the old man resists, kicking and screaming. And so it becomes a life project.

Do you think the singing of the Suscipe at the profession is a plea for God to take the monk out of himself? This isn’t my own insight, but might it be like St. Thérèse saying, “I’m not strong enough to climb the ladder, so Jesus will be my elevator.”

That’s very lovely! It’s a nice insight. Suscipe…it’s a petition, that God accept the gift that we offer, the gift of ourselves. That’s a response to God’s initiative, too, isn’t it? The process of purification I was speaking about: we can be activistic about that also! No, God will do that for you, and you have to cooperate with Him. So the insight there is good: God purifies us, but we give ourselves to Him.

How have the earthquakes, the building of a new monastery, the toughing it out in the mountains helped the monks enter into the monastic spirit? I have heard several times from the community that living on the mountain has helped.

Yes…God used the earthquakes to bring our monasticism to a new level, most obviously by giving us a different physical environment. To be out of the noisy town in the silent national park on the mountain side is much more conducive to the monastic life: silence, solitude, land, the possibility of more manual labor, the possibility of organizing our life without the restrictions of the town.

So it’s not a disturbance of the life of contemplation, but something that makes it richer?

Oh, absolutely! We are just as delighted as can be! And, because we are not limited to the schedule of Masses in town, for example, we have more flexibility. Here is a concrete example: the vigil of Saints Peter and Paul is a fast day in the monastery. But a fast day for a vigil means that mass is at three in the afternoon, because if you receive Communion, you are breaking your fast. So we don’t have Mass in the morning on that fast day: it is with the Eucharist that you first break your fast. It’s in the old missal, if you read carefully. In town, we couldn’t do that because you had to have something regular that the people could attend. So we have the increased flexibility, which enables us to live the monastic life more intensely.

So much of the Benedictine charism is obedience, and the beauty of obedience…and he [Benedict] even treats of the case of a brother commanded to do something “impossible.” Could St. Benedict help those Catholics who, while professing loyalty to Rome and their bishops, sometimes feel that they have to say “we cannot do what you are asking us because it is contrary to the Faith”? How does the spirit of the Rule inform how that should be done?

The Rule makes clear that it is simply an elaboration on the Gospel. Obedience is, first of all, to Christ as manifested in the Gospel, and then, in a more immediate way, to the superior [of the community]. But the superior can’t command something contrary to Christ, or contradictory to the Gospel. For the faithful in general, our obedience is to the Scriptures, to Tradition, and to the authentic Magisterium. We have all that we need to be obedient to Christ in the Gospel, and that is manifested in human beings, in the structure of things. But, unlike the Rule of the Master, which puts the abbot on a pedestal, St. Benedict is always warning the abbot to “practice what you preach,” and “you can’t command against the Gospel precepts.”

And so we have to make distinctions. If the superior says, “Please go poison that man over there because I don’t want him around anymore,” well, you would have to “disobey.” So in troubled times like our own, we have to be very clear that obedience is first of all to Christ, as manifested in the Gospel, as lived out in the Tradition of the Church, as defined by the Magisterium. Anything that is a deviation from that is…a deviation! So obedience does not mean blind obedience; it means having your eyes open and using your God-given intelligence to weigh things.

In the Holy Rule, St. Benedict mentions chastity only once. He just says the brothers should “love chastity.” How can young people take that as an example of how to approach chastity, even if they are not called to consecrated virginity?

It’s a wonderful question, and very timely. This particular phrase can be understood best by referring to one of Benedict’s sources – that is, St. John Cassian, who has three treatises on chastity. Cassian makes a distinction between continence and chastity. Let me talk about that for the celibate first, and then everyone.

For the celibate, continence means the self-discipline of restraining your natural impulses. We don’t love continence because it is a struggle, a battle. Chastity, in Cassian’s vocabulary, is the peace that comes as a result of the struggle: it’s the prize. It is the tranquility of body and spirit that comes at the end of the struggle. So we can certainly love that, and desire that ardently.

Now, I said that first about the celibate, but it applies to every Christian as well. In a sex-saturated culture like our own, with enormous confusion in the sexual realm, the notion of self-restraint seems “out of place” in our times, or something…like you have three heads! But I would say unrestrained sexual liberty is devastating to the human person and leads only to unhappiness. Why people can’t see that is because sexual pleasure acts like a drug. So to learn self-restraint is a wonderful quality that should be part of every human life, including married life. Being married doesn’t mean you can have sex whenever you want to! That’s the most absurd notion that a lot of people have. It does not work that way.

So, there is a lot of confusion in this area, in our culture and in our Church. St. Benedict is saying that to love chastity is a thing for everyone: chastity in the sense of the proper use of the sexual faculty according to your state in life. For a married man, it means, frequently enough, self-restraint and abstinence. Likewise for the woman. It’s a very attractive virtue that we should cultivate.

This is related to fasting. It’s not the struggle [that we want], but the tranquility that comes at the end of a fast period, just as we love chastity as a sort of physical and spiritual integrity, and peace that comes from abstinence. The two are related. We see this in the desert fathers. They say, “If you want sexual purity, fast.” Because they are both controlling physical appetites.

Fasting is not an end in itself; it’s a tool that develops our will so that when we are used to denying ourselves in small things, we can also deny the big things when they come along.

Exactly. That sense is gone, completely gone. But it can be recovered!

One meal a day: that may be unrealistic for many laity, but what about an internet fast?

Absolutely! But even in terms of fasting, our [Eastern] Orthodox friends look on us with disdain, because their laity fast before certain feasts! A two-week fast in the summer, before the Assumption: well, we are just wimps! And that is because, in our society, the proposal is “fulfill your desires; whatever you want, just do it.” This comes especially through commercials, over and over again. It’s a lie. And we are in a mess! But it was Bishop Schneider who was saying: “It seems like we are in a winter, but there are signs of flowers coming through the snow.”

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Popular on OnePeterFive

Share to...