Saturday, 28 February 2015

The Year of Consecrated Life (5): consecrated life "in the world"?

Fr Christian de Cherge was the prior of the Cistercian monastery at Tibhirine in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria, whose community were martyred by people who would now be known as "Islamist extremists". The monks had remained in Algeria at a time when it was dangerous for them to do so. Within the village of Tibhirine, they enjoyed good relations with their Muslim neighbours, among other actions providing a pharmacy/clinic at which one of the monks provided medical care to all comers. A brief account of the aspect of inter-religious dialogue in Fr de Cherge's life can be found here; and the Testament that he wrote, in view of his death, and which was opened only after his death, can be downloaded from this page. In Christian Salenson's study of the thought of Fr de Cherge - Christian de Cherge: Une theologie de L'Esperance - there is a chapter which considers prayer in the context of inter-religious dialogue, particularly dialogue between Christians and Muslims, and in the context of the life of the particular community at Tibhirine. The chapter is entitled "Priants parmi d'autres priants" - "Those who pray among others who pray" - referring to a monastic life lived in a Muslim milieu. At a time when the community was at considerable risk, this term came to define for the monks the specificity of their vocation in the particular location of Tibhirine, and part of their reason for staying rather than leaving. One cannot fail to see a parallel between the liturgical times of prayer in the monastery and the times of prayer among the Muslim community living "in the world" around the monastery.

In a not dissimilar vein, I have for some time been attracted by an observation made in the opening sentences of the Preface to Louis Bouyer's book The Meaning of the Monastic Life:
The purpose of this book is primarily to point out to monks that their vocation in the Church is not, and never has been, a special vocation. The vocation of the monk is, but is no more than, the vocation of the baptized man. But it is the vocation of the baptized man carried, I would say, to the farthest limits of its irresistible demands.
Fr Bouyer was writing at the request of a community of monks - hence his non-inclusive language - so I think we can safely extend the intention of his words to nuns and lay women, too. If his observation is correct, then it indicates, not so much the monastic life as such, but at least a form of consecrated life akin to it, as a way in which the lay person might live the vocation of their baptism "to the farthest limits of its irresistible demands".

The lesson that we might take from the experience of Fr de Cherge and the monks of Tibhirine is that, just as the monastery at Tibherine existed as a place of prayer among a people of prayer in a Muslim milieu, so, in a Christian milieu, a monastery should exist among a people who pray. In the context of the Year for Consecrated Life, it suggests that we should look for consecrated life to be lived, not only in the seclusion of the monastery, but also out and about in the life of Christians "in the world".

And from Fr Bouyer we might take the lesson that the living of a Christian life "in the world" should carry with it the same radicalness of response to the demands represented by the call of the Lord as does the response of the monk, a radicalness represented by the vows characteristic of consecrated life.

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