Seven Monastic Instincts – Sister Karen Joseph, OSB

Karen Joseph, OSB
Image by Edith OSB via Flickr

On Tuesday, Sister Karen Joseph gave an inspiring presentation, “Cultivating a Monastic Instinct.” She drew her title and topic from a chapter in a book by Cardinal Basil Hume (himself a Benedictine), originally titled Searching for God but now issued as The Intentional Life: The Making of a Spiritual Vocation.  Cardinal Hume described this monastic instinct of which he was aware in this way:

“It [the monastic instinct] is a kind of instinct by which one is able to judge what is fitting for a monk and what is not. This can cover a wide spectrum of activity, attitude, speech, the way pass our holidays, how we spend money, the kind of hospitality we give, the kind we receive, our behavior, things we say, our values. There is no end to it.”  (Hume, The Intentional Life)

Taking up this concept, Sister Karen considered the elements that might make up such a monastic instinct. Drawing on her years of living monastic life, and of leadership in monastic communities, she offered us reflections on seven monastic instincts.  Following are the brief notes; she expanded on each of them in her presentation.  (If you get a chance to hear this talk, GO!)

  1. The Instinct of Listening.  Listening is at the heart of monastic life.  Our lectio is the beginning of listening to God, and listening to each other is the start of learning to love one another.  Listening is at the heart of obedience (both in its etymology and its spirituality).  Monastic life and ministry is a life of listening.
  2. The Instinct of Humility.  Chapter 7 of The Rule is the longest, and the fullest statement of Benedict’s spirituality.  Humility is an active process of centering our lives not on ourselves but on the needs of others, of choosing what is better for someone else, rather than focusing on our needs, talents, or ideologies.
  3. The Instinct of Holding One’s Tongue.  This is not an instinct for many of us!  Sister Karen focused on the “negative scrutiny” that we employ under the guise of critical thinking, or of supposedly helpful correction.  Only when this judgment ceases can those around us fully develop.
  4. The Instinct of Helpfulness.  This is an ACTIVE instinct – not just thinking about what we might do that would be helpful but actually carrying it out.  We are professional helpers – when we make our monastic profession, we are pledging to be available to others day by day.
  5. The Instinct of Bearing.  Both The Rule and Scripture call on us to bear one another’s burdens, which often means to bear with one another, in forgiveness and patience.  It is, perhaps, easier to bear with others if we remember that as we do so, they are probably also bearing with us.
  6. The Instinct of Reverence is perhaps the one least supported by our culture today.  Reverence is seen in our behavior in the Chapel, but also in the way we treat other people, the common objects of life, the stranger, the needy.  When we see God in all parts of life, we can give reverence wherever we recognize our encounter with the Divine.
  7. The Instinct of Consistency.  This is perhaps the most monastic of these instincts, what moves them beyond the common virtue. Monastics are people who have made a promise to do (or attempt to do!) these things for a life time.  Quoting Mother Evangelista Kremmeter of Atchison, Sister Karen concluded with the indication that “Words move, but example convinces.”

As Cardinal Hume pointed out, these elements form a set of basics for one coming to monastic life – but Sister Karen points out that these need to be recognized and cultivated to bear any fruit.

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