March 19, 2013
Ora et Labora
A Monk at Heart
The entrance to Sant’Anselmo, the Benedictine university where Monsignor Irwin earned his doctorate.
The buzz in Rome is (obviously!) about a Jesuit Pope who chose the name Francis. That makes the inhabitants of about half of the ecclesiastical real estate in Rome very happy. It is hard to miss that central Rome is well served by several Jesuit institutions, including the Gesu and Sant'Ignazio churches. Among religious houses of men and women the Franciscans have to top the list. (I have often said that when I die I want to ask St. Peter, “How many groups of Franciscans were there?”). “Good on you,” as my Australian students taught me to say! A Jesuit named Francis, stay tuned.
But I must admit that despite being a diocesan priest my inner leanings are Benedictine. A lesser known part of my biography was that prior to coming to CUA, for 2½ years I tried the Benedictine monastic vocation at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. After trying my hardest, it was clear that the monastic life was not for me. I left the abbey in March 1985, applied for and got two jobs, one at CUA, the other at Notre Dame. (Full disclosure!) Cardinal John O’Connor allowed me to choose which I wanted. CUA it was. I drove from NYC to D.C. on Aug. 15, 1985, and cried the whole way. Why must I reinvent my life again? Ever since it has been “happily ever after.”
Part of my fascination with the Benedictines was that I earned my doctorate at the international Benedictine university here in Rome, Sant’Anselmo. It was also there that I sought spiritual direction from then prior of Sant’Anselmo, Father Dominic Milroy, O.S.B., of Ampleforth Abbey in Yorkshire, U.K. (I was on the Pontifical North American College faculty and sought direction to keep my head on straight.)
|A view of the Tiber River, which flows through the Eternal City.|
Ever since I have had a monastic heart. The Rule of St. Benedict is a treasure trove of insight. One of its summaries is ora et labora — prayer and work. Mary and Martha. Not one without the other. Both … and.
When I was planning this semester in Rome, I spoke with the current prior of Sant’Anselmo, Father Elias Lorenzo, O.S.B., from St. Mary’s Abbey in Delbarton, N. J., about the possibility of using a guest room here for study, writing, and prayer on the days I was not teaching. He generously agreed. (Why should I be surprised? Hospitality is a key Benedictine characteristic.) So, on most of the days that I do not teach I walk up the Aventine Hill (about 45 minutes), fire up my laptop, and work. (Of course, there is wired Internet in every room. What that says about monastic silence, I don’t know.)
I join the monks daily for Midday Prayer (sung in Latin in Gregorian chant) in the Chapter Room and follow them to pranzo (lunch) in the refectory. Here there is no table reading, but conversation. Students can catch up on what they are studying (here and at other Roman universities) and professors can share (and receive uninvited critiques!) about what they are researching and writing (publish or perish, even here). Coffee often follows in the professors’ lounge. (Nespresso meets the monastic life!).
Given this tranquil and welcoming setting, it is no surprise that I have been able to do a lot of thinking and writing. In fact, I finished a draft of a book I had been working on at home for 12 months. I was at work on an article, “Liturgy and the New Evangelization,” until Pope Benedict XVI resigned. (Who’s distracted?) Back to that next week.
Before becoming cardinal archbishop of Westminster (London), Basil Hume served as abbot of Ampleforth Abbey. He once told the monks that they should always want a deeper, more contemplative vocation. That meant a Benedictine teaching in school should always have the heart of a Carthusian (monk). And an active religious should always have the heart of a monk. Why? The Christian life is both prayer and work. Work without prayer is ungrounded and can be self deceptive. Prayer without work is a fantasy and does not reflect the Christian vocation — to find and serve God in Church and in the marketplace. Mary and Martha.
I was at Sant’Anselmo recently after quite a busy week. While there is a “rush” to doing interviews, there is also the need for quiet and prayer. It has been a good day. The sun is about to set. I am about to walk home. No earbuds or Podcasts. I will muse and pray. And, as I do, I will be like everyone else on the street. No media, no lights, no sound bites. An anonymous walk on the streets of a city I love.
Cardinal Hume once said to his monks, “Take God very seriously, take your vocations seriously, don’t take yourselves too seriously.” It was a day to do all of that and to try to put this week into a prayer perspective. No cameras, no media. Books, thoughts, and writing.
Prayer and work.
Works for me, a monk at heart.