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Syon Abbey

By Dom Francis Edward

Abbot of Syon

Monasteries have had, since the despoliations of the Sixteenth Century, rather a bad press in the English-speaking world. Thus the familiar mythology has it that the monks are drones, that they are ignorant, that they are frustrated in love, that they are defeated by life. The monks are by no means surprised by these calumnies, for that world which is the enemy of God is the enemy likewise of those who serve God. Servants, Our Lord tells us, are not above their Master; as He was persecuted, so shall they be.

And He has taught them to be very cheerful about it: “Blessed are you, when men revile you, and persecute you, and speak all manner of evil against you falsely, because of Me. Be glad and light-hearted, for a rich reward awaits you in Heaven” (Matthew 5:11-12).

At the same time, the monks are entitled to feel a little ill-used, for as Cardinal Newman says, there is not a man in our civilization who writes against monasteries who does not owe it to monasteries that he is able to write at all.

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It was in a paradise that God established our first father and mother; we carry about us, as Saint Hildegarde says, the faded memory of that Eden from which we are fallen. It always draws us, that memory of beauty lost; we long moreover to live in a place of beauty, and to be ourselves beautiful; and this memory and this longing are the work in us of our Creator that we might turn in love to Him, the All-beautiful.

Who can be surprised that in the monks this memory and this longing are more urgent and alive than in the mass of men, who think of God so little and walk so seldom in His ways?

What is ugly is to the monks abominable. Ugliness proceeds from disorder and sin, and the monastic striving is for order and innocency. You see that in their surroundings: when they choose a place for their habitation, it is for a place of natural beauty that they look, an environment where the mind and heart will the more easily rise to God, from the contemplation of the loveliness of His creation. You see that in their work: when they build they try to build honestly and well, when they write they try to write well, when they print they try to print well, when they do anything, or make anything, they try to do it well, and make it a thing of beauty, for nothing that is unworthy ought to be offered to God.

Syon Abbey rises high on a green hill in the incomparably lovely Blue Ridge mountains of southern Virginia, a beautiful place for the following out of a beautiful way of life.

* * *

Pax, peace, is the very motto of monasticism. The monastery is the native home of that peace which the world cannot give.

“All without is harsh and shrill
All within is hushed and still”

–that is how Saint Elizabeth of Hungary sings of the cloister life.

“Fuge, tace, quiesce,” says Saint Arsenius to those who would find God: fly the din of the world, be silent, be patient; and God will speak to your mind and heart.

But the quiet of the monastery is not the quiet of somnolence. It is the quiet of order and purposefulness, and in it there each day goes on an intense and disciplined activity.

* * *

The premier activity of the monks is Worship. The supreme Act of Christian worship, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, is of course the heart and centre of the monks’ life, the sun round which all their day revolves, but the worship of adoration and thanksgiving and petition and reparation is likewise offered in the Choral Office, that solemn singing of God’s praises which is the distinctive monastic observance.

And so each day at dawn, and again at eventide, and again as the darkness deepens, the monks assemble in their church to sing to Him “the sweet songs of Syon.”

The world whirls on its errant way, and few men remember that they are created a little lower than the angels and must like the angels lift their hearts and voices to their Creator if they are to be truly men, if they are to fulfill their destiny.

That some men at least should give themselves to the day in and day out singing of God’s praises is a thing of utterly incalculable benefit not alone to themselves but to all of humankind as well. For how powerful is this solemn prayer before God! “The prayer of these many souls together,” says Saint Ambrose, “He will not despise.” There is no knowing on earth what mankind has been spared because of this praying. So long as Moses kept his hands uplifted in entreaty, so long the children of Israel prevailed against the Amalekites (Exodus 17); so long as the monastic prayer goes on, there is rich hope for pardon and peace.

* * *

This monastic prayer, how may it be summarized, and whence come the words of it?

The Gloria Patri is the summation of the whole Divine Office: “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.” The Gloria is sung at the end of each of the Psalms which chiefly make up the Offices. Always as they chant the first half of this doxology, the monks bow low in deep obeisance before the awful majesty of God.

The words of the monastic prayer are, as I have said, chiefly taken from the inspired Psalmist. The Psalms, those sublime songs of Syon which royal David sang, were a thousand years old when Our Saviour was born. From the crib to the Cross they were on His lips; they were the daily song of Our Lady and Saint Joseph in the holy house at Nazareth. How awesome the privilege of these monks to daily sing the selfsame words in their Offices! It is no wonder that Saint Bernard should have in vision seen angels singing alongside his monks.

* * *

The monastery, says our Holy Father Saint Benedict, is “a school of the Lord’s service.” Its two textbooks are the Holy Scriptures and the Holy Rule.

Saint Benedict gives the name lectio divina – divine reading, literally – to the monastic practice which, after the Choral Office (to which, he insists, nothing, absolutely nothing, is to be preferred) he most enjoins.

The meditative reading of the monk he wishes to be chiefly in Holy Scripture; that is why the reading is called divina, because Holy Scripture is the written Word of God.

It is this immersion in Holy Scripture which produces the distinctive monastic culture, the culture which has in its turn been the principal influence in the making of Western civilization.

The Holy Rule cannot of course be said to have been written under Divine inspiration in the same sense as Holy Scripture was written under Divine inspiration, but that the Holy Ghost speaks to us by its means is a foundational principle of the monastic life. The wisdom, the moderation, the breadth of vision, the marvelous prudence of Saint Benedict’s Rule, mark it as no work of merely human contrivance.

There are other studies undertaken in the monastery, certainly, but all these are subordinate, and all related, to the higher learning in the Scriptures and the Rule.

This monastic study, unhurriedly pursued in the tranquillity of the cloister, so happily remote from the disorder and depravity of the world, cannot but produce, in even the ordinary intelligence, a high cultivation and a deep learning.

* * *

Monks, Saint Benedict insists, must “live by the labour of their hands, as did our fathers and the Apostles,” so all at Syon do a certain amount of manual labour, though of course its character and duration will vary from season to season.

The monastic tradition sees manual labour as an exercise of charity, having for its object the service of the brotherhood. The monks are to grow their own food and prepare it for the table, this last work being in Saint Benedict’s opinion an especially meritorious one.

The prayer of the monks is powerful before God, but so is their solicitous love for one another which is expressed in their labours for their common good. “What can be compared to a Community rooted in charity?” says Saint John Chrysostom. “It is like a strong walled city.” It is their labour in the fields and gardens and kitchens which enables the monks to practice the almsgiving proper to their state of life – hospitality.

“Let the porter at the gate of the monastery greet those who come with all gentleness and charity,” says the Holy Rule, “and let due honour be shown to all guests but especially to those who are of the household of the faith.”

The monks of Syon labour not only on the farm and in the kitchen, and in maintaining the monastic buildings and property, but in their principal external apostolate, that of producing publications which teach and defend the one true Faith.

This latter work is but the modern development of that labour of transcription by means of which the early monks preserved the learning of the past when all about them the institutions of civilization were crumbling. What Cassiodorus said of the monastic copyist of the Sixth Century we may equally say of the monastic publisher of the Twenty-First, that “he preaches with his hands, he defies the devil with ink, he labours for the salvation of men without quitting his cloister.”

* * *

Monasticism is an essentially conservative institution. Its genius is for preservation, the preservation of what is good and true and beautiful. It is fundamentally opposed to the spirits of mindless change, and revolution and anarchy, which are the prevailing spirits of our age.

The monastery, in Saint Benedict’s ideal, is the house of a family of brothers living under the rule and guidance of a father, their Abbot. One is not a temporary member of a family. Thus, the vow by which the novice binds himself, when he is ready to do so, is the Vow of Stability; by it he commits himself to pass all the days of his life in this his own monastery.

It is this stability of its membership that has always made monasticism so powerful a social force wherever it took root. It is this note of permanency that moved Montalembert to liken it to the oak; both are very tough and very resilient.

I have said that the genius of monasticism is for preservation. There is, of course, art, as well as science, to the work of preservation. Art is said to consist in the elimination of what is superfluous. There is little art in this age of surfeit; what modern people think to be necessities are seldom so.

What the monks of what are ignorantly called the Dark Ages set out to do, in those very disordered and dangerous times, was simply to keep the Faith, and guard its traditions, and save its treasures of literature and learning; but they did much more, almost by inadvertence, and were in fact the conservators, too, of the essential literature and science and craftsmanship of the remoter past (and how little would the world know of that past but for their tenacity!).

It may well be, in the Providence of God, that the monks of the present, though their sole and single ambition is to seek His Kingdom, will be enabled to do by His grace as their predecessors did in that other time of disintegration and depravity, and recover from the wreckage of the modern world some part at least of what was naturally good and valuable in it.

* * *

It was only with the Edict of Milan in 313 that the Catholic Church can be said to have finally emerged from the catacombs into which a militantly and pervasively pagan society had forced it.

The whole Church until that date had, it is by no means too much to say, a monastic character, for the whole Church, if only in self-defence, was world-renouncing.

But with freedom came the accession to the Church of many millions of new converts. These new converts were not of the stern stuff that the Catholics of the first two and a half centuries had had to be.

It was precisely at this time that the monastic movement arose. It was in part reaction to this inrush of the millions which threatened to secularize the Church, but it was more: it was immunization against that threat.

The monks, with their cheerful renunciation of worldly things and worldly goals, compelled the admiration, and then the imitation of all who seriously wished to live by the Gospel. The division of the monastic day, with its Offices appropriate to the different hours, captured the imagination of the serious laity, and great numbers of them adopted, to the extent that their lives in the world would allow it, the practice of regular prayer at appointed hours. This sanctifying of the time went far to accomplish the sanctifying of the times.

This work of leavening the lump did not proceed without exciting a considerable opposition. The monks were not esteemed by what remained of the pagan intelligentsia, which is hardly surprising, but neither were they pleasing to many of the clergy. The bishops of the Fourth Century were often men of low principles and high ambitions, and beholden to a too-benevolent state for their preferments. Of those whose lives were a standing reproach to theirs they had little good to say. As then, so now; our generation is not unacquainted with the political priest.

* * *

The Community now at Syon Abbey began its corporate life in Kentucky in 1962. The needs of the Church at that time and in that place required of it that it devote itself to missionary activity; it was only in the late 1970s that its long-cherished desire to develop into a strictly monastic Community could be realized.

What should the Community call itself now that it was strictly monastic?

Though he was New England born and bred, the theological training of its founder had taken place, years before, in Old England, and there he had learned to know and love the monasticism which had made England Catholic. In a wicked hour she had turned against the Faith, and little now remained of Catholic (and therefore Merry) England, but there were, on every side, memorials of the monastic past, and these acted powerfully on his imagination and fired his ambition.

The monastic life had of course come to England from continental Europe, and to continental Europe from the ancient lands of the Levant, and ultimately from the Land called Holy.

We shall bear then, the founder decided, a name that is redolent both of England and the Holy Land; we shall be the Monks of Syon.

“Syon” because that is the old English spelling of Sion, and Sion because that is the name of the hill in Jerusalem where the Temple stood, and David’s palace, and the Upper Room where Our Lord instituted the Holy Eucharist and the Holy Ghost descended upon the Apostles; and because that is the name which the Christian imagination has always therefore given to both the Church militant on earth and the Church triumphant in Heaven.

* * *

If you come to visit us at Syon, what will you see here?

If you are a young person you will see what very few of your generation have ever seen; if you are a person of middle age or older you will see what you have probably not seen for years.

You will see a place where the full Faith of the Catholic Church is professed, and practiced, and promoted.

Here is her ancient doctrine proclaimed uncompromisingly, here the beauty of her ancient song echoes yet, here her unchanged Sacraments continue to be administered, here, above all, is offered to God her ancient and unaltered Mass, in the immemorial Latin of the Church.

Here, in a word, is an oasis of the Faith.

It often happens that priests and people who are far fallen from that Faith make bold to disparage the monks for their loyalty to it. The answer of the monks to this utterance of the unquiet conscience is very simple:

“We are what you were; we believe what you believed; we worship as you worshipped. You were right then, and we are right now.”

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And I think that you will see that the monks are very happy men. They have left house and home and kindred to follow their Lord, but much as they love those they have left behind for Him, they have no sense of deprivation; already in their monastic life they have had a thousand compensations from Him Who never takes away but that He may give far better in return.

Chosen band, brotherhood of election, fellowship of the hundred-fold return! What pen can write your blessedness, what tongue can tell your joy?

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