Promises and vows made to God should be taken seriously. Consequently, the monastery has a lengthy process to help each person discern his calling and to become closer to God. The stages of formation are:
Observership (three months)
Postulancy (one year)
Novitiate (one year)
Simple Profession (three years)
Solemn Profession (for life)
Some monks are also called by God to become priests for ministry to his brother monks, Abbey guests, and others depending on the needs of the monastery and in accordance with the decision of the abbot.
What does it take to become a monk?
In the Prologue of his Rule, St. Benedict addresses a young man who is considering entering the monastery: “Listen, my son, to the precepts of the master and incline the ear of your heart; freely accept and faithfully fulfill the instructions of a loving father, that by the labor of obedience, you may return to Him from Whom you strayed by the sloth of disobedience. To you are my words now addressed, then, if you are ready to give up your own will, once and for all, and armed with the strong and noble weapons of obedience, to fight for the true King, Christ the Lord.”
The most essential qualification for becoming a monk is to have a vocation. Pretty basic, right? Vocation, derived from the Latin, vocare, is a calling. But think of what that means for you. You have been called by God to consecrate yourself to Him in the monastic way of life. However, you might be surprised to hear that receiving this gift from God may be the most essential, but it’s not the first requirement! Before you can hear God calling, you have to be able to recognize His voice. In other words, you have to be living the kind of life that is open to hearing God’s voice. A heart full of distractions and worldly interests is spiritually deaf.
The first step toward becoming a monk is living a virtuous life, living in the state of Sanctifying Grace—which is exactly what every good Catholic should be doing anyway. All men and women are called to love and serve God. Are you more likely to hear God’s voice in a movie theater or in a quiet chapel, kneeling before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament? The answer, of course, is obvious, and has been given to us in the lives of the many holy men and women whom the Church calls saints: praying the Mass, receiving the Sacraments, especially Confession and the Holy Communion, being faithful to prayer each day, particularly the Rosary.
Every musician has to develop his potential. Every athlete has to get in shape for the contest. Every Catholic who is grateful for the gift of Faith and wants to get to heaven has to cultivate a healthy spiritual life. Among these will be men called by God to be monks whose “principal duty is to present to the Divine Majesty a service at once humble and noble within the walls of the monastery” (Perfectae Caritatis).
How can you discover if you have a calling from God to be a monk? God became Man in Jesus, and God continues to speak to us in Jesus and in the Church which Jesus founded. God speaks to us through the wise teachings of the Church and through the saints and spiritual guides who help show us the path to holiness. God does not stop calling, but in order to discover if He is calling you to be a monk, you must do what St. Benedict advised in the very first word of his Rule: you must LISTEN and INCLINE THE EAR OF YOUR HEART.
The monks of Saint Benedict Abbey have learned to listen to the promptings of God within their hearts. Daily they listen to God speak to them in prayer, in fraternal charity and forgiveness, and especially in the words of their Abbot whom they believe holds the place of Christ in the monastery. Consequently, they can help you discover your vocation, especially the vocation director.
Some of the criteria of a vocation to be a monk at Saint Benedict Abbey are:
- you must be a practicing Roman Catholic male between the ages of 18 and thirty
- you must be free from all binding obligations to your family, and not be in significant debt
- you must be in good health, physically and emotionally; you must have the capacity to live with others in community
- you must have the intellectual ability to understand your prayers, the instructions you receive, and the spiritual reading (Lectio Divina) that constitutes an essential part of monastic life
- you must have the capacity to participate fully in the Latin Novus Ordo Mass and Divine Office with the other monks.
When the Apostles first wanted to get know Jesus, they asked Him, “Master, where do you live?” He said, “Come and see.” The first step is to come and stay at the monastery to see and experience monastic life first hand. A number of visits are recommended so that you begin “to feel at home” with the monks. You come simply as an inquirer. You work and pray with the monks and you take time to pray and talk with the Vocation Director. You also meet with the Abbot. Together, with God’s grace and guidance, you discern what God is calling you to do for Him. You build up a relationship with the monks through regularly scheduled visits. At the same time, you strengthen the practice of your Catholic Faith in your family, your parish, your work or school. On your own, to the extent that you can, you also begin to participate in monastic practices such as Lectio Divina or Divine Office. The Vocation Director serves as your guide both when you are at the monastery and when you are home.
If, after several visits, you still have an interest, and the Abbot and Vocation Director believe that you may be called to be a monk with us, you will be asked to meet with one or two of the other monks to help discern your vocation. If the Abbot decides that you should be given the opportunity to try our monastic way of life, you enter the monastery as an Observer for a period of three months. During this time—which obliges you to no commitment except living the life with the monks – you complete the requirements of Canon Law for anyone entering religious life, i.e., application, physical examination, psychological evaluation and five letters of reference. The Observership lasts about three months during which you set aside secular clothing and wear a black suit as a sign of one’s initial separation from the secular world, and you are guided in your journey by the Formation Director.
At the end of three months, the next stage of formation begins. It is called the Postulancy from the Latin word, “postulare”, to seek or to ask. During this one-year period, the Formation Director continues to guide you as you begin to live more intensely the daily life of the monk, and to gain a deeper understanding of the foundations of the Catholic Faith which underpins our monastic life. The postulant is given instruction not only in prayer, Latin, Gregorian Chant, Monastic Spirituality, the Lives of the Saints, and the history of our community, but also in fundamental Catholic Theology. As a sign of this new commitment, the postulant wears a long black robe called a tunic.
The next step in the formation of a monk – and perhaps the most important – is the Novitiate, which, like the Postulancy usually is a year in length. The Abbot presents the Postulant’s request to enter the community before the Chapter of Solemnly Professed Monks who, in turn, vote to accept, postpone or reject the request. It is the period of a monk’s life which immediately precedes his profession of vows. During this year, the Novice receives more intense instruction in Worship and Prayer, in the appreciation of the Psalms, and the Rule of Saint Benedict. The Novitiate begins with the Rite of Monastic Initiation at Vespers during which he is given a new name and vested in a specific monastic habit: the tunic and modified scapular. He is officially called “Brother”, and is a Novice-monk in the law of the Church. The daily life of a Novice includes not only participating in all the common prayer, meals, recreation and work of the monks, but also a continuation of studies mentioned above.
During the Novitiate, as during the Observership and Postulancy, you or the Community may decide that monastic life is not for you. A monk in formation is free to leave the community at any time, or may be asked to leave. Saint Benedict, in his Rule for Monks, says, “Do not grant new comers to the monastic life an easy entrance.” And he adds, “Test the spirits to see if they are from God.” In ordinary, everyday language, this means that a careful procedure is followed before someone is definitely received into the monastic community. For example, mid-way through the Novitiate, the Chapter votes again on the suitability of the Novice to continue. And at the end of the year-long novitiate, the Chapter votes a third time to decide whether the Novice should profess temporary vows.