Stages of Growth in Cistercian Monastic Life at New Melleray
After a few visits to the monastery and some conversations with the vocation director, a man will find that he thinks about the monastery at odd moments. He wakes up at night and says, “The monks are praying Vigils now.” So he’ll ask to spend a week or two at the abbey as a Candidate to continue discerning the meaning of this attraction to monastic life at New Melleray. The Candidate lives in the Monastic Center in the abbey guest house. He joins the monks in choir for the Divine Office and for Mass, spends time each day working with the monks, and continues his discernment in conversations with the vocation director. During this time, the abbot and two or three of the senior monks will interview the candidate about his intentions and aspirations. If signs of a vocation are clear, the Candidate will ask to spend six weeks living inside the monastic enclosure as an Observer.
As an Observer he will participate in the formation program of the Novices. He will be introduced to monastic history and monastic spirituality, including lectio divina. He will take part in the day-to-day life of the community—for instance, in community prayer and work, in the abbot’s talks to the community, in meals, and in retreats and formation conferences. He will continue conversations with the vocation director and will meet once a week with the abbot to process his experience. Observers will not use their smart phones or other social media devices, including the telephone. They will be interviewed by a psychologist about their suitability to this way of life. After the Observership the Observer waits up to four weeks, but not more than six months, before asking to join the community as a Postulant.
In welcoming a man as a Postulant the abbot will have taken into account the assessments of the brothers who interviewed him when he was a Candidate, the input of the psychologist, and the positive indications of a vocation in evidence during the Observership. Though at this stage he is not bound by any sort of commitment and is free to terminate his postulancy at any time, the Postulant is considered a member of the community. With the guidance of the Novice Director, the Postulant is progressively initiated into Cistercian monastic life as lived at New Melleray. He will be accompanied in the reading of and reflection on select biblical and patristic texts and introduced to the anthropological foundations of Christian spirituality and maturity. The postulancy at New Melleray lasts from six to twelve months. During this time he will discern with the abbot and the Novice Director if he will request to continue his integration into the community as a Novice.
The Novice receives the white tunic, scapular, and cloth cincture. He is considered a member of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, though still without any binding commitment. The Novice continues his formation under the guidance of the Novice Director and with the input of other monks. The novitiate lasts for two years. During this time the Novice continues to explore the meaning of the monastic practices and to integrate them into his search for God. He begins to identify with this particular community and to feel at home here even as he struggles with the challenges that come with a keener knowledge of himself. Through his experiences and through his reading and prayer the Novice will understand that the Gospel call to metanoia, to conversion, really does demand a change in thinking and behavior. The Novice will continue his reflection on fundamental biblical texts and themes. He will continue to be guided in reading a broad range of monastic and patristic texts from the earliest centuries of Christianity through the Cistercian Fathers of the twelfth century. He will study the Rule of Saint Benedict and the history of the Order. In the second year of the novitiate he will be introduced to the theology, the rights, and the responsibilities of the vowed life. Near the end of this two-year period the Novice is free to request that he be permitted to profess monastic vows for a period of from two to three years.
With the consent of the senior brothers the abbot will receive the young monk’s profession of monastic vows. The newly professed is clothed in the black scapular of the professed monk and changes the cloth cincture of the novice for the leather belt of the professed. Making vows, the monk performs an ecclesial act, that is, his vows are recognized by the Church and have canonical as well as theological significance. His first profession of monastic vows is for a fixed period of time. Thus these first vows are also called temporary vows. The temporarily professed monk binds himself to a life of stability, fidelity to the monastic life, and obedience, according to the Rule of Saint Benedict for a minimum of one year and up to three years. The temporary vows are renewable up to a total of nine years. The young monk’s sense of belonging to the community deepens and begins to solidify. He begins to internalize the monastic way. He will usually devote some time to the study of fundamental theological topics and so come to a greater knowledge of the mystery of Christ and of the Church. He will study the Cistercian patrimony in greater detail and strive to express it in his life. After at least three years in temporary vows the monk will ask the abbot to make solemn profession and so bind himself to the monastic way of life and to this community forever.
Solemn profession is a public ecclesial act and it takes place in the context of the Mass. The monk writes out the formula of profession in his own hand and reads it aloud: I, Brother John, promise my stability, my fidelity to the monastic way of life, and obedience until death, in accordance with the Rule of Saint Benedict. From that moment he is received as a permanent member of this monastic brotherhood, a fact that gives him tremendous satisfaction and fills the brothers with joy and gratitude. Then the abbot solemnly invokes a blessing over him as he lies prostrate on the floor and surrounded by the senior brothers. This blessing is really a formula of consecration: a monk is totally dedicated to God. Finally, the abbot clothes the monk with the white cowl signaling his consecration as a Cistercian monk. The solemn professed monk has full rights and responsibilities as a member of this community from now until death. He becomes a source of monastic inspiration and an example of monastic practice for the young men who will enter after him.