In a world seemingly gone mad, where situations formerly inconceivable have become a reality, seclusion – also unthinkable once upon a time – has not only become alluring but within the realm of possibility. The age-old debate of how to live in the world without being of the world has been reignited in the form of The Benedict Option, a bestseller still sitting on my to-read list. However, here in Tasmania, there are whispers from the past amidst the chatter… about the original Benedict option: Benedictine monasticism.
Last Tuesday, the fledgling Notre Dame Priory held a clothing ceremony for its four novice monks. It was the first of its kind in Tasmania, and a new experience for all but the prior I suspect. I don’t exaggerate when I say that there was a timeless quality, for the ritual is well over a millennium old, and the setting was a (borrowed) church designed by the famed Augustus Pugin as he envisaged it would have looked in England in 1320. Indeed, from the southern crest overlooking the Colebrook Valley, St Patrick’s has the appearance of a pilgrimage destination.
However, it wasn’t the beauty or ancient tradition that had a large number of us discreetly dabbing our eyes.
The emotional intensity of the occasion was unexpected. As a photographer, I simply don’t cry at weddings because the images I’m creating blot out everything else that is going on. In contrast, Tuesday’s ceremony distracted me from my professional focus, and I found myself moved to tears. As the Priory’s photographer, I had the privilege of seeing the novices from the choir rather than the nave.
Instead of white hoods or the backs of shaven heads, I gazed upon faces of poignant and tremulous joy. I had neither distance nor detachment from the momentous transformation of these young men.
What struck me in particular was their quiet assurance. I spoke with one of their mothers beforehand and asked her how she felt, whether she had any doubts about her son’s decision, and she said she had observed how happy and peaceful he had become and that she could not help but be overjoyed.
The clothing ceremony accomplished a physical transformation, reflective of a general metamorphosis that had begun long before. I remember when their heads were shaved earlier in the year. It made recognition difficult, but it also made us all remember more of their faces rather than relying on their locks to tell them apart. And so too the shedding of their worldly garb has forced us to discern the person within rather than judge them by their attire. As symbolised by the discarded jackets and ties, they have forsaken career and status. Their conformity to the Benedictine Rule has made them more anonymous in the eyes of the world, but not for those who matter.
These monks have abandoned the world, but make no mistake they are not running away. The secular world would perhaps try to belittle these men as too weak to survive in the real world but such caricatures come from insecurity and ignorance. If you had been there, you would have sensed the strength and masculinity of these spiritual warriors… and perhaps (if you are a parent of young children like me) you might have wondered how it is that such splendid young men are nurtured. I saw the answers in the rapport between these new monks and their parents and siblings. They clearly came from homes where the love of Christ and each other reigned supreme, where sacrifice was joyful and willing. It all begins in the home, with the family. These parents had not handed over their children to be brought up by society or the state.
Fittingly, their prior, Dom Pius Mary Noonan, concluded his exhortation saying: “may these words of St Bede the Venerable become reality for you; if they do, you will have found beatitude on earth: I was no longer the centre of my life and therefore I could see God in everything.” The beauty of it is that the death of self doesn’t only affect these novice monks but all those who know them. We are truly blessed.
You can learn more about Notre Dame Priory in Tasmania at: https://www.notredamemonastery.org/