Abbey Rote: How Benedictines Live
What is life like for a Benedictine today, 1500 years after the order was founded by St Benedict, whose feast day is on July 11? Br Basil Tsubane OSB writes about his abbey in Polokwane.
Since its foundations in the 1920s and its official opening on the Palm Sunday of 1981, St Benedict’s Abbey in Polokwane has described itself as a pastoral community and it has sought to balance the daily demands of monastic observances and those of pastoral work.
It is one of two Benedictine abbeys in South Africa; the other is Inkamana Abey in northern KwaZulu-Natal.
The Belgian Benedictine monks who founded the Polokwane abbey came to South Africa in 1910 as missionaries.
The monastery was a territorial abbey, or an “abbey nullius”, which meant that the abbot was the superior of both the monastery and the surrounding territory. So Abbots Osterrath (1939-52) and Van Hoek (1954-74) also were the bishops of Pietersburg diocese, now called Polokwane.
Elected in 1974, Abbot Fulgence Le Roy eventually managed to separate the monastery and the diocese, and in 1988 became the first bishop of the diocese (his successors, Bishops Paul Mogale Nkumishe and Jeremiah Masela, have been diocesan priests).
This separation allowed the monastery to focus on its monastic observances more than it was doing when it was fully involved in the pastoral activities in the diocese of Polokwane.
The early missionaries
The Belgian Benedictine monks built this foundation to serve the local villages through education and evangelisation. They accomplished this by building the current foundation and schools, a clinic and a pastoral centre.
These were built to teach the local people what they termed the “Benedictine Way”. Some locals joined the community and began to be trained how to be monks. Some persevered until the end to become Benedictine monks, others joined the diocesan clergy.
It has been over a century since the Belgian Benedictine monks came to this part of the world to lay the seed of faith and built this foundation, and the community of St Benedict’s Abbey is still continuing the work these missionaries started when they came to the country.
The community is still seeking to balance the demands of monastic observance and its pastoral responsibility in the parish for which it is responsible. Yet our main priority is monastic observance amidst the busyness of our pastoral responsibility.
St Benedict’s Abbey is currently home to nine monks: three solemnly professed, three temporary professed and three novices.
The nine monks are Fr Ghislain Maluvu (prior administrator) from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Fr Gregory Vu and Fr Joseph Gabriel Cusimano from the United States, Br Francis Wanjiku from Kenya, Br Laurent Nkuebe and Br Edward Kabi from Lesotho, Br Jean-Jacques Mpula from the DRC, and from South Africa Br Charles Xaba and the present writer.
Living by St Benedict’s Rule
As a Benedictine monastery, St Benedict’s Abbey is a part of the Benedictine Confederation — that is, the Order of St Benedict (OSB) — and belongs in the Subiaco-Cassinese congregation.
The Subiaco-Cassinese congregation was formed in order to follow the Rule of St Benedict (RB) as it was laid down — and strictly so. All Benedictine monasteries under this congregation follow an exact observance of the Rule of St Benedict as it is. Our abbey is no exception to this exact observance.
We are a “coenobitic monastic community” which lives under an abbot and the Rule of St Benedict: We pray seven times a day. We observe silence as much as possible, especially in the enclosure. We put on the monastic habit, a sign of our consecration and commitment to God. We have times for lectio divina.
Daily life at St Benedict’s
Let me introduce you to our life here at St Benedict’s Abbey.
The monks have everything in common, meaning that we do not have any personal belongings; even our own bodies do not belong to us. We are a community and we share everything in common.
We prefer nothing above the work of God (RB 43:3). All our life here at St Benedict’s Abbey is centred around prayer. After all, this is the Benedictine Way: Ora et Labora — Pray and Work.
Prayer is at the centre of our life. It is the breath and life of the monastery and it is the engine that drives everything else. Without prayer, we could not call ourselves monks or Benedictines.
Other religious congregation take the vows of obedience, chastity and poverty. Our monastic vows are obedience, stability and conversatiomorum (usually translated as “Conversion of Life” or “Conversion of Manner”).
When a monk at St Benedict’s Abbey makes these vows, he means that he will obey the abbot and his seniors; he will live at St Benedict’s Abbey forever because this is where he chooses to spend the rest of his life; and he will be transformed into a new person every day for he knows that he is a sinner who needs the grace of God on his journey to wholeness and holiness (conversatiomorum).
The Rule expects that we praise God through the psalms seven times a day. So seven times a day we come together to pray for each other, the world, the environment and the situation of the monastery.
We also have the daily celebration of the Eucharist. After all, a monk is called upon to prefer nothing to the Work of God (RB 43:3) and this is our life here at St Benedict’s Abbey.
We rise early in the morning to pray the Office of Vigils which is then followed by the Office of Lauds (commonly known as Morning Prayer).
After the Mass we have the Office of Terce which is followed by monastic work.
We pray the Office of Sext at midday in order to thank God for the work we have done thus far and to ask for strength and grace to continue.
We have the Office of None in the afternoon which is followed by the Office of Vespers. Before we go to bed we complete our prayer-day with the Office of Compline (Night Prayer) asking to have a peaceful death.
Besides these times we also have scheduled time for study and lectio divina (sacred reading).
Our observance of silence in the enclosure allows the monks to meditate and contemplate on the Word of God wherever they are, especially in their monastic cells.
It is in the cells that a monk learns a lot of things for the cell teaches us everything. This is why after the Office of Compline there is what we call the “Great Silence”, because it allows the monk to gnaw on the Word of God he has received throughout the day (RB 42).
This is most essential during lectio, for the monk is required to gnaw at the Word of God slowly so in the end the Word becomes flesh in him.
Our daily work
However, if we were to pray all day without any work, how would the monks be able to provide for their daily essential needs?
St Benedict in his Rule states that we are truly monks if we live by the labour of our own hands (RB 48:8-9).
We are still continuing the missionary work of our predecessors. We have a pastoral responsibility over one parish with its nine outstations (or local churches).
Apart from parish work, St Benedict’s Abbey has a vegetable farm that supplies local retailers. We have chickens, sheep and pigs that we sell to local villages.
The monastery also has a carpentry workshop which supplies Church benches, ambos or lecterns, presidential chairs, beds, tables, wardrobes and so on to the local parishes and villages.
We have a pastoral centre which provides accommodation for groups, and we have a catering service that goes along with it.
We also allow groups to come for retreats at our monastery because the atmosphere of the monastery allows anyone to do a silent retreat; or if one needs a guided retreat they can be provided with one.
We are working in education through the schools that are owned by the monastery. We also have a boarding hostel for the learners in these schools, especially the high school.
A monk indeed is truly a monk when he lives by the fruits of his labour.
However, our income does not always cover all the costs the monastery incurs, so from time to time we ask for donations from any willing person. Any help is always appreciated.
This is our Benedictine Way at St Benedict’s Abbey. While we are providing for most of our needs, we are still in need of any kind of assistance.
An invitation to visit us
We are Benedictine monks living under an abbot and the Rule of St Benedict. Our life is coined by the simple motto of “Pray and Work”, but prayer is our first and primary work (RB 43:3).
If anyone is interested to know more about our community it is always good to “come and see”, as Jesus told his first disciples (Jn 1:39).
There is so much we can tell you about our community and the work we do, but the best testimony that people can have is when they actually visit the monastery and experience it for themselves in order that they can bear witness to what we are about at St Benedict’s Abbey (Jn 1:40-42).
If anyone wishes to visit us, for a retreat or to see how we live, they can contact Fr Ghislain Maluvu at email@example.com. May our founder, St Benedict, pray for all of us.