Cunningham teaches the monastic school of spirituality


MONCKS CORNER — The monks at Mepkin Abbey celebrated their 50th year by continuing their Lenten Study Day series with the first presentation of 1999 on March 8. The featured speaker was Lawrence S. Cunningham, writer and theologian.

Dr. Cunningham, who teaches theology at Notre Dame University, outlined some schools of spirituality that have evolved in the Christian tradition since the Desert Fathers left 4th century Rome in disgust. Then he listed and explained nine words that describe the monastic school of spirituality, answering the question: how can you become a contemplative, whether you are a monk or not?

A school of spirituality has nothing to do with a building or institution, according to Cunningham. It is a community of like-minded people who follow certain teachings about how to live the Christian life.

“Christianity is not adherence to a set of doctrines or practices, it is a way of life,” he said. “Jesus is the Way. Following the Way permits us to have many ways of living out the Gospel.”

He talked about the Desert Fathers (and Mothers), who he called “Christian drop-outs”; Ignatius of Loyola, who asked his spiritual schoolmates to be contemplatives in action; John Wesley, who taught Quakers to be silent enough to hear the Word of God; and Francis of Assisi, who preached poverty and love.

“I think of the streams of reformed Christians, such as Methodists and Lutherans, as schools of spirituality. Each has constant themes and aims, a certain way of praying, … and preferred scripture texts,” Cunningham said.

He said that every school teaches its followers how to pray — what he referred to as a pedagogy of prayer — and is characterized by a desire for a deep spiritual experience. Monasticism teaches that one way to pray well is to use the scriptures as prayers.

“Monasticism is a way of experiencing Christianity that has perdured for long periods of time; the tradition goes back 1,700 years. People draw on this monastic tradition today,” he said.

The guest lecturer is staying at Mepkin for one week, finishing up two articles (that will add to the hundreds he has already published, along with 16 books) and grading one dissertation during Notre Dame’s spring break. He is living as the monks do, getting up for the first of the Liturgy of the Hours (Opus Dei) at 3:20 a.m. He quoted the poet and writer Kathleen Norris: “How can you not like a place where guys get together seven times a day and sing poetry?”

H. Allen Morris, editor and publisher of the Berkeley Independent newspaper, likes the brothers at Mepkin because of their faith: “I tell people that if you want to see real faith, go to the abbey. The average age there is 69, yet they’re building a library for the next millennium.”

Professor Cunningham was impressed, he said, with the number of visitors who come to Mepkin every day. Even if the visits have as much to do with the flowering azaleas, daffodils, camellias and jasmine on the 3,900 acres of former plantation along the Cooper River as they have with monastic spirituality, Cunningham thinks that Christians are yearning to experience Christ the way the monks do.

To assist them in that endeavor, the columnist for Commonweal magazine issued words that define the monastic school of spirituality.

1) Listening. It is the first word of the Rule of Benedict, which governs the life of the Cisterian order, and the task of every Christian.

2) Watching. While the world sleeps, the monks watch, he said. The first prayer service is called Vigils.

3) Flight from the world. The paradox, Cunningham said, is that the more monks flee the world, the more the world comes to them. He said that people want to spend time with monks because they know that some things are more essential than the things that go on in the mundane world.

4) Simplicity. “We feel a need to complexify our lives. Monks are a reminder to us that simplicity and balance is possible.”

5) Purity of heart. Contemplatives know that they can have a deeper experience of God if their hearts are pure. It’s one of the Beatitudes.

6) Mercy. “Monks know that God’s mercy is greater than any of our failures.”

7) Hospitality. Cunningham said that the rich man who gave his table crumbs to dogs rather than to Lazarus in Luke’s Gospel was condemned to hell for his lack of hospitality. He asked: “Who’s not being invited to the table in your parish?”

8) Lectio divina. Holy readings. “You can read for many reasons; monks read as an actual form of contemplative prayer.”

9) Contemplation. Contemplation is the natural fruit of being an alive, spiritual person, the lecturer said.

These are the monastic virtues, according to Lawrence Cunningham, and they are not restricted to monks.