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On monkishness

“Two monks were walking along in the woods one day, some time ago. As they approached a stream swollen with spring rains, they came across a woman clearly wanting to cross, but afraid to do so because of the strength of the flooded river.

“According to the rule of the order, these monks were prohibited from speaking to women – and certainly from touching a woman. After a brief pause, one monk looked at the other and said, “Ah well”. He then asked the woman if she needed assistance across the river. She eagerly accepted, and he carried her across, with his brother monk following behind. On the other bank, the first monk let the woman down, and she went on her way, in a different direction than the two brothers.

“The monks travelled on in silence for about half an hour. Suddenly, the second monk whipped around to face the first: ‘How could you?! You know the rule! You should not have spoken to that woman, and yet you even picked her up! What were you thinking?’

“’It is true’, replied the first monk, ‘In helping her cross the stream, I carried her for four minutes. But, Brother, you have been carrying her ever since.’”


Rt. Rev. Edmund Power, O.S.B., Abbot of St. Paul Outside the Walls

The guest presider and speaker for our community evening tonight was the Right Reverend Edmund Power, Abbot of the Benedictine Abbey at the Major Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. And it was with this story that he opened a discussion on what it means to be a monk.

A monk is a man (as a nun is a woman) who stands in the night with arms outstretched waiting for the dawn – and of course the dawn in Christ. Unlike some of these “modern” orders – like the Franciscans (founded c. 1210) or the Jesuits (founded c.1534) the primary charism of a monastic order like the Order of Saint Benedict (founded c.529) is not a particular work or ministry, but the interior life of prayer and purification of the soul.

This is not to label one order as contemplative, so as to insist that others are not, or to suggest that activity is not involved in the life of a monastic. For of course, monks need work to support their life, but each monastery does whatever work is suitable to it – some farm, others make wine or chocolates, and the Abbey of St. Paul Outside the Walls serves the needs of the Basilica, mostly the pastoral and practical needs of pilgrims.

Each of the major basilicas has a Cardinal Archpriest who is, at least nominally, responsible to be patron of the basilica and an advocate for its upkeep and other needs. The most (in)famous is of course the Cardinal Archpriest of St. Mary Major, Bernard Law.

What was news to me is that until four years ago, St. Paul Outside the Walls did not have a Cardinal Archpriest. The reason being that, historically, the archpriest position was created only after the religious order at each basilica closed or withdrew from service, the last being St. John Lateran several hundred years ago.

During that time, there has remained a Benedictine abbey at St. Paul outside the Walls, and the Abbot has been the equivalent of the Archpriest. With the election of Pope Benedict, however, an archpriest has also been named to St. Paul. (It was the first cardinal archpriest who commissioned the minor excavations that were announced at the close of the Pauline year this summer confirming the presence of first-century remains in the sarcophagus believed to be St. Paul.

And speaking of sarcophagi, as one is wont to do, did you know that the most beautiful of those found underneath St. Paul, the famous Dogmatic Sarcophagus was, ah, “borrowed” in the 19th century? Yes indeed. By Pope Pius IX, for display at the Vatican Museum…


Dogmatic Sarcophagus, 4th century, first known artistic depiction of the Trinity

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