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The youngest Benedictine abbot

Some time ago, I read this story about Austin Murphy, a University of Chicago graduate (Class of 1995) who became the youngest Benedictine abbot in the country. I reached out to Abbot Austin, who leads St. Procopius Abbey, to ask for an interview for Big Questions Online, the web magazine I used to edit. We […]

Some time ago, I read this story about Austin Murphy, a University of Chicago graduate (Class of 1995) who became the youngest Benedictine abbot in the country. I reached out to Abbot Austin, who leads St. Procopius Abbey, to ask for an interview for Big Questions Online, the web magazine I used to edit. We agreed to do the interview by e-mail, but it took me a while to write the questions, and it took him a while to answer them. In the meantime, I moved on to TAC, never having posted the interview. I’m pleased to be able to share it with my TAC readers. Abbot Austin is an extraordinary young religious leader. The first question is in boldface below; the rest of the interview is below the jump. Read it if you want to be encouraged about the next generation of Church leadership.

RD: In the West, monasticism is very much on the wane. Why would a young American man, a child of the New York City suburbs and a beneficiary of an undergraduate education at one of the finest universities in this country, choose the monastery? What did you see that so many of your generation miss?

ABBOT AUSTIN MURPHY: When I first felt the call to monastic life, I didn’t understand it very well. So, I cannot say that an insight into monastic life enabled me to enter. It was during college that I began to discern a vocation to the priesthood and/or religious life in the Catholic Church and towards the end of college I received an offer from the vocation director at St. Procopius Abbey to do a retreat there. The retreat had “no strings attached,” which was good because at the time I thought I was being called to a non-monastic vocation in the Church. After graduation I took up the offer, and was honest with the vocation director that I was not interested in joining this monastery or any other monastery, for that matter.

However, during the retreat I felt called to join the monastery. And at the end of the retreat, I decided to do so. Of course, one does not enter right then and there. There were subsequent visits, interviews, psychological evaluations, etc. But the sense that God was calling me to join the monastery stayed. And has persevered since then.

Although no insight into monastic life enabled me to make the decision to join, I think other insights prepared me for this decision. For one, in college I learned to reject a prevalent idea in our culture, namely, that God could be treated as a side-interest. Rather, if there is a God (and I had no doubts on this), then this was the biggest, most important thing in life and the way I lived had to reflect this. I had to put God front and center, and conform everything to His reality. Voices in our culture would say this is fanatical, but putting God before all else is only fanatical if you think God is fanatical – some irrational being with arbitrary wishes.

At the same time as my new thinking developed, I was introduced in my college classes to St. Augustine’s Confessions. My reading of this work bolstered my growing conviction that God has to hold first place in life and also that this God was not irrational and arbitrary. Augustine’s sustained address to God in his Confessions contrasted strongly with a culture that said you shouldn’t be too serious about God. Moreover, the God to whom Augustine spoke in his Confessions was not irrational. Augustine’s intellectual honesty and sincere questioning bore witness to his view that God is the source of reason and truth, who wants us to use reason along with faith. The charge that the Catholic faith is anti-intellectual never made sense to me and my reading of past Catholic thinkers, such as Augustine and subsequently others, has only reinforced for me the absurdity of the charge.

My conviction that God has to be the priority in life and that He did not act arbitrarily but with reasons helped me to be open to God’s call when I came to St. Procopius Abbey for a retreat. When I felt God calling me to join the monastery during that retreat, I remained calm. Although a little frightened by the idea of joining a monastery, I knew I could trust God. If this was His call, then there were reasons for it and things would work out. As I became more certain during the retreat that was God calling me to join, I was able to trust in God’s plans and, thus, I joined.

The life of a monk is marked by two things that run absolutely counter to the contemporary American experience: the sacrifice, for the sake of God and the community, of both material pleasures and individual liberty. What kind of perspective does that give you on the way most of us live today?

The American ideal of protecting individual liberties from the state’s power is an appealing one to me and the abuses of collectivism in the past century commend this ideal. However, it seems that this idea is often stretched beyond its proper context today. It is one thing to insist on being free from government coercion in various life-choices; it is another to insist on being free from any constraints. The expression, “It’s a free country; I can do whatever I want,” has come to mean, “It’s a free country and I will do whatever I want.” There’s a difference between the two.

There are problems with this. For instance, if I do whatever I want, I end up rather self-serving and shallow. Further, I end up rather alienated and cut off from community. To belong truly to a community means to have a role to fulfill within it. You have your part, which also means you have your responsibilities in the community. The community thus makes certain demands of you, to fulfill your part. When you say, “The heck with what the community says, wants, or needs; I’ll do whatever I want,” then you throw away the chance to belong to the community.

How your responsibilities to the community are known can vary. It can come from your own assessment. It might also come from what appointed leaders discern are the needs of the community. In any case, fulfilling your responsibilities to the community will require making sacrifices at times, even great sacrifices. But the refusal to make those sacrifices or to conform your will to the needs of the community means not belonging in a truly meaningful way. The cost is an alienation and isolation, which, even if not always obvious, is real and profound.

I think this provides some context for understanding better community and sacrifice in Benedictine monasticism.

There is something particular to the Benedictines, your religious order, that makes it even more countercultural. St. Benedict of Nursia, your 6th century founder, expects his monks to take a vow of “stability” — meaning that you promise to remain in the monastery where you were received as a monk for the rest of your life. We Americans prize our mobility, and pull up stakes constantly. Do you see a cost to our restlessness? Is there something the rest of us should learn from Benedictine stability?

There can be various causes why people are so mobile today. One seems to have to do with the labor market. It’s hard to fault someone for moving a lot, if that is what keeping a salary requires.

But pulling up often and moving seems to have its ill effects. In many neighborhoods today, you don’t even know your neighbors. The people next door are strangers. That makes it hard to have a meaningful neighborhood community.

Being stuck in the same place with the same people might not seem good, but it has its advantages. Getting along with the people you rub elbows with on a regular basis is a challenge. After a while, you get into disagreements or you get annoyed with them. Even the most loving husband and wife experience this. Yet, you learn to grow in maturity by having to stick it out with the same people, by having to learn to get along with them and to care about them. The vow of stability forces this upon the monk. If this dynamic is accepted with the right spirit, then the monk grows in spiritual maturity through it. It is part of our vow of conversatio morum – that is, conversion through a monastic way of life.

At 36, you are part of what might be called the “John Paul II Generation” of Catholics. How does your experience of Catholicism differ from that of your brother monks, who are all older than you? How did that generational experience shape your spirituality, and how does it inform your leadership as abbot?

I think older generations have a hard time understanding certain things about the “John Paul II Generation,” such as that its members did not grow up in a Catholic culture. As for myself, I grew up in a liberal secularist culture in the metropolitan New York area. My upbringing had Catholic elements because, thankfully, my parents brought me to church on Sundays, made sure I received the sacraments, and made sure I received some religious instruction. Yet liberal secularism was the dominant culture.

In contrast, monks of my grandparents’ generation grew up within an identifiable Catholic culture, even if a subculture or “ghetto,” while monks of my parents’ generation also knew a Catholic culture. In my parents’ generation, many wanted to cast off that culture, at least in many respects – and they were largely successful. Their desire showed an enthusiasm for a new era, an enthusiasm fueled by the way Vatican II was presented and received. Having the advantage of looking back from a little distance at this, I think the enthusiasm was grossly naïve. Also, it seems another manifestation of the optimism in progress that appeared now and again in the twentieth century (or perhaps more broadly since the Enlightenment). This optimism created a temporal snobbery towards past epochs as surely inferior; likewise, the post-Vatican II Catholic world was snobbish towards the preceding eras of Catholicism. It became common for learned Catholics to refer glibly to pre-Vatican II Catholicism as one monolithic whole, as if there was little differentiation in the first nineteen and a half centuries!

I reject this enthusiasm. Doing so is sometimes taken as a call for a return to the pre-Vatican II Church (again, as if it were one monolithic whole!). But that’s not the point. Besides, as someone born in 1974, what do I know of the Catholicism of the 1940’s or 50’s, so as to long for it nostalgically? Also, if I were to reject wholesale the Catholicism of my parent’s generation, I would fear repeating the mistake made by that generation, when it impatiently and with naïve enthusiasm cast off the Catholicism that preceded it. Such impatient rebellion against the previous generation is adolescent. An adult faith can appreciate the genuine reforms of Catholic thought and practice after Vatican II, and can appreciate how the documents of Vatican II are God-sends for Catholics in our present world. But this adult faith can also appreciate the riches of Catholicism in the eras before Vatican II and can acknowledge the mistakes made after Vatican II.

An adult faith will also see the “signs of the times,” and realize that we are in a post-Christian culture, one increasingly influenced by an aggressive secularism that is intolerant of Catholicism, if not Christianity in general. Devout Catholics of my generation and younger ones are surely not perfect and we need to avoid pitfalls peculiar to ourselves. But I think we are able to appreciate the dangers of this secularism better than previous generations. We did not have a Catholic culture to grow up in, but were exposed to the secularism, and, therefore, we can appreciate how spiritually desolating it is. Consequently, I think we are more prone to appreciate the need to foster a Catholic culture with its various elements, such as thought, liturgy, literature, art, etc. That culture may turn out to be only a niche within the larger pluralistic culture, but it is needed in order to sustain and promote the Catholic faith.

According to the political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell, the fastest-growing religious demographic in the U.S. is what they call the “Nones” — 35-and-unders who claim no particular religious affiliation, but who nevertheless profess belief in God. How does traditional religion — Christian or otherwise — reach a generation that believes it is under no obligation to commit to any defined path, but who sees ad hoc experimentation with religion as its birthright?

I had to confront the issue of institutional religion in college when I decided to be committed to my Catholic faith. I had been taught to mistrust religious institutions, especially the Catholic Church. I wasn’t taught this directly or explicitly – instead, it was simply part of the cultural narrative. For example, one idea that Americans imbibe when growing up, and that becomes an important part in our civic consciousness, is the separation of Church and state. The separation is understood as necessary to protect us from the encroachments of organized religion, with the Catholic Church being especially imagined. Obviously, this way of understanding the separation of Church and state casts organized religion in a negative light. (That the Church needed protection from state encroachment was not known to me then.)

Also, there is the fairly common presentation, such as in movies, of agents of organized religion as oppressive, manipulative, and power-thirsty – a storyline that seems rooted in Enlightenment era propaganda. Of course there are bad persons in organized religion, but the insinuation was that pretty much all people in organized religion are like that.

Further, the modern era bequeathed to us a suspicion of people or institutions that claim to speak authoritatively. We are prone to respond to authoritative truth-claims with the words, “Who are you to say that is true?” with an implicit accusation that such claims betray a lack of humility. Throw in relativism or skepticism and people further say, “Who are you to say that your view is more true than another’s?” or, “You can’t be sure about your claim.”

All these things work against institutional religion. But I think some of it, particularly the last point regarding the suspicion of authoritative truth-claims, works against the good of society. Not only religions, but also societies have traditions handed down in the form of customs, institutions, presuppositions, etc. Traditions in this sense make claims, even if only implicitly, about what is right and wrong, good vs. bad, virtuous vs. vicious. And they make them authoritatively – that is, they present their claims as worthy of acceptance or at least deference by subsequent generations. This makes them authoritative in the sense St. Augustine understood an authority, namely, a person or institution that is trustworthy and thus deserving of deference or acceptance in what it proposes.

A common example of an authority in this sense are school teachers. You don’t attend class and reject out of hand everything the teacher says with the thought, “Who are you to say that is true?” Rather, you grant that the teacher knows something about the subject matter and therefore is worth listening to. Even when a student doesn’t trust everything the teacher says, still a certain degree of authority is granted to the teacher, so that the student trusts a fair amount of what is said.

Again, traditions in society claim this authority, because they make claims about good and bad and expect at least deference to those claims. Yet the increasing refusal to accept the teaching authority of traditions is a problem. Traditions are necessary. They are society’s way of not having to reinvent the wheel, but of instead passing down what has been learned from the experience of past times in areas such as morality, civic virtue, right thinking, and so on. To reject them out of hand is like refusing to learn from teachers in school and instead thinking you can discover everything yourself.

Not learning from the cumulative experience of past times subjects a society to repeating errors with the harmful consequences that follow. An example here is the practically wholesale casting off of traditions about dating propriety and the immorality of premarital sex. As a result we have a society suffering the consequences, such as millions of abortions, an alarming out of wedlock birthrate, rampant sexual disease, plus the spiritual and emotional fallout from treating sex as if it could be simply casual. Not only have we cast off traditions about propriety in this area, but it is not socially acceptable to criticize the sexual mores that have emerged in their place. Doing so is met with mockery and criticism, if not disdain. You’re called unrealistic. But I find our society very unrealistic for not acknowledging the problems the new mores have created.

People criticize such arguments for the need of traditions by noting that traditions have not always passed on what is truly good and right. Granted. But this does not do away with the need for authoritative traditions any more than the existence of bad teachers does away with the need for schools. Further, the deference to traditions does not mean you stop thinking. As St. Augustine taught, deferring to a teaching authority is not irrational, but a reasoned action based on the need to be guided by the experience and knowledge of others. Moreover, deferring to that authority is naturally followed by a search to understand its rationale better. In that search one might find errors mixed in the tradition that need correcting. Yet venerable traditions often contain the truths needed to correct those errors, so that respecting the tradition allows one to learn from it the truths needed to correct it.

This does not address the issue of religious traditions per se, but I think it provides a backdrop for making their case. Given the need for traditions, it is reasonable to believe that a good God would provide or foster religious traditions to guide us in religious matters. Otherwise, we would be left only to ideas of our own making about God and His plan for us. In keeping with this, Catholics believe that God has intervened in human history and bequeathed to the human race traditions regarding sacred teachings, institutions, and practices.

I do not pretend this answers all the questions about organized religion and religious tradition. One obstacle to accepting a religion’s tradition as authoritative comes when a religion’s members, especially leaders, do wrong and cause scandal. “It is necessary that scandals come, but woe to the person through whom the scandal comes!” (Mt 18:7) Yet I do not think that scandals and abuses refute the value of organized religion. I think they are a reminder that no matter how perfect the means of salvation are in a religion, one still needs to avail oneself of those means and, because of free will and the difficulty of the project, this is not guaranteed to happen. There is an important truth in St. Paul’s teaching that we must work out our salvation with fear and trembling (see Phil 2:12).

Finally, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre famously said that the world awaits “a new — and very different — St. Benedict.” He made this remark at the end of his monumental book “After Virtue,” in which he argued that the Enlightenment attempt to build an authoritative and binding morality without God had failed, leaving Western civilization exhausted and fragmented — much like the remnants of the Western Roman Empire was when Benedict of Nursia appeared on the scene. MacIntyre seems to be calling for the appearance of a charismatic, creative religious genius who can pioneer a new way of life out of the ruins, and persuade people to follow him in rebuilding. If you agree with this analysis, what characteristics would a new and very different St. Benedict need to have to speak effectively to our time?

I have to admit that After Virtue has been on my “must read” list for a while, yet I still have not read it. So, I cannot speak in continuity with MacIntyre’s famous closing words to his book. However, I do find it an intriguing claim, one that invites asking what St. Benedict’s example might teach us today.

I think our world can learn from St. Benedict’s fuga mundi, “flight from the world.” As a young man St. Benedict went to study in Rome, but finding life there decadent he left to live in solitude and eventually he accepted the call to be a monastic leader. The rest is history, as they say. I think that many, including monastic thinkers, are embarrassed by this traditional monastic theme of flight from the world. It seems to play right into an Enlightenment critique that monks, if not Christianity in general, are other-worldly in a way that neglects the needs of society. But there is no need to read the theme so unsympathetically and narrowly.

The Bible sometimes speaks of the world not as the place God made very good, but as what fallen human beings have made of that place. It is good to flee from the world in this negative sense. I would say that in the world today there are many false voices that should be fled.

I have in mind voices that are not about the truth, but are very influential. For instance, there is political rhetoric, whether from politicians, pundits, or others, that is is not about the truth, but about scoring points in order to advance your positions. Persuasive speech has its place, but here it is dislocated from the truth. Even when this rhetoric intends a good end, it is wrong because it does not lead people to the truth in order to lead them to the realization of what is good. Another false voice is political correctness, which does not care about seeking the truth, but cares about avoiding what is considered offensive. Yet it is very influential, not only by silencing people through the fear that they will be branded hateful or ignorant if they disagree, but also by convincing many that this branding is appropriate. A further false voice is the one that calls for almost mob-like public scrutiny. There is a place for public scrutiny in a free and democratic society and the press has a role in providing information so that the public can exercise this scrutiny appropriately. But we sometimes take public scrutiny too far, wanting to hold opinions and make judgments about matters that are not our business or about which we do not have enough information. The media can encourage this by sensationalizing issues, but the sensationalism appeals to a desire within ourselves. We find a certain satisfaction in looking down on the foibles of others. We can even enjoy being indignant at others! Perhaps this allows us to think well of ourselves for condemning evil and distracts us from seeing our own faults. There is plenty to criticize and some things to be mad about in our society, but even warranted criticism can slip into this self-serving criticism. St. Paul says that love “does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.” There is a place for public scrutiny, but sometimes it is not about the truth and it rejoices in wrongdoing rather than be saddened by it.

Fleeing such voices and their untruthfulness is a flight from the world that requires some determination. It means seeing the voices for what they are and not allowing them influence over our thinking. This turning from the world requires also a certain turning within in order to keep contact with the truth. The only place one can recognize the truth is within. This interiority is not a neglect of one’s duties in the world, but a necessity for engaging the world truthfully. It allows one room to use one’s sense of the truth to analyze one’s experiences and thus to learn from them. The Cistercian tradition of Benedictine monasticism likes to note that experience is a great teacher. If we cultivate an appropriate interiority, then experience can teach us the deeper truths we, individually and as a society, need to live by. If instead we let the false voices govern us, we lose touch with the truth and are tossed to and fro and carried about by human trickery (cf. Eph 4:14).

But cultivating the right kind of interiority requires yearning for the truth itself, which is ultimately God, and observing some practices, such as keeping moments of silence and having some structure in one’s day. St. Benedict is an example of this and many, without joining a monastery, find him a good guide in this way.



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