We asked a few questions of Fr. Richard G. Herbel of St. Augustine’s House in Oxford, Michigan.
Lutheran monks aren’t an everyday sight! How do you understand the place of monastic life within the Lutheran church?
Martin Luther and the Reformation did not seek to destroy monastic life but to reform it along with the rest of the Church in the late middle ages. In fact, some communities adopted the Reformation and continued for decades afterward. It was only later that certain exaggerations in Reformation theology cut off the air, as it were, to monastic vocations and caused a gradual decline and finally the disappearance of monastic life among Lutherans. Fresh interest in monasticism among Lutherans emerged at the beginning of the last century.
Today I believe it is generally accepted that monastic life is as authentic an expression of Christian spirituality as any other form. Being a monk is first of all being a Christian. Monastic life is qualitatively no different from that of any other Christian; it is only in its emphases and discipline that it seems to differ. Like all Christians, monks have to eat and sleep, work to pay the bills, follow the Ten Commandments, cook and wash dishes, make their beds, clean house, go to church and pray. It is, however, especially in this last occupation, prayer and worship, that our life seems most distinctive. Not that our prayer is different from others’, but only in the amount of time devoted to it and the deliberateness with which it is undertaken.
While your community is called St. Augustine’s House, you’re not Augustinian friars like Luther but monks following the Rule of St. Benedict. How does the Benedictine rule relate to the Lutheran heritage?
These two forms of religious life are not unrelated. I believe this “monastic” style of life had a great influence on Luther and the Reformation. It has been said that Luther “monasticized” the laity of the Church in as much as he elevated ordinary occupations and married life to the sacred status monasticism was thought to hold.
Should young Lutherans consider the possibility of a monastic vocation in today’s Lutheran church? How might they discern such a vocation?
Young Lutherans should be open and obedient to whatever path the Lord calls them to follow, as this is made know to them through prayer and through the signs that life places in our way. It is important to remember that even in the so-called “monastic ages,” those called to monastic life were a tiny percentage of Christians. For most Christians the life of discipleship will be in the covenant of marriage. This can and should be undertaken as a sacred bond which by its lifelong nature is a living icon of God’s love. There is a great need for this now in the Church and for openness to children. A large Christian family as a sign of life and hope, a promise for the future. Certainly one should not go in the monastic way if one has not considered this more usual vocation first. If one is called to the monastic life, then it should be undertaken with the same faithfulness, seriousness, and sacrificial love that is demanded in married and family life.
What in particular do you think Lutherans and Catholics today have to offer one another?
As Lutherans we must remember that we cannot be Lutheran unless we are first Catholic, and that the reformed Church was never intended to be less than the Catholic Church. The pursuit of reunion with the Roman Catholic Church is a necessary element of authentic Lutheranism. Forgetting this dynamic has been disastrous for the Lutheran movement.