Before I tied the knot with the Catholic Church as a parish priest, I took the opportunity to cross off one of the top ten items on my bucket list: to live in a monastery for a year. Actually, I only made it through seven months, but the experience well met my expectations and more, even after realizing I wasn't suited for the silence and solitude of monastic life. The charismatic experiences of communal prayer in the Benedictine Abbey of Valyermo in Southern California with magnum silencium from dusk till dawn, chanting the breviary night and day, and working at menial tasks as a labor of love will never leave me.
Below is a simple sampling of the various Monastic Spiritualities the Catholic Church has to offer anyone who is interested.
Benedictines typically strive for Christian perfection in community, liturgical prayer, and separation from worldly concerns. St. Benedict is considered to be the Father of Western Monasticism. His well known theme, "Ore et Labore" "Work and Prayer", depicts the Benedictine Spirit.
Franciscans ideally live a life of poverty, love of nature, and charitable deeds towards those in need. St. Francis of Assisi, though wealthy, rejected all of his possessions and founded a community of brothers (friars) who lived in poverty and served the poor.
Dominicans are mendicants that preach God’s Word and defend Catholic doctrine. St. Dominic encountered numerous heretics in his journeys, but believed that people were not to blame for their ignorance if only good, orthodox preachers were around to help them. He founded the “Order of Preachers” inspired by Christ’s humanity and the holy rosary. (Most notably belonging to this order is St. Thomas Aquinas, my lifelong spiritual guide and mentor.)
Jesuits focus on examining their life in terms of perfection, discerning the will of God who is in all things (hence their motto “Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam”, “For the Greater Glory of God”). St. Ignatius of Loyola was a wounded soldier who experienced a conversion when reading about Christ and the saints. His Spiritual Exercises became a renowned guide of introspection for making retreats.
Carmelites prefer interior detachment, silence and solitude as means for attaining spiritual progress. The roots of the Carmelite Order go back to a group of hermits living on Mt. Carmel in Israel during the 12th Century (though some contend the order was established in spirit by the Old Testament prophet Elijah on Mount Carmel). Saints John of the Cross and Teresa of Ávila were the most well known mystics of that Order; their writings are spiritual classics, marked by contemplation and mortification as the means to attaining divine union with God. (Long have I loved St. Teresa and St. Therese the Little Flower.)
Redemptorists follow Christ in his incarnation, death, and resurrection through encounters with Christ in the Blessed Sacrament and the Way of the Cross. The Order was established by St. Alphonsus Liguori with a missionary focus on offering spiritual retreats for the laity. (I grew up reading St. Alphonsus' many spiritual books, like The Glories of Mary, but took St. Gemma Galgani--who never officially entered the Order in her lifetime--as favorite of my many saintly friends.)
The Servite Order had Seven Holy Founders rather than one, and members contemplate Mary at the foot of the cross as a model for Christian life and service to the suffering and poor, with a particular emphasis on the communal aspect of Christian life and praying the Rosary of the Seven Sorrows.
Montfortian Spirituality, based on the writings of St. Louis de Montfort, can be summed up by the formula: “To God Alone, by Christ Wisdom, in the Spirit, in communion with Mary, for the reign of God.” St Louis is best known for his Mariology and devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, a spirituality founded on the mystery of the Incarnation and centered on Christ, as in his famous Prayer to Jesus.
Of course, one does not need to belong to a religious order to practice its spirituality. All these lovely Flowers of holiness are on display in God's garden on Earth for anyone wanting to adopt and practice them, singly or eclectically, whatever best suits your own personality and style.
In closing, I'd like to offer a poem I wrote while on a spiritual retreat. I happened to notice a squirrel on its merry way drop a bit of food and thought little of it. (While on retreats from the business of the world, one is more likely to pay attention to little things like this.) Later, I passed by the same tree-shaded walkway and saw the food was now feverishly surrounded by ants. And that got me thinking: maybe we are like the squirrel and the ants, preoccupied in our own ways, yet chancing to come upon delightful spiritual insights God has prepared and left for us to encounter, in hopes that we might grow to love Him the more. I, for one, don't want to disappoint him!
“Wandering, Wondering, In the Wood"
Today a curious thing I saw
Walking through a neighboring wood,
A bushy coat and tailed mouse--
A passing Squirrel--dropped its food.
Surprised, it left a bit of fig
behind, my furry little friend,
then zipped into the underbrush,
Its startled feast ne'er did begin.
Sorry, I also left to read,
and curious, returned to find,
Ants now feasting on the fruit,
and even on the rind.
In quiet stance, I pondered this
repast, lost to plundering ants--
and thought of God, who baits and waits,
to find His love unclaimed, perchance.