Common Recreation
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Monastic observances and the pastoral care of God's people can take a toll on individual Norbertines if they are not balanced with lighter activities. As St. Bruno, a great contemporary of St. Norbert, taught, "If the bow string is stretched tight for too long, it becomes loose and unfit for its purpose." One important element for "loosening the bow" and strengthening charity and unity in the monastery, is called "common recreation." As the Order's Statutes of 1630 indicate, this means first and foremost a "brotherly exchange of conversation together." It usually takes place during the period after the evening meal and before Night Prayer. The Statutes admonish, "Let the conversation be modest, without raised voices, murmuring or arguments." In our own time, when so many families have lost the art of just being together and speaking and listening to one another, common recreation takes on even greater urgency. As Pope Francis noted in his Encyclical Letter Laudato SÍ, "...when digital media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can ...shield us from direct contact with the pain, the fears and the joys of others ... (cf. #47)." Common Recreation helps each Norbertine maintain personal balance and true charity in his heart and safeguards the family character of this ancient way of life.

Photo: frater Edmund shares his vocal talents with the community and sings a robust German aria.
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Prayer and Manual Labor
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The ancient religious orders in the Latin Church (those founded in the 12th century or before) have always fostered a lifestyle that emphasizes a common life, a day order that hinges around the chanting of the divine office, manual and intellectual labor and meals taken in common. If such a schedule is lived faithfully for many years, far from being tedious, it can open up one's heart and soul to a peaceful lucidity that is hard to imagine for those who are not in a monastery. Prayer and manual labor are linked in that prayer informs the spirit in which the work is done, and work can make prayer visible.

Here at the abbey, for most of the confreres, it is during the years of formation that most come into contact with manual labor. Historically, our community tends to use priests in positions of teaching or preaching more than in the field or woodshop, although there are exceptions to this. These would include the priests charged with management of the abbey plant and work at the new site, as well as priests who use occasional days working in the garden as needed respite from their other duties.

The field of labor is as wide as and wider than that of the maintenance of a typical household. Landscape maintenance, help in the kitchen, cleaning bathrooms and showers, keeping the church clean and set up for Mass. Each of these tasks, performed with love for the common good, helps to sanctify the individual and make the abbey a more ordered and peaceful place to live.

Photo: Fraters Anselm and Christopher clean the refectory glass doors.

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Retreat
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"And he said to them, Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest a while."
These words, taken from the 6th chapter of St. Mark's Gospel, show the first invitation of the Lord to His apostles to make a retreat - to withdraw for a time from the daily schedule in order to pray more and to rest. And why this invitation? The passage continues, "For there were many coming and going, and they had no leisure so much as to eat." Indeed, this can be the experience of a priest. Things become so busy that meals get skipped - regularly - and if he is not careful, prayers can become shortened and skipped too. It takes an iron discipline to combine the life of ministry and contemplation.

The lived experience of this active work combined with monastic life will at times yield a great tension. The priest may feel he is much less "effective" or "pastoral" because of all the time put in to praying, but this is a false impression. St. Thomas Aquinas, when writing in defense of the "mixed life" of the semi-contemplative orders (like the Norbertines), is clear in stressing that the contemplative who is involved in ministry is a conduit, passing on what he has received in contemplation. We cannot give what we do not have, and thus the contemplative aspect of our vocation is essential to our lives as Norbertine canons. To this end, each year the community makes a retreat of six days, a time of exclusive recollection and quiet time spent with the Lord.

Photo: Raymond Cardinal Burke was the retreat master for this year's community retreat.

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Community Meals

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It isn't an uncommon sight at St. Michael's Abbey to see the confreres hard at work. You may see them offering Holy Mass, teaching a class, or perhaps trimming up our Abbey's gardens. Service to the community is an essential part of Norbertine life. Even at dinnertime, you'll find our priests and seminarians hard at work serving and bussing the refectory tables. Every week there's a different crew of confreres who give up their seat at table so that they can serve their brothers and then clear the tables as meal concludes. At the end of the meal, it's the servers turn to eat while a group of seminarians stays behind to prepare the refectory for the next meal. With the growing number of men joining our ranks, our refectory is now a tight-squeeze and so working there often feels like an obstacle course. This, of course, is a sign of God's generosity to our community. Grateful for our overflowing religious community, we also eagerly await a more ample space in our new home.

Photo: Frater Jacob takes his turn washing the dishes after the community meal.

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