The Cathedral of St John the Baptist priest, Fr Henry Whisenant, has announced that he is to spend a year as a monk in Tasmania, in Australia, to discern whether it is the right move for him to take. Here he explains why has made this decision?
No doubt many of you will have heard the news by now, which I announced in the Cathedral parish at the beginning of June. Bishop Alan has given me his permission and blessing to take a year to discern the monastic life, with a new community in Tasmania, Australia. It’s certainly a big step (geographically something more than a step!), and it seems only right that I should share with you something more of how I’ve come to this decision.
Firstly, why monasticism? Why be cloistered away in a priory when the diocese is in need of priests to preach and give the sacraments? The monastic life has a different but complementary purpose to that of the secular priesthood. Monks consecrate their entire lives to God through certain solemn vows, thereby offering a sacrifice of their whole life to God, as Mary Magdalen poured out (“wasted”, as it seemed to Judas) her precious ointment on the Lord’s feet. Such a life shows that God is infinitely worthy of everything we can give him.
By his vows, the monk also concentrates on conforming his life more fully to Christ’s, by avoiding sin and growing in the virtues. When GK Chesterton was asked, “What’s wrong with the world?” he replied, “I am”. Meaning, it’s no good helping others grow spiritually unless we are becoming the saints God wants us to be too. And that’s the point of the monastic vows. The Benedictine Order with which I will be discerning has three vows to this end: obedience, stability (staying in the same monastery for life, unless moved), and conversion of life. By this last vow the monk seeks to put God first in his day-to-day existence, with the help of silence, fasting, vigils, manual work, spiritual reading, the liturgy chanted throughout the day, and life with his brothers in common.
Another obvious question people have asked me is: why Tasmania?
I did consider many other foundations closer to home at first, but the funny ways of Providence seem to have led me to somewhere I never had in mind. There is no space here to go into all the circumstances, but you can find out more about this priory at: www.notredamemonastery.org
It is a young community, with a balanced life of prayer and work, which offers preached retreats to people outside the monastery from time to time. The monks wear white habits in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and invoke her patronage under the title of Our Lady of Cana.
If after a year I discover this way of life is not my vocation, the Bishop has kindly said I can return to ministry in the diocese. If it should be God’s calling me for to stay in Tasmania and join that monastery, then I can honestly say that I will always be indebted to East Anglia for the initial formation I’ve received as a priest. This diocese, with all its good people, and also its rich Catholic history and plethora of saints, as well as the favour of Our Lady of Walsingham, will always be close to my heart (and I promise to bore the Aussies silly with telling of it). I would like to thank all of you in the diocese, laity and clergy, for your friendship and support these last five years of ordination, and to ask that you pray for me in this discernment.
It goes without saying that I, for my part, will have a responsibility to pray for this diocese in a particular way… not least for more priestly vocations here! You may be losing a priest in terms of ministry, but not in terms of prayer and sacrifice, especially the Sacrifice of the Mass offered with your needs in mind. I might go so far as to say that a monastic priest for the diocese is like money invested in the bank – you don’t see him, but he’s there, hopefully acquiring some spiritual interest for what God wants to do here!