If the Church is a body, as St. Paul describes it in 1st Corinthians, then the heart of Catholicism here on earth must be the monastery. Its prayers to God for the world are pumped, like blood, throughout the body of Christ giving Christianity life. If by analogy the monastery serves as our heart, what is it in reality? There are many different answers to this question. One answer is that it is a place where men have given up their worldly concerns and taken up a new life of joyful prayer. The monk has shunned the temporary things of this world that waste away to live in the next. They continually proclaim to the rest of us that the eternal Kingdom of Heaven is here and now. It is also a hospital for the soul—a place of respite for when the world becomes too much for believers.
The monastery is where the faithful can recover from the wounds sustained in their everyday struggle between faithfulness and sin. The monastery foreshadows heaven, providing the regular clergy and laity a taste of our home country; it is where we can be fed on the Word. Once healed and nourished, we can go out into the world better prepared to be faithful and claim more souls for Christ and his Church. This, among other reasons, is why the monastery is so important. It is there that we the laity can find peace and a space for prayer. Inside this sacred place, guided by the monks, we can work on our relationship with God divorced from all the distractions and cares of the secular world.
The monk and the monastery not only create the space for peace but they also serve as a kind of magnet in attracting others to the contemplative life. The monk reminds those in and of this world that the better way is to sit at the feet of Jesus. Along with serving the laity in an iconic fashion, the monks, through their prayers, sustain the Faith. Without them who knows what state Christianity would be in? This why it is so important to preserve monastic life in the Church. We need to do all we can to promote monastic vocations and make this extraordinary life an ordinary part of our Church again. While we may consider the monastery a relic of the past, it is where the Christian life—on this side of the eschaton anyway—is led to the fullest. It serves as an example of how we should all live. Every parish and home should model itself on the monastery and become a house of prayer and hospitality.
Even before the legalization of the Faith throughout the Roman Empire, we see the monastic idea flowering into life. Men and women who wanted to better imitate the apostolic life flung themselves into a sort of martyrdom. After legalization, this style of life gained a whole host of adherents. In many ways, the monastery became and still is the best example of people living the way the apostles lived in Acts. As history unfolded, monasteries grew to serve as the economic, political, and hospitality centers of many European communities. While we might be slightly bemused by the fact that monasteries brewed and sold beer, what we generally do not appreciate is that these were real economic undertakings that fueled communities. Monasteries were also leading agricultural reforms that would help feed millions. In the Middle Ages, monasteries trained and educated the men who formed the current nations of Europe. This eventually led to the university system that has educated untold millions and developed the various sciences that underpin our lives today.
As important as monasteries were in building Western civilization, we need to recognize that they serve first and foremost as the heart of the Church. John Paul II taught the Church in Orientale Lumen that “the monastery is the prophetic place where creation becomes praise of God and the precept of concretely lived charity becomes the ideal of human existence; it is where the human being seeks God without limit or impediment, becoming a reference point for all people.” If the laity and clergy who work in the world no longer have that reference point, whom can we look to as role models in seeking God? While it is good, praiseworthy, and absolutely necessary to call more and more men to the priesthood, we need to make the same vigorous cry for men to join the monastery.
I dare say, one of the problems with the Church’s current reform efforts is it does not include significant monastic input. Monks have implemented the best and truest Church reforms throughout history, the most famous example of these are the Cluniac reforms. Our greatest pope and reformer, Gregory the Great, came from a monastic background. Our best bishops came from a monastic background, such as Gregory of Nazianzus. In other words, the laboratory of Church reform and governance is the monastery. However, monasteries cannot lead new reforms or give us new bishops and popes if there are no monks. Along with being a source of renewal and reform, the monastery is a house of prayer that sustains us, the laity. Without their prayers would any of our Christian work even be possible?
The Church must realize that if the heart is not being taken care of and fortified it will weaken and the body will then become sick. Much like a doctor checks the heart of a patient to see if he is alive and proscribes a regime to strengthen it if need be, the faithful need to check on the Church’s heart to see how well it is doing and work toward its health. Therefore, as a church we need to ask whether we are doing enough to sustain our monastic heart. Are we encouraging vocations to the monastic life? Are we supporting monasteries materially? Are we learning at the feet of monks? We must address these matters to ensure the health of the body of Christ.
With each passing day, the monastic life should become more relevant to our lives as believers, not only because it reconnects and helps us to build our relationship with God, but because it helps us to become more authentically human. Today, the average believer is bombarded with a world that is hostile to the Faith and intent on replacing it with something that will never fully satisfy us. We Christians also must contend with a world that is dissolving the bonds of fraternity, as a people are lonelier than ever. The monastery, however, gives us a chance to remember what we are supposed to be.
Image: Monks in a Cave by Francois-Marius Granet