How monastic life can reinvigorate the Church

How monastic life can reinvigorate the Church

Fr Peter Knowles OP

Fr Peter Knowles OP, formerly Master of Mannix College at Monash University, later worked at the Russian Centre in Kew, Melbourne Archdiocese. He is a specialist in Eastern monasticism and spirituality and recently he joined the community at Holy Resurrection Monastery in the Mojave Desert in California. The monastery's address is PO Box 130, Newberry Springs, CA 92365, USA.

Does the monastic life still need an apologia? Indeed, it certainly needs a definition, as its shape and dynamism are not familiar to the general run of Christians today.

Monastic life cannot be given the all too facile denomination "contemplative life". Christian monastic life is far off from such a restricted philosophical characterisation, and holds much more in its grasp than the cold exercise of contemplative cogitation. Of course monastic living is given to the practice of contemplation - biblical and theological - but devoted greatly to much more as well: to worship, to charity, to wide-visioned faith, to far-visioned hope, to joy and obedience and self restraint.

As Louis Bouyer wrote many decades ago: "It may be said 'Monastic life is the contemplative life'. Nothing is truer in a certain sense, for it is essential to monastic life that it should be a form of life in which contemplation predominates. Nevertheless this definition remains too vague. Contemplation as such is not a specifically Christian thing. Aristotle sees in the bios theoritikos [contemplative life] only the peak of what we would call the 'intellectual life'."

Monastic life has been described as "a reference point for all the baptised - a symbolic synthesis of Christianity". The monastery has been called the "prophetic place where creation becomes praise of God and the precept of concretely lived charity becomes the ideal of human co-existence, where the human being seeks God without limitation or impediment."

These encouraging phrases come from Orientale Lumen, a document that was signed by the Pope in 1995. But the phrases are a laudatory description, not a definition of monasticism. The monastic way is a living of prayer as forged by the doctrine and directions of the Church. It is as a concentrated image of the life of the Church that monastic life finds its meaning.

Turning to specially Eastern asceticism, Orientale Lumen specifically says "monasticism has always been the very soul of the Eastern churches: the first Christian monks were born in the East and the monastic life was an integral part of the Eastern lumen that was passed on to the West by the great Fathers of the undivided church" (p. 74). Many of these Fathers had experienced monastic life for themselves: either by living the life as did St John Chrysostom in Syria, or by lengthy visits to monasteries, as St Athanasius did in Egypt.

Like the Church's liturgy, monastic life itself is its own justification. Indeed, the daily rhythm of Byzantine monastic life is patterned according to the liturgy. In their turn, monks and nuns have provided much of the content of that liturgy, mostly in the form of a great mass of hymnography they have composed.

Monastic day

The pulse of the monastic day is the pulse of the services: "[W]hile the monk chants with his brothers the prayer that sanctifies time, he continues his assimilation of the word [of Scripture]. The rich liturgical hymnody, of which all the churches of the East can be so justly proud, is but the continuation of the Word, which is read, understood, assimilated and finally sung; those hymns are largely sublime paraphrases of the biblical text" (Orientale Lumen, p. 14)

For this reason the Byzantine monastic does not ignore the cares of the Church, nor is he in flight from the Church. On the contrary, one whose daily round is intentionally interwoven with the lengthy services of the Church appreciates increasingly thereby that the liturgy is the noblest expression of the Church's theology; he becomes more and more habituated to a divinely cast world. Indeed, by his very withdrawal from external busyness, the monastic gains a sharper understanding of humanity. Involvement constantly with the divine, makes him more sensitively human.

Being set apart from the crowded forum of everyday activity does not mean that a monastery plays only an ineffectual role in the evangelising activity of the Church. Contemporary Romanian monasticism, for example, demonstrates the falseness of this judgment. Whoever travels through Romania will be struck by the vast numbers of monasteries that are scattered over that country. The example and far-reaching influence of these houses is indicated by the droves of pilgrims and visitors that journey to them - even to the most remotely situated ones. They come to worship, to ask for prayers, or to seek the advice of a duchoonik or renowned spiritual father.

Only last year (March, 2000), while visiting one such monastery in Romania on the Black Sea coast, I witnessed a scene that one would have imagined belonged only to the heyday of Russian monasteries in the 19th century. A queue of the most incongruous mixture of pilgrims (peasants, townspeople, professional people) was lined up outside the cell of such a duchovnik patiently waiting their turn for confession, or just to seek his counsel.

All problems, personal and domestic, are brought to these monks. A most refreshing phenomenon is to hear students and academics in the cities speaking of monastic life with knowledge and affectionate reverence. Many young university men and women have their own spiritual father in one of these monasteries as guide and adviser.

Spiritual father

Romania is blessed in the number and standard of its monks and nuns, but other necessary activity of church life, with similar throngs of visitors and pilgrims flocking to their gates to take part in the services and to seek out a spiritual father. As the 17th century English poet George Herbert phrased it (The Church Militant): "Holy Macarius and Great Anthony made Pharaoh Moses, changing history."

Yet neither Macarius or Anthony left their Egyptian desert to preach. The last few years have witnessed a heightened appreciation for and an active interest in monastic life in the diaspora of all the Oriental churches. Australia has a Coptic monastery outside Sydney, while Greek, Russian and Serbian convents and monasteries are found elsewhere throughout the country. Of course, because of its large population, the number is very much higher in the USA. Within the milieu of the American Greek Catholic churches there is a growing number of houses dedicated to the traditional pattern of the Eastern monastic rule in all its uncluttered simplicity.

Some five years ago one such foundation was started in California in the Mojave Desert. The site chosen was indeed a treeless desert, though possessed of its own appeal because of the muted colours of the stunted foliage and the wide reach of the skies above. A small group of Americans and Australians set themselves to bring into being just such a way of life as had been the setting for so many thousands and thousands of ascetics since the earliest years of Christianity. This setting offered liturgical prayer, asceticism and obedience: the whole thing being extremely straightforward to put in words, though calling for much strenuous effort to accomplish.

The welcome of the Byzantine Catholic Eparch of Van Nuys at the time, Bishop George (Kuzma), together with that of his clergy and the faithful in general of this Eparchy gave immeasurable support and encouragement to the new monks. The whole of the section of the Ruthenian church on the West Coast of the United States eagerly embraced the new arrivals and their ideal with little question.

The promulgation of Orientale Lumen just at this period provided a timely impetus for this enterprise. The document, so vital for Eastern Catholics, paid tribute to the oriental ascetic life, and stressed in letters of fire the perennial and unique value of this way of life for the health of the Church as a whole, not only in the East:

"With regard to monasticism, in consideration of its importance in Eastern Christianity, we would like it to flourish once more in the Eastern Catholic Churches, and that support be given to all those who feel called to work for its revitalisation.

"In fact, in the East an intrinsic link exists between liturgical prayer, spiritual tradition and monastic life. For this reason precisely, a well trained and motivated renewal of monastic life could mean true ecclesial fruitfulness for them as well. Nor should it be thought that this would diminish the effectiveness of the pastoral ministry which will in fact be strengthened by such a vigorous spirituality, and thus will once more find its ideal place."

These last words are very significant, and of great consequence: so apposite and timely for this difficult stage in the history of the whole Church, much in need of the vigorous ecclesial spirituality proclaimed by the paradoxically, largely unwitnessed life of a monastery. A sign of the fecundity of this ideal once realised is the beginning of a women's monastery within the Eparchy of Van Nuys. Two women, inspired by the monastic vision of the monks of Holy Resurrection have set off north to Olympia. The Byzantine Catholic clergy in that area had discovered a property, and helped the sisters to settle there and start living the monastic life.

Monastic witness

As well as the encomium he gave in Orientale Lumen for Eastern monasticism, Pope John Paul II recently in an exhortation to the churches of the Americas spoke glowingly to about a thousand Bishops on the subject of the Eastern Catholic Churches and included these words: "The Eastern Churches have a duty to maintain their own disciplines, in order to give witness to an ancient doctrinal, liturgical and monastic witness." It is worth noting his Holiness' repetition of his esteem for oriental monasticism with the phrase "monastic witness."

An encouraging sign that the Holy Resurrection Monastery will fare well in the future is that the present structure is becoming far too small for the community and those vocations who will be the community of the future. Already, a large number of applicants cannot be received yet, due to the lack of accommodation, - likewise, in the case of guests or retreatants who ask to come and spend some days in the monastic desert.

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