Where 'normal' religious life flourishes

Where 'normal' religious life flourishes

Fr John Parsons

There is in the south of France a religious house so normal as to be extraordinary.

There are two sorts of normalcies, one that is usual and the other quite unusual. The usual sort is what you might call quantitative normality, while the other is qualitative. Thus a man with no fillings in his teeth, and all his teeth in place could be said to have normal teeth in the qualitative sense; but a man who has often helped to keep the dentist in business and whose mouth is full of fillings in the quantitative sense; most people have teeth like that.

To move from dentistry to ecclesiology, and to the life of religious orders today, we would be justified in saying that the ordinary religious house is today quite abnormal, and thus conversely, to find a normal religious house, like the one in Provence about which I am talking, is something quite extraordinary.

It is as if everybody had agreed to walk on their hands instead of on their feet, except for one small band of eccentrics who, with perverse stubbornness and a lamentable failure to adjust to modern trends, insisted on walking on their feet just as they had always done, and who as a result were roundly condemned for their pride, fanaticism and singularity.

These foot-walkers pointed out that firstly, they were only doing what many people had done until recently, and secondly, that for reasons they couldn't quite explain, it somehow seemed to work better if you walked on your feet. You felt happier, you moved faster, and it was easier to persuade people to keep on with their walking.

At the Benedictine abbey of St Mary Magdalen, or in French Sainte Madeleine, at Le Barroux, they walk on their feet. That is why they are so extraordinary.

From the beginning of Christian religious life in community in the late third century, until the collapse of Christendom one and a half thousand years later, the sort of religious life lived at Le Barroux was normal; normal quantitatively in that it was the life that most religious actually lived, more or less; and still more normal qualitatively, in that it was the life that was universally recognised among Catholics as the life that most religious should be living.

The all time high in numbers of men, if not women, in religious orders was attained in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The year 1700 can be taken as representing the peak period. From about 1520 onwards new orders, known as clerks regular had sprung up in the Church. These included the Jesuits, the Theatines, the Barriabites and others of the sort. They did not aim to live the sort of life seen at Le Barroux. The big difference was that they were wholly or partly dispensed from the custom, universal among religious of orders founded in the 1,2000 years prior to 1520, of celebrating the divine office in choir each day. So these clerks regular were a modern exception to the long-standing rule.

In 1700, our sample year, we would find that most religious still belonged to the orders of the older sort, that did pray the office in choir; Franciscans, whether Conventual, Observant, Capuchin or Recollect; Dominicans, Minims, Carmelite friars and Austin friars; all the orders of canons regular, such as the Praemonstratensians; all the monks; Celestines, Trappists, Cistercians of the common observance, all the different congregations of Benedictines, the Lamaldolese - though not the Carthusians - were all bound to recite the whole of the great communal daily prayer of the Church together.

Of course there were slack houses and decadent patches in every century and in most orders. Again in very small communities, of fewer than eight members, it would have been impossible to keep up the full regular conventual observance that all these orders aimed at and legislated for in their chapters.

Nonetheless, the daily round of the liturgy, with the bells of two or three priories or monasteries ringing the hours through the day, calling the brethren to choir, would have been as familiar as bread and cheese in every town of Catholic Christendom, whether in Europe or Latin America, in the year 1700.

Today we tend to think of such a life as exclusively "monastic", as if it had been the preserve of a specialised sort of religious ever since St Francis of Assisi and St Dominic appeared on the scene about 1210. But as I have said, it was still the life aimed at by most religious five hundred years later. Franciscans and Dominicans themselves, in large towns or cities, often had communities of 40 and more, as do the Benedictines at Le Barroux today. They too rose to sing Matins about three o'clock in the morning. They too wore their religious habits both inside and outside their houses as a sign of having abandoned secular life. They too wore a tonsure, as did all religious. They too had no personal property and did not accumulate objects in their cells, They too observed the fast of a single meal throughout the days of Lent, and abstained from meat much of the time.

They too had their regular "chapter of faults" when members admitted their failings in keeping the regulations. They too ate together in silence in the refectory as a book was read aloud by one of the brethren. They too celebrated their Low Masses in the morning after Lauds, each priest thus making full personal use of his priesthood for the greater glory of God and to intercede for some particular need. They too gathered for a conventual Mass after Terce, even if for some, like the Capuchins and Camaldolese, this was a Low Mass without music or much ceremony. They too made time at a fixed hour each day for sacred reading and mental prayer, even if for some, like the Carthusians, no specific rule existed enjoining the practice.

Decline of belief

There is no need to prolong the list. Whatever the colour or cut of the habit, such was life in most observant religious houses in 1700. Even the clerks regular, who did not maintain the full liturgical regime described, nonetheless shared in most other aspects of this regular life.

How then have we arrived at today's topsy-turvy state of affairs in which the rule has become the exception?

The beginning of a decline in belief in Christian revelation in society at large was reflected in the religious orders during the middle third of the eighteenth century, and the record numbers began to decline. Enlightened despots, the French Revolution and the Bonaparte family then proceeded to destroy the religious life all over Catholic Europe between 1759 and 1813. By the latter year about 98 percent of religious houses existing in 1700 had ceased to be. For example, when the revolutionary armies first invaded Italy in 1796 led by Bonaparte, there were about 500 Dominican houses on the peninsula. They were all gone by 1810. There have never been as many as 100 since. Or again, there were about 65 Carthusian monasteries in France in 1789. There were none by 1793. There have never been more than nine since. There are at present four. These figures are typical of the damage done to all then existing orders.

In the 150 years from the defeat of Bonaparte in 1814 to the modernisation of Catholicism since 1964, there was a strong but partial recovery. Of the old orders, few approached their former numbers. The Jesuits were an exception, progressing from 500 at their re-establishment in 1814 to a maximum of about 36,000 in 1964. Many new orders were founded during the nineteenth century but they were usually created with some specific external work in mind, often the replacement of the charitable and educational institutions destroyed by the revolution. None of them kept up the full conventual and liturgical life that had been the norm.

After 1964 this revival instantly collapsed thanks to the new policy of adjusting religious life to the spirit of the age. Since the age is irreligious, the policy means that religious life must negate itself. It has generally been so. In 2013, virtually all existing orders are likely to vanish as completely as they had by 1813 if present trends continue.

But not, I think, the Benedictines of Le Barroux. Their average age is about 32 and their numbers grow every year. They will soon be obliged to found new houses simply because space in the existing monastery will have run out.

The traditions of Le Barroux are those of the Subiaco Benedictine congregation prior to 1964. They have come, via the abbot and founder Dom Gerard Calvet, from the abbey of Tournay in the French Pyrenees, founded from the abbey of En Calcat in Languedoc, founded in turn from the abbey of Pierre-qui-Vire in Burgundy. This last was established in 1850 by a secular priest, Jean Baptiste Muard.

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