The following comes from an April 14 posting on Patheos by J. David Nolan.
“Fathers and teachers, what is a monk?” asks the Elder Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov. “In the enlightened world of today,” he says, referring to Dostoyevsky’s Russia, “this word is uttered in mockery by some, and by others even as a term of abuse. And it gets worse and worse.”
Though monasticism is suffering at our own historical moment as well, Zosima’s grim exposition is dated in a key respect. In contemporary America, “monk” is no longer a term of abuse but of medieval lore. At best, our current cultural imagination allows us to envision hooded old priests and ruler-wielding nuns. Mockery has been replaced by mythology, and the monk has become a thing of the past. Russian peasantry and gentry, though contemptuous of monasticism, could not ignore it. The modern layman, even despite his best efforts, may find it hard to pay attention.
Because consecrated religious stand in opposition to so many of the modern world’s common conceits, their existence is almost utterly inconceivable to us. This unintelligibility is, in part, a tragic effect of the major loss of religious life over the past half-century. And this countercultural witness is precisely why we need a renewed monasticism today.
From 1965 to 2005, even as the United States’ official Catholic population grew from 45.6 to 66.8 million, the nation saw almost a 30 percent decrease in Catholic priests, a 55 percent decrease in religious brothers, and an astonishing 60 percent decrease in nuns. Attributable to many causes—not least of all theological misunderstandings and cultural shifts—, this loss has harmed both the laity and the remaining religious.
However, though the quantity of consecrated faithful has recently diminished, they have never completely disappeared. From the time of Christ onwards, Christians in great numbers have given up real earthly treasures so as to remove possible distractions as they pursue final treasures. Money, sex, choice—these are all goods, but they are the kind of goods that often become gods. And as the number of vowed religious has dropped precipitously over the last several decades, the cities governed by these gods have opened their gates to floods of immigrants.
The religious who stood as practiced foils against the seduction of relativism, hedonism, and moralistic therapeutic Deism have themselves been weakened by the sickness of confusion. Though they still stand, they stand diminished in number, harder to pick out in the heat of the fray. As twentieth-century theologians emphasized a ressourcement to guide and direct aggiornamento, now more than ever we need a return to the sources for models of intentionally organized Christian communities, in order to confront today’s particular challenges. What we have dismissed may save us yet. After all, the stone that the builders rejected became the cornerstone.
Scriptural sources themselves declare the great good of the religious state of life—the life dedicated to the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. (Here and throughout, ‘chastity’ refers to the religious vow of chastity, which entails celibacy). In Acts 4, St. Luke gives a paradigmatic example of poverty and obedience and communal life:
Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common. … There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need.
This early Christian community obeyed Peter and the apostles, shared wealth, prayed often, and worked for the common good. Obedience and poverty went hand in hand.
For the third evangelical counsel, we can look to what St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7: “It is well for a man not to touch a woman. … I wish that all were as I myself am [, namely celibate]. … To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry.” How to read Paul’s encouragement here is controversial. Marriage is a good and is sometimes prudently undertaken—that is clear. But it is also clear that the celibate life is a great good, and this is a lesson we Christians have almost universally distorted these days. Many strands of Protestantism have risked forgetting St. Paul’s endorsement of celibacy altogether, but plenty of Catholics have confused things lately as well, misrepresenting discerning a religious vocation as listening for an extraordinary mystical voice resounding in our heart of hearts, or some such nebulous thing.
St. Thomas Aquinas knew better. The Angelic Doctor observed that the call to celibacy, like the call to poverty and obedience, was offered universally and promised what was, in itself, a better state of life. Abstracted from the individual and applied to the brokenness of our disorderly passions, the three evangelical counsels provide the most direct path towards sanctity. They take as their aim an absolute dedication to a supernatural reality by removing created distractions. Marriage is a great natural good, inscribed in Creation, elevated to the status of a Sacrament by Christ, and a beautiful facet of the life of the Church on earth; nevertheless, marriage cannot be said to be as perfect in itself as are the evangelical counsels….
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