In, Not of, the World
The monk, like all truly Christian men, is a walking paradox: one who renounces his will to gain freedom, one who leaves the world to save those in it, one who is an ascetic because he is a lover. The hard road of monasticism is the easy road to paradise. In the flow of the hours of the Divine Office, in the cycle of the Liturgical year, in the passage of the seasons and years, the monk contemplates the eternal: for him
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation . . .
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.1
Looking back across the centuries, it is also apparent how the founders of various orders, while focused on the eternal, were also a product of their own place and time. St. Benedict and St. Francis of Assisi, for example, were two different men from different times who established two different orders to respond to different problems, problems central to their time but always present. What reconciles the two and others is precisely the unity of the Church that points to the unity of Heaven: in the Church as in our Father’s house there are many mansions in one house. This is also why each saint and each order speaks to all times and all places, but in diverse ways depending upon the needs of the time. For us moderns, living in an age of fragmentation in which nearly the “entire moral orientation [has been] lost”2 and in an era of “enormous brutality . . . [resulting in] a callousness to suffering which denies the spirit of Christianity,”3 the Benedictine and Franciscan ideals are needed more than ever.
The rise of the Benedictine order in the sixth century was a response to a period of transition, decay, and fragmentation not unlike our own; many, for example, have seen parallels between the late Roman Empire and the United States of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. However, at the dawn of the Dark Ages the people who filled the vacuum of the collapsing empire were pagans: their culture was not that of the empire, they were not interested in Cicero or Plato—whose works were carefully preserved for future generations—and the rise of a vernacular medieval culture of which the Latin-Christian synthesis was only a part was centuries in the future. In other words, the Dark Ages were not dark because nothing was happening but because too much was happening; in an era of instability and warfare, there was little time for the growth of culture. What converted Western man and in turn created Christendom was the Rule of St. Benedict, which embodies “an ideal of spiritual order and disciplined moral activity which made the monastery an oasis of peace in a world of war.”4 Corresponding to the Benedictine method of ora et labora, the monastery is a spiritual powerhouse that nevertheless does not neglect the temporal; in this school of prayer, both sides of man—the spiritual and physical—are educated and perfected. “For the training of the body there is the ascetic life—the habit, the fare, the manual work; and for the soul, the liturgy, the Opus Dei as St. Benedict called it, the continuous immersion in a very few texts—the Psalter learned by heart . . . the Old and New Testaments . . . the Rule and a few select commentaries.”5 The motto of the Benedictine order sums up the ideal on the individual and international levels: “PAX [as in] pax Benedicti, heir to the pax Romana, the peace of ancient Rome, the once temporal, political peace of the Roman Empire . . . transformed into the peace of Benedict, the peace of the Divine Order, the supernatural tranquility of order, radiating from the interior city of the monastic cloisters to the cities of Christendom.”6 Not even a hundred years after St. Benedict wrote the Rule, Pope St. Gregory the Great, who reigned from 590 to 604 and was himself a monk, had “realized clearly that the monastic institution had become an essential organ of the Church, and the chief hope for the future of Christian culture.”7 Peace, the continual striving for perfection, and being a channel of grace for the entire world: this is the spirit of monasticism, then and now.
Fifteen hundred years later, the West faces another crisis, although today’s barbarism is of a post-Christian sort; that the West is largely mission territory is not so much because souls have not heard of the Word, but that He has been rejected. If, to use John Senior’s metaphor, the cultural and spiritual soil of the West has been depleted, it is the ora et labora of the monks that will help to revive it. Archbishop Lefebvre, in seeking “to restore all things in Christ,” noted that “Without monasteries, without religious consecrated to the continual praise of God, the Church will never be revived from the present crisis.”8 Even with the current crisis seeming to intensify with Cardinals opposing Cardinals, there is hope in the traditionally-oriented monasteries and orders that are attracting many young vocations.
If modern man lacks the Benedictine peace and “has become a moral idiot,”9 it follows that modern man is also a poor lover: he has too much love of secondary goods, certainly, but at the root of the modern problem is the most ancient of rebellions, excessive love of self. For this, the Franciscan ideal is a corrective, both in cultivating humility as well as directing man’s love to something higher. While St. Francis was consumed by love, what is fascinating is that the manner in which the Seraphic Father expressed his love was at once universal and very much a product of his time. Twelfth-century Europe faced the challenges of a new civilization that had been developing for hundreds of years. By about 1100, old difficulties had been largely overcome or at least subdued and new achievements united differing peoples: the end of the lay investiture controversy with the attendant simony, the conversion of the Viking menace, and the success of the First Crusade were all major turning points. Added to this was the rise of the new and exotic cultural movement known as “courtly love”: the cult of amour in which the poet-knight served and celebrated his lady. This new religion of love—although in itself including a number of positive elements—had such a secular and worldly focus that as a popular movement it was a real danger to the Church. Rather than ignoring it or trying to condemn it, the Church wisely sought to elevate courtly love; this sublimation happened artistically via Dante’s Divine Comedy and spiritually via St. Francis, the “Holy Fool” and Troubadour of God.
Best known for his love of nature—especially in our age when environmentalism has become a sort of new religion—what is often quickly passed over is St. Francis’s love of poverty, and what is altogether forgotten is his “fierce orthodoxy.”10 The man who preached to the birds was not a vegetarian; the man who owned nothing but his rough habit was in favor of golden vessels for the altar11; the man who considered himself the lowest and most ignorant traveled to the Muslim sultan not to dialogue but to convert him to the true Faith. All of this makes sense only when one thinks of St. Francis as a man deeply in love as in a high medieval romance. Dante, himself a Franciscan tertiary, understood this, and so sings about the love of St. Francis and Lady Poverty in the terms of courtly love:
Enough of such allusions. In plain words
take Francis, now, and Poverty to be
the lovers in the story I have told.
Their sweet accord, their faces spread with bliss,
the love, the mystery, their tender looks
gave rise in others’ hearts to holy thoughts.12
Chesterton, in his biography of the saint, calls thinking of St. Francis as a lover the first step in understanding him: “[When St. Francis said] he was a Troubadour of a newer and nobler romance, he was not using a mere metaphor. . . . He was, to the last agonies of asceticism, a Troubadour. He was a lover. He was a lover of God and he was really and truly a lover of men; possibly a much rarer mystical vocation. . . . For the modern reader the clue to the asceticism and all the rest can best be found in the stories of lovers when they seemed to be rather like lunatics. . . . All these riddles would easily be resolved in the simplicity of any noble love; only this was so noble a love that nine men out of ten have hardly even heard of it.”13
St. Francis was so in love with God that all things reminded him of Him as “a lover might say at first sight that a lady looked like a flower, and say afterwards that all flowers reminded him of his lady.”14 Everything shone, and was news of, an expression of God, as in a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem. The Franciscan ideal—pax et bonum—is to truly love God and neighbor; it is what it means to be in but not of the world; it is a love that can transform any time, including our own.
In addition to Benedictine practicality and Franciscan romance, it would be a serious omission not to mention the Order of Preachers. The Dominicans’ intellectual force, their quest for veritas, as expressed in their motto, is opposed to modern fragmentation, incoherence, and artificiality. In a world in which “things fall apart,” each of the orders has a particular focus that is needed for the restoration, but it is not accidental that once again the thought of one of the greatest sons of St. Dominic—St. Thomas Aquinas—is making an academic and even populist return. As Chesterton notes: “it is the paradox of history that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most. . . . So, as the nineteenth century clutched at the Franciscan romance, precisely because it had neglected romance, so the twentieth century is already clutching at the Thomist rational theology, because it has neglected reason.”15 It is the spirit of monasticism that produced St. Thomas, St. Dominic, and the rest because it is this spirit that produced the West; in the words of Christopher Dawson, the rise of monasticism from St. Benedict on is so culturally integral that “the internal change [that centuries of monasticism] brought about in the soul of Western man—[is] a change which can never be entirely undone except by the total negation or destruction of Western man himself.”16 What is more, monasticism brings into sharper focus the paradoxes at the essence of Christianity: that love in this life grows in negation; that the fullness of reality is found in leaving the world; and that to live, one must die, becoming the grain of wheat that “bringeth forth much fruit.”17
1 T. S. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages” in Four Quartets (New York: Harcourt, 1943), 200-205.
2 Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), 10.
3 Ibid., 10.
4 Christopher Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1950), 51.
5 John Senior, The Death of Christian Culture (New Rochelle, NY: Arlighton House Publishers, 1978), 167.
6 Our Lady of Guadalupe Monastery, http://www.ourladyofguadalupemonastery.com/therule_final_1.html, accessed June 9, 2015.
7 Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, 52.
8 Our Lady of Guadalupe Monastery, http://www.ourladyofguadalupemonastery.com/benedictinetradition.html, accessed June 9, 2015.
9 Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences, 1.
10 Fr. Augustine Thompson, O.P., Francis of Assisi: A New Biography (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012), 41.
11 Ibid., 32.
12 Dante, The Divine Comedy, Volume 3: Paradise, trans. Mark Musa (New York: Penguin Classics, 1986), XI, 73-78, 82.
13 G. K. Chesterton, St. Francis of Assisi (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1924), 20-21.
14 Ibid., 111.
15 G. K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas (New York: Image Books Doubleday, 2001), 6.
16 Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, 274.
17 The Holy Bible, Douay-Rheims Version (Rockford, IL: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1971), John 12:25.