Monasteries are such blessed places for me. A Monastery is an oasis of quiet in the kingdom of noise; a natural habitat in the heart of technology; a place of focused spiritual search in the diffuse diversions of the modern flight from God. A monk is as countercultural as it gets. Historically it has always been so but now it is evident all the more. Chaste spiritual men who have given up everything getting up to pray at 3:30 AM! People today ask why? The question is not new. When Christianity was illegal (during the first three centuries AD) it took great heroism to be a Christian. You could lose your life! You could endanger your family. You would certainly be prevented from having a high paying job no matter what your qualifications. Yet people were willing to give up all security to confess their allegiance to Christ. While others said ‘The Emperor is Lord’ Christians proclaimed “Jesus is Lord’. Those words could mean a death sentence. Yet they went to horrible deaths rather than say what the Emperor wanted them to say. All they had to say was that he was Lord. And they had to burn a little incense to his honor and glory. Yet they would not.
Then in the year 315 something amazing happened. The Emperor Constantine became a Christian! Christianity was legal. In fact it was preferred to all other religions. If you wanted to get ahead in life you had to be a Christian now. What a turn around. There was dancing in the streets. But was it good for Christianity?
Suddenly everyone wanted to be a Christian. Now the motives for this were unclear. It did not take a hero now to be Christian. Any sensible person would accept Christ because it made sense. But the quality of faith and the practice of religion suffered. It was co-opted by ambitious people who just used the faith for their own purposes. The Church became rich and became corrupt in some ways. It still produced great saints: the Fathers of the Church! But a note of worry set in. Have we lost the purity of the Christian Faith? This was the question that many asked.
That is, until a young man in Egypt named Antony sold all his property and fled the city to be a hermit in a cave in the desert. After the great Father of the Church St. Athanasius wrote a biography of him, Antony became famous. Hundreds and some say thousands of men and women left the city to dwell like Antony: Monos, that is in Greek: alone! From here we get the word ‘Monk’ —the one who goes into the desert to flee the corruption of the world. Gradually monks (male and female) organized around the first Fathers like Antony who became known as Abbas (Hebrew for fathers) which in time was translated: Abbots. The communities in which they lived became known as Monasteries (the word ‘alone’ again!) and if they were clustered around an Abbas or Abbot they became known as Abbeys.
This has lasted for over 1600 years!
I am writing this on retreat in one Monastery near a town called Berryville in the state of Virginia. There are many monasteries in the United States and there are hundreds and maybe thousands in the world today. They still live the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and provide quiet refuges for people like me who want the silence and solitude to pray in an uninterrupted way to God.
These men are like heroes who have given up all things to be with God. They pray night and day for all of us. Who knows how bad things would be if we were not supported by their prayers? The life of a monk depends on a belief in the power of prayer. Once one believes this then the reason for monasticism becomes apparent. They are the heart of the Church pumping the blood of pastoral action in the body of Christ. It has life.
Perhaps in prayer I can do more good for Immac than a million phone calls! And it is the mystery of prayer that it will energize me so that when I return I can serve the wonderful faithful of Immac in an invigorated and sustained way.