I am writing this essay from Holy Cross Monastery in Berryville, Virginia. This is a Trappist Monastery that follows the Rule of St. Benedict in a very strict way. I drove alone for 294 miles to get here, and as soon as I got out of the car and felt the sun and heard the birds and walked in the silence, I knew I was in God’s presence. I have been coming to Monasteries to pray since I was in College. At one point in my priestly life, I was seriously thinking of joining a Monastic Order. These are powerhouses of spiritual energy yet so simple and quiet and humble that I stand in awe of these men. There are equally dedicated
monasteries of women who are called Nuns! What draws me here?
One of the first lessons that I learned from Monasteries is the Power of Prayer. For many, these men are wasting their time when they can be helping people and doing all kinds of good deeds. This ‘useless’ charge was used during the Reformation for the closing of many monasteries throughout Europe and for the persecution of monks and nuns. But this attitude would somehow have to get around the power of prayer. If we truly believe that faith can move mountains and that praying for others is not just an empty exercise, then the continual offering of prayers and penances by these monks and nuns may be the only
thing that is keeping us from self-destruction!
Prayer is never useless. The Church is enriched and empowered by the offerings of these men and women to live a life of total prayer for others. When I saw them wake up at 2 o’clock in the morning and begin to sing their prayers in Chapel, I thought they were crazy! When I asked one of them why do they have vigil prayers in the night, their answer was simple: Because a lot of sins are being committed at night and someone has to pray to God for the conversion of these sinners.
You see, ‘prayer’ and ‘sin’ only make sense in a faith context. One of the saddest things I have seen in our Churches today is the loss of belief in the supernatural and the demise of devotional life. Mass, for some, has become community fellowship and prayer is effective only for the one who prays (i.e. psychologically). This reduction of the Spiritual is at the basis of our loss of faith. When there is no faith, the lives these monks and nuns lead in the monasteries are empty and useless. But if you have faith, this is the highest calling on earth since they do what the saints do in heaven: pray for us.
Moreover, they are signs of contradiction for the worldly. They give up having stuff (poverty), their relationships are all non-possessive (chastity), and they are always observant of others even when it goes against their own will (obedience). That last vow is the hardest, I am told; our willfulness dies hard. There have been monks and nuns who have given up all things and who have chaste relationships with others, but who secretly gossip and speak against the Abbot or Abbess because they are not running the
Monastery the way they themselves would have. Obedience is very hard indeed. As secular priests, we take a promise of obedience (a Vow is made directly to God, a Promise is made to the Bishop and the Church); but, still in the community of my brother priests, I hear plenty of griping!
This brings me to a very important point: monks and nuns fulfill their vows before God so as to give us a good example in following the counsels of Poverty (simplicity of life), Chastity (reverence for everyone), and Obedience (love and respect for authority) that need to be implanted in every Christian.
For they mirror the pathway of Christ whose disciples we are. This dual service to the wider Church, prayer and good example, should suffice for anyone who has misgivings about the usefulness of the monastic quest!
But for me, there is a third reason: it is so beautiful! There is something to the slowness and deliberateness of movement, the silence, the atmosphere redolent with the sweetness of nature, the peacefulness, the welcoming that all add up to something beautiful for God. If this is uselessness, God grant us more of it!