One of the elements of the Church that I find so compelling and inspiring is the whole area of monasticism. Rather than an esoteric part of our faith, as some people would say, I believe it is central to an understanding of the Church. I would like to look at this tradition, see why it is so important to Catholicism, and find ways that parts of it can be incorporated in our daily, busy lives.
Besides an artsy introduction to the monk and the monastery that I received when I was forced by my Mom to sit and watch Operas on TV (how can I ever forget the great Sophia Loren lip-syncing as the heroine of Aida!), I received a deeper understanding while I was a college student in Cathedral College, Douglaston. It was while I was there that a friend asked me if I would like to accompany him to go on retreat to a Trappist monastery near Rochester. Not knowing anything about it, I was encouraged by the wild experimentation of the 60’s to give it a try. I am so glad I did, for it changed my life.
The first thing I remember about it was the ungodly hours that they gave to God in prayer. As a college student, I was used to staying up late. But they went to bed at 8:00 PM and got up at 2:00 AM for Prayer together in Chapel. Some of them went for private prayer after the liturgical Prayer of Vigils and some of them went to the Bakery where they baked bread to support the monastery (10,000 loaves a week!).
I can’t tell you how much it impressed me that these men got up in the middle of the night and sang and prayed! So I asked one of them, “Why get up in the middle of the night and pray?” He said simply that they pray for sinners since it is in the night that sin holds sway in the world. They were praying at 2:00 AM for sinners like you and me!
As I investigated this life more fully, I saw that their whole day was a prayer. They prayed at 2:00 AM (Vigils), 4:30 AM (Lauds or Morning Prayer—we do it as a community at 8:45 AM), 6:00 AM (Mass), 9:00 AM (Terce), 12 Noon (Sext), 3:00 PM (None), 5:00 PM (Vespers or Evening Prayer), and finally 7:30 PM (Compline or Night Prayer). When they are not praying, they are working. (By the way, they also eat –Vegetarian!). Their life is a life of prayer in every sense of those words.
This is why I do my retreat each year with the monks of different Abbeys. I feel so energized by their life of prayer that I want to come back to the parish and do God’s will and serve God’s people with my whole heart.
But I think the whole Monastic life, and in a broader sense the Contemplative tradition in the Church, is essential for a balanced ecclesial life. While we share the contemplative tradition with the religions of the East (Hinduism, Buddhism etc.), some of our western traditions have looked at the contemplative life as highly suspect or even an evasion from reality. Protestants closed the monasteries by force. While Judaism had some experience in this area (the Essenes of the time of Jesus), they discourage any organized monastic life since celibacy (often part of the tradition) is discouraged in Judaism. Muslims similarly distance themselves from forms of monastic existence. In the West, that leaves us Catholics and the traditions of Orthodoxy to carry on with this radical form of life. Monasticism is even more emphasized among the Greek Orthodox and the Russian Orthodox Churches to name just a few. As many of you know, in Orthodoxy priests are allowed to marry. But not in the monasteries. There the celibate ideal is so valued that their bishops and patriarchs can only come from monasteries.
Among the Orthodox, there is an entire Peninsula of land with a holy mountain on it called Mount Athos. In this very strict series of monastic communities, orthodox monks from all over the world have followed the contemplative life for the past thousand years and maybe more. This Eastern Lung of the Church universal joins us, the Catholic Church, in proclaiming that the life of eremitical prayer, so despised in our modern utilitarian age, is essential to the life of the Church. It sprang up almost immediately after the classical age of the martyrs as the most radical witness to the primacy of God and prayer in everyone’s way of life. Monks (and their feminine counterparts, Nuns) are the constant Prayers: offering prayers as a witness of what we all must do in our ways of life, but also to be our constant voice to the heavens.
I hope in my next essay to discuss the reasons why they are important to us, and to highlight the things we can learn from them that would make our lives more balanced.