Thursday, June 6, 2013

Will Monasteries Save the World?

 It is hard to doubt that monasteries (and I mean this in a wide use of the term: any community (or even person) who lives apart from the world and prays for the world) have been a key aspect of the Church for millennia, at least since the time of St. Antony the Great.  Monasteries began as hermits who lived near each other and had some community.  Eventually this expanded into communities who lived and prayed together.  In the West, this then expanded into the different religious orders, while in the East the forms of monastic life stayed more or less has they were in the early centuries of the Church.

How are monks (again, in a very wide use of the term, including both men and women) helpful for the Church?  In two ways: through their witness and through their intercession.  Monks have a knack for being witnesses even when they try to remain closed off from the world: the faithful still hear of them, find them, seek their advice, and ask for their prayers.  Their hospitality towards travelers probably helps this witnessing as well.  Yet I think the biggest impact monks have on the Church is in their intercession.  The world is interlinked: it is all connected as being part of God's creation, and the reality of the Church creates a new dimension of interconnection.  Intercession has an objective effect on the world and the Church, even if it is not seen.  It reminds me of a quote I've always loved from Dr. Peter Kreeft (even from before I knew who he was): "I suspect that if we saw the difference even the tiniest of our prayers make, and all the people those little prayers were destined to affect, and all the consequences of those prayers down the through the centuries, we would be so paralyzed with awe at the power of prayer that we would be unable to get of our knees for the rest of our lives."

Monasteries are the premiere places in the world for intercession.  St. John Chrysostom, in a commentary on today's Epistle reading, Rom 8:22-27 ("the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us...He who searches the hearts...makes intercession for the saints..."), discusses people with the "gift of prayer" with comes on them so they can know "the things that were profitable for the whole Church alike" and be "the appointed person to ask for [them] in behalf of all" and be "the instructor of the rest."  I think St. John is here describing, whether knowingly or not, the role of the monk in the Church and in the world.  Monks make objectively efficacious intercession for the world, and they do so within their monasteries, where they bear witness to the divinizing power of Christ.

Is this intercession needed, though?  Isn't our active witness enough, our corporal works of mercy and our kerygmatic, evangelical preaching?  Doesn't our active work convert the world?  Simply put, the answer is no.  There's a story I was told about a pair of followers of St. Francis sent out as a pair.  One preached, and, while he preached, the other prayed.  The preacher would always convert crowds of people, inspiring in them the spirit of penance.  He thought this was his own doing.  One day, though, he preached without his partner, and not a single soul was converted.  That day he realized that all of his work was nothing without the backing of prayer, especially the dedicated intercession of his partner.

In some sense, isn't our world a little like the lone preacher?  I read recently about "Americanism," a heresy involving a set of opinions condemned by Pope Leo XIII in his 1899 Apostolic Letter Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae, written to Cardinal James Gibbons.  These opinions include the idea that the Church's teaching must be changed and "accommodated" to each time and place, that license is the true form of liberty and that men should be able to follow all of their own opinions without Church guidance, that the natural virtues are greater than the supernatural virtues, that there are "active" and "passive" virtues of which the former are more useful for our time, and that the way the Church preaches the faith and makes disciples must be changed.  The denigration of so-called "passive" virtues the Holy Father describes as leading to a "contempt for the religious life."

I think the Holy Father's analysis is correct, and I think this "active" vs. "passive" virtues dichotomy is unknowingly accepted by many.  It reminds me somewhat of the common view that a truly adjusted person is an extrovert rather than an introvert.  Extroverts seem to be more in tune with "active" virtues, while introverts are more "passive."  This is not in any sense a complete and perfect correlation, but it's an interesting point.  I think there is a view of the denigration of the "passive" in today's culture, even in some areas of the Church.  While those joining the priesthood and more "active" religious orders seems to be on the rise, I see little evidence of contemplative orders growing anywhere near as much.

In terms of the intercessory aspect of monasteries that I am focusing on in this post, contemplative orders are much more monastic.  I am not trying to denigrate religious orders that are more active, but I am saying that we need more contemplatives in the world.  We need more intercessors groaning with the Spirit's prayers.  Without their work of prayer, the work of preaching will be useless.  Without their prayer, the world cannot be converted.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky famously wrote, "Beauty will save the world."  A motto of Fr. John Zuhlsdorf's is "Save the Liturgy, Save the World."  As much as I love beauty and the liturgy (especially the liturgy), I know that neither can save the world without prayer.  Beauty cannot effect conversion without prayer, and liturgy cannot be true liturgy without prayer.  And those who pray the most for the world are monks.  Prayer will save the world, but particularly that constant intercessory prayer of monasteries.  Monasteries will save the world.

Nota Bene: Quotes from St. John Chrysostom are from his Homily XIV on Romans VIII as quoted in Johanna Manley's The Bible and the Holy Fathers for Orthodox.

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