Thursday, November 15, 2012

IV Why Religious Life Died

The desert fathers and mothers came from wildly assorted backgrounds. On the one hand, there was Arsenius, who came from a Roman senatorial family and was tutor to the imperial court in Constantinople before becoming a monk. At the other extreme, there was Abba Moses, a former slave who was a thief and perhaps a murderer before his conversion. Both of these men were exemplary in their humility, and Moses was particularly known for his compassion and nonviolence.
Manual labour sustained the desert-dwellers, not only in the sense that they sold what they made with their hands and ate what they cultivated, but also because manual labour provides an essential grounding function for the practitioner. It promotes physical, mental and emotional healing, as well as helping a person to grieve out his or her human mortality. It provides a point of focus for the noisy self-conscious mind and brings it to silence. Immersion in manual work can lead to total self-forgetfulness. It balances the life of prayer and the liturgical hours, whose rites can be quite physical: standing, bowing, and, in some cases, prostrating. Touching, working with the earth restores a kind of wholeness that cannot occur any other way; it is notable that the Buddha is reported to have touched the earth at the moment of enlightenment.
Benedict's rule indicates preference for very few ordained members in the community, only enough to serve its needs; it indicates the dangers to the soul that attach to ordination—a tendency for the ordained to think better of themselves and to look down on the others. Ordained or not, everyone in the monastery contributed to its life through manual work, not only through housekeeping, farming and the crafts necessary to sustain the monastery's life, but also the production of books.
As the institutional church gained power, the rot began to set in. Communities began to be divided into 'choir' and 'lay'. Until Vatican II, lay brothers and sisters, or 'converse' as the Trappist-Cistercians and Carthusians called them, were not canonically monks and nuns at all, though they made simple vows to the community. They were not bound to the Divine Office, substituting repetitions of Paters and Aves for the intricacies of psalms, chants and lessons. The choir monks and nuns were freed from manual work, which proved not a good idea as it left too much opportunity for idle hands and macheavellian machinations, too much time for vying with one another for status and power. On the other hand, lay brothers and sisters could become stunted intellectually, deprived of the life of the mind. After Vatican II, many orders incorporated their lay brothers and sisters into the community so that there were no longer any divisions, and so that everyone was a full member of the community with a vote in Chapter, the governing body of the Order, and bound to the privilege and work of the choir.
This change proved a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it redressed some gross inequalities in education, living standards, and social inclusion. On the other hand, it left those for whom this simpler vocation was a haven, rudderless, as if they had slipped anchor and were floating without direction. There are still brothers in the Trappist-Cistercian order who ask for and receive permission to continue the old way of Pater and Ave, who confine themselves primarily to manual work. Similarly, the Carthusians receive many more applications for the status of lay brothers than for the choir. Lay brothers may now have their own cells like the choir monks, and may participate fully in the Divine Office (still in Latin) if they wish—or not. There is a fine balance, however, between simplicity and refusing the responsibility one has to the running of the community by participating in Chapter and voting.
Among the women the old system was often pernicious. Women entered as young as fifteen years of age. When, after Vatican II, some communities began to pay attention to their lay sisters, they found to their chagrin that many of them did not have the most basic life skills for the modern world: how to drive; how to check in and out of a hotel; how to handle money—even how to use the telephone. Some of them were functionally illiterate. Many of the lay sisters had been set to one side in the sorting process that took place at the beginning of their life in community: the bright women with obvious talents were fast-tracked to higher education, and those designated 'lay' were bundled off to the kitchen and laundry and more or less forgotten. For some, this was a blessing; for most, it meant arrested development and wasted gifts.
       There was the additional problem that women religious—with some significant exceptions—almost always had more cramped quarters and less money than the mens' communities, and their members suffered in consequence. John Paul II had the temerity in one of his encyclicals to tell the women that this was only appropriate. In some cases the lack of resources meant real privation. The lack of space added other pressures: women need room to 'nest' in one way or another; women tend not to know how to leave one another appropriately alone; whereas men have different ways of binding members to the group.
Another difference between the pre-Counter-Reformation communities and those that came after was the fact that early communities took in everyone who knocked on the door if they were at all suitable and showed a desire for God. Communities were very serious about their obligation to nurture vocations, about their responsibilities towards someone with a genuine desire for God. They were loath to dismiss anyone except in extreme circumstances. We hear of brothers and sisters who are simple, or mad, or holy fools; those who have an independent streak who are sent to a monastic prison (being 'sent to Coventry' where the Carthusians had a big one). Occasionally we even hear of violence, such as that of the lay brother who threw the elderly Aelred into the fire not once, but several times.
Religious communities were often dumping grounds for females of noble or royal blood who were surplus to requirements. They were even used as prisons. Offenders of the king's majesty could be interned in a monastery for an indefinite period whether he had the vocation or not. Communities had to absorb all of these exigencies and were the stronger for it. Communities are like ecosystems: they thrive on diversity, but if they become monochrome—an all-heterosexual community; an all gay community, a community of people with identical ideas and points of view—they wither and die.
As time passed, womens' communities in particular became more and more like college sororities: they became refuges of class and manners, wanting only those of 'their own kind', regardless, and sometimes in spite of, the validity of the vocation that presented itself. This state of affairs was detrimental to the community not only because of the wasted talent and rejection of the fecundity of a radically different point of view, but it was also devastating to the rejected candidate with a genuine vocation. In this regard, as noted above, women's communities also confused and still confuse dependence and obedience, as noted above, so that they reject all the mature and gifted people, all the potential leaders. Only those with an extraordinary political skills survive, manipulative abilities which are rarely consonant with genuine creative leadership and can even be psychopathological.
     There was and is also the danger that such self-selected mediocrity of communities would attract those who wished to better their material lives or elevate themselves in social status, but who had or have no genuine desire to love God and serve the values and goals of religious life, and the welfare of the community. Such communities become hotbeds of anger and spite, destructive competition, bullying, psychological and sometimes physical abuse. They are xenophobic not only in the sense that candidates from other countries or strata of society are suspect, but also suspicious of those who might suggest deviation from the very narrow prescriptions and tunnel vision of the stagnating group.


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