Oh! Many may think this is a boring topic; one that may interest historians and theologians only. But before you dismiss that which concerns academia only, the history of monasticism has everything to do with Christian society and the vitality of the Catholic Church.
You see, throughout the two-thousand years of the Church’s history, great missions and great achievements came from monasteries. That’s right. From the quiet of spiritual solitude, the contemplation of God’s Word, the practice of self denial and the quest to glorify God, emerged a great spiritual and cultural creativity and productivity. The result was a public recognition of human dignity and a better understanding of the universe.
When holy men and women set out to lose their lives in the depth of Christ’s mysteries, they ended up finding it in a much better condition than when they first lost it. The fruit of monasticism does not only benefit the monsastics themselves but for society at large. Contrary to what Marx and Lenin propagated throughout the modern world, to be heavenly minded is to maximize the fruits of this earth. Indeed, the fruits of this quest were expressed in educating the illiterate, developing new agricultural methods which yielded more crops, the making of representative government whereby individual liberty and the common good were balanced. Moreover, free enterprise, charities and humanitarian enterprises emerged to serve the needy. Finally, we cannot forget the scientific progress which was sparked during the monastic period.
Pope Leo XIII put it this way: "The Catholic Church, that imperishable handiwork of our all-merciful God, has for her immediate and natural purpose the saving of souls and securing our happiness in heaven. Yet, in regard to things temporal, she is the source of benefits as manifold and great as if the chief end of her existence were to ensure the prospering of our earthly life."
Something to consider: Under ancient paganism, God’s creation was unfortunately an object of pagan worship. As St. Paul said, they “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of an image of mortal man or of birds or of four-legged animals or of snakes.” Therefore, to study and scrutinize those things that were worshipped constituted a sacrilege. As a result, science for thousands of years had stagnated; it was not even deemed possible. Parallel to this ancient phenomenon is modern day environmentalism and socialism. I’m afraid if Western civilization is not Christianized with a sense of urgency- if the soul is not saved -we will continue to witness cultural stagnation and even regression. After all, it was Christianity that invented the very idea of “progress” under the auspices of monasticism.
Time and time again the Catholic Church herself had benefited from monastics such as St. John the Baptist, St. Anthony the Great, St. Benedict, St. Patrick, Pope St. Gregory the Great, Pope St. Gregory VII, St. Boniface, St. Francis, St. Clare, Pope St. Pius V, St. Catherine of Sienna, St. Theresa of Avila and St. Therese the Little Flower. From the mountain of spiritual solitude came forth rivers of life, renewal and innovation. The monastery, convent and friary were lighthouses of society and spiritual vigor for the Church. When Christians were spiritually lethargic, when the pastoral practices of bishops and priests needed reform, and when the Mystical Body of Christ was not showing forth the fullness of her splendor, saintly men and women from monastic backgrounds- those who knew the discipline of prayer –stepped up and pointed everyone in the right direction; that is, towards Christ and towards heaven.
With that said, when their chants of continual praise to the Lord are quieted as they have been during the twentieth and the early part of the twenty-first century, then the noise of the world takes precedence. God’s voice does not echo as vibrantly throughout the land.
For instance, St. Francis of Assisi recounted a story to his brother friars one day. He said while walking through town he saw a demon here and a demon there. But when he visited a monastery, he saw a multitude of demons gathering around these monks; concentrating all their efforts on the very thing that breaks up their company and sends them back to hell. And what is that, precisely? Their ongoing prayers, adoration, meditations, asceticism, the practice of virtues, study, fellowship and the Sacrifice of the Altar. This monastic quest for Christ is the biggest nemesis of hell and the culture of death. Indeed, in times past, monasteries can be likened to the infusion of new life in the Church and they further served as tabernacles for society at large. To be sure, it obstructed the Evil One's designs every bit as much as it glorified God.
Let’s pray for its resurgence and hold the religious life in high esteem by promoting it to youth so that our civilization will belong more fully to Christ. And remember, what the tabernacle is to the sanctuary of a church, monasteries are to society. They really are that important!!