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Monasticism: An Ancient Answer to a Modern Problem

We have, as a people, tried every new trick we know to balance our desire for "the good life" with its effects. We've increased our technology, multiplied our laws and expanded our educational efforts, but nothing seems to be working. Maybe it's time to try anew what worked well enough to save a civilization centuries before us so that it might save us again.

The fact is that for one set of values—hard work, respect for the land, simplicity, care and stewardship—our generation has preferred another criteria: profit, consumption, quick returns, short term gains and instantaneous gratification. The result, it seems, is a society that is destroying itself at the hands of its own success.

Crops have never grown either so fast or so big in the history of humankind and yet more people every year starve to death on barren land.

Water has never been so conductible and yet so unusable.

Paper has never been so in demand in all of recorded civilization and yet the cost of it has never been so high.

Travel and the interaction between peoples has never been so common and yet national security has never been so slim.

People have never been employed in larger numbers by major industries in every country of the globe and yet whole masses of people have never been poorer or less unable to sustain themselves.

What we call the "underdeveloped" countries of the world have been supplying natural resources and human labor for the needs and wants of the West for generations now, but never getting richer themselves and never, obviously, getting developed.

The question, of course, is why? And the answer is crucial to all of us because this time it is the globe and not the neighborhood or the nation that is at stake.

The Sufi tell a story that may best illustrate the problem and a very ancient, very modern spirituality gives us a model that may best demonstrate its answer.

The Sufi tell the story of a people who were searching for fullness of life:
"There are three stages in one's spiritual development," said the Master. "The carnal, the spiritual and the divine."
"Well, Master," the eager disciples asked, "what is the carnal stage?"
"That's the stage when trees are seen as trees and mountains as mountains," the master answered.
"And the spiritual?" the disciples continued.
"The spiritual is when one looks more deeply into things. Then trees are no longer trees and mountains no longer mountains."
"And the divine?" the disciples asked in awe.
"Ah, yes, the divine," the master smiled. "Well, divine Enlightenment," the master said and chuckled, "is when trees become trees again and mountains, mountains."

We have a great deal, it seems, to learn from the story ourselves.

Like the Sufi disciple we have begun to see other things in the trees and mountains profit, the good life, consumer goods, production that we call Divine but which clearly fall far short of fullness of life for everyone. There must be more to the good life than this, we know.

The problem is, where shall we go to find a model of what it takes to live globally if our own educational system and technological society and legislative policies are not able, apparently, to provide the standards that take us beyond a thirst for things, things and more things? More than that, what will have to change in our own lives if life is to continue to be lived at a level of decency and beauty and health and possibility and the globe is to be preserved?

The answer, I think, is two fold. First, we must begin to reexamine our theologies of creation. Then we must return to the ideals that saved Europe once and were then abandoned for short term gain.

The answer, I think, lies in the history and values of a way of life devised in the fifth century and dynamic to this day.

Benedictine monasticism was a good gift for bad times. And the fifth century was definitely a bad time for Europe. With the breakdown of the Roman Empire, the countryside was in disarray. Roads to market were prowled by thieves, the towns were unguarded and unserviced, vast properties were overrun, peasants were dispossessed, life was unsafe, unpredictable and undeveloped.

People sat and starved on untilled land or roamed and starved on unkept roadways as they searched for work and food from abandoned town to abandoned town where order was a thing of the past and markets had been long closed. The world of sophisticated cities that had been part of the legacy of Roman roads and Roman law and Roman guards and Roman administration was, for all practical purposes, over. Society had become a parade of rural villages where poor and uneducated people eked out a subsistence existence on dry and hardened land.

It was monasticism that became the economic fly wheel of the age, the institution that provided a counterweight to chaos.

Benedictine monasticism was designed to be communal, stable and self supporting. Unlike other religious figures of the period, monastics did not live solitary lives in desert cells or in woodland hermitages. They did not wander through the countryside begging for alms and food. They were not spiritual athletes whose piety rested on grand feats of fasting and human deprivation.

Benedictine monastics were formed to live a community life centered on God, in peace with all of humankind both within and outside of their own monasteries, and in harmony with nature. "When they live by the labor of their hands," the Rule of Benedict wrote, "as our ancestors and the apostles did, then are they truly monastics." (RB 48:8)

Most important of all, perhaps, was the fact that the monastics themselves were tied to the land. Where their monasteries were is where they themselves would have to make a living for communities that grew rapidly and grew large. Whatever the quality of the land, they would have to till it and enhance it and harvest it and live from it. All over Europe, monastics cleared the forests and put back into cultivation land that had been left barren and sterile by the barbarian multitudes that had allowed it to fall into ruin. Some groups of monastics, the Cistercians, even preferred to settle in wilderness areas where they cleared the ground and turned whole uninhabitable regions into some of Europe's most fertile farmlands or reforested valleys.

Around these large, stable communities, whose land was expanded yearly both by reclamation projects and the gifts of pious benefactors, grew up villages full of people for whom the monastery became employer, school, spiritual and social center. The monastery itself, in other words, became the local industry and social axis around which whole societies developed.

Property given to the monasteries, for instance, was seldom attached to the original land grant itself. Instead, the monastery fields, meadows, vineyards, forests and waters were spread across the continent. There were French monasteries with possessions in the eastern part of the empire, while the monastery of Fulda in Germany held land in Italy. By the year 1100, over two thousand communities were part of the Cluniac system alone, living, working, functioning, holding feudal renters, and producing in like ways all across Europe. As John Henry Newman wrote, Benedictines "were not dreaming sentimentalists, to fall in love with melancholy winds and purling rills and waterfalls and nodding groves...." No, these monks "could plough and reap,...hedge and ditch,...drain,...lop,...carpenter,... thatch,...make hurdles for their huts,...make a road,...divert or secure the streamlet's bed." And as they approached wilderness after wilderness this way, "the gloom of the forest departed..."

Most of all, each of the monasteries that lived under the Rule of Benedict operated with a vision of work and the land that marked the continent and its peoples for centuries.

The question is, then, what did these people learn from the monasteries that enabled them to salvage a dying continent from decay and misuse that might be good news to our own time?

The answer is that Benedictine monasticism is as much a way of seeing and working and living as it is a way of praying. It is a spiritual vision that affects a person's whole style of life.

The Rule of Benedict does not deal explicitly with the managing of property or the cultivation of land. What the Rule of Benedict is concerned with is the attitude that individuals take to everything in existence. As a result, this way of life has lasted for over 1500 years and may well be as important to our own generation as it has been in times past.

Why? Because Benedict of Nursia's rule of life for monastics is not based on "taking dominion" over the earth as some readers of the book of Genesis have emphasized. Benedict's theology of life is clearly based instead on the passage in Genesis that teaches that humanity was put in the Garden "to cultivate it and to care for it." (Gen. 2:15)

Benedict requires five qualities of the monastic that affect the way the monastic deals with the things of the earth: praise, humility, stewardship, manual labor and community, each of them designed to enable creation to go on creating.

Benedictine monasticism roots a person in a community of praise. Monastics are life positive people whose attitudes are formed by the daily recitation of a psalmody that stresses the splendor of God in nature and the general goodness and connectedness of the cosmos. "Sun and moon, praise God," the monastic prays weekly. "Light and dark, wind and rain, praise God," the psalms go on. "Birds of the air and creatures of the sea, praise God." No gloom and doom religion here. In monastic spirituality, in other words, everything that is, is good and to be noticed and to be honored and to be reverenced. Nothing is expendable. Nothing is without a value of its own. Nothing is without purpose. Nothing is without beauty and quality and good.

For the holder of a monastic vision of life, then, to take from the land and not to replace it, to destroy it without reclaiming it, to have it without enhancing it is to violate the covenant of life. It was indeed a very monastic thing to replant the forests of Europe and to reclaim the swamps of France and to irrigate the fields of Germany in the Middle Ages. And it is a monastic gift, in an age that destroys with impunity, to recognize the value of everything, to recycle rather than to waste, to conserve energy rather than to pollute, to beautify rather than to distort an environment so that the whole world can come to praise.

Benedictine humility—the notion that we each occupy a place in the universe that is unique but not compelling, wonderful but not controlling—is an antidote to excess in anything and everything. In the Benedictine view of life, monastics are to have what they need and not a single thing more: a small room, the tools of the craft, a balanced diet, plain clothes, good books. The monastic is clearly to receive whatever is necessary. On the other hand, the monastic is to hoard nothing so that others, too, can have the goods of life. "Whenever new clothing is received, the old should be returned at once and stored in a wardrobe for the poor," the Rule reads. (RB:55.9) None of us, in other words, has an exclusive right to the fruits of creation.

It was humility and the sense of place that comes from it that led monastics of the Middle Ages to provide places of refuge for poor pilgrims and to house their noble novices in common spaces and simple cells alongside uneducated peasant monks and simple laboring types. It was humility that led monastics to care for the land rather than simply to live off of it.

In an age that preaches the gospel of rugged individualism and "free market" capitalism, monastic spirituality is a gift thrown again at the feet of a society made poor for the sake of the oligarchy of the wealthy. Benedictine humility stands with simplicity in the face of greed, conspicuous consumption and the gorging of two thirds of the resources of the world by one third of the people of the world, Europeans and North Americans. The simple fact is that none of us can in conscience consume what belongs by human right to another.

Stewardship is a monastic mindset that fairly riddles the Rule. The monastic is to "care for the goods of the monastery as if they were the vessels of the altar." The abbot is reminded that he will be required "to give an account of his stewardship" of the monastery. "Let him recognize," he is told, "that his goal must be profit for the monastics, not preeminence for himself." The cellarer or manager of the monastery is told to steward the resources of the community "like a father," solicitous for "the sick, children, guests and the poor." (RB 31) Never, in other words, does monastic life or any part of it exist only for itself and its own profit. What the Benedictine monastic does and has is always for the sake of the other.

In a world where control of resources, control of labor, control of profits, control of markets is the order of the day, monastic ecology calls for the cherishing of the entire planet and all of its peoples.

Manual labor, the actual shaping of our private worlds, is a hallmark of Benedictine monasticism. Every monastic—no matter how learned or how important—is, literally, to take life into their own hands by shoveling its mud and planting its seeds and carrying its boulders and digging its wells.

It was manual labor that made the monastic a co creator of the universe where creation goes on creating daily. When you have washed a floor and fixed a chair and painted a wall and cleared an acre and cleaned a machine, the floor and the chair and the wall and the land and the machine become important to you. You have made yourself responsible for its life.

But responsibility for life is what the modern world has most lost. In a throw away society, nothing is seen as having life. Things have simply a temporary usefulness. As a result, we have glutted our landfills with styrofoam cups, used once and used half and then discarded to lie unconsumed forever while we bury the human race in its own garbage.

Out of touch now with how long it takes to clean a polluted stream or grow a tree or dissipate a field of smog, we throw bottles overboard in our lakes and waste paper by the ream and allow three people in three cars to drive to the same place day after day after day. We have indeed come a long way from the fields and the kitchens of ages past and live now in cubicles of computers and machines, the effects of which have no meaning to us whatsoever. When a young man pushes the button to detonate a nuclear test, it is because he has lost a sense of the monastic vision of life that comes with working to preserve it with your own hands. When a young woman dumps the half eaten casserole down a garbage disposal rather than eat leftovers, there is no sense of the monastic vision in her. When a family throws plastic cups out a car window, it is because they have lost a sense of the value of all things that comes with the manual labor that is essential to the monastic vision of the co creation of life.

Finally, Benedictine monasticism is rooted in human community, stable, gifted, equal and needy. In the monastic community of the fifth century, when slavery was considered a natural part of the human condition, the members of the monastic community lived as equals, nobles and peasants, learned and illiterate, officials and members, side by side. Only respect for the amount of time spent in monastic life and the new kind of mentality that it formed in a society of violence and exploitation distinguished the place of one monastic from another.

Here in this world where no one was to be considered the servant or the lackey or the colony of the other, everyone had impartial claim on the goods of the community. Only the concept of "enoughness" regulated the distribution of goods in the monastic community. "Whoever needs less should thank God and not be distressed," the Rule instructs, "but whoever needs more should feel humble because of his weakness..." (RB: 34.3). In this society, that considered inner riches the wealth to be sought after, the notion of the accumulation of goods as a sign of character weakness was clear.

It is time to see the character weakness in our own patterns of conspicuous consumption and greedy capitalism. It is time to realize that the rest of the globe is not our backyard to dominate. It is our garden "to till and to keep."

It is precisely this monastic sense of praise, humility, stewardship, manual labor and community that taught Europe and fructified Europe and saved Western civilization. It is those things that we in our time lack now and to our peril.

Enlightenment for our age, too, as for the Sufi disciples of the tale, requires that we begin to see trees as trees and mountains as mountains again, but newly. We must begin to see the planet as something with a life of its own, holy and filled with the glory of God. It is not to be exploited by us or discarded by us or used by us for false and short term profit. We must begin to see the sacredness of life itself, in all its forms, for all peoples of the earth. We must begin to understand that nature is not separate from us, it is basic to us. Its fate is our fate. Its future is our future. Its life is essential to our own.

If we can begin to see differently and to think differently and to live differently from generations before us then we will be able to grow enough crops to feed everyone. We will not only be able to draw water across deserts but we will be able to keep it clean and clear and healthful. We will have the paper we need at reasonable cost because we will have replaced the number of trees we need to make it. We will have the national security that comes when people are not threatened either by famine or futility. We will have a world where all people are paid just wages for the work of their hands. We will have a world where being part of an "underdeveloped" nation is a challenge, not a state of life, not a terminal disease, not an affliction without hope of cure.

Indeed, if we begin to see with monastic vision we may be able to save civilization once more:

We will see all of life as good and refuse to dominate and diminish it.

We will have the humility to know our place in the universe and respect, reclaim and revive the life around us.

We will see ourselves as the stewards of the planet, not its owners, and we will pass it on to the next generation undamaged.

We will work to shape a world full of beauty, full of possibility.

We will build up the human community in such a way that there are no such things as "undeveloped" peoples.

Thomas Merton wrote once, "You have to take God and creatures all together and see God in creation and creation in God and don't ever separate them. Then everything manifests God instead of hiding God or being in the way of God as an obstacle.” It is the monastic vision that calls us to see the trees and mountains of our own day as part of the glory of God and to treat them accordingly.

—from Christianity and Ecology ed. Breuilly and Palmer, 1992(Cassell Publishers LTD.)

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