Thursday, December 04, 2008

What is a monastery?

Given the recent conversations here about lay spiritual formation and monasticism, I thought the following by Hieromonk Maximos, a Romanian Catholic monk at Holy Resurrection Monastery might be of interest. The following is an excerpt from a somewhat larger post, "Monasticism vs. The Cult of Usefulness," which can be found at Fr Maximos' blog The Anastasis Dialogue.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

What is a monastery?

I'd like to begin with the definition of monasticism that you [Note: this reflection came about as part of a correspondence with a supporter] took from a Catholic dictionary:

an institutionalized religious practice or movement whose members attempt to live by a rule that requires works that go beyond those of either the laity or the ordinary spiritual leaders of their religions. Commonly celibate and universally ascetic, the monastic individual separates himself or herself from society either by living as a hermit or anchorite (religious recluse) or by joining a community (coenobium) of others who profess similar intentions. First applied to Christian groups, both Latin and Greek.

Against this I would like to contrast the statement by Pope John Paul II in Orientale Lumen, \"in the Christian East monasticism is the reference point for all the baptized.\" Do you see the difference? One is an institutional definition. The other is a statement of vision and purpose. One of the greatest challenges to our monastery has always been that plenty of people think they know what a monastery is (the institutional definition) but very few really understand why it should be (vision and purpose). Is that because we have failed to explain it? Or is that the challenge posed by the monastic vision is such that people are resistant to it??

Let me put this another way. The late Pope said that monasticism for Eastern Christians is the standard by which their whole Christian existence is to be measured. Good. Then where are the monasteries for Eastern Catholics?

Now this is not just a slam against Eastern Catholics! The reason that monastic life is not real for them is because for several centuries they have been greatly influenced by secular notions coming to them from the West. In the West \"religious life\" was divided into thousands of orders and congregations, each distinguished by its particular work or charism. This division was itself immensely helped by secular notions of religion as an (at best!) useful way of delivering social services like schools, hospitals and public moral instruction in parish churches.

What was lost in this was that ancient, patristic sense that the pursuit of perfection through prayer and asceticism is not simply one vocation among many, something for an elite, but the Christian vocation pure and simple. All Christians are called to martyrdom, witnessing to all their death to self and life in Christ. All Christians are called to martyrdom, either \"red\" or \"white\", witness of blood or marytiria of asceticism.

Sorry for the history lesson. I do have a point here! And the point is that people think they know what a monastery is, but really most people have no clue. Not really. And the reason they have no clue is because many, many people--even among those who attend church services regularly--have lost sight of the reason they were called to become Christians in the first place. The real reason for the decline in monasticism is the decline in fervor for the Christian struggle. Who, in the end, really wants martrydom?

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