Can the ancient tradition of monasticism be part of the new evangelization?

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by Mark Plaiss

We were about a half mile from the monastery, hoeing weeds out of the pumpkin patch. The late-June sun of Iowa beat down upon Hal and me, and sweat streamed down our faces. Our shirts and shoes were caked with dirt. We were thirsty. I glanced at my watch: we were halfway through the assigned afternoon work period.

I heard Brother’s truck before I saw it. I straightened up my aching back, leaned on my hoe and watched his 1966 Ford pickup lumber over the grassy field. Brother eased the truck adjacent to the pumpkin patch and, sticking his tanned bald head out of the window, said, “Pump house, boys.”

Neither Hal nor I hesitated; we dropped our hoes in the bed of the truck and then slid into the cab, I in the middle. As the 49-year-old truck rumbled through the grass, I removed the leather work gloves from my hands. Even though I had used them while working, a blister had erupted between the thumb and index finger of my left hand. Cold water, though, awaited us at the pump house, and that prospect washed away any concern about the blister. Actually, the pump house was a little tool shed about a stone’s throw from the monastery, but right up against the back of the tool shed was a faucet where we could gulp down some cold water. There is nothing like cold water on a hot day while working the fields at the monastery!

After all three of us drank our fill, Brother said, “Well, let’s go over to the shade there and pray.” We walked over to the nearby shade and sat down beneath a large, old maple tree. Brother, clad in a torn shirt and bib overalls, removed his hat and wiped his brow with the back of his left hand. He placed his hands on his knees, bowed his head and started into a Hail Mary, three of them in fact. His voice was soft, but firm. Hal and I chimed in. Brother’s blue eyes were closed. Following the three prayers, Brother prayed for the intercession of three saints, and Hal and I asked for the saints to pray for us, too. Then Brother began to tell Hal and me stories of his time in the Korean War.

Brother does not fit the romantic mold of monasticism. He does not walk around with his hood up, arms folded beneath his black scapular, averting his eyes from yours. True, he walks with his head bowed, but that is because of a malady in his neck and spine. But he is one of the first monks to enter the choir before vigils blasts off at 3:30 a.m. He shuffles to the north choir in the dark, usually selecting a stall toward the eastern end, hacks the phlegm out of his lungs and blows his nose, the sound reverberating off the stone walls of the abbey church. And so Brother’s day begins, a day—during the warm months—spent mostly scratching and clawing away at the Iowa soil trying to bring forth vegetables for the 30 or so monks with whom he lives at the Trappist monastery.

Lessons From the Monastery

My high school students in Mundelein, Ill., know that there are monks and monasticism, but few, if any, have either met a monk or set foot on the grounds of a monastery. Their knowledge is limited to what they have learned in a church history class (in the unit on the Middle Ages) or a class on Christian lifestyles or through films in the vein of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” I show the students YouTube clips from monasteries like St. Meinrad Archabbey or New Melleray Abbey that show how monastic life is lived today (rather than in the Middle Ages). When they are told what the typical day of a Benedictine or Cistercian monk might entail, they are skeptical. When told of the monk’s commitment to lifelong celibacy, they are incredulous. When asked if such a life is in anyway intriguing or appealing to them, most remain silent; some snicker. But they respect the life.

The students see the monks as “hardcore,” not just believing the Gospel but living it. True, the students quickly add that the Gospel can be fully lived in the “regular” world, but they concede that monks take the Gospel to “another level.” Hence “hardcore.” When I tell my students about Brother at the monastery in Iowa they listen. They nod their heads in affirmation. “That’s real,” says one.

Respect, real. Those are key words, for they are words that invoke authenticity and credibility. Such terms in regard to the church today are rare. Too often I hear terms like as “hypocritical” and “out of touch” in association with the church. So I propose that an authentic and credible response of the church to our present world is monasticism. I believe this for three reasons:

1) Monasticism smacks of being outside of the church establishment. At first blush, that claim seems ludicrous. What could be more of the church establishment than monasticism, filled as it is with its ancient rule, customs and modes of dress? Yet, look at monasticism from the point of view of my students. They see a small group of women or men gathered together trying to live the Gospel in a simple form. They see women or men who embrace personal poverty for the betterment of the kingdom and to emulate Jesus. They see an actual community of persons with a kindred spirit.

Contrast that with the way most of my students encounter church. Church for them is a weekly one-hour gathering of disparate individuals who just happen to come together at the same Mass to fulfill their Sunday obligation. This obligation is connected with the same old songs and a windy homily that rarely, if ever, has anything to do with their lives at all. Whether or not this picture my students paint of the church is accurate is beside the point. The point is that even though monasticism is not a vocation to which any of my students now aspire, they see something in the monastic lifestyle that they do not see in the parishes they attend. They might not have a desire to live the life of a monk, but they sense authenticity. And that makes the monks—and, by association, Christianity—credible.

The monk is “outside” the boundaries of the church simply by adhering to and living out the foundational truths of the faith: resurrection, a living God, new creation. It is not that the parish does not believe or preach these things. It is just that few of my students can hear or see them—for whatever reason—coming from their parish. But they sense it in the monks.

Furthermore, my students see monks as “radical.” There is nuance among the students in this adjective. Most wonder if the monks are helping anybody by “just praying and working among themselves.” These students frequently ask, “How are they helping others by doing what they do?” Thus, in the mind of these students, the monks are radical in the sense of turning away from the world. But a sizable minority of my students believe the monks are radical in the sense of “wanting to live like Jesus did in the purest way.” Either way, the students view the monks as living Christianity in a different way from most Christians. But neither group desires—at this stage in their lives, anyway—to sign up.

2) Monasticism is prophetic, and it is prophetic primarily because of its simplicity. There is no agenda, just living and working with one another, listening to and praying with Scripture, devoting themselves to the breaking of the bread, being hospitable to the stranger and being patient with the eccentric.

Why is that prophetic? Because, with the demise of Christendom, the church can no longer depend upon society at large to bolster its mission. The church will need to present Jesus the Christ in a manner that is not only credible and authentic but easily visible. Monasticism is—and always has been—a visibly different way of being Christian. Do not tell me, show me, my students are saying.

3) Ecumenism. Shortly before leaving for his trip to South America last July, Pope Francis addressed a crowd of approximately 30,000 in St. Peter’s Square. Francis encouraged Christians to pray together. “All of you,” said the pope, “have received the same baptism; all of us are following the path of Jesus.”

Monasteries are well-known places not only of inter-Christian prayer but also of interreligious prayer. From the Gethsemani Encounter at the Abbey of Gethsemani, where Christian and Buddhist monks come together, to Benedictine Oblates and Cistercian associates of various Christian denominations coming together to pray, monasticism is at the forefront of the ecumenical effort. One issue that drives my students to distraction is the division among Christian communities. They perceive such divisions as insignificant to the bigger picture of Christ. This is not the place to address the merits of such an opinion. But more and more students at the school either are not Catholic or come from homes in which their Catholicism is not practiced. The point: People in the same place but with different outlooks need to find a way to live peacefully, and monasticism can be seen as a bridge that brings Christians together.

The time may once again come, as it did so many centuries ago, when monasticism hands off the baton of faith to a new civilization that is once more receptive to the notion of God and his Christ. But for now, let there be silence and psalms. This is the voice of the new evangelization.

Closing Prayer

Vigils has ended. I remain in my stall to pray. The monks depart from the church, some sooner than others. After about 20 minutes, I too stand and leave the church to return to my room on the third floor.

As I step from the church into the cloister where the north and western ranges meet, I see a monk in the western range. He is standing in the nearly dark cloister with his hand touching one of the stations of the cross that line the outer wall of the cloister. Though the light is minimal, I can see that it is the monk who drives the nearly 50-year old pickup truck. He is whispering something, but I am unable to decipher what he is saying.

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