Return to the Monastery

The walls are ancient, massive, and seemingly impenetrable. Built over centuries, stone by stone, they allowed those who lived within them to largely forget their existence. Their security was a given, their maintenance deemed unnecessary, the once-white radiance which glimmered from afar now pockmarked and pummeled, the mortar crumbling but unnoticed by those thus protected. The ramparts stand lightly guarded now, for few found the siege of small hideous men a threat — and many envied their crazed passions from atop the high walls, where sanctuary seemed like slavery and chaos freedom.

Those few who sounded the alarm went unheeded, for the massive stones which tumbled and thundered to earth were lightly regarded, the trembling of the ground at their impact ignored lest it disturb the revelry within. The city has been infiltrated, not with shock troops but with trollops, its defenders lying naked in the embrace of whores. The breach is imminent — yet the city sleeps, its shops shuttered, its currency squandered, its treasury depleted, its armies far abroad fighting fearlessly a war no one notices for a cause long forgotten.

The light streaming through the now-breached walls most surely represents change — and just as surely brings not hope, but new horrors.

We have been engaged for some decades in what is often called a “culture war.” It is in truth far more than that — far more than simply clashing preferences or soft values at variance, more than red versus blue, big government versus small, professors versus plumbers, city versus rural. It is at its core warfare in a different dimension, in a realm we understand poorly if at all. It rages in the realm of philosophy, or perhaps more precisely, in the realm of spirit.

The increasingly-likely presidency of Barack Obama — teamed with a entrenched, empowered, and intractably secular and liberal Congress — portends a tectonic shift in these cultural clashes, with profound changes looming for those who battle to preserve and advance the causes of traditional morality, respect for life, and religious values. In addition to changes in the political landscape which may prove every bit as drastic (and destructive) as the New Deal, two recent essays peer through the looking glass, not toward this impending change in the socio-political landscape, but rather toward the ethical and moral morass into which we are about to be thrust. The view through the glass is sobering, to say the least.

Richard John Neuhaus, writing in First Things, takes a look at the culture wars and the courts in Obama, Abortion, and the Courts:

We are two nations: one concentrated on rights and laws, the other on rights and wrongs; one radically individualistic and dedicated to the actualized self, the other communal and invoking the common good; one viewing law as the instrument of the will to power and license, the other affirming an objective moral order reflected in a Constitution to which we are obliged; one given to private satisfaction, the other to familial responsibility; one typically secular, the other typically religious; one elitist, the other populist…

No other question cuts so close to the heart of the culture wars as the question of abortion. The abortion debate is about more than abortion. It is about the nature of human life and community. It is about whether rights are the product of human assertion or the gift of “Nature and Nature \'s God.” It is about euthanasia, eugenic engineering, and the protection of the radically handicapped. But the abortion debate is most inescapably about abortion. In that debate, the Supreme Court has again and again, beginning with the Roe and Doe decisions of 1973, gambled its authority, and with it our constitutional order, by coming down on one side.

The result is the Court \'s clear declaration of belligerency on one side of the culture wars, endorsing the radically individualistic concept of the self-constituted self.

In like manner, Robert George at Public Discourse paints an even gloomier prognosis on the future of the defense and protection of human life based on Senator Obama’s own legislative history:

Obama’s Abortion Extremism

What kind of America do we want our beloved nation to be? Barack Obama’s America is one in which being human just isn’t enough to warrant care and protection. It is an America where the unborn may legitimately be killed without legal restriction, even by the grisly practice of partial-birth abortion. It is an America where a baby who survives abortion is not even entitled to comfort care as she dies on a stainless steel table or in a soiled linen bin. It is a nation in which some members of the human family are regarded as inferior and others superior in fundamental dignity and rights. In Obama’s America, public policy would make a mockery of the great constitutional principle of the equal protection of the law.

Grim prospects, these — and surely discouraging to those who mourn over our nation’s growing embrace of a culture of hedonism and death. It is difficult not to grieve over a nation so increasingly lost that it seeks salvation in soothing words while embracing that which destroys it.

Yet I have sensed for some time that we have been fighting the wrong war in the wrong way in such matters. We have massed troops and sent them heroically into the hardened defenses and machine gun nests of an entrenched secular culture. We have protested at abortion clinics; spent millions to defeat laws and propositions to legalize euthanasia, or prostitution, or gay marriage; elected pro-life candidates who too quickly compromise, or leave office shortly after discovering the futility of changing a corrupt and co-opted political culture. We have filled the radio airwaves and internet blogs with billions of words to protest activist judges and the politicians who appoint them, or expose the hypocrisy of politicians who “personally” oppose abortion as “faithful” members of their church while voting in lockstep for every abortion right — even infanticide.

Yet we have, for all our screeds and screeching, changed little — and been unwilling to change that which is most important: ourselves. We rant against the soft porn and profanity of what passes for TV entertainment — but our TV sets stay on. We abhor Hollywood, but go to their movies, obsessing about their empty hedonism while faithfully reading People and Us and Vanity Fair. We decry our materialistic age while filling our lives with costly toys and glittering bangles, as our credit cards threaten to crush and devour us. We criticize our sinful culture but never mention sin in our churches. We hate our corrupt and compromised politicians — then vote them right back into office, showing our sophistication and nuance on political issues. We resist and deplore the aggressive pro-gay agenda in politics, culture, and education — but never befriend the gay man or woman, nor learn to humbly love nor embrace the wounded soul thus enslaved. We split our churches into a million denominations, self-righteously hating those heretic Catholics, or Protestants, or charismatics, or fundamentalists, as is our wont — while fully embracing a culture which will not be content until we are all silenced and destroyed.

In ages past, the church responded to a decaying culture — violent, decadent, pagan, hopeless –by separation, drawing itself apart from a lost and self-destructive world. The monastic movement sought dissociation in order to focus on that which truly mattered, to reject the sound and fury which invariably accompanies the hollow hopelessness of men hiding from the harsh light of truth, who ridicule the eternal while reaping its rebuke. It is perhaps no accident that monasticism prospered most after the church fully embraced the corrupt culture, emerging from centuries of isolation, exclusion, and persecution to embrace the harlot in the person of Emperor Constantine. The church became wealthy, and powerful, and fashionable, and favored — and thereby lost the passion for purity, and humility, and sacrifice, and personal holiness which had been its hallmark in its first three centuries. Yet men yearned for that which is eternal, and sacrificed the comforts of culture for the discipline of devotion.

It is, I sense, time to revisit these truths and this history, to ask ourselves if we have benefited our culture and country by fighting its wars on the battlefields of its choosing. Is it not time to consider whether we, too, should draw back, not in defeat but in strength, and fight this war — and it is most certainly a deadly combat — on grounds where it must be fought, in the hearts of men — starting with ourselves. Perhaps it is time — well past time, even — to begin our pilgrimage away from a lost culture which has embraced the delusion that we control our own destinies, that our pleasures and profits will makes us happy, that freedom and peace may be had by embracing selfishness and slavery. The monastery we must seek is not some sacred sanctuary, some pastoral refuge of stone in a land far away. Our world is not the world of centuries ago; we cannot cloister ourselves in some lonely enclave, distanced and detached from debauchery and decadence far away. Ours must be the monastery of the soul, an abbey of abstinence, and devotion, and prayer, and self-sacrifice.

The call of the monastery is not a call to isolation, or hermitage, nor a call to a John Galt-vengeance on a society which has rejected our noble pleadings and higher values. The heart of the monastery requires no walls, but is instead a community, with a rule of order, spiritual discipline, prayer, simplicity of living, and hard work. It is a place where humility and honesty thrive; where prayer is a daily, even hourly, discipline; where we challenge every desire in the light of absolute values and eternal perspective; where relationships are reconciled and true peace among men can thrive. The abbey abides where we live — in our churches, our small groups or Bible studies, our neighborhoods, in coffee houses, in the warmth and hospitality of our open homes. It is here where we may truly transform our society — one heart, one soul, one life at a time.

Let the culture go where it may; we must be a true light. It is time to abandon the delusion that we may change the hopeless by becoming more like them — we must instead become a shining city on a hill, a stark contrast to the darkness which surrounds us. If what we believe is true — and it is — then those who run from truth may well see in us an answer to their failed and fruitless pursuits, to the shallow shell of a life lived in self-gratification and the pursuit of pleasure and power.

We will be misunderstood, hated, ridiculed, rejected. So be it — our strength will lie in one another, and in Him who calls us to holiness.

Let us now say, “Let it begin — and let it begin, with me.”

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10 thoughts on “Return to the Monastery

  1. Things would not be so bad if organized religion still existed. Alas, there is nothing from those once-hallowed areas but silence and complicity. Going tsk-tsk at Pelosi, rather than excommunicating her, is just the latest in an unending litany of betrayal.

  2. I recently discovered your website and I have enjoyed your writing very much. This post was particularly interesting because it adds to an increasing number of thoughtful people who are coming to a similar conclusion about the prospects of believers in a secular culture that is at once collapsing of its own contradictions and becoming more overtly hostile to believers.

    You might be interested in some of them, if you have yet to read their works:

    – Pope Benedict XVI in the encyclical Spe Salvi

    – Philip Rieff in his concluding three works (Sacred Order/Social Order: My Life Among the Deathworks ) presents a very interesting account of the aesthetic effects of the therapeutic culture, a concept he developed years ago.

    -Alisdair MacIntyre whose After Virtue, A Study in Moral Theory developed the notion that has come to be known as “The Benedict Option,” after St. Benedict and his monastic rule. It considers the very need of wihdrawal you discuss, albeit in a more direct fashion.

    – Rod Dreher of the Crunchy Con website frequently writes on the Benedict Option.

    Good luck and keep up the good work. It is very much appreciated.

  3. While I disagree about the characterization of Constantine, the general point is correct. (Constantine was a great helper of the church; it was no fault of his that when Christianity was available to all that many people brought the World into the church. Also, his sons were not righteous men, either.)

    But your paragraph here:

    The heart of the monastery requires no walls, but is instead a community, with a rule of order, spiritual discipline, prayer, simplicity of living, and hard work.

    Is an essential Orthodox teaching. (Eastern Orthodox Christian, that is.) The real monastery is within the heart, the real desert. Great wisdom is there from the ages about this, it is time for us to really take these things and make them our rule and measure, and to really be in the world but not of it.

    Your quote also describes the essence of the parish.

  4. George Weigel has written that “The great human questions, including the great questions of public life, are ultimately theological.” The true battlefield of our times is the human soul. Ideas have consequences, and we ignore them at our peril.

  5. A wise post, my friend.

    The great modern saints of the Orthodox Church, such as John Maximovitch and Tikhon of Moscow, are examples of what you describe.

    The age of Constantine was not quite as you describe, but never mind. You’re on the right track.

  6. Wonderful post, Bob, and I take it to heart. I too have to take issue with your reference to Constantine. Guess we’ll only know his heart for sure on the Other Side. However, I believe he was the real thing, and his mother Helena was a role model to all believing women, as was Monica, mother of Augustine.

  7. Since a few have mentioned Constantine, let me clarify: he was a benefactor to the Church, and may himself have become Christian (some historical dispute about the veracity of his conversion).

    My point, not clearly stated unfortunately, was this: the embrace of the church by the state led to a vast increase in the worldly influence, secular power, and wealth of the Church — and moved the church farther away from its roots in humility, devotion, and simplicity of faith. The church in history goes astray when it weds itself to political power. The Inquisition was not her finest hour, to cite but one example.

  8. There is nothing new in the impulse to run and hide. An authentic call to religious solitude is not in the impulse to run away to hide in the monastery. A mature religious call is to run towards the monastery – because there is something more there to be found. My experience of Christians who run away to take refuge in a monastery is that they end up killing one another in personality wars.

    We are called to be leaven in the lump of the world. In order to raise up the lump, the yeast must be kneaded in painfully. It must be broken up and then it must die. It’s death releases a new energy into the lump while the whole thing sits in the darkness.

    We have lost the culture war because we never mounted a cultural opposition. Our strategy was to be shocked and mortified and also indignant and annoyed. We never made anything culturally beautiful. We never gave voice to what we believe with creativity and relevance for a new generation.

    When some of us have – Flannery O’Conner, JRR Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, Taylor Caldwell – their efforts have been embraced by the starving culture. But they haven’t been enough.

    Please, no more self-satisfied rationalizations for sitting on the sidelines and watching the fields which are white with harvest rot before our eyes. We have been guilty of sloth and fear, and it is time to shake it off. Souls hang in the balance.

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