There is no romance in a monastery whatever one hears, monasteries are not places of leisure or of freedom from work. There is in fact hard work, deprivation and the secret comfort of closeness to God on occasion. Anyone who has ever lived either the eremitic life or the cloistered life knows full well, that no matter the beautiful or remote location, the monastic life is no easier or more romantic than the life of a Christian who chooses to marry and raise a family in the suburbs. Different paths – to the same end – theosis.
The eremitic life is difficult in that the hermit is responsible for everything – all obediences are his. Only when he has mastered the art of continuous prayer as he carries out his worldly work is he able to fulfil the requirement of praying properly.
The coenobitic monastery is valuable to the Church not because it runs retreats, provides picnic facilities, produces cheap candles and incense or becomes a mission in its area (although this latter is of great value). It is valuable to the Church because of prayer. Because it sets aside so much time to bring before God the things of the Church and the world. Its not that God doesn’t know what’s going on but rather that there is a portion of the population which is trying to distance itself from the surrounding atheistic corruption and evil and to converse with God. The monk talks to God daily about this situation. This in turn brings the monk into ever closer alignment with God’s will and therefore over time a portion of God’s people are in fact closely aligned with Him.
The Church ever had some form of monasticism even before the desert Fathers went out, there were individuals and small groups who tried to lead a prayer-centred life in the cities, e.g., the communities of virgins and widows in Rome.
In the west – in Great Britain – the Church came with Saint Aristibule in AD 37 and proceeded to convert the Druids. The Druids held a theology remarkably prescient of Christianity. They were not a “church” but rather collegiate groups across the country and these colleges were readily converted and many began to lead a life that was a precursor of the monastic life.
The Church needs those who pray and who are able to spend time praying on behalf of the Church. The Church through its monasteries spread around the world thus prays continuously, is continuously conversing with God – and this alone is the point – as Christ’s body here in earth, the Church must be in this continuous mystical conversation with God. This is the Church’s real connection. The wider people of God come together in the Liturgy once a week as is due and proper, but in the meantime the conversation must continue unabated.
If monasticism is indeed part of the ongoing mystical conversation between the Body of Christ – the Church – and God, then monasticism is of the utmost importance to the Church. Now this is not of course the entire story. We all know that in most parishes there are those quiet people, mostly unnoticed, who actually pray – in the Liturgy and outside the Liturgy – and they are the real mainstays of the parish. We know that Priests, many of them, struggle to really pray the Liturgy and the Offices such are the demands of leading the service correctly. The Church certainly around the world celebrates the Divine Liturgy regularly and often. One way or another the Church prays and does its duty to our Creator.
Nevertheless, the Church needs something else. That is, it needs the actual mystical conversation: continuous and sensible, non-formulaic. The ills of this world are multitudinous and we, the Church are those who stand in opposition to the evil, it is our business to constantly converse with God and to align ourselves with His peculiar view of the world and all that is in it. He is the Master of the whole Cosmos, His view is immense and because of that we cannot align ourselves with it without working closely on a daily basis with Him.
How does one even try to comprehend let alone express the unbelievable difference between God and man? Let’s start with the premise that God, at the appropriate stage, imbued mankind with something of Himself. To my mind that means that He gave us that which enables each of us to understand and align ourselves with His will.
However, it doesn’t come easily. Mankind generally has so depraved itself, so neglected, damaged this faculty that it is in many cases virtually unusable. Schema-monks in the safety of their monasteries, dedicate every minute of their lives to the great mystical conversation with considerable difficulty. It is a pathway for the courageous faithful, not for the faint-hearted. And never to be undertaken inadvisedly.
The truth is that while the Church may have great numbers of adherents, it has only tiny numbers of those who unfeignedly believe and converse with God. In these days – which indeed may be the latter days – we must all endeavour to seriously be what Saint Paul called “saints” that is, those engaged in the business of sanctifying themselves and practising their ongoing conversation with God.
The Church – the world – desperately needs the continuous, informal man-God-man conversation and understanding which flows from it. Those within the Church who can do this must then find ways of engaging in the wider Church. Yes we have the Scriptures, yes we have the Fathers, and yes we need people today who can witness to the ongoingness of the man-God alignment.
Mankind needs to understand that our faith is no dusty historical childish supernaturalish thing, but that God really does exist in reality in this universe and deals daily with us in a meaningful way. I don’t mean the mega-church charismatic leader proclaiming “miracles” on stage or something daft like snake-handling, no sensible person believes in that. Yet we do need to be able to convey to the world a reason, as Saint Peter says, for the hope that is in us. We need to find ways that are not stale, that have not become trivialised and worn out by over-use and by the mockeries of the god of the world to communicate to it that its Master, the Master of the whole universe, is really present and active – and accessible to every single person every moment regardless of where or how they are in their life.