How to Build a Monastery
It’s become a bit of a joke to refer to the chaotic stage of history in which we live as “these unprecedented times” (I have a classmate who has changed her email signoff to the phrase out of a sense of irony). The sentiment, though, is easy to understand and share. These are indeed strange days, combining a worldwide plague with a noxious political climate coming to a head on the day this piece will be published. Combine those with the standard goings-on of a world infected with sin, greed, and a lack of love for one’s neighbor, and it would be easy and understandable to despair. The problem seems so novel and large, and we feel so small, that there is nothing to be done, except perhaps to hide until it’s all over.
Fortunately (and this is good news!), not only is this set of problems nothing new for the Church, it is one for which we have a pre-made answer. (This is one of the many beautiful things about our Faith; we’ve faced almost every situation possible and found what works. We do not have to expend our energy coming up with novel solutions to every problem.)
The answer, of course, is the monastery.
Now, I am not suggesting that the appropriate reaction to chaos is a massive increase in religious vocations (though I’m not NOT suggesting that), nor am I saying, as some do, that we ought to run away from public life and seclude ourselves in Christian enclaves until the tide passes. Rather, I'm proposing that we as Christians ought to do what we have always done in the face of a culture that needs renewing: pray, serve our neighbors, and invite them to join our way of life.
In the east, Monasticism developed out of the hermitage. Christians disaffected by the opulence of the suddenly-imperial Church fled to the desert to seek out a closer conformity to the life of Christ. While this is obviously a noble model, well worthy of imitation, what I am proposing is closer to the western model.
In the west, the monastery system developed during a time of disorder in the political, religious, and cultural spheres. The western empire fell over and over again to germanic pagan invaders, heresies ran rampant, and churches were sacked and burned and the people killed in the process. In response to this reality, monasteries formed, not simply as places to retreat from the chaos of the broader world, though they could and did offer that, but also as hubs around which a new, healthier culture could form.
The great innovation of the monastery system was not the silent retreat, but the “Rules” by which prayer was integrated into the rest of the Christian life. They were not a place to hide with God, but a place for Ora et Labora, prayer and work, as St. Benedict summarized his Rule. The “work” of these monasteries wasn’t insular, either. Yes, there was great spiritual work being done (the Book of Kells being a prime example), but the monasteries were primarily outward facing institutions. They provided their neighbors with food, education, healthcare, and of course, spiritual guidance and the sacraments. They were so proficient at this, in fact, that communities sprung up around the monasteries, built around the material and spiritual generosity encoded in the “Rules”.
Since we have such a pattern, how do we go about following it? Many of us are not called to religious life, but the call to holiness and service is universal. I propose three steps we can each take to begin building little “monasteries”, even in the secular world in which we live.
- Set a rule of prayer.
As I mentioned above, the monastery didn’t let people spend all day in silent prayer, it gave them a rule of life which enabled them to integrate their lives of prayer and work. It taught them how to follow St. Paul’s command to “pray always”. That said, it did provide a structure of prayer and work, something we can learn and imitate. Fr. Drew here at St. Isidore’s often asks what our “non-negotiables” are. This is what belongs in your “Rule”. Maybe there’s a commitment to a daily Rosary as a family or household, or maybe you pray morning and night prayer with your roommates. Maybe we commit to a family dinner at the dinner table with a shared time of prayer afterward. All of these suggestions are intentionally broad, but the idea is simple: Prayer needs structure, and it needs community. I once heard someone say and I believe it’s true that “love isn’t real until it’s on your schedule.” This leads us to step two.
2. Set a rule of service.
Fr. Gale, when he talks to couples, often suggests a shared mission (Yes, this article is entirely wisdom gleaned from other people, that’s all the wisdom I have). He does this because a shared commitment to service keeps people from becoming overly insular, and also because working together teaches us to love each other more deeply. Find a way that you and your chosen community of family, housemates, young-adult or men’s or women’s groups can come together in service. A community that serves only itself is not following the pattern of a monastery, but a cult. Find a way to bring not only yourself, but your community into the larger world in service.
3. Invite others in.
Hypothetically, this is the easiest step. When the rest of the world sees how rightly-ordered Christians love each other and their neighbors, it’s infectious and inviting. This is the barometer for communal health: Are we attracting others? Do people desire what we have? If not, it may be good to check in on the prior two steps and adjust. If they do see that what you have is good, however, invite them in, teach them your “Rule” and send them out to found new “Monasteries”. A healthy system based on the Monastic model makes converts and self-replicates.
Friends, what I propose here is obviously not going to fix the country and the world under its own steam. Only Christ can do that. What I’m proposing is simply a method of organizing our lives, following the model of the saints, so that we can, in pockets, renew ourselves and our culture. If this works for you, praise God. If not, praise God and find something else. Either way, our call to love God and Neighbor is a gift, not a burden, and we can trust that it will carry us through this storm. Please know that we at St. Isidore’s and Konza Catholic are praying for you all.
Andy Brandt is a Senior at Kansas State. You can find him writing about Catholicism, Politics, and Justice at https://medium.com/@