Bare Ruined Choirs

As a monk who has lived for almost forty years in a Benedictine monastery, I have had this recurring thought: Monasteries of men and women living the Benedictine Rule are an endangered species. In the near future, these places run the risk of becoming religious theme parks, places where an ancient spiritual heritage draws visitors from the outside who stop by briefly but do not stay to become monks or nuns themselves.

Several developments contribute to this phenomenon. The number of vowed monks has been in decline for decades, especially in North America and Europe, a trend that promises to continue. At the same time, this pattern has been accompanied by a marked increase in the number of lay oblates and associates, and in the rise in popularity of apparently all things monastic. Think of the spate of articles and books by the non-Catholic, noncloistered oblate Kathleen Norris. Norris writes with a compelling sympathy for monastic life, and with an outsider’s insights into monasticism’s distinct charism. Today the very words “Benedictine” or “monastic,” when attached to a book or CD, guarantee an audience. There is a cottage industry publishing books on Benedict’s Rule as a model for everything from corporate management and ecological balance to family life. Large film and TV audiences have watched British, French, and American productions that chronicle life in monasteries, as seen by outsiders. At the same time, more and more people seek retreats and spiritual direction, even as the professed monks and nuns who run the facilities struggle to maintain sufficient staff to care for their guests.

On one level there is cause for rejoicing. An ancient, revered tradition of spiritual formation and community living is being retrieved. Furthermore, monasticism represents a strain of Christian tradition that antedates and transcends the polemics of the Reformation. Catholics and non-Catholics alike, not to mention other seekers, are drawn to prayer and dialogue in these monastic settings because they feel at home in the sacred space offered there. Some come seeking spiritual direction, others are drawn by the aesthetic appeal of liturgical chant and the spare beauty of natural landscapes and architecture that help integrate silence and a life shared in common.

But some of these monastic communities are dying. Of course, this is part of a historical cycle that has been going on for over fifteen hundred years, yet it alerts us to an unsettling, near-term prospect. Soon there will be fewer and smaller communities of professed men and women in North America, while ever larger numbers of nonprofessed devotees are knocking at the monastery door. Monasteries were once remote, in both a physical and psychological sense. Now they are more accessible because of easy travel, Web sites, and accommodating retreat centers. The appeal of an international community like Taizé in France is an example of how young people from all over the world can participate quite comfortably in the liturgy and life of a diverse monastic community. True, some visitors come to monasteries to buy greeting cards and icons, but many others come to seek counsel and to partake in the regular rounds of prayer and work. More and more of the latter find overworked monks, and this forces them to reconsider their romanticized notions of monasticism.

The future is not altogether bleak. Monasticism can count on doing what it has always done: adapt its timeless round of prayer and work to fit the needs of a changing world. To do that in a way that is both faithful and open to a wider public will require something both old and inventive. For in the final analysis, monasticism attracts people to the substance of its life. In the future, both monks and pilgrims will still search for places of peace, those necessary places where the inner work of spiritual transformation is encouraged and sustained.

Published in the 2008-02-29 issue: 

Joel Rippinger, OSB, is a monk of Marmion Abbey in Aurora, Illinois.

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