Any room for priests, monks and nuns in an atheistic world?
Let me begin with a story.
It was my first Christmas Eve in Tasmania, at a time when I was doing some of the groundwork in preparation for the monastic foundation the following year. I was going for an early afternoon stroll in Hobart. As I was making my way down the sidewalk, I spotted two men, probably in their late twenties, early thirties, sitting in the grass, smoking and drinking as they conversed….
They were intrigued by what they saw: a man walking down the street wearing a long white robe, a spectacle for sure. “What are you”? When I explained that I was a monk, and that I spent a fair amount of time praying to God, one of them proceeded to explain to me that he was an atheist. Later in the conversation, I would discover that, even though he did not believe — or said he did not believe — in God, he certainly did believe in Satan. Actually, I got the clear impression that he was a big fan of Satan against God.
At one stage in the conversation, I asked them if they knew what tomorrow was. They did. They knew that it was Christmas. So I asked if they knew what Christmas was. They knew that too: the birth of Jesus. Then I asked if they knew why Jesus came into the world. At that, one of them replied, “To make money”.
After a moment of surprise, I tried to explain that Jesus actually came into the world in order to, following the expression of St John, “dissolve the works of the devil”, and this he did by teaching the practice of virtues, especially the virtues of humility and chastity. Well, that didn’t sit so well with them, and our conversation came to an end. It reminded me of the word of Archbishop Fulton Sheen: “Atheism, nine times out of ten, is born from the womb of a bad conscience. Disbelief is born of sin, not of reason”.
As I was preparing this talk, I was reminded of that sad Christmas Eve encounter which so dramatically describes the plight of modern man who lives without God, and drifts along, tossed about by his passions, a continual and all too easy prey to the ideology of the day that seeks to use him and then discard him after having robbed him of his dignity, the kind of ideology that inspired John Lennon’s Imagine: a pure utopia in which one blames religion for the ills of humanity when one has never been able to live up to the demands of true religion, which alone can give peace to a broken world. Lennon’s world is the search for a paradise on earth that never existed and never will exist. It is the betrayal of the homo sapiens into the hands of the homo insipiens who, fallen from a state of divine intimacy, can now only wander aimlessly in the land of estrangement from himself in which his pursuit of sensual satisfactions leaves him empty, sad, inclined to despair, and prone to the realm of darkness.
For indeed, when there is no spiritual principle to things, when man is not motivated by thirst for the absolute, then he is on a deadly spiral downwards into the bottomless pit of unsuccessfully and frustratingly seeking to satisfy his instincts. But it never stops there. It keeps going down and down, to the world of darkness. For all evil is darkness. “This is the judgment: The light is come into the world and men loved darkness rather than the light: for their works were evil” (Jn 3:19). The dark presence that hovered recently over Hobart is a sad example.
Lennon sings: “Imagine all the people living for today.” “Living for today” is opposed to living for the tomorrow of eternity; it is living just for what we can see and enjoy here and now, as do animals. The tragedy is that, to a large extent, Lennon’s dream has come true. Even if there are still many people who profess and practice a religion, life is organised more and more etsi Deus non daretur. All that matters is matter. And whatever you need to do to satisfy your personal desires of the moment, that is good, as long as you do not interfere with your neighbour’s attempt to do the same.
For the moment in the west we are in a kind of twilight zone in which the progress of technology has made it possible for most people to enjoy lives of uninhibited search for leisure and pleasure, while leaving God and eternity in the background. It has given the illusion that life without God is perfectly possible, for the material things that we used to ask God for are now given to us by our computers and machines. But what will become of Lennon’s dream the day technology, for whatever reason, fails? The extremely fragile stability of modern economy will one day crumble, and then what will become of that imaginary world? Lennon forgot a fundamental truth: people rarely kill for religious reasons. They most often kill to get something they don’t have. People kill for money, they kill for a job, they kill for a lover, they even kill for food, drink and clothing when there’s not enough of them to go around. And that scenario is sure to come.
Many years ago I was invited to address a gathering of young adults, and I took as my theme: “The Purity of Faith and the Purity of Morals”. In that talk, I made a point of showing that faith and morals stand or fall together. One cannot have a solid faith in the living God, in His Son Jesus Christ, and go on living a life immersed in the satisfaction of one’s instincts. Conversely, it is impossible to live such a life and not arrive at the purity of faith. That is precisely why the Church, from the very start, was always very careful, even meticulous, about defining what we believe, for those definitions have far-reaching consequences on the way we live. If God is a slave-master, then his adherents will duplicate that mentality, and other people will be treated like chattel, which is what happens in the Islamic world. If God is self-sacrificing love, then other persons become an object of merciful compassion, which is what ideally happens in a Christian world, even if, alas, many Christians do not live up to that lofty standard.
This essential correlation between faith and morals has been expressed in many ways by a number of great minds in recent times, but I know of none who has said it in so few and so powerful words as St Pius X, who was Pope from 1903 to 1914. In a little known letter written in 1910 to condemn the French social movement called “le Sillon”, he wrote: “There is no true civilization without a moral civilization, and no true moral civilization without the true religion: it is a proven truth, a historical fact”. In other words, it is only by fidelity to the true God and His divinely revealed true religion that humanity can live in accordance with the truth of its own being; and this, in turn, can alone ensure that the future of the world will be peaceful and harmonious, just as the absence of God and that of his Church guarantees wars and conflicts. The liturgical oration for the feast of Christ the King in the traditional Roman Missal makes this clear when it asks that “the families of the nations, separated by the wound of sin, may submit themselves to the sweet rule of Christ” (cunctae familiae gentium, peccati vulnere disgregatae, eius suavissimo subdantur imperio). It is only in the submission of the mind and heart to the truth of Christ that grace is given to establish peace and harmony on earth.
What consequences can we draw from all this? I suggest that we need to ask ourselves a few questions. First and foremost: do I really believe it? Is it part of my life? Or have I let my faith dwindle under the influence of the ambient spirit of living without God inspired by cultural marxism? In a world which has abandoned nearly all of its moral principles, a world in which we breathe on a daily basis the infected air of the times, “for the days are evil” (Eph 5:16), if we do not make an effort to react against it, we will be swept along like everybody else. As GK Chesterton astutely remarked: “only what is dead flows with the current”.
After having asked ourselves these questions, and answered them rightly, we need then to start asking other people. A true believer is in many ways like Socrates. He must go about asking questions, questions which will provoke his contemporaries, forcing them to enter into themselves and think, hard questions which demand hard answers and that cannot be silenced, questions which may very well lead the questioner to the same end as Socrates. Socrates lived in what in many respects was a pluralistc society. There were many gods, and many opinions. But Socrates could not be tolerated because Socrates would not keep quiet about the absolute. As in our day, Socrates’ age was one in which you can think and say anything you want except one thing: if you say there are moral absolutes, beware! “All animals are equal,” we are assured, but it isn’t long before we learn that “some animals are more equal than others!” And so it is with everyone who truly believes, whose faith is not only in words but in deeds.
And that brings us to the heart of the considerations I would like to share today.
For those who are truly convinced, who are and want to remain on the right side of this battle — this is important for the victory already belongs to Christ and only those who remain with Him in the heat of battle will be crowned with Him — there are today, as there have always been, two possible reactions.
One is to continue, plodding along, striving to found and raise a truly Christian family and form the men and women of tomorrow. It involves being out there in the public square, standing up for God, for Christ, for the moral order. This is done through writing, teaching, seeking to influence political life and the decisions that will affect the lives of many. I am personally convinced that we need many more of those brave men and women who fearlessly remind our wayward world of the unchanging reality which is God and His eternal law. At the same time, I give thanks to God for those we already have among us.
But there is also another path, a path which the first generations of Christians discovered quickly. It is the path of those who have been so deeply touched by the thought of the brevity of this ephemeral life and the only definitive reality which is eternity, that they decide to give their entire lives to God in prayer, silent adoration, hard work and sacrifice, in order to secure their own salvation for sure, but also to be an example to others and a source of light and love that will influence the world in a salvific way. Such is the category of men and women known to us as monks and nuns. For some here today, the thought might seem eccentric. Why go off into seclusion, on the margin of society, grouped into houses that are, for all practical purposes, invisible to the eyes of the world? Should these not join ranks with the laity in their efforts to bring God back to the world?
To answer that question, we need to know a little bit more about what monastic life is. And I would hope, by these few words, to open up a new vista, a new world perhaps for some, unsuspected, certainly unfashionable.
In his first epistle, St John tells the first generation of faithful to be on their guard against what he calls the “concupiscence of the flesh, the concupiscence of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 Jn 2:16). Those three sources of unhealthy and unholy coveting which undermine the work of God in souls, are precisely the three archenemies which the religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience counterattack.
The religious life and especially its monastic form, is, of its very essence, contrary to the essential tenets of the world. What the world adores, it scorns; what the world loves, it hates; what the world promotes, it rejects. Why? Because, as St Paul told the Corinthians: “the fashion of this world is passing away” (1 Cor 7:31), this world which St John tells us, “is seated in wickedness” (1 Jn 5:19).
It is only by living the Gospel values to the full that religious souls can truly be the leaven in the dough, the grain of seed which, apparently insignificant, actually bears within itself all future life, the salt that gives savour to culture, the light that saves the world from darkness. In a culture that is dying out, losing hope in itself and in its own posterity, the source of true renewal is found in those souls who stand firm amidst the whirlwind of contemporary culture, or rather, lack thereof.
Even though a Benedictine, the motto of the Carthusian order has always inspired me: “Stat crux dum volvitur orbis”: which we could translate: “the cross stands motionless while the world goes around in circles”. Only in fidelity to the One who died on the cross and taught us thereby the power of redemptive suffering, only through souls who accept to live that redemptive suffering to the full, renouncing even the legitimate goods of human life, can the world be saved from the annihilation caused by the roaring waves of deviant subhuman ideology.
This is something the founders of all religious orders understood so well. It is what inspired the first generation of anchorites to go out and live in the desert; it is what led St Benedict to leave Rome when a prosperous life of fame and pleasure smiled upon his youth; it is what caused St Francis and St Dominic to embrace the evangelical poverty which has been the hallmark of the mendicant orders ever since; it is what led St Ignatius to place his future in the hands of the Son of God, offering his whole life to serve in the ranks of the sacred militia; it is what filled the monasteries and made them beacons of hope for the world. It is, today, what continues to inspire young men and women to forego the purported freedom of a worldly life, to renounce the legitimate joys of marriage and parenting, the attractions of a career and belongings. It is what leads them to embrace what is hard for nature: solitude, penance, long hours of prayer and devout study of divine things, humble work that does not earn a salary, but serves the needs of the community he lives with.
Monastic life holds within it a profound mystery: a soul, enamoured of God and desirous of living in His presence, crosses the threshold of a monastery door, taking cover under the shadow of God’s wings as it were, saying goodbye to loved ones and loved dreams, making an act of faith that the God who calls will not fail. The soul, like Abraham being called to leave his home country and family, sets out on a journey, not knowing where he is going, oblivious of where the path is leading, and not really caring where it leads, because he knows it leads to God.
Once such a soul finds the courage to take that step, he finds himself in a world he had not dreamed of before. He discovers that though he is in solitude, he is not alone; though he is poor, he is immensely enriched; though has given up the love of a woman, he is given unexpected insight into the love of the Three Divine Persons and the joys of fraternal charity, radiance of the divine love for which he is made and into which he longs to immerse himself; he realises that religious life is essentially a love affair between Christ and the soul: we can even say it is Christ chasing the soul, begging its love, and rewarding beyond measure those who allow themselves to be seduced. The young man who leaves a world of unbridled freedom and finds himself in the ranks of a stricly ordered community life, is astonished to realise that such apparent servitude is actually the greatest emancipation: the soul, by having its daily decisions made for it, is thus free to love God, to serve Him, to go carefree through the verdant prairies of conventual life. An ancient monk expressed it this way: “We are given the name of monk (monos, sole, unique) because of the life of undivided unity by which, drawing back our mind from the distractions of many things, we thrust ourselves forward to union with God and the perfection of holy love”.
In a Benedictine community, the soul discovers something else, namely the undreamt of depths of that wellspring which is the Sacred Liturgy. It finds itself drawn more and more into the mystery of Divine Worship, the form of which the Church has received from God Himself in the psalms and in the other inspired texts of Holy Scripture. The monk, like the nun, finds himself seven times a day and once in the night, admitted to join the angelic choirs in singing the praises of the Triune God. The “Holy, Holy, Holy” of the Seraphim is no longer just an expression: it is his life, a life now placed like incense on the hot coals of Divine Love, rising into the vaults of creation, ravishing the Heart of God as it consumes the heart of the man who is blessed to have been chosen.
This small army of men and women who spend their lives in cloisters, standing for hours a day in their choir stalls, thus becomes the representative of humanity before God. In a world that forgets God when it does not reject Him completely, the monk sings, he chants, he shouts with all his strength: “God alone is good, God alone is holy, God alone is worthy to be served and praised. Let my life be consumed in that holocaust, let me lose my life as long as by it a bit more love may be returned to the Sacred Heart, so that when He looks out over the world, at least there, in that humble choir stall, a heart may beat with pure, holy love of the Creator.”
Such a life is one of which our world is in dire need. The French author Paul Valéry once wrote that the day is fast coming when, in order to find free men, one will have to go into the cloisters. That day has come. The light of civilisation is disappearing over the horizon, and humanity is now handed over to barbarians whose ruthless dispatching of all we hold to be sacred has no parallel in recorded history. Just as the fall of the Roman Empire saw not only faith but also culture being preserved in the monasteries throughout the dark ages, so now, as we embark upon an even darker age, let us pray that the light of Christ, the light of God, will be kept aflame in monasteries where growing numbers of monks and nuns will turn their backs on a decadent world, only to find that they have stepped into the enchanted world of peace, truth, love and holiness, a universe in which the divine oxygen of purity and authentic virtue makes for a life truly fulfilled, filling to the brim every human desire.
Then, and only then, will the tidal wave of ungodliness, worn out and reduced to nothingness by its own culture of death, fall; then will armies of souls, purified by years of prayer and sacrifice, go forward to help rebuild an authentic civilisation in which love reigns because God reigns. Monks indeed are “eschatological signs”, signs of the eschaton, signs of the world to come. By their very existence, by their habit and their tonsure, they point to the end of time and beyond. They are the constant reminder that there is something else, there is Someone else. There is not just this world as we see it.
But a final question needs to be asked — I will not venture a response: If, from the eyes of faith, such a life is essential to the world’s survival, is there, in the eyes of the world, room for it? Will there really be tolerance for it in the future? We are seeing more and more that tolerance is just a weapon in the hands of ideology. It is used to demand respect for wayward forms of life that the ancients proscribed. But when the promoters of such ideologies rise to power, there is not likely to be tolerance for those who believe and preach and teach and live moral absolutes. In a world of relativism, everything goes except the absolute.
History has given us examples of religious, monks and even nuns ripped from behind their grilles, persecuted, condemned, guillotined, for their refusal to bend the knee before the idol of the day. History repeats itself, and the descendants of the monsters that laid waste Europe in the mid-twentieth century have spread their tentacles now to the most remote corners of our world. We can expect rough times ahead, for all of us who stand with Jesus and His Church. But we move forward fearlessly, because we know that the victory belongs to the One who allowed Himself to be crucified. Love conquers the spiral of hate. Life comes after death. Spring follows winter. And after the storm ensues a great calm.